Excerpt

The Two Lila Bennetts

Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Two Lila Bennetts, the anticipated new thriller from Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke (Girls’ Night Out, The Good Widow). When Lila Bennett is taken hostage and forced to recall all her misdeeds, her life splits in two: in one reality, she escapes her capturer and is on the run, while in another she must account for a lifetime of wrongdoing.

Monday

“On the count of murder in the first degree, we find the defendant, Jeremiah Taylor, not guilty,” a slender woman says softly. I know her only as juror number eight—but she looks like a Gwendolyn to me, and based on her age, I imagine her to be someone’s grandmother, baking heart-shaped sugar cookies when she’s not reading a verdict in a murder trial. Her silver hair is pulled into a bun, her reading glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. She fidgets with them as she waits for the judge to respond, and I wonder if she doesn’t agree, if she voted to convict initially and was eventually swayed by another juror—number ten, most likely, his strong chin and confident stature probably giving him power in the jury room. I caught him watching me while the first officer on the scene testified. Juror ten stared right into my eyes. I held his gaze for a long moment before turning back and pulling out the jury sheet, making a small mark near his number. At that point, I calculated ten voting not guilty.

I can picture the bottle of red I’ll open tonight—ironically called the Prisoner. It’s waiting for me in the wine fridge. The plump red blend from Napa is a post-court case-win ritual. The first glass will give me a subtle buzz. The second will settle me. And if I allow myself glass number three—actually, scratch that, when I allow myself glass number three, because who am I kidding, it’s two fifteen, and I’m already thinking about it—I’ll get all warm and fuzzy inside and probably break into some Scotchmallows from See’s Candies. Around glass four I’ll be sure to text someone something regrettable that will likely involve some dumb emoji no one uses anymore, like the dancing woman in the red dress, which is highly underrated, if you ask me. She’s in a red dress! She’s dancing! So many different ways that one can be interpreted. But most important, as I reach the bottom of the bottle, I’ll forget how it feels to be Lila Bennett at this moment.

Despite my better judgment, I look for Stephanie in the courtroom. She’s wiping tears from her dark-green eyes and hugging her mother. She looks up, maybe sensing me, and locks her stare onto mine. We remain there for what feels like a minute. Me, expressionless. Her, scowling. It’s because she hates me. And I don’t blame her. I would probably hate me too. In her mind I helped her dead sister’s husband get away with murder.

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And it’s possible I did. But it’s not my job to know the truth; it’s my duty to give my clients the defense they are legally entitled to. In my mind I see my husband rolling his dark-brown eyes, his thick brows raised in mockery. Because Ethan knows that’s not necessarily how I really feel. That’s my dinner party shtick. But behind closed doors, in my weaker, Prisoner-inspired moments, I have confessed that oftentimes my gut knows the difference. But Ethan says there’s no way I could know if they are lying. That I have to believe them if I represent them. Oh, how I love that he doesn’t judge me. That he can look away from my flaws when I need him to, much in the same way I do for my clients.

Stephanie grabs her mother’s hand, and they storm out of the courtroom. At the same moment, Jeremiah grabs me and hugs me hard, picking me up off the floor in the process. He whispers “Thank you” in my ear before he is escorted out of the courtroom.

Oh, how I love that he doesn’t judge me. That he can look away from my flaws when I need him to, much in the same way I do for my clients.

Call me Jerry, Jer, shit, call me anything as long as you get me off, he said when we first met: him out on bail, having fired his first attorney because he was an idiot—his words, not mine—cruising into my office in downtown Los Angeles as if he were picking me up for lunch instead of attempting to hire me to defend him for murder. He doesn’t look like someone who could kill, but my clientele often doesn’t. They are distinguished, rich, powerful, their slick suits and expensive ties or couture dresses and Louboutins distractions from the anger dancing in their pupils—if you look close enough to see it. Jeremiah’s lips part slightly as he pushes his blond hair away from his eyes before shaking my hand vigorously. I wonder if he is like many of the others—a sociopath who charmed his way through life all while hiding his cruel, unstable, and often dangerous side from the outside world.

I make my way out of the courtroom and into the hallway, my assistant, Chase, squeezing my arm, his silent way of saying, You did it again. I can’t help but think of Jeremiah’s wife. I should call her by her name—Vivian—although it’s often easier when I don’t. When I imagine the victims simply as the deceased. Because, dammit, the bad guys never get murdered. It’s always good people—like Vivian—who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or in her case, the right place at the wrong time. She’d come home early from her yoga class and stumbled upon an intruder. The prosecution argued that Jeremiah killed her in cold blood, then staged the scene to look like it had been a burglary in progress. In the end, because of a lack of evidence—no murder weapon and no eyewitnesses—they couldn’t convict. I won. But as I push the doors open to exit the building and squint into the glaring afternoon sun, that little voice inside me whispers, Did you really win, Lila?

I slide my sunglasses on, blow my bangs out of my eyes, and vow to get a haircut this week, my hair an inch too long, covering my shoulder blades and probably making me appear more like a collegiate than a professional. And I already look younger than my thirty-eight years, am still carded regularly. Often given a once-over when a client first sees me in person. Their expression is always the same—Aren’t you a little young to be representing me? But my track record speaks for itself. I’ve won far more cases than I’ve lost. I have a reputation for being a ballbuster in the courtroom. My clients almost always walk away as free men or women, their burdens lifted off their shoulders, transferred slightly onto mine.

“You!”

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I swivel my head in the direction of Stephanie’s voice. I take a deep breath and brace myself. She’s storming toward me, her ankles wobbling slightly in her heels. But still, she doesn’t slow. In fact, she increases her momentum as if she plans to run me down.

Chase tries to pull me away, but I stop him. “No, it’s okay. I’m going to let her say whatever she has to say.” He gives me a concerned look, but I shake my head. “I’ve got this.”

But whether I really do or not remains to be seen. My heart is pounding. I hate confrontation. And I know how that sounds—a defense attorney who doesn’t like conflict? I can hear all the bad jokes now. In the courtroom I feel protected, like the law is my shield. But now, as Stephanie points her finger at me, her nostrils flaring, I feel much smaller than my five-foot-seven frame.

“How are you going to live with yourself? You know he did it. You know he killed her.” Stephanie’s voice is shaking slightly. Her eyes are swollen, and she’s biting her lower lip as if to keep from crying. I almost reach out to touch her arm, to console her, but I know that would be ludicrous. “What? Nothing to say? You had plenty to spew in there.” She points to the courthouse. “Character witnesses testifying to what a good guy Jeremiah is—how he donates to charities, volunteers his time.” She laughs, a high-pitched, clipped sound. “It’s all an act. Don’t you get it? He’s a monster, a murderer!” she screams. “And my sister is never coming back.” I do get it, I want to say. I do understand that he probably hides who he really is. But if he murdered your sister, he didn’t make any mistakes in the process. He crossed every t, he dotted every i. She was killed in her own home, so his fingerprints were everywhere—because he lived there. Not because he killed her. The fact that he was arrested and charged still shocks me, as the DA didn’t have anything more than circumstantial evidence at best. But Jeremiah didn’t have an alibi that could be corroborated—he said he’d left a meeting at 6:45 p.m. that multiple people from his staff confirmed had happened. But he couldn’t prove what time he’d arrived home. He said it was after eight o’clock. That he’d stopped to watch the sunset, as he’d been known to do before continuing to his house. This means he wasn’t at home at the time of the murder. But no one saw him watching the sun disappear into the Pacific Ocean, and no one had seen him pull into his driveway at the time he claimed. There was also the domestic dispute three months before her death when Vivian had called the police. The DA had ballooned it into a much bigger story than it was. But it still wasn’t enough to get him convicted. Even juror number eight probably knew it.

My clients almost always walk away as free men or women, their burdens lifted off their shoulders, transferred slightly onto mine.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I finally say and immediately regret it. Ethan will have a field day with this when I tell him—You said what to her?

“You’re sorry for my loss? That’s the best you can do?” Stephanie scoffs as if reading my mind, and the tears she’s been trying to hold back finally escape.

“Yes, I am,” I repeat. Because it’s true. Vivian was young—only thirty-three. No kids, but according to her sister she had wanted them. I pause and consider my next words. “He was entitled to a defense.”

“You didn’t have to take the case. You didn’t have to be the one to defend him.”

She was right. I could have said no. But as I’d listened to him paint a picture of Vivian, a loving wife, but one who struggled with depression, he had no idea I understood that scenario better than anyone could have known. He claimed she’d taken Lexapro and Zoloft and had an affinity for Vicodin. A marriage that wasn’t perfect but that was solid. He said he had spent his life trying to make her happy. He told me he wouldn’t have hurt a hair on her head. And he’d explained away the domestic dispute. Said she had been loaded. And later, when I’d looked at the police report, it was true that she’d been acting drugged. Jeremiah had been completely sober. He cried as he talked about finding her bludgeoned to death. And there were things missing—valuable things. It could have been a break-in. I decided to take the case because maybe this was an innocent man. Maybe he didn’t do it. There was enough doubt for me to say yes. And if I’m being completely honest, the money swayed me too. I knew a case like this would be several months of work. Jeremiah runs a hedge fund and would pay for any legal necessities to make sure he wasn’t convicted.

“I’m sorry, but I have to go.” I turn to look for my Uber that will take me back to the office—only a couple of miles away—when I feel her hand on my arm. I pull away from her grip and turn to face her. I decide to swallow the comment I want to make, Get your hands off me, and let her take one more dig. Then I really am leaving.

“Karma’s a bitch, and I have no doubt you’ll get yours.”

Stephanie’s eyes are steely, and I feel a chill. I try to shake it off, pull my shoulder blades down my back, and walk away with as much dignity as I can muster. It’s not the first time I’ve been threatened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. As we make our way toward the waiting Uber, Chase is reeling off the messages I’ve received while in court as if I weren’t just basically told I was going to hell. A high-profile lawyer has been arrested for manslaughter, and he wants to meet with me. On to the next case, it seems. But as we’re rounding the corner, I feel the urge to look back. Stephanie hasn’t moved. She’s still glaring at me with her arms folded across her chest.

The cold spike shoots through me again, and this time I have a harder time shaking it away.

The cold spike shoots through me again, and this time I have a harder time shaking it away.

My phone rings, breaking the moment. I exhale when I see Ethan’s name on the screen. “I’m going to take this,” I say to Chase, who nods and taps his phone, indicating he’ll call the Uber for us.

“Congrats,” Ethan says when I answer.

I’m trying to decide how to respond when he adds, “I know this was a tough one for you.”

“It was,” I agree as we pass a homeless man with a red scarf, rooting around in a trash bin. I pause and take in the shopping cart that most likely holds his every possession, and it shifts my perspective, albeit momentarily. There are people with much bigger problems than me.

A black Lexus pulls up to the curb, and Chase motions for us to get in.

“You okay?” Ethan asks, his voice warm and soothing, and I find myself leaning into the phone, wanting to be closer.

“Yes,” I say reflexively. I always do that. Say I’m fine when I’m not. Ethan once joked that if I’d had a limb chopped off and you asked me how I was, I’d answer that I was okay. Would he know this was one of those times? When I wasn’t fine at all?

“That’s good,” he says, and I exhale. “You got a second? I need to talk to you about something.”

I straighten my back against the seat, unable to recall the last time Ethan called me in the middle of the day to tell me something. I rub the base of my neck with my free hand.

“What is it?” I ask as the Uber pulls up to a stoplight. I can see the tip of my office building peeking out several blocks up, the sun reflecting off the windows.

“I did something. Something big!”

“What?” I ask, and sit up straighter in my seat. Chase glances at me, and I mouth, Ethan.

“You know those community work spaces where you can rent a cubicle? Remember, I showed you one on my friend’s Instagram page?”

I nod even though he can’t see me.

“I rented one. I’m getting out of this house, out of my joggers.” He laughs nervously. “And I’m finally going to write that second goddamn book that I know I have in me.”

My body tingles at the news. I hear my husband’s voice for the first time in a long while. The man I married. The novelist. With motivation. Confidence. And I realize how much I’ve missed him. The man I fell in love with. Stephanie’s accusations blare in my mind again, and I push them away. Ethan calling me to tell me this right after I won a case I don’t feel good about, right after the victim’s sister screamed at me and said so many of the things I was already thinking, feels like a sign. I need to redirect. I need to give my marriage the attention it so desperately needs and my husband the love he deserves.

“Lila?”

“Sorry,” I say, realizing I drifted off. “I’m so happy for you, Ethan. This is the best news.”

“I feel really good about it,” he says, and I can hear the smile in his voice. “And I’m sorry I’ve been so down for so long. I know I’ve also pulled you down with me.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him. Because I’ve made worse mistakes. The only difference? He doesn’t know about mine.

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From THE TWO LILA BENNETTS. Used with the permission of the publisher, Lake Union Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke.




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