The next day, sitting in the courtroom, acute cramps gripped Melanie’s stomach, but she fought to block out the pain as she scanned the jurors, searching for signs of how each was leaning regarding the verdict. Don Foster nervously held his fingers to his mouth while the assistant district attorney continued his closing statement.
“Not one, but several separate fires were set at Foster Fire Arms. Now, in some cases, one fire can be an accident, but not several.” The prosecutor in his black suit and red tie fixed his blue-eyed gaze steadily on the jurors. “Somebody set these fires. Now, Don Foster told us that he locked up the shop before he left work that Saturday night at 9pm.” Mr. Ogg paced back and forth in front of the jury. “But there were no signs of forced entry. So, we know the arsonist had a key. However, only one person,” Richard Ogg held up a finger, “on the face of the earth had a key to Foster Firearms.” He pivoted toward where Don sat beside Melanie and pointed to him. “The accused, Don Foster.”
Melanie touched her stomach as she watched the prosecutor. The pain was almost unbearable, but she had to deal with it. She came here to deliver her closing statement and do her best to win the case for Don and Jessica and that was what she was going to do.
Pacing again, Mr. Ogg said, “Now, the prosecution has submitted some theory to you that cans started the fires. Cans of cleaner… gun cleaner? They also mentioned one of those little portable heaters that lots of people have. And the defense showed you a video of cans exploding.” He stopped and looked a few of the jurors directly in the eyes, one by one. “If you don’t know how many videos there are of events that might happen or have never happened, just spend thirty minutes on YouTube.” He rolled his eyes and went back to pacing. “The defense presents you with theories. I present you with facts. This fire wasn’t caused by cans. No.” He shook his head at the jury.
“A person intentionally lit the fires that burned down Foster Firearms. And, we only have one suspect.” Mr. Ogg‘s tone was edged with authority and confidence. “No one else could have set those fires.” He held up a finger again. “Only one person had a key to the shop.” He then turned to Don and pointed to him once more. “And that person is the defendant.” The prosecutor stepped closer to the juror box. “There is no doubt that Don Foster is guilty of arson in the first degree.” Richard Ogg paused, then nodded to the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time.”
Melanie steadied herself as she rose to her feet. The cramping was relentless, but this wasn’t the time to get sick. It was her last opportunity to prove Don’s innocence. She rose above her agony, held her head high, and calmly stepped up to the jury box.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the district attorney hasn’t presented one piece of evidence that shows Don Foster was even present when the fire started. Because there is no such evidence. It doesn’t exist. Don Foster was at home with his wife, in bed, sound asleep when the fire ignited. He didn’t even know there was a fire at that time. He wasn’t aware his gun shop was burning down until he was awakened by a phone call from the Shelby Fire Department telling him that. The men and women of the fire department and a few people driving by the shop late at night knew the shop was on fire before he did.” Melanie maintained a clear, pleasant, and persuasive tone. “Did Don Foster, a man who didn’t even know about the fire, set the fire?” She slowly shook her head. “That’s highly doubtful.” She paused to convey total disbelief of Don’s guilt in the expression on her face, meeting the gaze of each juror, eye to eye.
Though the cramps grew more severe, Melanie fought to push the pain out of her mind. Her body was inclined to bend over and crumple to the floor, but she forced herself to stand tall as she paced in front of the jury box. “Furthermore, the assistant district attorney didn’t present any motive explaining why Don Foster would destroy his only means of livelihood. I have shown that Don Foster didn’t have any pending financial problems. Nor did he increase the insurance coverage on the shop. He has no history of arson. He has no criminal record of any kind. Why would he burn anything down? Much less his only means of supporting his family. Moreover, Foster Firearms was his father’s legacy. The shop Don Foster’s father built. The shop Don Foster worked in as a child. A place he grew up in that held fond memories of his father, who passed on just a year ago. Of all the buildings in the world, the gun shop has to be the most important one to Don Foster. Would he burn it down without any reason? It’s extremely doubtful.” She paused as she flashed a this-makes-no-sense expression at the jurors.
The next pain was so sharp she almost cried out. Instead, she briskly turned her back to the jury, so they could not see her expression and mistake the agony for anxiety about the case. She pushed herself to walk to the defense table. There she picked up a photograph, and once the acute pang passed, she turned back to the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard and seen the video I showed you and the testimony of the Shelby Fire Chief,” she said as she stepped to the jury box, holding up the photo of the charred and burned coil space heater admitted as evidence. Then she set it back on the table and walked toward the jurors holding a picture of the aerosol gun cleaner cans scattered over the burned shop. She showed it to the jury as she paced back and forth, making sure they all saw it. “A plug-in space heater and cans of gun cleaner are the real culprits. A fire started by a space heater that in turn ignited cans of gun cleaner to start several smaller fires is not arson. It’s an accident. Is Don Foster guilty of arson? It’s altogether doubtful. In every way.
“In fact, common sense tells anyone looking at this case that the charges are ridiculous. Has the district attorney presented any evidence showing Don Foster definitely, beyond any reasonable doubt, started the fire?” Melanie paused, giving each juror a chance to silently answer no.
“The only explanation the prosecution’s given for the fire is Don Foster was the only person with a key to the shop and there was no forced entry. When did having a key to a business you owned make you guilty of arson?” The jurors’ gazes were riveted on her as she continued. “The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, who presented zero evidence supporting Don Foster’s guilt. And if you have any doubt at all that he is guilty of arson in the first degree, you must acquit Don Foster.” She smiled sweetly at the jurors as she added, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time and your service.”
Melanie stepped back to the table and whispered in Don’s ear, “I think it went well. Now, all we can do is wait.” Her cramping stomach was killing her.
She did her best to appear like she felt fine as the judge gave instructions to the jury. “You will now come to a decision based only on the facts presented, not your feelings. In addition, you must all agree on a verdict of guilty or not guilty.”
The twelve citizens stood and filed into the jury room to deliberate.
The moment Jessica stepped up to Don, he stood and embraced her as he said, “I think we might win.”
“I hope so,” Jessica said, before turning to Melanie and adding, “You were so good.”
“Thank you. But there is no telling how long the jury might take. For now, you can hang around the lobby area or in here.” Melanie felt like she’d wet herself when she stood. She stiffened for a moment, embarrassed, but mostly baffled about what was happening to her. “I feel sick. I’ll be right back,” she said.
She dashed out of the courtroom, down the hall, and into the ladies’ room. In the stall, she felt even sicker when she saw the wetness was blood. Lots of blood.
Her thoughts spun. Something’s wrong. Some women bleed while pregnant. I’ve heard that before, I’m sure of it. The baby is fine. My baby has to be fine.
Melanie felt weak, had acute stomach pains, and couldn’t stop bleeding. So, she wasn’t ready to leave the commode, but it seemed like she’d sat there for hours.
“Mrs. Fitzgerald? Melanie, are you in here?”
She recognized Jessica Foster’s voice. “I’m okay but I’m bleeding, badly.”
“What? You’ve been in here for thirty minutes. Let me call the ambulance. You need to go to the hospital,” Jessica said.
“Only if the verdict won’t be soon. What did the judge say?”
“That’s what I came to tell you. The jury is coming in now,” Jessica replied.
“No, I have to be there for the verdict. I am going in there no matter what,” Melanie said with firm finality.
“How long does it take to read a verdict?” Jessica asked.
“Okay then, I’ll help you get back to the courtroom. I have two maxi pads in my purse and there’s a machine here. I can get you two more from it.”
“Yes, I think that will work,” Melanie said.
Jessica handed her four sanitary pads under the bathroom stall door. “I have to make a quick phone call. I’ll be right back.”
Melanie stood. The coppery stench of the blood made her stomach turn. At least for the moment, the pads were working. She opened the door just as Jessica came back. Feeling lightheaded, Melanie staggered.
Jessica dashed to Melanie’s side and threw her arm around her shoulders. “You can’t walk like that. Lean on me.”
“I don’t want to look weak,” she said.
“Nonsense. We’ll just look like we’re walking in together. Like you are supporting me, helping me through the reading of the verdict.” Jessica walked her back to the courtroom and to the table, where she sat beside Don just as the jury filed into their seats.
“Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” the judge asked.
The jury spokesman, a gray-haired white man, stood and looked at the judge. “We have, Your Honor.”
“Defendant and defense counsel stand,” the judge said.
Melanie stood beside Don Foster, breathlessly waiting, hoping it was good news.
“Members of the jury, what is the verdict in the case of Alabama vs Foster?” the judge asked.
The man cleared his throat, then said, “Your Honor, we find the defendant not guilty.”
“Members of the jury,” the judge craned his neck toward the twelve citizens, “this Court dismisses you and thanks you for a job well done.”
Melanie exhaled, and Don let out a cry of relief. Jessica rushed up to him. Their eyes shined, smiles spread across their faces, and they embraced. Then, the couple opened their arms and pulled Melanie into a group hug.
They both told her thank you, over and over again.
“It’s what I do.” She flashed a huge smile at Don and said, “You’re free.”
The door to the courtroom was thrown open, and paramedics rushed in carrying a stretcher.
Jessica gestured to them. ”Over here.” She grabbed Melanie’s hand. “I called an ambulance.”
The judge banged his gavel several times “Order, order in my courtroom,” he said in a stern voice.
Everyone quieted except the EMTs, who were busy getting Melanie secured on the stretcher and asking basic assessment questions.
“This court is adjourned,” the judge announced as Melanie was carried out of the courtroom.
Lying flat on her back, she rode the elevator to the ground floor and into the ambulance, with the siren squealing all the way, to USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital.
* * *
Melanie took her feet out of the stirrups, scooted back on the examination table, and sat up.
The doctor slipped the stethoscope back around his neck. “I’m so sorry,” he said in a soothing, empathetic tone. “There is no infant heartbeat.”
Melanie was hit by a sensation of ice spreading through her stomach. The doctor was talking to her, but she couldn’t focus. She heard, “admitting you, heavy bleeding, watch for infection, possible D & C.” None of it meant anything to her.
“There’s a phone in your room if there’s someone you need to call.”
The doctor’s last words seemed to reactivate Melanie’s brain.
“Jeremiah, my husband.” She grabbed the doctor’s hand to get his full attention. “Please, don’t tell him. He doesn’t know. He can’t know I’m pregnant.”
“Mrs. Fitzgerald, you’re not pregnant anymore. It’s important you understand that you just had a miscarriage.”
“That’s what you said. But, how? There was a lot of blood, but I didn’t see anything else. No embryo or fetus…nothing like that.”
“Blood is what most people see. You might see some tissue, but it’s a slow process. It takes hours for everything to try to pass through and even then, we might have to do a D & C. But I’m more concerned with your mental state right now. “
“Really I’m fine. I’m just bleeding.”
“Mrs. Fitzgerald, after a miscarriage, women go through several stages of grief. Denial is just one. I’ll maintain your right to privacy, but I strongly advise you speak to your husband about what has happened. At a time like this, you need your family’s support, especially your spouse’s. The emotional impact of a loss like this takes much longer to recover from than the physical condition.”
“Thank you, doctor, for your advice. But I can’t. I really can’t.”
“It’s up to you.” He stepped back. “The nurses will come in and wheel you to your room. And you have some visitors who can help you settle in.”
The doctor left, and Don walked in, grinning and holding a bouquet of get-well balloons with Jessica at his side, also smiling and carrying a huge floral arrangement.
The sweet, fresh scents of roses, lavender, asters, and mini sunflowers chased away the acidic stench of all that blood as well as the ammonia odor of the hospital.
“The doc said you’re going to be all right,” Don said.
“We hope you’re back on your feet and right as rain in no time,” Jessica added.
The smiles on their faces, brighter than the flowers, were contagious. Melanie felt a surge of energy. “I’m so glad you came. We won the case. That means we have some celebrating to do. I guess a hospital room is as good a place as any.”
Jessica turned to her husband. “You know what we need for a top-notch celebration party? Lots of chocolate from the gift shop.”
“I’m on my way.” He handed Melanie the bouquet of balloons and took off on his mission.
Jessica’s eyes gleamed with amusement as she set the flowers down on a cabinet. “Did you see how red that judge’s face got, when the paramedics burst into his courtroom and ignored all his gavel banging?”
Melanie threw back her head as laughter rippled through her. She deserved it after a hell of a day. Winning a case and losing a baby at the same moment. She had to laugh while she could. Who knew what tomorrow had in store?
After three days in the hospital, Melanie was achy and hurting. She also felt numb due to the D & C she’d just had. But she no longer felt lonely or abandoned. Her husband was there.
“How do you feel?” Jeremiah helped her out of the wheelchair and into the hospital bed.
She sighed. “The procedure was a lot more painful and …violent than I expected.” He never asked what happened and she knew the staff hadn’t said a word. Then again, he was a doctor. Surely, he’d guessed what had happened.
“I can prescribe you something for the pain if they haven’t.” From her first day in the hospital, he’d spent every day with her. But at night the nurses made him leave after visiting hours.
“The combination of pain pills and hospital food isn’t good for my stomach.” Though she didn’t have much of an appetite. Angry one minute, guilt-ridden the next, blaming herself for the miscarriage, she’d spent the last two nights crying.
Jeremiah scooted the armchair closer to the bed, sat, then reached out and took her hand in his. “If you’re in pain, I’m in pain. I can’t let anything happen to you.”
“What I really need is Ava.” A little voice in her head kept saying she’d worked too hard on the trial. And had never even taken the trouble to go to an obstetrician while she was pregnant. Of course, she was planning to, at least she was before the miscarriage. Still, she felt she’d let the baby down. She was going to make sure she didn’t let Ava down. “I really miss Ava.” Melanie had to see her, let her know she was here for her, even if she was in the hospital.
“I’ll bring her tomorrow. Your parents and Kelsey said they’re coming back tomorrow also.”
“And you?” she asked. Jeremiah’s main interest nowadays seemed to be spending time with her. He’d changed back to the man she’d first fallen in love with, though with a receding hairline, some extra pounds, and a few more lines showing in his face.
“Of course, I’ll be here.”
“How can you stay with me all day? Don’t you have hospital emergencies back in Shelby?” Would he be here if he knew about the baby?
“There are other doctors on call. You’re my emergency now.”
She felt tears form in her eyes, and her throat choked up a bit as she said, “It means so much to have you with me through all of this.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Melanie. I love you. I’m so sorry I haven’t always shown it. I know I took you for granted. Can you forgive me?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks as his words melted her heart. “Oh, Jeremiah.” She reached out to him.
He stood, bent over and wrapped his arms around her as he planted a warm, tender kiss on her open lips.
A sensation of blissful warmth and love rippled through her.
* * *
Melanie merged from the highway onto the three-mile-long bridge to Dauphin Island. Seagulls soared overhead in a sky painted with lavender, orange, and yellow streamers of light. Turning onto Bienville Boulevard, she drove to the west end. She pulled up in front of a duck egg-green cottage on stilts that overlooked a jewel-tone ocean and bisque-white sand dunes.
Caleb had reached out to her once in the hospital. He didn’t know about the miscarriage. He thought she was there for an abortion. After she went home and back to work, she replied to some of his texts and mentioned breaking it off, but having a final goodbye. She needed closure. He probably did too.
A couple of days ago, he texted her a picture of the beach house he was renting for his family Memorial weekend, the perfect place to say farewell. He asked her to come Thursday when he had it all to himself.
Caleb stood outside on the sand, waiting for her, dressed in an unbuttoned polo shirt exposing his chiseled chest and cutoff jeans showing off his long, muscular legs.
Melanie stepped out of the car, and he drew her into his warm, bracing arms. He pressed his lips to hers. She quivered at the tenderness of his kiss.
“Let’s go to the pier in the back.” His deep velvet-edged voice sent a hot shiver through her.
Caleb draped his arm around her. Melanie’s shoulders tingled. She slipped off her shoes to feel the soft sand between her toes as she walked with him toward the sea.
They dropped down to sit on the end of a rustic pier, dangling their bare feet just inches above white foamed waves that lapped against the legs of the pier in a soothing rhythm. That, and the hypnotic roar of the surf lulled her into a relaxing mood.
She snuggled against his sultry body, inhaling the salty, seaweed scent carried on the light breeze as it and the briny spray of the sea cooled their skin.
“I’m so glad you came,” Caleb said.
“Couldn’t miss it. Our goodbye date.” Her lips curled into an easy smile. “A close to our days of smoldering flames and drifting on clouds together.”
“You were the ultimate woman, friend, and lover. But me…I am so sorry.” The underlying compassion of his words and his strained tone, which broke in places, showed her how much he genuinely regretted his actions.
“I can’t believe I asked you to have an abortion.” Smothering a sob, he continued, as seagulls screeched overhead. “I don’t know why I did that. That was my child.”
“When I went to the hospital, it was for a miscarriage. I didn’t have an abortion.”
“You mean you had decided to keep our baby?” He swallowed hard.
She nodded. “I lost a lot of blood, was sad, numb, and felt guilty. But I’ve dealt with that now as best I can.”
“I didn’t even know,” he said in an apologetic tone. “I ignored you when you needed me the most. I just wanted the problem …the baby… to go away.”
“I saw the whole thing a little differently,” she said.
“I can understand that. It’s why I wanted to see you again. I know it’s hard to believe after the way I acted, but I love you. Our timing was just off. I wish we met before our marriages. I tried to keep time and space between us to ensure that I stayed with my facts and didn’t follow my heart,” Caleb said.
“I don’t want to say goodbye, but I know we have to,” Melanie said.
“It’s time. Maybe in the future, our day will come. But it isn’t today.” He cupped her chin, and the heat from his touch coursed through her core.
“No, today is our day to say goodbye.” Melanie inhaled the warm, woodsy scent of him as the sultry heat he exuded wrapped her deeper in this last moment with Caleb.
He brushed back strands of hair off her cheek. Her breath stopped. He looked golden in the mystical glow of the setting sun. Her mouth watered for the taste of his thick, lush lips.
She reached up to his shoulders and rolled her smooth arms against his neck, enveloping him in a scorching embrace. Her pulse raced.
Caleb peered deeply into her eyes and crushed his lips against hers. She savored the slightly salty taste of his lips. He encircled her with his arms, pressing his palm against the small of her back. All her muscles thrust forward, pushing against him—closer, tighter. The soft vibrations of his pounding heart aroused her senses.
He caressed her lips, twisting, suckling, exploring her mouth fully. She moaned. As he swept his hands down the smooth plane of her back, she quivered in his arms.
Her body fell limp as if it melted into his. His arms closed even tighter around her. He glided his mouth against hers, his lips tugging on hers. She stroked the slick hair of his fade, then parted her lips. He sunk his velvety tongue into her mouth. Caleb flicked his tongue to and fro as she moaned with need for more. The flicks of his tongue shot a fiery blast of heat and pleasure through her, and all her thoughts vanished from her mind. She tangled her tongue with his. Melanie didn’t want to ever let this kiss end but needing a gulp of air, she reluctantly eased her mouth off his.
She smiled at him. “I will think of you probably for the rest of my life even if we can never be together again.” The break in her voice made her sound like she felt…like she was about to cry.
Tears welled in his eyes. “You will always be on my mind. Let me walk you to your car.”
He rose and offered her his hand to help her up. With their arms wrapped around each other, they strolled across the sand to where she’d slipped off her shoes. She slipped them on and walked with him to the blue Mini Cooper.
She leaned against her car as he embraced her. “For something that was so wrong, once again it felt so right,” she said in a whispery, breathy tone.
“Equally yoked didn’t work out like I thought,” Caleb said.
“If in the future, if we are equally free, the wrong part will be gone and just the right part will be left,” Melanie said.
“If that day comes, then maybe we can be together. It’ll be our time. But until then, we’re destined to be friends, not lovers.”
“It’s how it has to be …unless we are both free one day.” She leaned toward him and brushed her lips across his in a tender farewell.
“Goodbye, my love.” His large, liquid eyes impaled her as he whispered, “I loved you more than her.”
“I know. But it’s not enough.” She schooled her composure, climbed into the car and drove away from Caleb and home to her husband.
She crossed the Dauphin Island bridge as the sun sunk in the horizon and all the colors of sunset faded into a dark blue sky just a tad lighter than the water. Though it was now the dark of night, Melanie knew the sun only sets to rise again. That gave her hope that with Jeremiah and her equally committed to their marriage, the vibrant, loving relationship they once had could rise again.
Knowing that only true love stayed by your side through it all, Melanie now realized truth was deeper than physical or emotional chemistry. Knowing without a doubt Jeremiah was willing to risk it all for her…that was true love. And, truth always won.