This book is dedicated to all the readers and fans of the
Sienna St. James
series. I am grateful for every single e-mail, message, and enthusiastic word you've offered. This character, who entered my imagination while I walked through a parking garage on my way to a social work seminar years ago, has made it through pages and pages of love, loss, and dangerous clients. Knowing that you've stayed along for the ride, have cheered her on, questioned her decisions, and been encouraged and inspired by her trials and triumphs makes writing about her worth it. Hope you enjoy this next chapter in her life and times.
I also want to offer special thanks to my family, friends, fellow church members, and colleagues, who have never stopped encouraging me, praying for me, and supporting my journey with all of its real life twists and turns. I'm grateful.
To my agent, Sha-Shana Crichton: you have helped and encouraged me more than you know. Thank you! To Joylynn Ross and the Urban Christian family: these books would not exist without you. Thanks for continuing to allow a platform for not only my novels, but for the work of many authors of like mind and purpose. I'm grateful.
Finally, I must give a public praise to the One who has kept every personal promise and perfected all that which concerns me. My continual prayer is that you, Lord, get all of the glory. My trust in you is complete.
Thank you and enjoy!
Chocolate chip cookies, a geranium-covered arch, and the youth choir from my church singing a cappella and slightly off key. It all seemed fitting for our wedding.
“You look beautiful.” Ava Diggs, my lifelong mentor and career/parenting/relationship/everything advisor studied me just before I went down the grassy aisle in her backyard. Leon stood watching me at the end of the aisle, his hands folded in front of him, waiting. Waiting for me to finally come down, put on his ring, become his wife. Waiting for us to finally become one.
We married on a chilly evening in June, the scent of gardenias and lilies and cocoa-dipped cookie bars wafting in the Tuesday night breeze. Ava Diggs hosted the ceremony at her home in East Towson, insisting that my bridal path weave around her well-nurtured garden. The reception was at Leon's bakery by Baltimore's Inner Harbor. We'd reconnected there just a month or so earlier, but saw no need to waste another month or another minute. He proposed within a week of our reunion. With no hesitation, I said yes.
Roman, my son, who'd just finished his first year of college, was Leon's best man. My sister, Yvette, stood beside me as the self-titled “diva of honor.” I let her pick her own gown, and, truth be told, in her muted purple chiffon stunner, she did look better than me.
I didn't care.
The only thing that mattered was that Leon Sanderson and I would be husband and wife.
Like a June graduation ceremony, I'd finally stopped failing and repeating my life lessons on love and happiness, faith and forgiveness, and had accepted the promotion to my happily ever after. Our signed marriage license was my degree. And that night, after we left the garden and the bakery, after we set down our luggage in a room in a bed and breakfast that overlooked the quiet waterfront of St. Michael's, Maryland, we spent the night embedded in each other's arms, saying little, moving much.
Things I won't forget about our first night together: The light rain that streaked down the windowpanes and shimmered in the moonlight. The sound of water lapping against the piers. The whisper of my name on Leon's lips. The freedom. The weightlessness.
Things I soon realized I'd forgotten about my wedding day: The cabbage soup a former client's foster mother bought to the reception. My mother's quick eye roll and long sigh at my first husband's other family when they arrived.
And, most significantly, the old woman who tapped on Leon's bakery window while we ate our wedding cupcakes. I saw her through the glass and she smiled at me before finally scurrying away, a dingy black patent leather purse bouncing off her side.
The soup and my mother's raised eyebrow were harmless. Well, maybe not the soup entirely.
But the old woman . . .
“I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
Yes, please help me, God:
the only coherent thought running through my brain at the moment
. What am I doing here?
The bumpy leather of the Bible cover beneath my palm felt cold to the touch. As the bailiff took the sacred book away, I felt all eyes boring through me from the courtroom benches, from the other side of TV screens across the nation, from behind computer and phone devices around the world.
Okay, maybe this case wasn't airing around the entire world, but at the moment it had consumed my complete attention, and that of all of Baltimore. This case had been eating away at my appetite and sleep, and, in the immediate moment, had left a pool of sweat on the back of my thighs. There were some TV cameras, I reminded myself as I thought about that pool of sticky sweat on my legs that was certainly seeping through my stockings and staining my clothes. Should have gone with the darker suit. Leon was right; this was not the time to make a cheery fashion statement with my bright yellow blazer and knee-length skirt. I probably looked like a balloon at a little kid's birthday party and not the leading witness for a triple murder trial. I should have listened to him; he had a background in law enforcement. I was a therapist, at the moment specializing only in children's play therapy, having grown weary of the creeps, killers, and terrorists who seemed to be attracted to my practice.
But this case in which I was testifying had nothing to do with the children I served.
The defendant's attorney, a slender black woman who went by the name of Shanay Deen, stood and flipped through some index cards. She frowned at a note passed to her by her assistant and then grinned at me as if she were a tiger and I was a limping gazelle. She even licked her chops, her tongue flicking over her too-red lips as she looked at her notes and then at me again.
I thought about the homemade play dough I kept in a drawer back in my office for my young clients. The cool squishiness of the multicolored flour and water mixture would have been perfect to pound out the nerves quivering inside of me.
She approached the bench, each of her steps carefully watched by the waiting jury. We all seemed to be holding our breath.
“My client, Delmon Frank, has been charged with murder in the first degree, three times over,” the defense attorney began. “This charge carries with it the possibility of an entire life spent behind bars, a punishment that would be appropriate for a cold-blooded killer such as the one who viciously took the life of the victims. However, such a punishment would be a catastrophic mistake for an innocent young man barely out of his teens who is just starting to live his own life, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and who had nothing to do with the tragedies that transpired.” She gave a solemn look at the twenty-one-year-old male sitting at the defendant's table. In his suit and tie, I barely recognized him.
But those unreadable eyes and curled lips could not be dressed up or disguised.
“You have a son about his age, Ms. St. James.” She leaned in close to me. Her voice was a slight whisper, as if we were patrons in an upscale restaurant chatting aimlessly about the menu and not defense attorney and star witness about to enter the opening act of a courtroom drama. “I don't have to remind you of the seriousness of the matter at hand as I ask you to think of how you would feel if your son . . . Roman, right? If Roman was falsely accused of murder. Think of him, Ms. St. James, as I ask you these questions.”
Thinking of Roman would not help her cause. She didn't know that. Very few people knew the current state of the relationship I had with my only son. I pushed down the heartache.
“My name is Mrs. Sanderson, no longer Ms. St. James.” I glanced at Leon who sat in the back of the courtroom. He winked at me, but I still saw the irritation on his face.
We were supposed to be packing for our first wedding anniversary trip, but here we were, in a courtroom with cameras flashing.
I wanted to say to him, but the attorney took my words.
“Yes. I'm sorry about misstating your name, Mrs. Sienna Sanderson St. James.” The woman shuffled through her cards as she butchered my name once more. She stopped at one card and her smile returned. “I have just a few questions for you. Are you ready to begin?”
I shut my eyes for a moment, inhaled, searched for a calm space in my head. Listened.
“Hush 'em. Hush 'em.”
The memory jolted through me with such vividness, I could almost taste the butter crÃ¨me icing that dripped off my lips that day, smell the fresh cut flowers that had sat in squat vases at each table.
“Hush 'em. Hush 'em.” The old lady held a crooked finger up to her lips and whispered out of a mouth so crusty and smelly it took all I had to not gag in her face. “What do you hear?” She used her other finger to rap on the glass storefront of Leon's downtown bakery where we were holding our reception. I stood at the doorway, poised to go in, my right palm pressed against the door. They were waiting for me inside.
“What do you hear?” she asked again, her eyes wide with awe. Her wrinkled brown face full of dark freckles was bright with excitement. She wore a stained blue housecoat and blue slippers, and a large black handbag hung off her frail shoulders. I wanted to be polite, but it was my wedding day, my reception, and I wanted to get inside. “What do you hear?” she asked again.
“I hear you tapping on the window.” I gave a smile and pressed against the doorway once more.
“Hush 'em, hush 'em.” She leaned in closer to me. Her breath stopped me in my tracks, made my eyes water. “I asked âwhat do you hear?' Not âwhat do you see?'” Her nostrils flared outward. Anger.
. . .
I don't know.” I turned away, but her rapping got louder. Leon looked at us from the other side of the window. His boutonniere was a single blue flower. “I hear you tapping on the window,” I said again, rushing through my words this time, ready to leave this woman and her stank breath alone.
“No, that's not tapping you hear.” The woman's wide smile revealed several missing teeth and many rotting ones. “That's the sound of glass trying not to break. My finger here is force, wind, weight.” She stared at her dirty nail as if it were gold. “The glass is shouting against it. Screaming against it.” She stopped tapping and narrowed her eyes at me. “You that glass, young lady. You that glass trying so hard not to break under pressure. I can see right through you. Why are you trying so hard?”
“Mrs. St. James Sienna Sanderson?” The attorney brought me back with her continued butchering of my name. “I'm ready to begin. Are you?”
I opened my eyes, looked at the three posters standing by the prosecution's table. Three enlarged pictures of the victims rested on easels, though the TV cameras were only focused on the last victim, his name and local fame enough to build ratings, I guessed.
What was I supposed to say to the coming questions? I looked around the courtroom, peered into the cameras.
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
I settled back into my seat. Exhaled.
“Yes. I'm ready.”
Leon shifted in his seat. I saw him shake his head.
Don't bring that old woman up,
I knew he was saying.