Kaiya O’Neal, the former chief of staff to the mayor of New York City, can’t get out of town fast enough. After her public breakup and humiliation are broadcasted on TMZ, she heads home to Sweetland Bay to hide. Ahem, regroup. Needing to get her career back on track, she accepts the county’s judge position, which is in line with her plans to make a bid for the White House in the next five years. All is going well until a sexy firefighter disrupts her courtroom and she’s forced to throw the hottie in jail.
Getting thrown into jail is a lousy way for Blaise Jefferson to first appear in the media days before the premiere of his new reality TV show, The Real Bachelors of Sweetland Bay. The upheaval of his small-town life and peaceful existence is mostly due to cameras following him everywhere. But it’s the feistiness of the new judge, and a kiss that catches him totally off guard, that has him re-evaluating every aspect of his life. He wants to explore the intense attraction pulsing between them, but the judge is laser focused on her career…until she isn’t.
Kaiya never imagined she’d date a younger man, but Blaise is too tempting to resist. When she finally opens her heart and takes a chance on love, her destiny collides with Blaise’s past. Will he choose responsibility over love? Or will they both hold on to the love they so passionately desire?
My heart beats double time. Palms sweat. Knees lock. Shoulders square. I hold my posture rigid, a coping mechanism, a refusal to allow frayed nerves to quake any part of my body. Inside, chaos runs rampant. Outside, a perfect picture of badass woman, in-control confidence. Filled with ambition, I ride the notion until the wheels fall off, bask in the cliché. Never let them see you sweat. Isn’t that what they say?
It’s 8:00 a.m., and I’m at the municipal courthouse waiting for the proceedings to begin. Back home in Sweetland Bay. Six weeks ago, I would have bet any sum that I would be any place but here. Truth, six weeks ago, returning to Sweetland seemed like the ultimate sin. Yet, here I stand.
“All rise for the Honorable Judge O’Neal.”
My nerves are shot. Bailiff Stan Griffin’s voice is barely audible over the pound of my pulse and the rush of blood to my head.
The officer swings open the door to Courtroom A.
“Game face on,” I mumble, zipping my black robe, patting down the white lace collar. Entering through the oak-paneled door, I strut into the courtroom, draped in a confidence I’m determined to own. My gaze roams the wooden benches before I nod at Bailiff Griffin. “Good morning,” I say, addressing the room. With a proud smile, I slip into the comfort of my high-back Italian leather chair, just delivered not even twenty minutes ago.
“You may be seated,” Bailiff Griffin says.
“Shit snackin’ crackers…”
Oh God! My stomach tanks, settling somewhere near my calves.
“…that’s our gal, Nate. Kaiya Lynn is a for-real judge.”
All eyes in the drafty room volley from me to my aunt, Beulah Mae James, and back to me again.
“Ain’t she pretty.” Beulah Mae jabs Nate in his side. My baby brother’s wide hazel eyes snag on mine, pleading forgiveness.
But neither those eyes nor his “I’m sorry, Sis” grimace are going to help Nate escape my wrath. Wait ’til I get that traitor alone. How dare he bring Aunt Bea here? Really, Nate, it’s my first day on the bench.
“Look at her in that robe. That fancy lace collar is beautiful. Ain’t she got style? Our Kaiya Lynn is the prettiest gal in Sweetland Bay, just like her mama used to be,” Aunt Bea says.
I refrain from rolling my eyes.
“Gawd rest the soul of my dead sister, Catherine Anne.” After puckering her lips against two arthritic fingers, Beulah Mae lifts them and her gaze to the exposed beamed ceiling.
I shift slightly, my spine ramrod straight, hands gripping the arms of the soft leather chair that suddenly feels like a sinkhole. I pick up the gavel for the very first time in an official capacity.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“Quiet in the courtroom.”
“Oops, sorry, Sugarlump.”
Resisting the urge to roll my eyes is becoming an epic battle. No, Aunt Bea did not just call me Sugarlump in my courtroom. This has to be grounds for contempt. If I send the old woman to jail—
Beulah Mae springs up off the old wooden courtroom bench, yanking me from my thoughts.
Not waiting to witness what comes next, I paste on a straight-line, no curves, Etch A Sketch smile, eyeing my brother with a “Really? You brought the old lady” leer.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The black gavel pummels the lacquered oak. “Order! There will be no more shenanigans in this courtroom.”
Leaning in close to Beulah Mae, Nate whispers in her ear. Seconds later, the twosome glances up and nods at me.
I rein in my emotions, reminding myself that my aunt always has only the best intentions. There was never a question on whether she loved Nate and me.
Beulah Mae had been there when Mama wore high heels and pretty dresses and danced around the house. Beulah Mae had been there when Mama didn’t cook, didn’t clean, didn’t do laundry. Beulah Mae had been there when Mama didn’t want to live another day. Beulah Mae had been there when they pulled Mama’s body out of Sweetland Bay.
Ignoring the tight knot forming in my chest, I push down thoughts of my mother and move on to the business at hand.
Bailiff Griffin steps up to the bench and hands me a manila folder marked State v. Jefferson. Perching reading glasses, a pair that took three months to find, onto the bridge of my nose, a slight tremor vibrates my hands, and I don’t feel judicial. Thank goodness this case, my first case, will be easy, couldn’t be more open and shut.
I peer over the square frames of the red leather reading glasses. “Are all of the parties present?”
To my left, the state’s flushed-cheek prosecutor stands, scraping the chair harshly against the planks of the old hardwood floors. “Sorry, Your Honor, ASA Kerry Wiley, for the state,” she says, smoothing the collar of a starched white blouse over the lapel of a boxy navy suit jacket.
Attorney Wiley’s I’m-new-and-eager attire makes me smile. Women attorneys often start out believing they have to dress like the men, censoring their femininity. A rookie ploy to gain acceptance into the club. Time, and the stark reality of the good-old boys’ club door slammed against a wide-open nose, will teach ASA Wiley women are never truly accepted into that fold.
Tolerated? Maybe. Respected? Sometimes. Embraced? Never!
To my right, at the defendant’s table, a more seasoned attorney’s liver-spotted head peeks through the thin strands of a comb-over. “Michael Warner, present, Your Honor. I represent the defendant, young Mr. Wood Jefferson,” he says, motioning the teenage boy to stand.
It’s the man seated next to the boy drawing my attention. A charcoal Adonis. A stunning man. Raw masculinity seeps through his pores.
His midnight skin is rich and dark. Even the morning sun peeks through the window and beams directly on him as if its only function is to be his personal spotlight. His jawline is hard and rugged, but his skin appears soft, its sheen inviting and supple like an exquisite velvet.
My fingers twitch. Drawing them back out of sight, my hands curl into a tight fist. I fight an inexplicable desire to reach out, run my fingers along the boxy square of his perfectly sculpted chin.
Then our eyes lock, and his, a shocking grey surrounded by a blanket of darkness, jar me like a fist rammed into my throat. Wrenching my thoughts out of a temporary stupor, my eyes away from the man’s heat-seeking gaze, lightly I pat my chest. “Ahem…ahem…ahem.”
Bailiff Griffin grabs the silver decanter, pours water into a crystal glass, and hands me the libation.
“Thank you,” I say, nodding in appreciation. Downing the ice-cold water, I utilize the time to clear the fog occupying my brain.
“Excuse me…Good morning, gentlemen, it is my understanding…ahem…that Mr. Wood Jefferson has entered a plea of guilty to the charge of criminal mischief.”
“Yes, Your Honor, we have agreed to a sentence of one hundred hours of community service, to be served over a six-month period,” Attorney Warner responds.
“Does Mr. Jefferson understand the ramifications—”
“If I may interject, Your Honor.” The wiry Assistant State Attorney Wiley leans forward, thumbing through a stack of manila folders neatly placed at the front edge of the prosecutor’s table. “I have here”—she plucks a file from the stack—“the final accounting of Mr. Jefferson’s willful act of mischief. May I approach?”
“I’ll take that.” Bailiff Griffin cuts the young ASA off.
“I’ve included extra copies for the defense, Your Honor,” says ASA Wiley.
I nod. My readers slide along the bridge of my nose as I peer down. Noting a chip in my French manicure, I make a mental note to schedule an appointment at the nail bar and slide the readers back into place.
“This is a considerable hit to the district’s budget,” I say, leafing through reports and bills detailing the impact to the budgets of the school’s administration, as well as the transportation and repair departments.
I remove my glasses and, head cocked slightly, peer at the defendant. “Mr. Jefferson, the cost of your actions is significant. Hammering nails into the tires of the entire fleet of Sweetland Bay school buses the night before the first day of school was not just mischievous. Your actions were malicious.” Reaching across the bench, trying to block out Charcoal Adonis, I don’t break eye contact with the boy. “Bailiff Griffin, please give these copies to Attorney Warner.”
Attorney Warner reviews the documents. Leaning forward, he huddles with his client and Charcoal Adonis.
Granting the defense a moment to confer, I address the ASA. “Attorney Wiley, why has this information not been presented to the court before now?”
The prosecutor pops out of her seat. “Sorry, Your Honor. Unfortunately, the final figures have just become available. The bureaucracy of the Barris County School System is difficult to weed through. But given the final accounting, I’m certain Your Honor agrees—”
“Attorney Wiley. Do not think for the court. If you have a motion, you may state it, and the court will decide if it agrees or not.”
Like a week-old clipped rose, Attorney Wiley’s shoulders sag and her posture wilts. “Sorry, Your Honor. In light of the final balance, the SA’s office would like to withdraw the plea deal—”
Attorney Warner rears up out of his seat. “Absolutely not, the defense is appalled—”
“Appalled or not, the fact remains this crime is no longer a misdemeanor. It’s now a Class B felony, punishable—”
“Order.” I fire a sharp warning gaze at both attorneys. “We will not talk over one another in this courtroom. The state will not renege on a previously negotiated plea. ASA Wiley, you should have gathered all of your facts before negotiating. The plea will remain. However, in light of the impact to the education budget, one hundred hours of community service is not a sufficient punishment. Mr. Jefferson, I’m modifying the sentence to one thousand hours of community service to be served over a period of one year.”
“No! You can’t do that.” Charcoal Adonis speaks in a deep southern drawl that conjures memories of Pop-Pop and the evenings we spent at the bay drinking extra-sweet tea and catching fireflies in mason jars. He pops out of his seat, standing at least six-feet-three inches tall, a dark grey suit molded to his athletic build. Even with the starched white shirt and tailored suit jacket, there’s no denying his torso is chiseled to perfection.
“But Your Honor.” Charcoal Adonis flails his long arms and massive hands in the air, biceps straining against the seams of the jacket. “Football—”
I lean forward, fasten my gaze to those bedroom eyes, heart pummeling my rib cage in a quick succession of traitorous thumps. God, this man is stunning.
“Sit down.” I scowl, hating how sappy my directive sounds.
Okay, Kaiya. I have a come-to-Jesus moment in my head. This is your job. You are a sitting judge. Pull yourself together. You’re not doing weak-kneed or silly woman over a chiseled chin or those doggone smoky eyes. You did that for ten years with Sutton. How’d that work out for you?
“Attorney Warner, who is this man? What is his relationship to the defendant?” I inquire.
“Blaise Jefferson, I’m his brother.”
“Blaise Jefferson, his guardian.”
Both Charcoal Adonis and the defense attorney speak at the same time, their words colliding.
Did he say Blaze? Nope, couldn’t be. What kind of name is that?
“Attorney Warner, Mr. Jefferson is one word away from a contempt charge and overnight accommodations courtesy of Barris County.” Once again I dare to peer into those mesmerizing eyes. “Sir, you are not to utter another sound while in my courtroom.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” Attorney Warner nods and places a stern hand on Mr. Jefferson’s shoulder.
“Sorry, Your Honor,” Mr. Jefferson says.
Arrogant jerk! I told him not to speak. I stand, seething over his defiance. “My ruling on this case stands as is. Mr. Jefferson, you’re in contempt! The deputies will take this man into custody. Immediately! Court is in recess for thirty minutes.”
I march toward my chambers.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect. I was only acknowledging that I understood. I’m sorry, my apologies to the court.” His deep baritone voice is hypnotic, even as he pleas.
Turning around, I do a double take. Nate has rushed over to the defendant’s table and is speaking in a hushed tone. My brother seems to be the only one who can calm this man. Mr. Jefferson says nothing, but shakes his head as if he can’t believe what’s happening.
Following the deputy’s directive, he finally laces both hands behind his back. The simple gesture spotlights his broad chest and bulging biceps.
Mercy. I run a finger under my collar, lifting the lace from my sweat-soaked skin.
“Mr. Jefferson”—my voice is stern in a way that I don’t feel—“those last words will get you three additional meals, compliments of Barris County. When I said not another sound, that’s exactly what I meant.”
I unzip my robe as I exit the courtroom. Blaze, really! Why are the good-looking ones always jerks?