Sampler: The Trouble With Paradise by Cynthia Hamilton

“Just think how much further down I’ve sunk and all the lives I’ve ruined and what I had to face while being in the hell of my own making.”

Two dead husbands. Accident, suicide or murder?

Life in beautiful Santa Barbara County will never be the same for two grieving widows.

One is serving a lengthy sentence for the bizarre tractor death of her much older, land-rich husband.

The other is convinced her husband’s death was no suicide.

During Madeline’s four-month convalescence, Steven Ridley—her jailbird ex—manages to get parole on the pretext of retraining inmates for their reentry into society.

He has the audacity to enlist Mike’s help to find out if inmate Lindsay Bartholomew had been set up to take the fall for her husband’s death.

Santa Barbara D.A. Conrad Adams makes a personal appeal to MDPI on behalf of Natalie Sheckle, hoping Madeline and Mike can prove whether her husband took his own life, or if someone stitched him up for his own murder.

Never ones to shy away from longshots or lost causes, the duo dives into both cases.

But now they must figure out what secrets these two men took to their graves.

Cynthia Hamilton

Sampler: The Trouble With Paradise:

“Thank you for meeting with me,” Steven Ridley said, futilely holding out his hand. A wave of Mike’s seething hatred made him drop it to his side.

“You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to convince me this wasn’t a waste of my time,” Mike warned him.

“I’ll get right to the point, then,” Steven replied with as much aplomb as he could muster, nervously shifting the manila folder from his left hand to his right. “The warden at the women’s prison in Chowchilla spoke off the record to me about an inmate she feels doesn’t belong there. She has serious doubts that the woman—Lindsay Bartholomew—committed the crime for which she is serving a twenty-year sentence. Because of the work I’ve been doing since my release, she thought I might have access to resources to assist in clearing this woman’s name and reuniting her with her child.”

“What crime was she convicted of?” Mike asked, arms folded across his chest.

“Murdering her husband.”

Mike let out a disdainful huff as he continued to glare at Steven. “What makes you think I’d be interested in this?”

Steven fought back a bemused smile while Mike struggled to retain his saintly composure. “You and Madeline have proven yourselves to be superheroes when it comes to righting wrongs and fighting for the underdog. Given what I put Madeline through, and the price I’ve had to pay for my crimes, I appreciate where her sentiments lie. I’m no detective, but I did a little poking around into Lindsay’s background and I would have to agree it seems like her trial was a bit of a farce.”

“I still don’t see why we should get involved.”

“I think if you look at the file, you might agree that this woman just isn’t the type to kill anyone,” Steven said, clearly not enjoying having to grovel while trying to do a good deed.

“Almost no one is as they appear,” Mike said pointedly, “despite how they might come across. Look at you, Steven. You were God’s gift to investors and borrowers until the truth came out. Even Madeline—who once adored you—was completely unaware of what a sociopath you are until you degraded her in the worst possible way before trying to have her killed.”

Mike fought the temptation to secure some real justice for the woman he’d loved for more than twenty years. He turned and strode purposefully back to his car. As satisfying as it would be to unleash on Steven, it would not make Madeline happy to know that he’d taken this meeting in the first place.

“I think if you could just set aside the past for a moment and listen to this woman’s story, I—”

The power traveling through Mike’s arm and out his fist delivered a punch that knocked Steven sideways. The folder flew out of his hand and cartwheeled over the low brush, papers tumbling out among the patchy weeds as the satisfying sound of bone colliding with bone engendered a deep craving for more. Mike caught himself as the desire to let his feet participate in this much-deserved punishment almost overwhelmed his restraint. He glared down at the pathetic man cowering in the dirt, and his anger seeped away, leaving a contemptuous pity in its place.

Steven gingerly rubbed his face as Mike gave him one final look of disgust and turned back to his old Mercedes. Steven staggered to his feet and went to retrieve the contents of the file from the brush.

“Wait,” he called through jaws that barely functioned as Mike reached for the door handle. Searing pain and the taste of blood made him suspect a loose molar. “Just hear me out.”

Mike turned with deliberate slowness as many conflicting reactions flooded through him. He moved slowly, threateningly toward Steven.

“Forget that I’m the one who brought you this case,” Steven said as he rocked unsteadily on weak legs. “You can speak directly to the warden, get her take on it. You can imagine how rare it is for someone in her capacity to speak out on behalf of an inmate.

“Look, just imagine for a moment that you’re me.” Mike’s sneer strengthened Steven’s resolve. “No, seriously. Imagine that you destroyed every relationship you ever had—and I think you have an inkling of what I’m talking about.” Steven paused to let that sink in. He recognized the flicker of shame that passed quickly across Mike’s features.

“You remember how hard it was to regain Madeline’s love and trust. Just think how much further down I’ve sunk and all the lives I’ve ruined and what I had to face while being in the hell of my own making.”

Mike barked out a sharp laugh, shaking his head at Steven’s impudence.

“As hard as it might be for you to trust me, just keep in mind I have nothing to gain or lose here. Though I went through most of my life focused on what I needed to be happy, I can honestly say that I feel…fulfilled whenever I find placement for an inmate. But even if you don’t believe that, my record speaks for itself. Over three-hundred convicts have been assimilated back into society without recidivism in the eighteen months I’ve been doing this.”

Mike held up his hand in protest. “Spare me the self-aggrandizing bullshit, Ridley.”

Steven absorbed the slight and changed his tack. “Please…just take the file. Look it over and do whatever you feel is right. That’s all I’m asking.”

Mike glared at him through narrowed eyes, as if he could penetrate the scheming mind behind the placid façade.

“If I’m interested in this case, I will make contact with the warden up in Chowchilla, but I’m making no promises. Don’t ever contact me again, for any reason.”

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