It was bad news.

She didn't know this for certain, but every time the phone rang ten minutes before they were due for a plea hearing, it was usually bad news. Her hand froze on the doorknob, and she turned to look at the desk with a pained expression. Jack had been in the process of gathering his things and stared at the phone for a long instant before he stretched out his long arm and picked up the receiver. She could tell by his expression that her first guess had been correct. The luminous eyes darkened and closed, as he said something into the line and hung up.

An ominous silence filled the room, and she dared not interrupt it. Jack sighed. "Do you think you can handle our meeting with Provati?" he inquired softly. It was not what he wanted, but the meeting would be transpiring in a matter of minutes and the police needed him immediately.

Claire nodded, her stylish haircut sliding over her ears, and inquired, "What happened?"

"Our only witness to the Richardson murder was just found dead in his apartment. Van Buren wants me on the scene." Jack slipped on his coat, tightening his tie, and looked at her a long moment. He didn't like leaving her to deal with Provati on her own. The case was brutal and the defendant put him ill at ease, but there was no getting around it. Melnick was not going to appreciate a postponement, and with them awaiting a verdict after three days of deliberations, there was no time to reschedule. "Claire," he said after brief hesitation, "don't go lower than fifteen years. We cannot afford to have this monster out on the street on parole."

Claire had no intention of backing down. Reassuring him that she could handle it without difficulties, she left his office, making her way down the hall as the elevator doors opened and admitted Danielle Melnick and her client into the corridor. The guard had no need of pointing them in the direction of the conference room, for Melnick had been there numerous times before. She was small by most standards, completely dwarfed by the lanky McCoy, but had all the ferocity of a bull terrier when she sunk her teeth into a case. Leaving the office door slightly ajar behind him, Jack nearly ran into her in the hall. His sharp glance swept over her companion, a lean young man with a sullen expression beneath a fringe of dark hair.

"Why Jack," his old friend said somewhat smugly, "do these long deliberations over expensive jury lunches have you concerned? I told you there was no case here. I would presume this means a plea bargain offer is in place?"

"As much as it would please me to bandy words with you, Danielle," Jack said, passing her and heading down the hall, "I'm afraid you'll have to see Miss Kincaid instead." He knew she would regard it as an insult, and she did as she watched him vanish into the elevator, checking his watch impatiently as the doors ground closed. Turning to find Claire awaiting her, she twitched one reddish brow and entered the office, client on her heels. The officer that accompanied them took up his position outside the door.

"Where is Jack off to, in such a hurry?" Danielle inquired. Provati slunk into a chair and leaned his arm against the back, assuming an uncaring stance. Under a misjudgment of the court, he had been let out on bail. The judge had not seen him a potential flight risk, despite his propensity for aggression. It was only by the influence of his parents, well respected in the city, that he was not rotting in a prison cell. Danielle had managed to get most of their evidence suppressed.

"I suppose he has more important matters to attend to," Claire replied, barely sitting on the edge of her desk.

Danielle eyed her perceptively and smiled, an emotion that did not reach beyond the contours of her face. "Let's not trade insults here," she said, accustomed to dealing with Jack. She was not so certain of Claire, who was uncanny in her ability to remain inexpressive. Though she was known to shoot rapid glances at her superior, for the most part she had maintained an indifferent expression throughout the trial. "What do you have to offer?"

There was nothing of vast importance about the young man seated before them. In a suit, he looked much like any number of the businessmen that attempted to hit on her while she waited for McCoy in the bar just around the corner. He might have passed for a broker, a businessman, a completely and utterly normal individual possessed of a loving wife and kids, but this one had snapped and beat his girlfriend nearly to death in his parents' stylish Manhattan penthouse. Claire could sense it, just beneath the surface, a brooding vein of temper that could transform into violence with little provocation. It made her uncomfortable and just for an instant; she wished Jack were there to provide a barrier.

Since when had she started relying on him for protection?

The notion aggravated her, but she maintained sobriety as she replied, "Fifteen years." Her fingers gripped the edge of the desk, hidden beneath the flow of her jacket. The defendant sneered, but she noticed his attention was fixed on her legs. He was intent on them, following the curvaceous lines upward until reaching her face. He was impressed with them, for they had remained hidden beneath the table throughout much of the trial. He found her attractive, but in a dominating manner that was not forthcoming or pleasing in females. His defense attorney was one thing, but this prosecutor's posturing for power was quite another.

"Is that the best you can offer, Miss Kincaid?" Danielle inquired. "Come on, your case fell apart at trial. You didn't have a motive, or a murder weapon, and he has an alibi." She shifted in her chair, the gold necklace around her neck gleaming in the afternoon light. Traffic could barely be heard on the street below, the cabbies honking at one another as they pulled in and around the governmental buildings. In truth, she was not so certain, for McCoy had done a reasonable job shredding her client on the stand, but she was not one to back down or give anyone an inch.

Claire crossed her arms, repressing the urge to move behind her desk and withdraw from Provati's scrutiny of her slender frame. "His alibi was a hooker from the east side with a long history of drug addiction and prostitution," she retorted. "She was hardly a reliable witness, particularly with the jury considering evidence that your client threatened her to keep silent. As for the murder weapon, we don't need it. His fingerprints are all over the scene and his DNA was inthe body."

"They were lovers, and it was his parents' house. You can hardly believe his prints wouldn't be there. Bring it down to ten years and I'll speak with my client." Danielle watched him as he rose to his feet, placing his hands into his pockets and moving about the office, fingering some of the books on the shelves. Claire was aware of his movements as he wandered nearer, her features remaining stony as she shook her head.

"No less than fifteen years," she said. "Your client beat a woman into unconsciousness and then attempted to suffocate her with a pillow. She has permanent brain damage and may never walk again. He doesn't deserve ten years."

Provati turned to look at her, removing his hands from his pockets. "Is that what you think, Miss Kincaid?" he inquired. "That I would have ever done such a thing?" He waved aside his attorney's attempts to intervene, adding, "No, I think it's useless to attempt to negotiate with her. I didn't do it, and she knows that. They're just trying to pin this on me because my father is a successful businessman, and supported Adam Schiff's opponent in the last election."

"Provati!" warned Danielle, rising to her feet. The disbelieving amusement on Claire's face was about the same as she might have expected from Jack. It was almost like having him in the room with them, a disarming thought as she approached her client. "Let me handle this."

"So this whole murder investigation is retribution for your father's political ties?" Claire inquired, ignoring the attorney's attempts to reign in her charge.

The handsome features nodded and he stepped up to her. Claire was uncomfortable with his nearness, but knew that to move would only reveal her concern. She remained against the edge of the desk, forcing herself to keep her arms crossed, looking up at him as her heart rate increased. She had looked into the faces of numerous villains over the years, but none had eyes so infinitely cold and hard as his, like two bottomless pits.

"That's right," he replied, and there was shrewdness to his voice. He had been successful, a junior partner in his father's business, and she could see an indication of the sharp common sense that made him formidable in the stock market.

"You realize what an absurd notion that is, Mr. Provati," she countered. "And it would be foolish to assume that anyone would be as misguided as to accept it as more than the conspiracy theory of a guilty party." She maintained eye contact, noting that he seemed to draw back from her in disgust, for he disliked strong-willed females. It had been this that prompted him to beat his girlfriend into submission, an innate desire to stand up to him. That she wasn't afraid of him, this prosecutor, was frustrating, sharpening his desire to make her realize how important he was.

"The jury has been deliberating for three days," Claire said softly. "If they believed you were innocent, the verdict would have come back long ago. I suggest you consider our offer."

"If you had any hope of winning, you wouldn't be here," he returned smugly, shrugging off Danielle's restraining hand. She had no control over the situation and it disturbed her, causing the line of her brow to furrow as the sounds of the office faded behind the walls.

"It is out of respect for your father's reputation that we are offering you this opportunity to prevent his name from being further slandered in the press, not because we have no chance of winning our case. You're thirty-six years old, Mr. Provati." Claire paused, and then added, "It's about time you learned to be a team player, instead of a self-absorbed incompetent accustomed to getting his way through juvenile tantrums."

The angry eyes darkened, and the movement came so rapidly that she had no chance to prevent it. His hand caught her about the throat and slammed her onto the desk. Claire could hardly breathe, as his fingers tightened around her neck, hissing through his teeth, "I will not be spoken to like that by some pathetic, controlling bitch!"

Tears swam in her eyes as the room melted into a haze; she could dimly hear Danielle protesting, and the slamming of a door against the wall before the officer wrestled him away. As the hand withdrew, she crumbled to the floor, gasping for breath and attempting not to pass out. What happened thereafter passed in a haze, but it was not long before Adam came to check on her. She refused his offer to send her home and remained in the office, attempting to settle her shaken nerves. For just an instant, she had thought she would die. It was a sobering realization, one that influenced her activities throughout the afternoon. He had left marks and she had him arrested for assault, a conviction that immediately revoked his bail. Danielle would have to be a fool not to encourage him to plea bargain now. If there were a mistrial, they would use it as evidence against him at the next hearing.

In the lamplight flooding across the desk, Claire stood with her back to the door, placing the last of her papers into her case. Darkness had come and settled across the city, reducing the normal noise and activity of the streets into a dull hum that would continue to fade as the night wore on. Most of her colleagues had gone home, but a few still worked tirelessly, faced with trial appearances come the morning. She sensed him before he spoke, a daunting presence in the doorway, his voice attempting to disguise his concern and failing miserably.

"Adam told me what happened. Are you all right?"

Jack could not tell from this distance, or her poise as she paused in her activity. He saw a straightening of the shoulders, a faltering of fingers as she slipped another set of documents into the leather case he had purchased for her. He resisted immediately going to her, knowing her independent nature would not openly desire to be comforted. There was a tremor in her tone as she replied, "It was rather an unnerving experience, but at least now we can get him to agree to a plea bargain."

"No plea bargain is worth this," he countered, and she felt him drawing nearer. She had been able to conceal her emotions from everyone else throughout the afternoon, but knew it was impossible with him. He would read her like an open book, and it was this that prompted reluctance as she turned to him. Lifting his hand and drawing her hair away from her neck, Jack saw the bruises forming on her pale skin and signed. He appeared so calm, completely in control of his emotions, but she knew he was furious.

His hand dropped to his side, but he remained standing very close to her. It was as intimate as they ever were in the office. Claire looked at her desk, and gathered up her things. "Do you want me to take you to dinner," he asked, "or home?"

Being around so many people, facing down so many inquisitive glances, was not something she desired at that moment, but neither was being protected in the aftermath. "I can take myself home, Jack," she said softly, avoiding his gaze. He touched her on the shoulder, forcing her to look at him, and she saw torment in his eyes.

"Claire, I wasn't there for you this afternoon… please, let me be there for you now." He knew from her expression that she relented. It wasn't until they were in the parking garage that he put his arm around her, measuring his steps to hers as they walked through the well-lit space to her automobile. He was not accustomed to driving n city traffic, preferring the speed and reliability of his motorcycle, and took her in its direction. Claire let out a half protest, indicating she would need her car in the morning, and he assured her it would be safe overnight. "I'll bring you in tomorrow," he promised, handing her the helmet.

She had not ridden with him in awhile and contemplated at length before accepting it and sliding onto. Having forgotten the speed and adrenaline of the bike, it took her breath away as they propelled out of the garage into traffic, whizzing through the cabs that crowded the city streets. With the wind in her face, she could forget the happenings of that afternoon, the panic that crowded into her limbs when she remembered what had happened, the sensation of all the blood rushing to her head. The ride created in her the same sensation that it did in Jack, of reassurance and calm.

That despite the happenings of today, tomorrow would render it into nothing more than a memory.