Two thousand one hundred and ninety one days, three hundred and twelve weeks, seventy-four agonizing full moons—the full sum of the six years since he’d been consigned to hell weighed upon A.J. Buckley. He faced the courtroom as they dangled the bait of freedom. Dressed in a new suit he hadn’t purchased which still stank of human tailors barely registered past the curtain of his isolation. Not even the presence of a dominant male wolf acting as his attorney ruffled him. He sat without comment or expression as they debated his future.
What did he care? They’d taken him out of the cage, dressed him, shackled him, and shuffled him into the heart of human justice. They should have left him alone, but even on that point he could barely bring himself to react. Ryan Huston appeared at his prison, ordered him into clothes then accompanied him to the court house. He went because he was told to do so.
When they were done, he would go back because he’d been told.
“Your Honor, the following affidavits signed and certified by the Medical Examiner, his assistant, and one crime scene tech state the police failed to properly preserve the crime scene prior to their arrival and continued to contaminate the scene during the investigation, thereby obstructing justice.” Ryan Huston touched the folder on his desk. “The expert testimony of these witnesses was certified by the prosecution during the initial trial.”
The judge was an older man with a stern visage. He flipped through the papers in front of him and glanced from Ryan to the men in suits at the opposing table. “Mr. Langfield, Mr. Huston is correct. You certified all of these witnesses as experts, which means their affidavits are also certifiable to this court.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” Mr. Langfield sounded particularly glum about the subject. The faint odors of bleach almost drowned out the sour note of his disdain, or maybe it was the lemon polish used on the wooden table and fixtures throughout the room. Both burned A.J.’s nose.
“Why wasn’t this testimony entered during the original trial, Mr. Huston?”
“The witnesses were never asked, Your Honor. Their testimony and reports were given, and only the facts of those findings were questioned, not the condition in which the evidence was collected nor the interference of the police officers on scene.”
The prosecutor hurled words into the air, but they still sounded pro forma. “Objection, Your Honor. Relies on speculation.”
“I thought these three were all involved in the processing of the scene and the body?” The judge’s inquiry was met by icy silence before the prosecutor nodded. When the jurist continued to ask questions, A.J. stopped listening. He didn’t give a damn about the squabbling over the bones of this information. What good did it do?
Ryan answered several questions, never resuming his seat. On his feet, he commanded attention. Why Toman chose this moment to send the pack’s attorney to liberate him escaped A.J.. Maybe his task wasn’t to liberate, maybe it was simply to tease. What else could his alpha do except dangle the opportunity of escape then snatch it away?
He could kill me. That action, however, would be a gift, one he didn’t think Toman would bestow upon him. He hadn’t when A.J. had been arrested. He hadn’t during the trial. He hadn’t when they’d thrown him into the cage and locked the door.
No, the alpha of Willow Bend had simply ignored him. Exile would have been kinder. Death would have been easier. Cool, creamy strawberries with a bite of chill teased his nostrils. A.J. jerked his attention from the distance to focus on the room. Like a promise of refreshment, the fruity scent stroked his senses evoking the memories of hot summer days, and a treat to escape the heat.
“Mr. Huston, are you prepared to present these witnesses to the court for cross-examination?”
“Yes, Your Honor. They are waiting outside.”
A shuffle of movement, a halting panicked breath of air and A.J. turned his head a fraction. She sat in the back of the courtroom, her wan expression too pale and sallow beneath her natural skin tone. No longer supple and lithe, she looked as though all the vitality had been drained from her. Skin stretched over her cheekbones too tautly. Her caramel eyes were large, and the pupils constricted.
The doors opened and pushed a fresh wave of her scent toward him. Hands clenching, he switched his attention to the new arrivals. Deeming none a threat, he returned to studying her. Her gaze collided with his, and awareness clanged off the hardened layers of apathy encasing his soul.
“Your Honor, in the event you throw out the evidence collected at the scene, I move for an immediate reverse of the conviction as the prosecutor never had a case to begin with.”
Another hurried discussion brought the attorneys to the judge’s bench. A.J. could hear every word they said, but very little of the subject registered. He’d ordered Vivian to not testify. Was she here for the prosecution? Would they try to force her testimony as they had the first time? Despite her steadfast refusal, the prosecutor had hammered at her on the stand. It had taken every ounce of his effort to stay in his seat.
He’d wanted to savage them all—more so when they’d arrested her. The image of her being taken from the room in handcuffs had been burned into his brain.
“You’re growling,” Ryan said, his voice too soft for most ears. “Stop.”
Closing his eyes briefly, he swallowed the sound. When he opened them again, Vivian was gone leaving only the faint hint of her scent.