This lawyer is her client’s last hope, and her town’s worst nightmare.
When a popular cheerleader winds up dead in a ditch, the case lands in defense attorney Cass Leary’s own backyard. Her niece’s boyfriend Cole is charged with first degree murder and the whole Leary family jumps to his defense. The evidence against him is as thin as the ice on Finn Lake. But an overzealous prosecutor and a rookie detective seem determined to see Cole go down for this no matter what.
Just as she’s about to crack the case, new evidence emerges that convinces Cass her client’s being framed. Cass’s dogged determination to defend him could upend the police department and ruin careers. But if she doesn’t uncover the truth, the real killer could strike again.
Can Cass bust open this conspiracy before another innocent girl dies?
First Degree is the seventh standalone book in a spine-tingling series of legal thrillers. If you like compelling courtroom dramas, strong female characters, and mind-bending plot twists, then you’ll love Robin James’s page-turning story.
Release date: November 30, 2020
Publisher: Robin James Books
Print pages: 356
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Copyright © 2020 by Robin James Books
All Rights Reserved
Nothing bad happens here. People think it. They might even say it. Only, we know it isn’t true. Sure, Delphi, Michigan is far quieter than nearby cities like Jackson or certainly Detroit. But evil finds us here too. On an unseasonably cold Labor Day weekend, it found Lauren Rice and brought her into our nightmares.
Nearly three weeks later, it was still cold. Cold enough that as I stood outside Delphi’s one and only Presbyterian Church among a group of mourners that seemed to double the population, even my wool jacket didn’t keep me warm.
“You should have worn gloves,” Eric said. He gave me a sad smile. “Come here.”
He slipped an arm around me, pulling me against his solid warmth. He was like my own personal furnace.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
Ahead of me, my brother Joe stood with his wife Katy. Katy dabbed at her eyes with a tissue she had the foresight to bring. Joe leaned down and kissed the top of her head. Standing a few yards away from them on the first step leading up to the church was their daughter, my niece Emma. No amount of tissues would have helped her.
Ashen-faced, Emma huddled with two of her classmates. Red-headed girls, sisters. I remembered seeing them huddled together like this in joy just three months ago at their High School graduation.
Emma’s boyfriend Cole towered over the three of them. He pulled Emma against him, just as Eric had done to me. She leaned on him for support, just as I had.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Katy sniffled.
“We have to,” Joe said, stoic. “For Gil.”
The funeral home doors opened, and the crowd made way as the first group of mourners came out. It meant the next group could go in. Two deputy sheriffs manned the doors to make sure the building stayed within capacity for the fire code. It was going to be a very long day.
Katy’s breath hitched. Joe closed his hand around hers. We moved.
As we made our way through the doors, I could see Gil Rice’s thick head of gray hair standing near his daughter’s closed casket. One by one, the crowd moved forward and stepped up to pay their respects.
Shellshocked parents, numb from horror and guilt. This could have been my child. Thank God this wasn’t my child.
Gil stood alone, shaking their hands, hugging them, receiving their grief as he struggled to process his own. A huge, blown-up color photo of Lauren rested on an easel beside the casket. She was beautiful, of course. Shining blue eyes and thick, straight blonde hair. She wore a Delphi High cheerleading uniform holding silver and green pom-poms at her hips as she smiled for the school photographer.
Eric put his hand on the casket, his lips moving in silent prayer. I joined him, struggling to remember the words of the Hail Mary and hoping it would help.
“Gil doesn’t believe in God anymore,” Eric had told me. “Not after he lost Julie to breast cancer.”
This was all there would be. No funeral mass. Just a small, graveside service at a tiny, non-denominational cemetery where Julie Rice had been buried just six years ago.
We made our way out of the building and joined Joe and Katy. Cole and Emma followed close behind. Emma’s face had gone purple from crying. Cole looked awful himself. He comforted her. But he didn’t know what to do.
“How close were they?” I asked Joe after we’d made our way back to the parking lot across the street. We had some time to wait before we moved into position for the cemetery procession.
“Close enough,” Joe shrugged. “I mean, obviously.”
“Eric,” Katy said. “Can you tell us anything? Have they caught the guy?”
I knew what else she meant. It’s what everyone meant. All the parents of daughters today wondered the same thing. Is he still out there? Is my child safe tonight?
“Katy,” Eric said. “You know I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation. Even if I could, it’s not my case.”
“But you’d know,” Katy said. “I know you’d know. This is Delphi.”
“I can only share what’s already been made public,” Eric said, lowering his voice. He put a light hand on Katy’s shoulder and the group of us stepped away for privacy’s sake. It didn’t really matter. Everyone here spoke in hushed whispers about the exact same thing.
Lauren Rice went missing Labor Day weekend. She’d been at a party attended by probably half of the kids at this funeral. She never came home.
“Was she... raped?” Katy said, mouthing the last word.
“She was found with... um... she was partially nude when they found her,” Eric said.
“In a ditch,” Katy sniffed.
“The drainage ditch off Lumley, yes,” Eric said.
“Did he... God. did he cut her?” Katy asked.
“Katy,” Joe said, pulling his wife away from us. He whispered in her ear. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Eric. He shook his head and lifted his hand in a dismissive gesture.
“It’s okay,” he said. “She’s just trying to make sense of it. We all are.”
“They’re good kids,” I said, knowing evil doesn’t care. But, like Katy, I was trying to process it.
“Emma was at that party?” Eric asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. Just then, Emma and Cole started walking toward us. Cole, God bless him, had managed to get my niece under control a bit. Though the color had drained from her face, she had stopped crying for now.
“A bunch of us are going to head over to Mr. Rice’s tomorrow,” Cole said. “Everyone’s bringing him food and all, but we thought maybe he’d need his lawn mowed. You know, or some work done around the house.”
“That’s a good idea,” Eric said.
“I’ll head over with you,” Joe said. “He might need my truck.”
It was at least... something they could do.
“Aunt Cass?” Emma said. Without even seeming to think about it, she moved into my arms. I smiled. Emma was eighteen years old, but she still had the same scent about her I remembered from when she was a baby. I remember my mother once told me she could have walked into any of our rooms blindfolded and known whose it was.
“What sweetie,” I asked.
“A group of us... after this is over today. We want to get together. Not a party. We just... we need a place to be. There are about twenty of us. Maybe twenty-four. There isn’t…”
“Of course,” I said, knowing what she wanted. “You’re welcome to come to my house for a while. It’s the only place big enough for all of you.”
“I’ll take care of ordering some pizzas,” Eric said. “Let you guys go on ahead and set up whatever you need.”
“We can set up some tables and chairs in the pole barn,” I said.
“I’ll go there straight from here,” Cole said. “I can grab Trace and Marcus to move everything around. We’ll stay and clean up after.”
I deposited Emma back under Cole’s arm. “Thanks,” I said. “That’ll be a big help. You know where I keep the spare key?”
Cole nodded. He’d been doing some work for me this summer under Joe’s supervision. Joe planned on teaching him how to pull the dock and winterize the boats in a few weeks. I didn’t know Cole’s whole story, but the kid found ways to stay away from his own house more and more. I was grateful for the extra pair of hands.
The funeral home doors opened. Gil Rice walked out. He wasn’t a big man to begin with, but now his suit hung off of him. He’d aged twenty years in the last two weeks. I hadn’t yet seen him cry.
“She was his whole world,” Joe said. “It was just the two of them after Julie passed. Lauren got accepted to Valparaiso on a track scholarship but wouldn’t go.”
“God,” Eric muttered. “He’ll blame himself for that. If she hadn’t…”
Eric froze beside me. Lauren’s casket came into view. Eight pallbearers struggled to keep it straight as they made their way down the stairs.
“They’re all... they’re all girls?” Katy whispered.
My brother made a choked sound. “Gil told me... God. He’s worried whoever did this to Lauren was someone she knew.”
Cold tendrils of dread curled around my heart.
Someone she knew.
There were dozens of young men in attendance. All were friends of Lauren Rice’s, and Gil Rice was terrified that one of them was responsible for putting her in that casket. He wasn’t about to take the chance and let them carry it.
“Let’s go,” Eric said, nudging me. Blinking back tears for Gil Rice, I followed Eric to his car and climbed inside. We waited in silence, watching as eight young women slid Lauren Rice’s casket into the hearse.
Word got out about Emma’s plan. Her twenty-four friends turned into roughly fifty and included many of their parents.
But the sun came out. By six o’clock in the evening, it was warmer than it had been four hours before. I leaned against the porch railing and looked out at the water.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Katy said as she walked up beside me. “I hope you never take it for granted.”
“I don’t,” I said, sipping a glass of white wine. It was only my first. I had a feeling there might be at least one more before the night was through. I’d built the home just last year following plans my great grandfather had left. The house faced west now, giving me dazzling views of each and every sunset for the rest of my life.
Some of Emma’s friends stood out on the dock. Too cold to swim, a handful of them threw poles in the water with Joe and Cole’s careful direction. Eric stayed out in the barn, making sure our pizza and pop supply never dwindled.
Emma sat on the swing near the water, leaning her head against one of her friend’s shoulders.
“I wish Gil had come,” Katy said. “It would do him good to see how these kids have come together on their own to honor his daughter.”
“He’ll see,” I said. “It won’t end just today.”
“I just can’t stop thinking about it though,” Katy said. “To throw her away in a ditch. Like she was garbage or something. You know it was those two who found her?”
I followed Katy’s finger. She pointed to two of the boys standing on the dock.
“Jake and Mitch Bradley,” Katy said. “Brothers. Mitch is only fourteen. Jake just got his driver’s license. They were part of the search party Delphi P.D. organized.”
“They were alone?” I asked.
“No,” Katy said. “One of the officers was with them. But... Cass they saw her. Her body. Face up in that ditch.”
“How awful,” I said. Just then, the smaller of the boys, Mitch I assumed, reeled in a sizable smallmouth bass.
“Sebastian,” I said.
“Huh?” Katy asked.
“Sebastian the Bass,” I said. “That’s what Jessa calls that one. He hangs out under the dock. She’s caught him a couple of times and decided he needed a name.”
Katy laughed. Mitch took the hook out of Sebastian’s mouth and threw my eight-year-old niece’s favorite fish back in the water for her to catch another day.
“I was just hoping for a little peace around here, you know?” Katy asked. “We’ve been through enough.”
I got quiet and sipped my wine. It was the closest my sister-in-law had come to mentioning some of the marital tension I knew she and my brother had experienced as of late. But Katy loved Emma in spite of their difficulties. Though Emma often bristled against it as teenagers do, Katy had stepped in and mothered her as best she could when Emma’s biological mother abandoned her. No matter what, I would always love and fight for Katy because of it.
Cole walked down for the dock toward Emma. She smiled up at him and left the swing.
“That’s getting pretty serious?” I asked.
Katy took a sip of her own wine and nodded.
“She wants to move in with him next year.”
Her words dropped like a bomb. “She’s eighteen!” I whispered. “Joe’s got to be out of his mind.”
“She’s eighteen,” Katy answered. “She wants to finish her freshman year in the dorm, then get an apartment. Joe doesn’t know yet.”
“Oh Lord,” I said. “Remind me to find a way to be out of town when that happens.”
I would have asked her for more details. But Eric came out of the barn just then. A car pulled up my driveway. Even from this distance, I could see Eric’s expression turn grave.
Katy was still talking as I stepped around her and edged closer to Eric. The car slowed to a stop, and I saw the source of his concern.
It wasn’t another guest. It was an unmarked patrol car just like the one Eric drove while on duty. Detective Megan Lewis stepped out. Katy had stopped talking, becoming frozen to her spot.
Lewis went to Eric. A muscle jumped in his jaw and I recognized the sober expression on his face. This was bad news. Very. Bad. News.
Eric nodded, receiving whatever message Lewis had to convey. He looked toward the dock.
The events of the day replayed in my mind. Gil Rice was worried one of the mourners today was his daughter’s murderer. Mitch and Jake turned, going sheet white as they saw Eric and Megan Lewis heading down the yard.
“Stay here,” I said to Katy. I raced down the steps. Emma rose from the swing.
“God,” I whispered to myself. “They’re just kids.”
Eric broke off and came to me. He took my elbow and gently pulled me aside as Megan kept walking toward the dock.
“Eric…” I started.
“They want him for questioning,” he said. “And I swear to God I didn’t know about this beforehand. I never would have been okay with her coming to your house in front of all these kids but…”
“What?” Emma shouted, her voice cracking.
Then everything made sense and broke apart at once.
Detective Lewis wasn’t here for the Bradley brothers. Cole had made it up the yard. He turned to my niece and told her everything was going to be okay. Then he followed the Detective and walked toward her car.
“Aunt Cass?” Emma shrieked.
“Cass?” Eric said.
“Right,” I answered them both. “Just let me get my coat.”
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