U.S. Marshal Marcus O’Malley tucked the cellular phone tighter against his shoulder as he studied the latest photographs sent by the North Washington district office. Eighteen faxes; the picture quality grainy at best; the information about each individual sketchy. Each had made threats against judges attending this July conference at the Chicago Jefferson Renaissance Hotel. The pages crinkled as only cheap fax paper could as he thumbed through them, memorizing each one.


     “Kate, what are you not telling me?” He was trying to have a telephone conversation with his sister while he worked and it was...interesting. He would have said aggravating but he loved Kate too much to get annoyed with her easily.


     His sister Kate O’Malley could be clear or ambiguous at will, as a hostage negotiator she knew how to choose her words, and she was being deliberately obtuse at the moment. It was 7:05 P.M. Friday night, Supreme Court Justice Philip Roosevelt would give the keynote speech at 8:00 P.M. before an audience of over twelve hundred, and Marcus did not have time to read between the lines.


     Kate was trying to tell him something without breaking a confidence, that told him it was family related; and it was important enough she was willing to go to the edge of that confidence to let him know about it, that told him it was serious.


     “She was suppose to tell you last night...”


     Marcus flipped back to the ninth fax and frowned. Something about the picture was triggering a glimmer of a memory. Tom Libour: caucasian, early 40s, clean shaven. It was an old memory, and he could feel it flitting just beyond his recall. He didn’t forget cases he had worked. Maybe something his partner had worked? He scrawled a note beside the photo, requesting the incident report be pulled. He passed the stack of faxes back to his deputy. “Who?” Jennifer, Lisa or Rachel? In a family of seven, Kate had just cut the list in half.


     The seven of them were related, but not by blood; by choice. At the orphanage—Trevor House—the decision to become their own family had made a lot of sense; two decades later it still did. As the oldest, 37, he accepted the guardianship of the group; as the next in line Kate protected it, kept her finger on the family pulse. He didn’t mind the responsibility, but it often arrived at inconvenient times. What was going on?


     “I’ve said too much already; forget I called.”




     “Marcus,” her own frustration came back at him with the bite in her voice, “I didn’t ask to be the one she chose to tell. I’m stuck. I’ll push her to tell you; it’s the best I can do.”


     The family was close, but Kate—she was the one he talked with in the middle of the night; they had shared the dark days; they were the oldest, the closest, and there was no one he trusted more than her. “How serious is it?”


     He retrieved his black tuxedo jacket from the back of a folding chair. He would be standing behind the supreme court justice during the speech doing his best to look interested while he did his real job—decide who in the crowd might want to shoot the old man.


     “I’m pacing the floors at night.”


     Marcus, reaching to straighten the lapel of his jacket, stopped. Kate had the nerve to walk into situations where a guy held a bomb; the last thing she did was overreact. Something that had her that worried—his eyes narrowed. “Who, Kate?” He couldn’t take the weight off her shoulders if he didn’t know. If Kate had given her word, she would never say, but he couldn’t just leave it. He needed to know.


     “Can you get free later tonight?”


     Time was tight, this was the biggest judicial conference of the year, but he wasn’t about to say no. Quinn would do him a favor.... “The banquet and its aftermath should be wrapped up by ten thirty. I can meet you after that.”


     “We’ll join you even if I have to drag her there,” Kate replied grimly.


     “Deal. And even if it’s just you, come over.”


     “I’ll be there. Besides, it’s probably the only way I’ll get to see Dave.”


     Marcus spotted FBI Special Agent Dave Richman on the other side of the room, deep in a discussion with the hotel security chief.


     This conference had attractive explosive media attention. The Supreme Court was about to go conservative; with the announcement by the President of a nomination to replace retiring Justice Luke Blackwood, the landscape of the law across the nation would forever change. Most of the judges on the President’s short list were in attendance. Dave had drawn the unenviable job of trying to figure out how to control and manage the media access.


     “He’s here. Do you want to talk to him?” Dave and Kate were dating; Dave having even gone so far as to formally ask all the guys in the family for permission. It was serious on her side, too—Kate didn’t let just anybody outside of the family get close to her heart.


     “No, I know you’re swamped. I just miss him.”


     She was in love. Everyone in the family knew that. Her face brightened when she saw Dave and that impassive control she kept around her emotions, so necessary for her job, disappeared. Marcus kidded her about being love struck and she teased him back about hovering. That was okay; she needed a big brother watching out for her. “Then you definitely need to come over tonight. I’ll tell Dave to expect you.”


     “Let me surprise him. Besides, knowing my job, I’ll probably get yanked by a page on my way over there.”


     She sounded irked; and he enjoyed that. “Love can be so rough.”


     “Just wait; your turn is coming.”


     He wasn’t seeing anyone now, and short of someone colliding with him, at the moment he didn’t have time to notice anyone. His hands were full with his job and the O’Malley clan. But knowing Kate, she would probably try to set him up the first chance she got. She loved to meddle in his life; just like he did in hers.


     And he knew if she did he’d have to grouse about it just for the principle of it, but he wouldn’t really mind. There was never going to be time to date in his schedule; it would simply have to be found. “Good bye, Kate. I’ll see you later,” he replied, amused.


     He closed the cellular phone and his amusement faded. What was wrong? Jennifer O’Malley had just gotten engaged; he didn’t think it was her. That left Lisa or Rachel. Lisa was always getting into trouble with that curiosity of hers; but if he had to place a bet he would guess it was Rachel. She had been unusually quiet during the 4th of July family gathering only days before.


     Marcus had no choice but to set aside the problem for the moment. He joined his partner Quinn. “Are we ready?”


     “I think so.” Quinn looked like he hadn’t slept in the last couple days, but then he normally looked that way so it was hard to tell. Quinn had general hotel security: 37 floors, 1012 rooms and 50 meeting rooms to cover—it was like trying to plug a leaking dam with cotton balls. Unlike a federal court building where they could screen who entered or left the building, what they carried, this hotel was wide open to the public.


     “I got the hotel to agree to close delivery access to the kitchens for the evening; it freed up another three men for the ballroom security,” Quinn noted. “And I moved Deputy Ellis to Judge Blake. Ellis has covered the 4th Circuit in the past, maybe he’ll be able to talk the judge into following basic security guidelines.”


     “Thanks. Nelson was showing the strain.”


     “I can’t blame him. Blake is by far the most difficult of the judges on the President’s short list.” Quinn closed the folder of assignments, tossed it on the cluttered desk. Neatness had disappeared under the churn of numerous problems. “Do you think any of them have a chance of getting the nomination?”


     To the U.S. Marshals who knew the judicial personnel across the country better than the President who appointed them and the congress who confirmed them, a supreme court nomination was a race they handicapped with the skill of veteran court watchers.


     Marcus considered the names for a moment, shook his head. “No.” The names on the list so far were good judges, but not the great ones. They were the political appeasement candidates, on the list until the scrutiny of the press gave the President something he could use as cover for not nominating them; the real candidates would be in the next set of names that surfaced.


     Marcus adjusted his jacket around the shoulder holster, checked the microphone at his cuff, did a communication check on the security net. He tried to get himself mentally prepared for the long coming evening covering the justice. “I swear Deputy Nicholas Drake ate bad sushi for lunch on purpose. Tell me again how I got elected for this honor rather than you?” he asked while he scanned the room, reviewing where they were at with a check of the status boards. As usual, they were having a conversation but their attention was on anything but each other.


     “You’re better looking.”


     Marcus grunted. “Sure. That’s why I get asked for your phone number.” His partner Quinn Diamond attracted attention without trying. The man looked like he had just stepped off his Montana ranch; there was something untamed about the man and women seemed to know it. His face was weathered by the sun and wind, he could see to the horizon, and his gaze made suspects fidget. He called women ma’am and wore cowboy boots whenever he could get away with it. Marcus enjoyed having him as a partner; life was never dull. They had tracked fugitives together, protected witnesses, and kept each other alive. Quinn didn’t flinch when the pressure hit.


     “Actually, Marcus—I’m afraid I kind of blew it the other night,” Quinn admitted.


     Surprised at the sheepish tone of voice, Marcus glanced over at him. “How?”


     “Lisa.” Quinn reached into his jacket pocket, took out a folded cloth. He flipped back the folded velvet to show a sealed petri dish. “She sent me a petrified squid.”


     It was so like his sister Lisa, Marcus had to laugh. “Sounds like a ‘no’ to me,” he remarked dryly. Was this what Kate had stumbled into? A tiff between Quinn and Lisa? It didn’t fit Kate’s reaction, but it was certainly an interesting development.


     “Where did she get this thing?”


     “A forensic pathologist—I imagine that was one of the more tame replies she considered sending you.”


     “All I did was ask her out.”


     “Quinn, it is painfully obvious you did not have sisters.” Marcus took a moment to explain reality. “Two years ago you asked out Jennifer—she’s now engaged; last year you asked out Kate—she’s now serious with an FBI agent; this year you asked out Lisa. You just told Lisa she’s your third choice. Rachel might forgive you; Lisa will never let you forget it.”


     “Can I help it if you’ve got an interesting family?”


     Even a friend like Quinn wasn’t going to be allowed to hurt his sister. “Flowers will not do; you’d better get creative with the apology.”


     “I’m still going to get her to say yes.”


     “I wish you luck; you’re going to need it.” Quinn would be good for Lisa; he was one of the few men Marcus thought would understand her and the trouble she got into because of her curiosity. Marcus was beginning to feel a bit like a matchmaker having just subtly pushed Kate and Dave together less than a month ago. “Tell you what. I need to free some time late tonight to meet with Kate; swap the time with me and I’ll talk to Lisa for you.”


     “And tell her what?”


     “Only your good points.”


     “Why don’t I believe you?”


     Marcus grinned. “I’ve already told her the bad.”


     The security net gave the five minute warning to the start of the evening program. Judge Carl Whitmore would speak first, and then it would be his Honor Justice Roosevelt. Marcus would be glad when the evening was over. “Come on Quinn, we need to talk to Dave about press access to Justice Roosevelt after the keynote speech.”


     “Please—give me crowd control; anything but his Honor. I love the man, but he likes nothing better than to rile the media for the fun of it.”


     “He’s appointed for life; his life is boring without controversy.”


     “You mean he’s too old to care if someone decides they want to kill him.”




     “You’re going to owe me for this one. The last time his Honor held one of these media question and answer sessions I had to expel a heckler and I ended up all over the evening news.”





The Jefferson Hotel served chicken kiev, rice pilaf, and steamed asparagus for the main course at the banquet. Judge Carl Whitmore was too nervous to eat. He politely ate a few bites and moved food around on his plate before finally pushing his plate aside.


     Soon after the dinner plates were cleared away, the man beside him rose, moved to the podium, and gave a warm welcome to the guests. He began an introduction which Carl knew took at most two minutes to give. Carl reached for the folder he had forced himself not to open during dinner.


     The introduction finished.


     Carl took a deep breath and rose to his feet. He shook hands with the man who had introduced him. Polite applause filled the room.


     He slipped off his watch and set it down on the edge of the podium; removed the pages of his speech from the folder and arranged them neatly to the left of center on the podium; and then took a final moment to slip on his reading glasses.


     Shari had written a note at the top of the first page with a bright pink felt tip pen—Remember to smile—and she had doted the i in her name with a small heart. That fact, as much as her note, made Carl smile as he lifted his head, faced the bright lights, and smoothly began his prepared remarks to the twelve hundred guests in attendance.


     Bless her heart. What would he ever do without her?


     He had been given such loyal friends. He had gone to law school with her father. Shari, her brother Joshua, and her parents William and Beth, had flown out from Virginia to be here for this speech. The hour of his greatest disappointment, was also the hour he learned how rich his life really was.


     The President’s short list of judges had become known Tuesday, and his name had not been on the list. There had been early rumors that he was being considered, and those rumors had taken on substance when the FBI quietly began checking his background. Carl had begun to let himself hope. He was a bachelor, his life was the law, and to serve on the supreme court was his lifelong dream. His disappointment was intense. But in the audience were four people who understood, who shared his disappointment, and were determined to lift his spirits. He had been blessed in his friends. He had the important things in life.


     He began the speech he had waited his lifetime to give—a perspective of conservative thought in judicial law.





The lights had partially dimmed as the speech began. Shari Hanford was grateful, for it helped hide the fact she had started to twirl her fork, reflecting her nervous energy.


     Even though she had not written this speech, she had worked on minor refinements and she knew it word for word. Fifteen years in politics, the last ten of them as a speech writer, and she still couldn’t get through listening to a speech without holding her breath. She knew how important this was to Carl. If something she had suggested didn’t work...


     She gave up trying to hide the obvious and reached for a roll left in the basket on the table, tore it in two. Maybe it would settle her stomach. She regretted eating the chicken kiev; she should have been smart like Carl and waited to order room service later.


     She would much rather be the one giving the speech. When she was at the podium, the nerves gave way to the process of connecting with the audience, adjusting the presentation: the inflections, the timing, the emphasis necessary to persuade people to her point of view.


     Her brother Joshua looked over at her, gave her a sympathetic smile. Normally he would be kidding her about her nerves, but not tonight.


     Carl began page two of his prepared text. His presentation had been flawless so far. Shari rested her elbow on the table, her chin against the knuckles of her right hand, and ate the bread as she watched him, feeling his passion for the law come through in his words. She did not understand why he was not on the supreme court short list. Someone at the Justice Department had really fumbled the ball in not recommending him.


     Lord, I still don’t understand why he was passed over. The quiet prayer was a running conversation that had been going on for days. It’s an enormous disappointment. Didn’t the hours invested in prayer mean anything? It’s not like I expect every prayer to be answer, but the big ones—


     This was the dream of Carl’s life. Why build up hope with the FBI background check and then yank it away? Surely there could have been an easier cushion for delivering an answer of no. I have watched this man love and serve You all of my life; he could make a difference to this nation like no one else on the short list. He would be a great justice.


     Her pager vibrated, Shari jerked, and her water glass rocked. It was her emergency pager, she had left her general pager upstairs. Her heart pounding, she pulled it from her pocket. Her job demanded the two pagers; prioritizing people clamoring for her attention was a necessary part of her life.


     Only the VIPs in her life had this number, and most of them were sitting at the table with her. She read the return number. It was John Palmer, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Her boss and longtime friend, he was not one to page unless it was urgent. And for him to call, knowing Carl’s speech was tonight—


     She rubbed her thumb across the pager numbers, feeling torn, and reluctantly acknowledged she couldn’t ignore it for twenty minutes. She reached for her handbag and retrieved her cellular phone. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she whispered to her mom, slipping away to call John back. Her movement attracted notice from the tables nearby and she cringed, hoping Carl hadn’t noticed; the last thing she wanted to do was interrupt his speech.


     Opening the side door,  she slipped out of the ballroom. To her surprise she found herself in what appeared to be a back hallway—across from her was an open door to a utility room. The hallway was empty; narrow; even somewhat dark. She had obviously come out the wrong door. Shari hesitated, then shrugged off her mistake, glad not to have to worry about the press being around. She dialed John’s number.


     She had worked for him for over ten years. She added elegance to his communications; his message. She was working long hours as his deputy communications director to get him re-elected. What was wrong?


     Shari paced the hall toward the windows as she waited for the phone to be answered; then paused and closed her eyes as fatigue washed over her. The 4th of July campaigning had been four days of non-stop travel, crisscrossing Virginia; she had been home a day to pack and then she had met her parents and brother to fly out here to Chicago for the three day conference. It was suppose to be a rest break for her, but it wasn’t happening. Her body clock was off, leaving her wide awake at 2 A.M. and fighting sleep at noon. She struggled to suppress her fatigue so it wouldn’t show in her voice.


     Her pager went off again. She scowled. There was apparently a crisis breaking in Virginia and she was halfway across the country in Chicago. She had known getting away in the middle of an election was a bad idea.


     Normally she thrived on diving into the problems and being in the center of the storm. Joshua called it her hurricane mode: dealing with incomplete information, immediate deadlines, impending catastrophes—she found being in the center of the action a calm place to be when she was the one controlling the response. That wasn’t the case tonight, she was too far away. She lifted the pager to look at the number and see who else was demanding her attention.


     It was like getting physically battered.


     Sam. He hadn’t called her directly in almost five months, not since she’d slammed the phone down on him last time. She rarely lost it so eloquently, and she had done it in style that evening.


     Sam Black. The man she had let get deep into her soul and curl around her heart; he was like a black mark she couldn’t erase. She had loved him so passionately and today just the sight of his number was enough to bring back a flood of emotions to paralyze her. It had not been a gentle breakup between them, for dreams had imploded and expectations had been crushed. It had been intense, painful and a year later it still haunted her.


     Sam was another prayer God had not answered.


     She wanted to swear; did slap her hand against the wall and pace away from the windows. She was trying to solve her growing dilemma about prayer while stuck on a phone walking the halls of a hotel in Chicago.


     She hated not having her prayers answered.


     You’re spoiled, she told herself with a rye smile. And God still loves you anyway.


     She looked again at the pager. Sam had the ability to be cordial, even friendly when they spoke and the best she could do was chilly politeness as the embarrassment of what could have been washed over her and the sound of his voice brought back all her hopes. She chose to ignore his page even as she wondered why he would feel the need to call.


     The phone was finally answered. “Sorry about the delay, Shari. Thanks for calling back so quickly.”


     She briefly wondered how John had functioned before caller ID. “Not a problem. What’s happening?”


     “How would you like Christmas about six months early?”


     She could hear the smile in his voice. “What?”


     “Carl is going to make the short list. Your brief helped, Shari.”


     Her heart stopped momentarily. “You’re serious.” She had labored over that brief presenting Carl’s qualifications for the court; she knew Carl’s past cases better then his own law clerks, she knew the man; it was the best position paper of her life. John had passed it through to Washington—one voice in a sea of voices.


     “I just got off the phone with the Attorney General. They’ve recommended Carl to the President. The Attorney General expects a positive decision to happen tonight.”


     She closed her eyes, knowing she needed to apologize to God. “John, you couldn’t give me better news.”


     “Keep him near the phone tonight?”


     “Of course! I’ll make sure we’re prepared to celebrate when the call comes.” She rubbed her forehead, gave a soft laugh. “Talk about a reason for an ulcer—Carl makes the list and then we wait some more. The President makes his choice in ten days.”


     “At least you’ll be pacing for a good reason.”


     It was a running joke between them, her habit of pacing when she thought, talked, waited. “Any other major issues?”


     “Nothing that won’t wait another day.”


     “I’ll talk to you tomorrow then.” She closed the phone after saying thanks once again.


     Carl was going to make the short list. Her high heels sank into the carpet as she spun around, feeling like she would burst keeping such a secret for even a couple hours. Lord, thank you! And I’m sorry for thinking it didn’t matter to you. She had to at least tell her brother Josh. They could order a special room service dinner for Carl—lobster, maybe. After the call came, they could invite a few of his friends to join them.


     Lord, the anticipation is so strong I can taste it. Carl might actually be sitting on the Supreme Court when it opens it’s next session. The image of that is incredible.


     She pulled open the side door to the ballroom so she could slip back inside.


     “Oh. I’m sorry!” Shari pulled up at the sight of men in suits carrying guns. They turned, the three nearest her, blocking her line of sight into the rest of the room. This was definitely not the ballroom.


     None of the doors in the back corridor were marked. She had obviously gotten turned around as she paced and talked on the phone. She had walked in on men carrying guns. Her heart rate escalated, about the same instant the three men near her actually relaxed. Their assessment had been swift.


     The man on the right removed his hand from inside his jacket. She wanted to give a nervous laugh as she realized he had instinctively put his hand on his gun. This was clearly not turning out to be her night. She had been introduced to foreign dignitaries and hosted senators for dinner and never fumbled as much as she had in this one evening.


     “No problem,” the man nearest her said as he smiled, disarming her panic with a visible charm that made her blink. His entire demeanor softened with that smile. Tall, muscles well defined by the tuxedo, a gaze that pierced, he would have been a threatening figure without that smile, but it changed everything. It was like getting hit with a warm punch when his attention focused on her.


     She had come in the side door of what was obviously a security control center, now stood behind two long tables, where cables and power cords from PCs and faxes snaked down to the floor. The room was actually quite busy, at least twenty people present; most had paused what they were doing at her entrance and quiet had washed over the room.


     “That door should have been locked, it wasn’t entirely your mistake,” the man commented, stepping around the tables and over the wires to join her. His black jacket hung open, his shoulder holster visible; she instinctively knew he was one of the men in charge; there was a confident directness to his look and words. His hand settled under her elbow and without being obtrusive about it, steered her back out of the room. “You came two doors beyond the ballroom.”


     She was acutely embarrassed, but he was being nice about it. “I’ve always been directionally challenged. I didn’t mean to go somewhere I didn’t belong.”


     “No harm done.”


     She had never been able to shake that one fatal flaw in her makeup, her inability to keep her sense of bearings; and it was her own fault: she didn’t frankly pay enough attention until it was too late to correct the mistake.


     Every year she made a solemn New Years resolution to try harder, and every year she managed to forget that promise and get herself back into situations like this with painful regularity. And to do it in front of three good looking guys...there were times she really did want to be able to shrink into the woodwork.


     She took a deep breath and let it go; the damage was done and it was time to recover as best she could; the realization touched her smile with humor. “I’m Shari by the way.”


     “Shari Hanford. Yes, I know.” He firmly closed the door behind him, then released her elbow and offered his hand. “Marcus O’Malley.”


     She blinked at the fact he knew her name; then realized a man in his position probably knew most everything; a fanciful notion but not one she would bet against. She had attended too many judicial events where men like him melted into the background not to have a healthy respect for what he did. Not that Marcus would ever melt into the background of anything; he’d be the one attracting the attention.


     “Marcus. It’s nice to meet you.” His hand was strong and callused and when it closed around hers she felt the clasp of warmth through her fingers, palm and fine bones of her wrist. She wanted to believe it was her imagination that had her hand trapped in his for a beat too long; but then he smiled, still holding her hand, and she realized it was not her imagination. She wanted to blush, but found herself holding his gaze instead.


     It had been a long time since someone not associated with work looked at her with that kind of frank appreciation. It did wonders for her sense of morale. She didn’t have to worry that he was going to be hitting her in the next moment with a request for a quote from her boss. She knew she looked her best. She had pulled her hair up, chosen gold jewelry, defined her eyelashes around her blue eyes. In her new white linen suit she looked not only professional but elegant. It was nice to have that fact noticed.


     “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Shari.” He released her hand. “I’ve got a minute, I’ll see you safely back to table six.”


     “Oh, that’s how you knew my name,” she remarked and instantly wanted to kick herself. That was a really elegant comment. What would she think of next? The weather? She wanted to impress him not leave a bigger impression of a scatterbrain.


     His smile deepened. “Yes.” He nodded to the phone and pager in her hand. “You got a page?”


     “Yes. And I tend to pace as I talk, hence the total confusion when I finished the call.”


     “Was it at least good news?”




     “From that smile, I would think so.”


     “Are you always this direct?” she asked, both amused and charmed.


     “When I’m killing time with a pretty lady.”


     She would have preferred beautiful, but she could live with pretty.


     What he had said registered. Someone was running a security check. She had wondered; they were ten feet from the door to the ballroom and they were standing still. Josh, I managed to make the U.S. Marshal’s security breach logbook. It was going to be hard to live this one down.


     Marcus had to be swamped tonight, and this was taking time from more important duties, but he was not making her feel stupid. The opposite actually. She deeply appreciating his ability to be kind. She grinned. “Should I tell you all my secrets now, or do we wait for someone to find my file and tell you all of them?”


     His brown eyes deepened and warmed to gold. “Security precautions are part of a conference like this; it will only take a minute. But if you have some interesting ones...?”


     “None that I’m willing to share unilaterally.”


     There was a beat in time and then he laughed, a delightful sound, warm and rich. “Well said.”


     She wished she met guys like this more often, politicians rarely had a good sense of humor. She leaned against the wall, letting her shoulder absorb her weight and take the strain off her sore right ankle which she had wrenched earlier in the day playing tennis with Joshua. Marcus looked comfortable in that tuxedo, and at home with the authority he wore like a second skin.


     “Have you been enjoying the conference?”


     She risked showing her interest. “Yes, but it just got much nicer.”


     His slow grin...she wished she could bottle the warmth it gave so she could enjoy it again later. “I see I’m not the only one who knows how to be direct.”


     “I have a feeling I’m about out of time. They’ll have me cleared soon,” she replied easily while her heart thumped a patter she hadn’t heard in a year. The guy didn’t have a ring on, he was breathtakingly handsome, he could turn her to mush with his smile, and he didn’t have a thing to do with politics. She was feeling unusually courageous. Tonight had already been such a roller coaster of emotions that she figured one more would fit right in.


     “Why do you dot your i’s with a heart?”


     She blinked. “How did you know that?”


     “They actually cleared you a few moments ago. Among other things, you signed for the table six tickets.”




     He didn’t look the slightest bit apologetic. “Saying goodbye wasn’t at the top of my priorities. Listen, would you be interested in joining me for coffee tomorrow morning? I’m already having a late dinner with my sister tonight...”


     She didn’t know quite what to say. Yes, she did; she just didn’t know how to say it. She took a breath and let herself drop into the unknown. “I would love to join you for coffee.”


     Any question of whether that was a good move or not disappeared when she saw his expression. Knowing she had put that look of satisfaction on his felt good. Very good.


     “I’ll call you.” He gestured toward the ballroom. “Let me see you back.”


     Shari walked with him, bemused by the turns this evening was bringing.


     They had almost reached the correct door when it opened and her brother stepped out. Shari paused, surprised, and Marcus actually drew her back a step behind him. She got the feeling he automatically assumed a threat and quietly put her hand on his forearm, felt his muscles flex under her hand, as she stepped forward and passed him to meet her brother. “Hi, Josh. Did you think I got lost?”


     “You have been known to in the past,” Josh agreed easily, putting his arm around her shoulders. “Just making sure the page wasn’t bad news.”


     “Some of it was very good.” She reached up and comfortably grasped her brother’s wrist with her hand. He was assessing the man with her and not being too subtle about the fact. “Joshua, this is Marcus. Marcus, my brother.”


     His right arm around her shoulders, Josh didn’t try to shake hands, he simply nodded politely. “Nice to meet you.” The two men looked at each other for a moment, then Josh glanced back at her. “We’d better get back. Carl is just wrapping up his speech.”


     “Carl!” She had totally forgotten him for a moment. “How’s he doing?”


     Joshua laughed. “Excellent.”


     Marcus apparently heard something over his earpiece; his expression became distant as he lifted his hand and replied into the small microphone at his cuff, saying something too soft for her to hear. When he glanced back at her, his gaze was still warm, but it was obvious his attention had diverted elsewhere. “It was nice to meet you, Shari. Please excuse me?”


     She nodded and watched him walk purposefully away, back the way they had come.


     “Security?” Josh asked.


     She nodded and didn’t bother to explain how they had met or about the invitation to coffee. “Let’s catch the end of Carl’s speech. I’ve got some great news to tell you!”





“Pretty lady,” Dave commented.


     Marcus glanced at his friend as they crossed to the elevator which was reserved for security use this evening. “It took you long enough to confirm it was an honest mistake.”


     “I noticed you weren’t complaining.”


     Dave was probing and Marcus knew it; he just smiled and ignored the comment. The family grapevine would love to hear news that he had met someone he liked. He didn’t intend to feed it even unintentionally.


     They wanted him to be happy, and every couple years it became a hot topic behind his back on the family grapevine—was he seeing anyone? It would settle down when someone else in the family became more interesting.


     Family. He had to love them. Dave was fitting right in.


     Shari fit what he was looking for at the moment. She was someone he could relax with for a few minutes in the midst of a pressure filled weekend. He had learned to seize those unexpected moments in life.


     Over the security net came word Justice Roosevelt was ready to come down. Separating the conversation he was having with the security net conversation he was monitoring was habit after all these years. Marcus completed a sentence with Dave and made a request on the security net with barely a pause in-between. He got back confirmation from the three agents securing the area into the ballroom that they were ready. Satisfied with his own inspection of the area, he gave the go-ahead. “Send his Honor down.”


     Dave watched the elevator numbers start down from the nineteenth floor. “Going to find an excuse to meet her again?”


     There were some things that couldn’t be kept a secret in this tight knit security community and in this instance Marcus didn’t even try. “We’re having coffee in the morning.”


     “Can I tell that to Kate?”


     If Dave mentioned it tonight, Kate would likely find an excuse to drop by the hotel in the morning. “Save it for when you need to dig yourself out of the doghouse for something,” Marcus replied, drawing a laugh from his friend.





Connor Grayson sat at table twenty-two and twirled his fork as he listened to Judge Whitmore’s speech. He listened and his hate grew; his target was now in sight.


     His older brother was dead because of this judge. For twelve years the death penalty appeals had wound through the system and no one had stopped the sentence given by this man. It had been carried out.


     Now he would return the favor.


     He had thought about it, as he had promised his brother he would do. He had thought about it for nine months. He had almost decided to let it go as Daniel had asked, until rumors of the supreme court nomination had surfaced.


     Connor had gotten hold of a copy of the brief floating around. It was good. Very good. It laid the road map for a senate confirmation of Judge Whitmore. The President was known to be heavily weighing that reality as he made his decision, it wasn’t going to be easy to get a conservative justice confirmed. The brief tipped the ultimate decision strongly in favor of Judge Whitmore. There was no way Connor would allow this judge to sit on the supreme court.


     He could get away with the murder. He knew what it would take to convict him, and they wouldn’t have it. He had planned with a logic his brother would have been proud of. The mistakes others made had been eliminated. Witnesses. Evidence. He knew what it would take to create reasonable doubt. He had more then just alibi’s in place.


     And he knew the value of the character card at trial. He had been forced to become the good son, to pay for the sins of his brother. As a result he was a man who didn’t even have so much as a parking ticket to this name. He could claim the best schools, he had a rolodex of the right friends, a distinguished career.


     He was being forced to act sooner than he had planned. Judge Whitmore wasn’t on the President’s short list yet, but justice department sources said his name would be added soon. Once he was on that list, reaching past security to get to him would be impossible.


     As it turned out, even that change in timing had worked out to his benefit. He was here, within sight of his target, and no one suspected what he had planned.


     Connor excused himself as Judge Whitmore’s speech concluded.