Sample text for The secret hour / Luanne Rice.

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Counter Chapter 1

The kitchen was quiet. The kids were trying so hard to help. Sitting at the breakfast table, his back to the cove, John O'Rourke tried to concentrate on the legal brief he'd stayed up last night finishing. Maggie buttered a piece of toast and slid it across the table. He accepted it, nodding thanks. Teddy hunched over the sports section, scowling at the scores, as if all his teams had lost. Brainer, the dog, lay under the table, growling happily as he gnawed an old tennis ball.

"Dad," Maggie said.


"Are you finished reading yet?"

"Not quite, Mags."

"Is it about Merrill?"

John didn't respond at first, but his stomach twisted in a knot. He thought about his eleven-year-old daughter knowing about Greg Merrill, his all-time most time-consuming client, the Breakwater Killer, the star of Connecticut's death row and, as such, the talk of barrooms and courtrooms everywhere. John wanted people talking; it was part of his strategy. But he didn't want his daughter knowing.

"It is, honey," he said, lowering the brief.

"Are they going to kill him, Dad?"

"I don't know, Maggie. I'm trying to make it so they don't."

"But he deserves it," Teddy said. "For killing those girls."

"Everyone's innocent till proven guilty," Maggie intoned.

"He admits he's guilty," Teddy said, lowering the sports section. "He confessed." At fourteen, he was tall and strong. His eyes were too serious, his smile a shadow of the grin he used to flash before his mother's death. Sitting across the wide oak table, John reflected that Teddy would make a fine prosecutor.

"He did," John said.

"Because he did those things--murdered girls, ruined families. He deserves what's coming to him. Everyone says he does, Dad."

Outside, the wind blew, and a shower of autumn leaves fell from the trees.

John stared at his brief. He thought about the confession, the sentencing--to death by lethal injection--the months Greg Merrill had already spent on death row; and he thought of his current strategy--to argue before the Connecticut State Supreme Court that Merrill deserved a new sentencing hearing.

"Ruined families?" Maggie asked.

"Yes," Teddy said, glancing at his sister. "But don't worry, Maggie. He's in jail now. He can't hurt anyone anymore. People want to make sure it stays that way, which is why our phone rang ten times in the middle of the night--even though we have an unlisted number. You should hear what people say when we go by. They want you to stop what you're doing, Dad."

"Okay, Teddy," John said softly.

"But it's his job," Maggie said, her eyes filling. "Why is it his fault, our fault, that he's just doing his job?"

"It's not your fault, Mags," John said, staring into her deep eyes. "Everyone in this country has rights."

She didn't reply, but nodded.

John took a slow breath in and out. This was his hometown, yet he felt the outrage of his friends and neighbors and strangers alike. Most of all he hated that his children were being made to suffer.

The critical issue in Merrill's case had always been his mental condition at the time of the crimes; John intended to argue that Greg Merrill suffered from a mental illness that made him physically unable to control his actions. His first act upon becoming Merrill's attorney was to engage a top psychiatrist--to examine his client and aid in his defense. John's unpopular work would, he hoped, result in Merrill's being resentenced to multiple life sentences without the possibility of release.

Teddy stared at his father, green eyes dark with gravity and sorrow. Maggie blinked, her blue eyes--the same shade, exactly, as Theresa's-- framed by the raggedy bangs John had trimmed the night before. His daughter's bad haircut filled him with shame, and his son's solemn gaze seemed an admonishment of the worst, truest, most deserved kind. Since his mother's sudden death, Teddy had become the self-appointed protector of women everywhere.

"It's your job, right, Dad?" Maggie asked, squinting. "Protecting everyone's rights?"

"You'd better get ready for school," John said.

"I am ready," Maggie said, suddenly stricken.

John surveyed her outfit: green leggings, a blue skirt, one of Teddy's old soccer shirts. "Ah," John said, inwardly cursing the last baby-sitter for quitting, but--even more--himself for being so hard to work for. He'd called the employment agency, and they were supposed to send some new prospects out to interview, but with his track record and late hours, John would probably just work her ragged and blow the whole thing by Halloween. Maybe he should just move the whole family over to his father's house, let Maeve take care of them all.

"Don't I look good?" Maggie asked, frowning, looking down and surveying her ensemble.

"You look great," Teddy said, catching John's eye with a warning. "You'll be the prettiest girl in your class."

"Are you sure? Dad didn't even think I was ready for school--"

"Maggie, you look beautiful," John said, pushing the papers away and tugging her onto his lap.

She melted into his arms, still ready to cuddle at a moment's notice. John closed his eyes, needing the comfort himself. She smelled of milk and sweat, and he felt a pang, knowing he had forgotten to remind her to take a bath after the haircut.

"I'm not beautiful," she whispered into his neck. "Mommy was. I'm a tomboy. Tomboys can't be beautiful. They--"

The peace was shattered by breaking glass. Something flew through the kitchen window, skidding across the table, knocking milk and bowls and cereal all over, smashing into the opposite wall. John covered Maggie's body with his own as squares and triangles and splinters of glass rained down. His daughter squealed in terror, and he heard himself yelling for Teddy to get under the table.

When the glass stopped falling, the first sound was Brainer barking, running from the broken picture window to the front door and back. A big wave crashed on the rocks outside, down by the beach; the sound, unmuffled by window glass, was startlingly loud. Maggie began to sob--whimpering at first, then with growing hysteria. Teddy crawled out from under the table, kicked glass away, and scuttled across the room.

"It was a brick, Dad," he called.

"Don't touch it," John said, still holding Maggie.

"I know. Fingerprints," Teddy said.

John nodded, realizing there wouldn't be any. People, even noncriminals, had gotten sophisticated about evidence. Even the local hotheads--whose prior worst crime might have been overzealous letters to the editor or loud protests outside court--had absorbed plenty of information about fingerprints and hair and fiber from the cop shows they watched and the legal thrillers they read.

Drops of blood splashed on the floor. Focused, John examined his daughter to make sure she hadn't gotten cut. When she looked up into his face, her eyes widened with horror and she shrieked in his ear.

"Dad, you're cut!" she cried. Touching the side of his head, he felt a spot of warm liquid; grabbing a green-and-blue napkin, he held it against the gash. Teddy ran over, pushed Maggie aside, looked at his father's head. John rose and, holding his kids' hands, walked into the bathroom.

"It's not too bad," he said, peering at his reflection in the mirror. "Just superficial--looks a lot worse than it is."

"Oh, Mommy," Maggie cried spontaneously.

John hugged his daughter. His heart ached horribly for her. She missed her mother all the time, but something as traumatic as this was bound to bring thoughts of the accident back. He had brought this on himself. Wanting to salve his own wounds, he had taken on the busiest case in his career--not even two years after his children lost their mother. He was a selfish jerk, and his kids were hurting for it.

As if Teddy felt the same way, he edged John aside and took his sister's hand. Two spots of blood had stained her soccer jersey, and Teddy grabbed a washcloth and began to clean them off.

"I know you're a tomboy, Mags," he said, "but people will think you got roughed up on the field if we let you go to school like that."

"I don't get roughed up," she sniffled.

"That's right," Teddy said, scrubbing the shirt. "Any roughing that gets done, you're the one doing it, right?"

"Right," she said, tears streaming from her clear blue eyes.

God help me, John thought, backing away. He touched the cut on the side of his head. Maybe it was deeper than he had first thought. It was bleeding more heavily now; he swore inwardly, not wanting to go to the emergency room for stitches. He had meetings scheduled at the office, as well as cases to read and the brief to finish.

The doorbell rang.

Had one of the kids dialed 911? Starting for the door, he stopped in the hallway. What if it was the person who had thrown the brick, one of the shoreline residents angry with him for pursuing Greg Merrill's emotionally charged case to the state supreme court?

Over the years, John O'Rourke had received many threats. His work made people angry. He represented citizens accused of the worst acts a human being could do. Their victims had families and friends, sweet lives and beautiful dreams. People saw John as a champion of monsters. He understood and respected the public's rage.

He knew someone could decide to come after him someday, wanting more than a conversation, but he didn't own a gun. On principle, but also out of healthy respect: As a criminal defense lawyer, he saw every day the damage that guns could do. Right now, remembering Maggie's terror, he hoped he wasn't wrong. Shaking from the attack in his kitchen only moments ago, he put his hand on the front doorknob, paused to gulp air, then yanked it open.

A woman stood on the top step. Dressed in a charcoal gray coat, appropriate for the chilly fall day, she had shoulder-length brown hair and eyes the color of river stones. Freckles dotted her nose. Her smile was fluid, but set--as if, waiting for him to open the door, she had determined to look friendly and pleasant. But upon seeing his face--his expression wild, he imagined, with blood streaming down the side of his head--her jaw dropped.

"Oh," she said, lurching back, then stepping forward. She reached up, as if she wanted to touch his cheek. "Are you okay?"

"Did you see anyone drive away?" he asked, looking up and down the quiet seaside street. Her car was parked in the road--a dark blue sedan.

"No," she said, those deep obsidian eyes peering up at him with marked concern. "I didn't. Shouldn't you sit down?"

John didn't reply. He leaned against the doorjamb. Strangers rarely rang his bell. More often, they called at night, while his family slept. Sometimes they wrote long, impassioned, well-reasoned but hateful letters. They hardly ever showed up, smiling, acting as if they cared.

"What is it?" he asked. "Can I help you?"

She laughed, a liquid trill that sounded so gentle and tender, it made him weak in the knees. He hardened his gaze. After Theresa, the sensation repulsed him, and he refused to let it get him.

"I think it is I who should be helping you . . ." she said, smiling, touching his elbow. Her voice was gentle, vaguely southern, reminiscent of Virginia or the Carolinas.

"Oh," he said, as she attempted to push him down to sit on the step. She was a professional caregiver--it was written across her face, in her tone of voice, in her plain coat and sensible black leather shoes. She was a nanny, sent by the agency, to take over after the latest Baby-sitter X's defection. "Are you here for the position?"

"Let me help," she said softly as his knees buckled again and stars flashed before his eyes and the siren wailed up the street--brilliant, wonderful children; one of them had called the police--and John O'Rourke sat heavily on his stone steps and took her response as a "yes."

Thaddeus George O'Rourke had called the police, but he ignored their arrival. Maggie was a mess. He had to finish getting her ready for school, then get his own stuff together and make the bus--otherwise his father would have to drive him, and the middle school was out of his way.

"Maggie, you'd better take the shirt off and start over," he said, realizing the blood wouldn't come out.

"No way," she said. "You said I could wear it."

"I know, but those blood splotches make you look like State Exhibit Twenty-four. We'll wash it, and you can wear it tomorrow."

"That means next week--no one ever washes clothes around here," Maggie said. Then, catching Teddy's scowl, she tugged his sleeve. "Sorry," she said quickly. "It's not your fault. Or Dad's. I could learn how . . ."

"You're eleven," Teddy said, frustrated, resuming his efforts to clean the spots. "You're supposed to be playing, not doing laundry."

"Everyone has to pitch in," she said, casting a worried look toward the front hall, where deep voices were beginning to interrogate their father. "Do you think they'll do anything this time?"

"Sure," Teddy said.

"But they won't catch who did it, will they?"

"They might."

Brainer had run out to greet the police officers, and now he came bounding back to see Teddy and his sister. A huge golden retriever, he'd been part of the family since Teddy was nine. He was the best, smartest, coolest dog on the planet, and Teddy had named him himself. His fur used to be as smooth as silk, but that was before; now his coat was tangled, matted with burrs, twigs, and bits of dry seaweed. He nose-bumped Maggie, then leaned against Teddy for some reassuring pets.

"It's okay, boy," Teddy said, crouching down. "Good dog, Brainer."

The dog licked Teddy's face. Closing his eyes, Teddy rubbed the dog's soft fur. Brainer had always been insecure. He was superfriendly to strangers, but he always ran back to the family to get affirmation that he was good and brave enough. Kind of like Teddy himself, he thought. That's how he used to be when his mother was still alive. He'd go act all rough and tough on the soccer field, worrying the whole time that he was blowing the game. But then he'd climb into the car where she'd make him believe he was the best player on the field.

"Brainer could have gotten hurt," Maggie said sadly, scratching the retriever behind the ears. "Don't the brick-throwing people think of that?"

"No, they don't."

"But why? I don't get it. They hate Greg Merrill for hurting those girls, but they throw bricks through our window and don't care about hurting Brainer."

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Sisters Fiction