The stack of photographs slipped to the floor, splaying across the wood planks like wildflowers over a grassy meadow. Her hands trembled as tears flowed down her cheeks. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening.
Yet the pictures proved otherwise. This was real, very real. Her knees weakened. She slumped into the leather chair behind the desk. Even the familiar whoosh couldn’t comfort her now. The proof of his betrayal assaulted her. On the floor. On the desk. In her hand.
Photographs of him in another woman’s arms. How could he do this to them, his family? To her? Surely he knew this would destroy them, but he cheated anyway. She didn’t understand. Did they mean so little to him?
Her heart ached in a way she never thought possible. Like someone shredded her insides. Another sob escaped her clenched lips. It bounced off the walls and rattled her ears. She never imagined betrayal like this would hurt so badly. So deeply.
She held her head in her hands, her elbows digging into the unyielding wood of the desk. Her lungs fought to push air in and out. Her legs wouldn’t stop quaking.
The morning sun beat past the curtains and flooded the loft with light. How dare such a symbol of joy invade when her entire life had just been destroyed?
Swallowing against a dry mouth, she bit her bottom lip and stared at the photographs. All of a sudden, she felt physically ill. This would destroy not only their family, but his career. His future. Was that why the pictures were taken?
Her heart slammed against her ribs as another thought raced through her mind . . . Why were the pictures here? Everything in her didn’t want to believe what stared her right in the face. But there was no other explanation. The photos were here . . . for what? Money? A favor?
Bile burned the back of her throat. This was all wrong. Everything.
Her mind struggled to comprehend. She’d let him into the family. Trusted him. Thought she loved him and he loved her. Apparently, she was wrong.
The pictures mocked her from all sides. This was her fault. She didn’t have a choice now—she’d have to confront him and hear his excuse, not that she’d believe any lie he told. She’d destroy the photographs, all of them, and demand the negatives. Then she’d shut him out of their lives forever, even though it would kill her.
Her legs barely supported the weight of her decision as she ran for the bathroom.
Two Weeks Ago
“We call Ms. Madeline Baxter to the stand.” Maddie wiped her hands on her skirt and stood. She’d testified at various trials over the years, but never one like this. Only a handful of people sat in the stuffy courtroom, the heat turned too high. She took the oath to tell the truth amid little fanfare before taking her seat in the witness stand.
She glanced over the few people sitting on the very hard, very uncomfortable pews. The judge had closed the hearing to the media, but the hounds waited just outside the oversized doors of the Shelby County Courthouse. Those allowed inside were legal figures, police, family members, and of course, the defendant.
“Ms. Baxter, will you please state your name and occupation for the court record?”
She leaned forward to the microphone. “Madeline Baxter. I’m a forensic scientist specializing in serology and DNA.”
“And you are currently employed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, correct?”
Maddie licked her lips. “In the Forensic Services Division, yes.”
The defense attorney shuffled through pages on the legal pad he held. “Can you tell us a little about your professional back- ground and qualifications, Ms. Baxter?”
Standard questions, but for the first time in her career, she felt like she was in the hot seat. “I hold a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, as well as one in forensic science from the University of Tennessee. I graduated magna cum laude ten years ago and have been working for the TBI ever since. As such, I am a commissioned law-enforcement officer.”
“Would you be described as an expert in your field, Ms. Baxter?”
They always asked the same question, just worded in various ways. Getting it on the record. “Yes.”
“And the lab where you conduct your tests . . . is it accredited?” “The TBI forensic lab is accredited by the American Society
of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.”
“Good.” The lawyer paused for effect, Maddie was sure, returning to the table where the defendant sat, back straight and shoulders squared. “Now, Ms. Baxter, I’d like to direct you to a recent DNA test you conducted at the request of my office, regarding the defendant, Mr. Mark Hubble.”
And here we go. Maddie licked her lips again. “Yes.” “You recall performing this test?”
“Can you give the court a brief overview for the record?”
“Our lab was supplied a saliva sample taken nine years ago from a crime scene involving a sexual assault. The sample was well preserved. I initially made tests, presumptive tests, for the presence of blood, which is ortho-tolidine. I utilized hydrogen peroxide as the tests reagents. I conducted testing for acid phos- phatase, testing for P30 protein and for amylase, which is an enzyme found in saliva in high concentrations.”
“Go on.” The attorney nodded, as if he understood every- thing she said. He didn’t. Most people didn’t. All they wanted to know was what she would testify to next.
“We were also supplied, by the Shelby County Sheriff ’s Office, a saliva sample of the defendant.”
“And you ran these same tests on that sample?” “I did.”
The lawyer paced slowly in front of the courtroom, paused, then moved beside her. “And you compared the two results?”
“And what was your conclusion?”
Maddie sat up straighter. “That Mr. Hubble is excluded as a match for the saliva sample.”
The attorney smiled as he faced her. “So, in your expert opinion, Ms. Baxter, the tests you ran on the samples concluded the samples were from a different person, right?”
She nodded, then remembered she was in court. “Yes.”
“Are you positive?”
“Yes. Science doesn’t lie.”
The defense attorney smiled broadly. “Thank you, Ms.Baxter.” He grinned at the judge. “I have no further questions, Your Honor.”
The judge glanced at the opposing table. The prosecutor jumped to his feet. “We have no questions, Your Honor.”
“You may step down.” The judge excused her.