By Sandra Brown
Read by Stephen Lang
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Format:Audiobook Download (Unabridged) $38.99 CAD
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From #1 New York Times bestselling author Sandra Brown comes a gripping story of family ties and forbidden attraction.
Crawford Hunt wants his daughter back. Following the death of his wife four years ago, Crawford, a Texas Ranger, fell into a downward spiral that left him relegated to deskwork and with his five-year-old daughter Georgia in the custody of her grandparents. But Crawford has cleaned up his act, met all the court imposed requirements, and now the fate of his family lies with Judge Holly Spencer.
Holly, ambitious and confident, temporarily occupies the bench of her recently deceased mentor. With an election upcoming, she must prove herself worthy of making her judgeship permanent. Every decision is high-stakes. Despite Crawford’s obvious love for his child and his commitment to being an ideal parent, Holly is wary of his checkered past. Her opinion of him is radically changed when a masked gunman barges into the courtroom during the custody hearing. Crawford reacts instinctually, saving Holly from a bullet.
But his heroism soon takes on the taint of recklessness. The cloud over him grows even darker after he uncovers a horrifying truth about the courtroom gunman and realizes that the unknown person behind the shooting remains at large . . .and a threat.
Catching the real culprit becomes a personal fight for Crawford. But pursuing the killer in his customary diehard fashion will jeopardize his chances of gaining custody of his daughter, and further compromise Judge Holly Spencer, who needs protection not only from an assassin, but from Crawford himself and the forbidden attraction between them.
Friction will keep you on the edge of your seat with breathtaking plot twists and the unforgettable characters that make Sandra Brown one of the world’s best-loved authors. It is an extraordinary audiobook about the powerful ties that bind us to the ones we love and the secrets we keep to protect them.
Booktrack is an immersive format that pairs traditional audiobook narration to complementary music. The tempo and rhythm of the score are in perfect harmony with the action and characters throughout the audiobook. Gently playing in the background, the music never overpowers or distracts from the narration, so listeners can enjoy every minute. When you purchase this Booktrack edition, you receive the exact narration as the traditional audiobook available, with the addition of music throughout.
The two stalwart highway patrolmen guarding the barricade stared at her without registering any emotion, but because of the media blitz of the past few days, she knew they recognized her and that, in spite of their implacable demeanor, they were curious to know why Judge Holly Spencer was angling to get closer to the scene of a bloodbath.
“… bullet hole to the chest…”
“… ligature marks on his wrists and ankles…”
“… half in, half out of the water…”
Those were the phrases that Sergeant Lester had used to describe the scene beyond the barricade, although he’d told her he was sparing her the “gruesome details.” He’d also ordered her to clear out, go home, that she shouldn’t be here, that there was nothing she could do. Then he’d ducked beneath the barricade, got into his sedan, and backed it into a three-point turn that pointed him to the crime scene.
If she didn’t leave voluntarily, the pair of patrolmen would escort her away, and that would create even more of a scene. She started walking back to her car.
In the few minutes that she’d been away from it, more law enforcement and emergency personnel had converged on the area. There was a lengthening line of cars, pickups, and minivans forming along both shoulders of the narrow road on either side of the turnoff. This junction was deep in the backwoods and appeared on few maps. It was nearly impossible to find unless one knew to look for the taxidermy sign with an armadillo on it.
Tonight it had become a hot spot.
The vibe of the collected crowd was almost festive. The flashing lights of the official vehicles reminded Holly of a carnival midway. An ever-growing number of onlookers, drawn to the emergency like sharks to blood, stood in groups swapping rumors about the body count, speculating on who had died and how.
Overhearing one group placing odds on who had survived, she wanted to scream, This isn’t entertainment.
By the time she reached her car, she was out of breath, her mouth dry with anxiety. She got in and clutched the steering wheel, pressing her forehead against it so hard, it hurt.
Nearly jumping out of her skin, she whipped her head around, gasping his name when she saw the amount of blood soaking his clothes.
The massive red stain was fresh enough to show up shiny in the kaleidoscope of flashing red, white, and blue lights around them. His eyes glinted at her from shadowed sockets. His forehead was beaded with sweat, strands of hair plastered to it.
He remained perfectly still, sprawled in the corner of the backseat, left leg stretched out along it, the toe of his blood-spattered cowboy boot pointing toward the ceiling of the car. His right leg was bent at the knee. His right hand was resting on it, holding a wicked-looking pistol.
He said, “It’s not my blood.”
Looking down over his long torso, he gave a gravelly, bitter laugh. “He was dead before he hit the ground, but I wanted to make sure. Dumb move. Ruined this shirt, and it was one of my favorites.”
She wasn’t fooled by either his seeming indifference or his relaxed posture. He was a sudden movement waiting to happen, his reflexes quicksilver.
Up ahead, officers had begun moving along the line of spectator vehicles, motioning the motorists to clear the area. She had to either do as he asked or be caught with him inside her car.
“Sergeant Lester told me that you’d—”
“Shot the son of a bitch? That’s true. He’s dead. Now drive.”
Five days earlier
Crawford Hunt woke up knowing that this was the day he’d been anticipating for a long time. Even before opening his eyes, he felt a happy bubble of excitement inside his chest, which was instantly burst by a pang of anxiety.
It might not go his way.
He showered with customary efficiency but took a little more time than usual on personal grooming: flossing, shaving extra-close, using a blow dryer rather than letting his hair dry naturally. But he was no good at wielding the dryer, and his hair came out looking the same as it always did—unmanageable. Why hadn’t he thought to get a trim?
He noticed a few gray strands in his sideburns. They, plus the faint lines at the corners of his eyes and on either side of his mouth, lent him an air of maturity.
But the judge would probably regard them as signs of hard living.
“Screw it.” Impatient with his self-scrutiny, he turned away from the bathroom mirror and went into his bedroom to dress.
He had considered wearing a suit, but figured that would be going overboard, like he was trying too hard to impress the judge. Besides, the navy wool blend made him feel like an undertaker. He settled for a sport jacket and tie.
Although the small of his back missed the pressure of his holster, he decided not to carry.
In the kitchen, he brewed coffee and poured himself a bowl of cereal, but neither settled well in his nervous stomach, so he dumped them into the disposal. As the Cheerios vaporized, he got a call from his lawyer.
“You all right?” The qualities that made William Moore a good lawyer worked against him as a likable human being. He possessed little grace and zero charm, so, although he’d called to ask about Crawford’s state of mind, the question sounded like a challenge to which he expected a positive answer.
“Court will convene promptly at two o’clock.”
“Right. Wish it was earlier.”
“Are you going into your office first?”
“Thought about it. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“You should. Work will keep your mind off the hearing.”
Crawford hedged. “I’ll see how the morning goes.”
The attorney snorted with skepticism. Crawford admitted to experiencing a few butterflies.
“We’ve gone over it,” the lawyer said. “Look everyone in the eye, especially the judge. Be sincere. You’ll do fine.”
Although it sounded easy enough, Crawford released a long breath. “At this point, I’ve done everything I can. It’s now up to the judge, whose mind is probably already made up.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. The decision could hinge on how you comport yourself on the stand.”
Crawford frowned into the phone. “But no pressure.”
“I have a good feeling.”
“Better than the other kind, I guess. But what happens if I don’t win today? What do I do next? Short of taking out a contract on Judge Spencer.”
“Don’t even think in terms of losing.” When Crawford didn’t respond, Moore began to lecture. “The last thing we need is for you to slink into court looking pessimistic.”
“I mean it. If you look unsure, you’re sunk.”
“Go in there with confidence, certainty, like you’ve already kicked butt.”
“I’ve got it, okay?”
Responding to his client’s testiness, Moore backed down. “I’ll meet you outside the courtroom a little before two.” He hung up without saying good-bye.
With hours to kill before he had to be in court, Crawford wandered through his house, checking things. Fridge, freezer, and pantry were well stocked. He’d had a maid service come in yesterday, and the three industrious women had left the whole house spotless. He tidied his bathroom and made his bed. He didn’t see anything else he could improve upon.
Last, he went into the second bedroom, the one he’d spent weeks preparing for Georgia’s homecoming, not allowing himself to think that from tonight forward his little girl wouldn’t be spending every night under his roof.
He’d left the decorating up to the saleswoman at the furniture store. “Georgia’s five years old. About to start kindergarten.”
She asked, “Favorite color?”
“Pink. Second favorite, pink.”
“Do you have a budget?”
“Knock yourself out.”
She’d taken him at his word. Everything in the room was pink except for the creamy white headboard, chest of drawers, and vanity table with an oval mirror that swiveled between upright spindles.
He had added touches he thought Georgia would like: picture books with pastel covers featuring rainbows and unicorns and such, a menagerie of stuffed animals, a ballet tutu with glittery slippers to match, and a doll wearing a pink princess gown and gold crown. The saleswoman had assured him it was a five-year-old girl’s fantasy room.
The only thing missing was the girl.
He gave the bedroom one final inspection, then left the house and, without consciously intending to, found himself driving toward the cemetery. He hadn’t come since Mother’s Day, when he and his in-laws had brought Georgia to visit the grave of the mother she didn’t remember.
Solemnly, Georgia had laid a bouquet of roses on the grave as instructed, then had looked up at him and asked, “Can we go get ice cream now, Daddy?”
Leaving his parents-in-law to pay homage to their late daughter, he’d scooped Georgia into his arms and carried her back to the car. She’d squealed whenever he pretended to stumble and stagger under her weight. He figured Beth wouldn’t take exception. Wouldn’t she rather have Georgia laughing over an ice cream cone than crying over her grave?
Somehow, it seemed appropriate to visit today, although he came empty-handed. He didn’t see what difference a bouquet of flowers would make to the person underground. As he stood beside the grave, he didn’t address anything to the spirit of his dead wife. He’d run out of things to say to her years ago, and those verbal purges never made him feel any better. They sure as hell didn’t benefit Beth.
So he merely stared at the date etched into the granite headstone and cursed it, cursed his culpability, then made a promise to whatever cosmic puppeteer might be listening that, if given custody of Georgia, he would do everything within his power to make amends.
Holly checked her wristwatch as she waited on the ground floor of the courthouse for the elevator. When it arrived and the door slid open, she stifled a groan at the sight of Greg Sanders among those onboard.
She stood aside and allowed everyone to get off. Sanders came only as far as the threshold, but there he stopped, blocking her from getting on.
“Well, Judge Spencer,” he drawled. “Fancy bumping into you. You can be the first to congratulate me.”
She forced a smile. “Are congratulations in order?”
He placed his hand on the door to prevent it from closing. “I just came from court. The verdict in the Mallory case? Not guilty.”
Holly frowned. “I don’t see that as cause for celebration. Your client was accused of brutally beating a convenience store clerk during the commission of an armed robbery. The clerk lost an eye.”
“But my client didn’t rob the store.”
“Because he panicked and ran when he thought he’d beaten the clerk to death.” She was familiar with the case, but since the defending attorney, Sanders, was her opponent in the upcoming election for district court judge, the trial had been assigned to another court.
Greg Sanders flashed his self-satisfied smirk. “The ADA failed to prove his case. My client—”
Holly interrupted. “You’ve already argued the case at trial. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to retry it for me here and now. If you’ll excuse me?”
She sidestepped him into the elevator. He got out, but kept his hand against the door. “I’m chalking up wins. Come November…” He winked. “The big win.”
“I’m afraid you’re setting yourself up for a huge disappointment.” She punched the elevator button for the fifth floor.
“This time ’round, you won’t have Judge Waters shoehorning you in.”
They were monopolizing one of three elevators. People were becoming impatient, shooting them dirty looks. Besides the fact they were inconveniencing others, she wouldn’t be goaded into defending either herself or her mentor to Greg Sanders. “I’m due in court in fifteen minutes. Please let go of the door.”
By now, Sanders was fighting the automation to keep it open. Speaking for her ears alone, he said, “Now what would a pretty young lawyer like you have been doing for ol’ Judge Waters to get him to go to bat for you with the governor?”
The “pretty” was belittling, not complimentary.
She smiled, but with exasperation. “Really, Mr. Sanders? If you’re resorting to innuendos suggesting sexual impropriety between the revered Judge Waters and me, you must be feeling terribly insecure about a successful outcome in November.” Without a “please” this time, she enunciated, “Let go of the door.”
He raised his hands in surrender and backed away. “You’ll mess up. Matter of time.” The door closed on his grinning face.
Holly entered her chambers to find her assistant, Mrs. Debra Briggs, eating a carton of yogurt at her desk. “Want one?”
“No thanks. I just had a face-to-face exchange with my opponent.”
“If that won’t spoil your appetite, nothing will. He reminds me of an old mule that my grandpa had when I was a kid.”
“I can see the resemblance. Long face, big ears, toothy smile.”
“I was referring to the other end of the mule.”
Holly laughed. “Messages?”
“Marilyn Vidal has called twice.”
“Get back to her and tell her I’m due in court. I’ll call her after this hearing.”
“She won’t like being put off.”
Marilyn, the powerhouse orchestrating her campaign, could be irritatingly persistent. “No, she won’t, but she’ll get over it.”
Holly went into her private office and closed the door. She needed a few minutes alone to collect herself before the upcoming custody hearing. The encounter with Sanders—and she hated herself for this—had left her with an atypical uneasiness. She was confident that she could defeat him at the polls and retain the judgeship to which she’d been temporarily appointed.
But as she zipped herself into her robe, his parting shot echoed through her mind like a dire prediction.
Having arrived early, he’d been trying to empty his mind of negative thoughts while staring through the wavy glass of a fourth-floor window of the venerable Prentiss County Courthouse.
His name brought him around. Grace and Joe Gilroy were walking toward him, their expressions somber, as befitted the reason for their being there.
His mother-in-law was petite and pretty, with eyes through which her sweet disposition shone. The outside corners tilted up slightly, a physical trait that Beth had inherited. He and Grace hugged briefly.
As she pulled back, she gave him an approving once-over. “You look nice.”
“Thanks. Hello, Joe.”
He released Grace and shook hands with Beth’s dad. Joe’s hobby was carpentry, which had given him a row of calluses at the base of his fingers. Indeed, everything about Joe Gilroy was tough for a man just past seventy.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
Crawford forced himself to smile. “Great.”
Joe appeared not to believe the exaggeration, but he didn’t comment on it. Nor did he return Crawford’s smile.
Grace said, “I guess we’re all a little nervous.” She hesitated, then asked Crawford if he was feeling one way or the other about the hearing.
“You mean whether I’ll win or lose?”
She looked pained. “Please don’t think of the outcome in terms of winning or losing.”
“We only want what’s best for our granddaughter,” Joe said. Interpreted, that meant it would be best for Georgia to remain with them. “I’m sure that’s what Judge Spencer wants, too.”
Crawford held his tongue and decided to save his debate for the courtroom. Talking it over with them now was pointless and could only lead to antagonism. The simple fact was that today he and his in-laws were on opposing sides of a legal issue, the outcome of which would profoundly affect all of them. Somebody was going to leave the courthouse defeated and unhappy. Crawford wouldn’t be able to congratulate them if the judge ruled in their favor, and he wasn’t about to wish them luck. He figured they felt much the same way toward him.
Since both parties had agreed to leave Georgia out of the proceedings entirely, Crawford asked Grace what arrangements she’d made for her while they were in court. “She’s on a play date with our neighbor’s granddaughter. She was so excited when I dropped her off. They’re going to bake cookies.”
Crawford winced. “Her last batch were a little gooey in the center.”
“She always takes them out of the oven too soon,” Joe said.
Crawford smiled. “She can’t wait to sample them.”
“She needs to learn the virtue of patience.”
In order to maintain his smile, Crawford had to clench his teeth. His father-in-law was good at getting in barbs like that, aimed at Crawford’s character flaws. That one had been a zinger. Also well timed. Before Crawford could respond, the Gilroys’ attorney stepped off the elevator. They excused themselves to confer with him.
Within minutes Crawford’s attorney arrived. Bill Moore’s walk was as brisk as his manner. But today his determined stride was impeded by dozens of potential jurors who had crowded into the corridor looking for their assigned courtroom.
The attorney plowed his way through them, connected with Crawford, and together they went into Judge Spencer’s court.
The bailiff, Chet Barker, was a courthouse institution. He was a large man with a gregarious nature to match his size. He greeted Crawford by name. “Big day, huh?”
“Yeah it is, Chet.”
The bailiff slapped him on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
Crawford’s butt barely had time to connect with the seat of his chair before Chet was asking everyone to rise. The judge entered the courtroom, stepped onto the podium, and sat down in the high-backed chair that Crawford uneasily likened to a throne. In a way, it was. Here, the honorable Judge Holly Spencer had absolute rule.
Chet called court into session and asked everyone to be seated.
“Good afternoon,” the judge said. She asked the attorneys if all parties were present, and when the formalities were out of the way, she clasped her hands on top of the lectern.
“Although I took over this case from Judge Waters, I’ve familiarized myself with it. As I understand the situation, in May of 2010, Grace and Joe Gilroy filed for temporary custody of their granddaughter, Georgia Hunt.” She looked at Crawford. “Mr. Hunt, you did not contest that petition.”
“No, Your Honor, I did not.”
William Moore stood up. “If I may, Your Honor?”
In his rat-a-tat fashion, the lawyer stated the major components of Crawford’s petition to regain custody and summarized why it was timely and proper that Georgia be returned to him. He ended by saying, “Mr. Hunt is her father. He loves her, and his affection is returned, as two child psychologists attest. I believe you have copies of their evaluations of Georgia?”
“Yes, and I’ve reviewed them.” The judge gazed thoughtfully at Crawford, then said, “Mr. Hunt will have a chance to address the court, but first I’d like to hear from the Gilroys.”
Their lawyer sprang to his feet, eager to get their objections to Crawford’s petition on the record. “Mr. Hunt’s stability was brought into question four years ago, Your Honor. He gave up his daughter without argument, which indicates that he knew his child would be better off with her grandparents.”
The judge held up her hand. “Mr. Hunt has conceded that it was in Georgia’s best interest to be placed with them at that time.”
“We hope to persuade the court that she should remain with them.” He called Grace to testify. She was sworn in. Judge Spencer gave her a reassuring smile as she took her seat in the witness box.
“Mrs. Gilroy, why are you and Mr. Gilroy contesting your son-in-law’s petition to regain custody?”
Grace wet her lips. “Well, ours is the only home Georgia has known. We’ve dedicated ourselves to making it a loving and nurturing environment for her.” She expanded on the healthy home life they had created.
Judge Spencer finally interrupted. “Mrs. Gilroy, no one in this courtroom, not even Mr. Hunt, disputes that you’ve made an excellent home for Georgia. My decision won’t be determined by whether or not you’ve provided well for the child, but whether or not Mr. Hunt is willing and able to provide an equally good home for her.”
“I know he loves her,” Grace said, sending an uneasy glance his way. “But love alone isn’t enough. In order to feel secure, children need constancy, routine. Since Georgia doesn’t have a mother, she needs the next best thing.”
“Her daddy.” Crawford’s mutter drew disapproving glances from everyone, including the judge.
Bill Moore nudged his arm and whispered, “You’ll have your turn.”
The judge asked Grace a few more questions, but the upshot of what his mother-in-law believed was that to remove Georgia from their home now would create a detrimental upheaval in her young life. She finished with, “My husband and I feel that a severance from us would have a damaging impact on Georgia’s emotional and psychological development.”
To Crawford the statement sounded scripted and rehearsed, something their lawyer had coached Grace to say, not something that she had come up with on her own.
Judge Spencer asked Crawford’s attorney if he had any questions for Mrs. Gilroy. “Yes, Your Honor, I do.” He strode toward the witness box and didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “Georgia often spends weekends with Mr. Hunt, isn’t that right?”
“Well, yes. Once we felt she was old enough to spend a night away from us, and that Crawford was… was trustworthy enough, we began allowing him to keep her overnight. Sometimes two nights.”
“When she’s returned to you after these sleepovers with her father, what is Georgia like?”
“What’s her state of mind, her general being? Does she run to you crying, arms outstretched, grateful to be back? Does she act intimidated, fearful, or traumatized? Is she ever in a state of emotional distress? Is she withdrawn and uncommunicative?”
“No. She’s… fine.”
“Crying only when her father returns her to you. Isn’t that right?”
Grace hesitated. “She sometimes cries when he drops her off. But only on occasion. Not every time.”
“More often crying after a lengthier visit with him,” the attorney said. “In other words, the longer she’s with him, the greater her separation anxiety when she’s returned to you.” He saw that the Gilroys’ lawyer was about to object and waved him back into his seat. “Conclusion on my part.”
He apologized to the judge, but Crawford knew he wasn’t sorry for having gotten his point across and on the record.
He addressed another question to Grace. “When was the last time you saw Mr. Hunt intoxicated?”
“It was a while ago. I don’t remember exactly.”
“A week ago? A month? A year?”
- On Sale
- Jul 17, 2018
- Hachette Audio