This chapter was originally very long, almost twice my usual chapter length, so I split it in half. The second half will be published on Saturday, so I can get back to my preferred release day!
We moved back into our newly built-and-decorated home a few months before the election was set to take place. All our mail had been redirected to Celia’s house while we had been living there, but that arrangement had been reversed about a week before moving back home. So when we first arrived, there was a huge stack of mail waiting on the table in the entryway.
The letter on top of the stack was addressed to me, and stamped with the symbol of the local council. Opening it, I found nothing election-related, as I had anticipated, but a summons for jury duty at the local courthouse in a few weeks’ time. Being passionately interested in local affairs, I had never dreaded jury duty like many of my peers but rather looked forward to it each time, especially knowing that I would likely be barred from serving on a jury once I was an official member of council. So, I cheerfully mailed my response and looked forward to doing my civic duty.
When I arrived at the courthouse on the day, I was shuffled into a waiting room with several dozen other prospective jurors and asked to wait until I was called to a courtroom. The summons came sooner than I expected, and I soon found myself seated on a panel with five others, facing the six remaining jurors on the other side of the courtroom, none of whom looked the least bit excited to be there.
A few minutes later, the door to my left opened and a professional-looking woman entered the room, who I assumed was the Defense Attorney. She was followed by another woman, around my own age or perhaps a few years younger. Dressed in red leather pants and a matching corset, with tattoos decorating both arms and her exposed back, she hardly looked the part of a lawyer. I mentally concluded that she was most likely the defendant. She was almost frighteningly thin, but clearly not from wasting away in a cell, as she was neither handcuffed nor wearing anything that resembled the garb of a prison inmate. I couldn’t get a good look at her face as she strolled past with her head held high, but there was something painfully familiar about her that I couldn’t quite place.
As she passed, the woman turned her head towards the jury and caught my eye. I stared back, my mouth hanging open as I finally realised why she looked so familar.
Her skin was paler than it had once been, and had a sickly, waxen quality to it. Her blonde hair was tangled and streaked with grime, and brown at the tips as though it had been dyed completely and allowed to grow back. Her face was sunken and without its usual layer of heavy makeup, but her eyes remained the same. Clear, sky blue – eyes inherited, like mine, from our mother.
Once Emily had taken her seat, she turned towards me and offered a subtle wink. I folded my arms and scowled back. It was bad enough that she had gotten herself in trouble – again – and was now on trial for God-knew-what, but that I should be selected of thousands of candidates to serve on this trial on this day? The odds of that happening were so miniscule that I was convinced it must have been orchestrated by the universe itself as some kind of practical joke, at a time when I was more in the public eye than I had ever been and had the most to lose as a result.
The judge, whose job it was to notice these things, did not overlook our little exchange. Addressing me, he asked, “Juror Six, is there any conflict of interest present which would prevent you from making an objective judgement in this trial?” He glanced at Emily, still watching me with a small grin on her lips. “A personal relationship with the defendant, perhaps?”
There was no sense in lying. I sat up straighter and looked at the judge as I nodded. “The defendant is my sister, Your Honour.” The woman next to me gasped quietly, but I ignored her.
A man seated on the opposite side of the room cleared his throat. “Your Honour, in light of this information, the Prosecution would like to request that Juror Six be dismissed from this case.”
The judge nodded. “Juror Six, thank you for coming. You are dismissed from duty for today.”
As disappointed as I would ordinarily have been to miss what may have been my last chance at serving on a jury, I felt nothing but relief as I stood up and exited the courthouse without a backwards glance, my heart still hammering in my chest. Walking to my car, I forgot to look where I was going and walked headlong into a young man coming from the opposite direction. “I’m so sorry!” I gasped. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
He looked at me with wide eyes and beamed. The next thing I knew, he was shaking my hand enthusiastically. “Not at all, it was totally my fault,” he said. “Diana Hunter, right? I’m Jeremy Bathorn. I’m a huge supporter of yours.”
“Supporter?” I echoed in surprise. He nodded eagerly.
“Absolutely! I love your campaign. I’m so glad you’re running for town council. We need someone we can trust to represent us ordinary folk.”
I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of me or not, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Well, I’m very pleased to meet you,” I said with a smile.
“Was that really your sister in there?” he asked curiously. “I was on the other side of the room so I couldn’t see her very well. They dismissed me right after you because I said I was sure that you could be trusted to be impartial. You seem like a trustworthy person to me. I’m sure you’re not someone who would willingly associate yourself with criminals.”
I was a little shaken, but tried not to show it. “Thank you for your confidence,” I smiled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
I conducted myself as professionally as I could manage to my car and pulled out of the parking lot, Jeremy waving excitedly in my rearview mirror. I had freed up the entire day in my schedule, so I didn’t want to go home just yet, but neither did I want to hang around the courthouse any longer. I settled for lunch at a cafe in the city and an afternoon of casual window shopping. I rarely took time for myself nowadays, and it felt good to unwind a little.
It was after dark when I passed by the big park on my way home. Not quite ready for my day of relaxation to end, I decided to stop and take a short stroll to get my chaotic thoughts in order.
The park was practically deserted at this time. I caught sight of another nighttime stroller every so often, but for the most part my walk was quiet and uninterrupted, at least at first. Then it began to rain. I started quickly for the car, but came to a sudden stop when I heard running footsteps approaching behind me and my heart started to pound. I turned to see a horribly familiar figure sprinting towards me.
And I thought I had seen the last of my sister this morning. No such luck.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her, trying to keep the accusatory tone out of my voice. “I thought you were supposed to be on trial.”
“I haven’t been convincted of anything yet,” she grinned. “For now, I’m still on bail. And the trial is over for today. I was actually going to come visit you at home, but then I noticed you here.”
I suppressed a shudder, thinking of the dramatic mess that would have ensued if she’d carried out her original plan. “So, what do you want from me?”
“Do I have to want something? What if I just wanted to see my sister?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t play innocent, Emily. You always have an ulterior motive. Cut to the chase already, I’m getting cold.”
“Fine, fine,” she said, holding her arms up defensively. “I’ll cut to the chase. Rumour has it you’re about to become pretty influencial in this town, sis.”
“No,” I said immediately. I could already see where she was going with this.
She grinned. “No need to be mod-”
“I meant, no Emily, I won’t use my political connections to bail you out of trouble.”
She scowled. “Why the hell not? I’m your sister, aren’t I?”
“So you say. But that doesn’t mean you get to walk all over me. I covered for you when we were kids, but I won’t have any part of your criminal activities. You should know that. I wouldn’t do it then, and I won’t now.”
“Don’t act like you’re better than me, Diana. Don’t you dare. You always got off on being Little Miss Perfect, but I know the truth about you. We both know you’re not who you pretend to be.”
Genuinely bemused, I simply stared at her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She was smiling now. Not a kind or loving smile, but a cold one. Cruel and calculating. “Oh yeah? How do you think the fine citizens of Starlight Shores would like to know that you got knocked up at eighteen by your delinquent boyfriend? Or that you went crazy at college and cheated on him with some guy you met at a party?”
I gasped. “How did you…?”
Her grin widened. “You have your connections, I have mine. There’s photographic evidence as well, in case you were wondering.”
My shock dissolved quickly into outrage. “Are you trying to blackmail me?”
“That depends. Do I need to? You’re forcing my hand here, Diana.” Her expression softened a little. She looked almost desperate. “I have people I need to protect, people I’ll do anything for. Surely you can understand that.”
“I can understand wanting to protect people you care about,” I conceded. Then my anger flared up again. “What I can’t understand is destroying someone else’s life, manipulating people to breaking point, just to get what you want! If I did what you’re doing, I couldn’t live with myself.” I squared my shoulders and glared at her. “Do your worst, Emily. I don’t care what you think you have on me, I won’t stoop to your level.”
“Fine.” Furious, Emily turned on her spiked heel and stalked off. “You’re making a mistake, Diana,” she called over her shoulder as she left. “You’re going to regret turning me down.”
“I doubt it,” I yelled after her. “And next time you think about playing the ‘sister card’, you know where to stick it!”
Still seething, I watched her retreating back until she was out of sight, then returned to my car and sped home. I firmly told Luc, who greeted me at the door, that I would fill him in tomorrow, and no amount of cajoling or pleading would change my mind. Eventually, defeated, he bade me goodnight with a sigh and a kiss before falling asleep with his back to me.