Reprieve

"I just wish there was some way out of it," Jeff said, wearily.

"Wishing's got nothing to do with it," Diz shot back, with characteristic bluntness. "Paine's got to be tried, and you've got to testify against him. There's no case if you don't."

"But everyone heard him confess!"

"Doesn't matter." Diz shrugged. "The lawyers'll get it thrown out somehow. It all comes down to you getting on that stand and swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and all the rest of it."

He had his mouth open to say more when Clarissa gave him a glance that shut it. She went to Jeff, where he stood leaning against his desk, and laid a hand on his arm. He looked down at her, but his face did not brighten as it usually did when she was near. His eyes were miserable.

"Jeff, I know you don't want to do this," she began gently, "but—"

"I would if it were me," Diz muttered.

"You don't understand," Jeff broke in, gazing helplessly from one to the other of them. "You can't understand. Paine is—" He started to pace, running a hand through his hair. "I looked up to him all my life. I . . . my father loved him like a brother. How can I . . ." His voice trailed off.

"Jeff, Paine isn't the same man he used to be! If anyone in the world knows that, you do!" Even while she ached for him, Clarissa couldn't keep the edge of frustration out of her voice. She wished he wouldn't stand there with that look in his eyes. Only Jeff could feel such anguish over a man who wasn't fit to clean his shoes, she thought, exasperated. All the things she loved in her fiancé were the very things that could make him so difficult to deal with.

The telephone rang sharply, making all three of them jump. Clarissa reached for it. "Senator Smith's office. Yes. Yes, he . . . what?" Her eyes widened. "Are you sure?"

The two men watched her curiously as she listened again, spoke a few more hurried words, and set the phone back down. Her face was filled with excitement as she swung around to face Jeff.

"Paine will plead guilty. You don't have to testify."

Jeff gaped at her. "What—Clare, are you serious? He—but—why . . . ?"

Clarissa shook her head. "He hasn't said why. Just said that he's going to do it." Her eyes softened as she watched Jeff's face. "But . . . I think maybe we can guess why."

Jeff passed a hand over his eyes. His voice, when it came, was husky. "I—excuse me just a minute," he blurted, and almost ran for the hallway.

Clarissa took a quick step after him, then stopped. Instinct told her that even she would be in the way right now.

Diz, having heaved himself up from his lounging posture, sat blinking dazedly. "Well, I'll be . . . what the devil got into Paine?"

"Maybe I was wrong," Clarissa said softly, still looking after Jeff. "Maybe—just for a minute—Paine was the man he used to be."