Mallory Thane sank back in her chair, dizzy with relief as the foreman of the jury pronounced the verdict. She became vaguely conscious of the buzz of the spectators in the courtroom behind her, the encouraging squeeze of her attorney, James Delage’s hand on her own, the judge thanking the jury, but it was all on a subliminal level. She was free!
James leaned forward, his intelligent face furrowed with concern as he whispered, “Okay?”
She nodded and tried to breathe slowly and evenly. She knew very well she was not at all okay. She was so exhausted and strained she could barely sit there without trembling. “Terrific. Thanks, James, for a while I thought I’d had it.”
“I told you there was nothing to worry about. That damn district attorney just wanted a little free publicity to launch her new election campaign. Any other official would never have brought you to trial with such scanty evidence.”
“She was a barracuda.” Mallory shuddered, averting her gaze from the table across the courtroom where the sleek, commanding figure of the district attorney still sat. “I felt naked when she had me on the stand. She . . . flayed me.”
“It’s over now.” James gathered up his legal pads and briefs and put them in his leather briefcase. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We still have the gauntlet of the paparazzi to run—and fast. I intend to get you into a taxi with the speed of light.”
“What more can they do to me?” Mallory asked bitterly. “They’ve already painted me as the premiere vamp of the eighties. Haven’t you read the headlines? ‘Glamorous actress seduces poor love- sick lad, leads him to the altar, accepts expensive presents, and then shoots him when he goes broke.’?”
“No newspaper in existence has room for a headline that long.” James grinned. “And not many people have memories that long either. Next week you’ll be old news.”
“I hope so.”
James looked at Mallory’s pale, drawn face. “Look, why don’t you go to Europe for a while? Give the press a chance to forget.”
“On what?” She grimaced. “I still owe you money for my defense, and the offers haven’t exactly been pouring in since I was arraigned for Ben’s murder. I was just beginning to get a few good film roles when Ben Wyatt wandered into my life.”
“I can wait for my fee.”
“You’ll have to.” She stood and picked up her purse from the table. “But not for long. You’ve worked yourself into the ground to clear me, and I won’t see you cheated.” She shook her head wearily. “Somebody has to come out of this mess with something besides bruises or there’s no sense to anything.”
“Like the not-so-honorable district attorney I’ve gotten a lot of free publicity.”
“That doesn’t pay the bills when you’ve got a wife and a baby on the way. I’ll get some kind of job even if I have to wait tables again until . . .” She trailed off. Until what, she wondered in discouragement. She had never felt so damned helpless in her life. Despite this acquittal, the press would still malign her, and she would be forever associated with scandal. Perhaps not. If Ben’s murderer were caught . . . She sighed. A black widow had publicity value, but not the kind a producer believed would sell tickets.
“I’ll pay you back, I promise. You’ve been my good angel, James.” Her smile lit her face as she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s not every day that a woman has her life handed back to her on a silver platter.”
“A pretty tarnished platter,” James said soberly. “That’s the problem with these days of mass communication. When mud’s thrown, it splatters all over the world.”
“But I’m free.” She linked her arm with James’s as they turned away from the table and started toward the courtroom door. “Stop worrying about me. I’m a survivor. If my acting career’s down the drain, I’ll find another career.”
“If Ben’s big brother will let you,” James said. “Sabin Wyatt’s one of the world’s financial heavyweights and judging by the way he stared at you during the trial, I got the distinct impression he wanted you locked up and the key melted down and thrown into the sea. He’s not going to like this acquittal.”
Mallory tensed at the memory of Sabin Wyatt’s grim face in the courtroom yesterday. She had never even seen Ben’s stepbrother until the trial, and yet he had been in the courtroom every single day since it had begun. That publicity-shy Wyatt was willing to come out of seclusion to see his stepbrother’s wife tried had served to create even more of a feeding frenzy among the paparazzi. The presence of Sabin Wyatt, one of the richest men in the world, brought a touch of mystery and golden luster, the only ingredients absent in the proceedings.
She could have done very well without those particular ingredients. The first time she had seen Sabin Wyatt across the courtroom, it had been like a physical shock. The force of his personality overwhelmed everyone around him, and she had felt panic. He had met her gaze directly, demanding her attention, demanding . . . what? She had hurriedly turned away and said something inane to James to escape from answering that demand.
There was no escape. She had felt those cool gray-blue eyes fixed unceasingly on her, and with every day of testimony she had grown more conscious of his silent intensity. She had the odd feeling he wanted her to be as aware of him, that he was willing her to be even more conscious of him than of this trial that could cost her her life. The instinct was totally illogical but then so was the compulsion that had driven her to glance at that sixth-row seat when she first came into the courtroom. She suppressed a shiver as she realized how disappointed she had been when he hadn’t appeared in the courtroom today for the verdict. She should have been grateful to be free of him. Maybe these weeks of strain had turned her into one of those kooks who develop a relationship with her captors. “I’ve never even met the man. He and Ben weren’t close and he was out of the country for the entire length of our marriage.”
James looked relieved. “Maybe I was mistaken. I sure as hell hope so. You don’t need Wyatt against you.”
She nodded in complete agreement. Sabin Wyatt wielded more power than many heads of state, and he wasn’t shy about exercising his clout. She knew that Ben had both admired and feared his stepbrother. That ambivalent love-hate relationship had been characteristic of Ben, she thought sadly. “I’m not going to be around to antagonize anyone. As soon as I get back to the apartment, I’m going to pack and get out of New York.”
“Where are you going?”
She smiled crookedly. “How do I know? I’ll get on a bus and get off when the mood strikes me. Any place is bound to be cheaper than the Big Apple. Then I’ll get a job and wait for the world to forget me.”
“You’re not easy to forget. That’s why our eager beaver district attorney latched onto you with both hands. A chance to score with Wyatt Enterprises and a victim who has a face as haunting as the Mona Lisa’s.” As they moved down the crowded corridor toward the front entrance of the courthouse, James’s hand protectively cradled her elbow. “You’ll let me know when you get settled? Gerda will have my head if I let you go without keeping tabs on you.”
She nodded. “You and Gerda have been wonderful to me. Tell her I’m sorry I can’t wait to say good-bye in person, will you?”
“I’ll tell her.” James stopped at the front entrance and made a face as he looked through the glass doors at the long flight of stone steps leading down to the street. “Brace yourself. Your taxi’s at the curb but there are three TV cameras and at least ten reporters on the steps. It’ll be like running a gauntlet.”
Her gaze followed James’s and she involuntarily flinched. The reporters were milling around like restless tigers waiting for their prey to appear. She squared her shoulders and forced a smile. “Wish me luck.”
“Always.” James’s hand gently tightened on her elbow. “I’ll try to run interference while you go, but we may not be able to pull it off.” He paused. “Remember, it’s over, Mallory.”
She nodded and opened the door. “It’s over.” She hurried down the stairs and was immediately engulfed by the questioning stream of humanity pouring up the steps.
“Miss Thane has no comment,” James shouted as she fought her way through the mob. “She’s very happy that justice has been done, but you’ll understand the past three weeks have been a grueling experience and she’s exhausted.”
Mallory had almost reached the sidewalk. She pushed a microphone away from her face and ran down the last few steps to the taxi.
Gray-blue eyes glittering in a sun-browned face.
She stopped, frozen in place as the reporters crowded around her again. Her gaze focused only on the tall, powerfully built man standing beside the long, dark blue limousine directly across the street. It was the first time she had seen Wyatt standing. He was close to six five and as tough and muscular as a longshoreman. There was no earthly reason that he should look like Ben since the two men were only stepbrothers, but the contrast still struck her. Ben had been one of the handsomest men she had ever met and had had an endearing boyish quality. Sabin was totally mature, totally male and obviously made no attempt to endear himself to anyone. The bone structure of Sabin’s face looked as if it had been hewn with a hatchet from a block of sandstone, yet the sheer brutal power of the deep-set eyes and broad cheekbones gave it a mesmerizing fascination. Sun streaks threaded his dark brown hair and, though she knew him to be only thirty-four, she noticed the faintest touch of gray silvering his temples.
His gaze held her effortlessly with the enigmatic demand she had become accustomed to. He was half-leaning against the limousine, his stance almost carelessly indolent, but she knew that was only a pose. Men of Sabin Wyatt’s ilk did nothing without a purpose, and she knew very well what his purpose was that day.
He was here to let her know that no matter what the jury had ruled, it was not over.
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