Things were proceeding with the lawsuit when Hal was notified of a hearing date. They had a few months to prepare their case. In the meantime, the Bests weren’t frightened out of going public with their lies. Estevan was much too invested in making sure Bella’s life was ruined to back out, according to Hal’s friend. The motive behind the attack was revealed and it would make a much easier case to bring against them. Jen was willing to testify on Bella’s behalf during the hearing and so was Rog.
“I have to warn you, Bella, that Maria will have witnesses on their side as well. Estevan’s accusations will come up, and you will have to defend yourself.” Hal tried to prepare her for the court appearance.
“I know, but I have no proof, except…” Bella fiddled with the ring on her hand, the one that Arthur had given her so many years ago.
Hal noticed the ring. “I’m afraid a promise made to your father ten plus years ago won’t hold up in court.”
Bella sighed. This would be the most difficult thing to prove. “I know. All I have is personal testimony on that. Rog might be willing to help, but we are barely a couple. He doesn’t know my past.”
“We will try to nail them on the other allegations. Nothing is true, so it can’t hold up at a trial. No jury would convict you.” Hal tried to reassure her, but confidence was fleeting.
Six months after signing with the Crawford Talent Agency Bella’s photo appeared on billboards advertising the company. As she had suspected Bella was the big name and she was still only doing small venues. Nevertheless, she was happy to help out. When they succeeded, so would she. Luckily for Bella, Jen didn’t believe a word of the allegations about her and neither did most of the city. But the bad publicity was affecting crowd turnout at her shows and she lost her steady gig at Mick’s because of it.
Bella was at the park performing for tips when Rog asked if she wanted to take a break. She’d been working in the sun for hours and she welcomed a cool drink. They walked to the vendors where he bought lemonade for both of them. As they sat down at the table Rog noticed the ring on Bella’s hand. He had seen it before but never thought much about it until the Estevan incident.
“Darling, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, you can ask me almost anything,” Bella teased.
“Why are you wearing that ring,” Rog asked, pointing to the purity ring that she wore on her finger. “Do you have someone else?”
“No, it’s nothing like that at all,” Bella answered. “My father gave this to me when I was a teenager. He told me it was meant to be worn on my finger until it is replaced by my wedding ring.” She spun the ring around on her finger and smiled at the memory.
Rog looked at her slyly. “Oh, really? A wedding ring, eh?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a box. “Will an engagement ring suffice?”
Bella was stunned. Rog looked so darned handsome in his vest and shirt and she couldn’t have looked worse. Overly warm and sweaty, her magician uniform on, her hair was messy and she felt worn out. “Are you—”
“Asking you to marry me? Yes, yes I am!” Rog smiled and slid the ring on her finger. “I’m sorry this isn’t more romantic but the timing just seemed right. Bella, darling, I love you.”
“Rog, oh my goodness, of COURSE I’ll marry you!” Bella looked at the ring on her finger, which sparkled in the sunlight. After all he had gone through and would continue to go through with her and he was still around, she guessed he was in it for the long haul. “I love you, Rog.”
The hearing was a month after their engagement. Hal was truly amazed that he hadn’t been able to spook the Bests out of continuing the charade. Bella looked professional in a skirt suit and Rog took the day from work to support her. She was so grateful to him for all his help and moral support. He could have walked away at any time, and she was impressed he was sticking around.
She and Rog entered the courtroom and sat waiting for Hal and his associate to arrive. Maria and Estevan walked into the courtroom and sat at the defendant’s table. Rog recognized Estevan immediately. The Best family was one of the richest and best-known families in Starlight Shores. After Calvin and Isabella passed away, their children were doing their best to tarnish the family name and squander the wealth. Rog shot Estevan a look that could have killed him, and Estevan sneered at Bella. Maria, who sat beside her brother, looked defeated. Perhaps she’s just a pawn in this, too, Bella thought.
Hal was the next to enter the courtroom, followed by Jen Crawford and her attorney. She came fully prepared to do battle with the Bests. The hearing time came, and the Best’s lawyer wasn’t there yet. The judge entered and asked Estevan if they had an attorney.
“No, your Honor. No lawyer here.” Estevan spat, and turned his eyes on Bella and glared.
Hal leaned over and whispered to Bella, “They don’t have a lawyer! This is a suicide mission for them.” Bella pondered it and smiled at Rog.
Over the next two hours, everything about Bella’s personal life was called into question. Although the Bests did not have an attorney, Estevan was as ruthless a prosecutor as Hal had ever faced. Luckily, objections that Hal brought were mostly sustained, except for one where he tried to save Bella from having to answer a particularly personal question.
“Isn’t it true, Ms. Atwood, that you are using Mr. St John here as a way to promote yourself in show business? Isn’t it true that you are using the so-called casting couch to get ahead? Isn’t it true that you have slept with half of Starlight Shores to get where you are now?” Estevan’s eyes bore right into Bella’s soul and it was disturbing to watch.
“I object, your Honor,” Hal stated.
“Overruled,” said the judge. “Answer the question, Miss Atwood.”
“No, your Honor. This is absolutely not true. Not a word of it.” Bella was angry, but she tried to remain calm.
“What is your proof?” Estevan shouted at her. “Can you prove you’re not lying right now to save your reputation?”
“I object, your Honor,” Hal stated again.
“Overruled.” The judge looked at Bella. “Please answer the question, Miss Atwood.”
“I have no proof. It is my word against yours, Estevan. You know that.” She clenched her teeth so hard she gave herself a headache.
“I have no other questions for the witness.” Estevan folded his arms and sat down in his seat, looking quite pleased with himself.
Estevan called Rog to the witness stand. He knew that Estevan was going to ask him some personal questions about his relationship with Bella, but he had to answer them, regardless of how uncomfortable it was.
“How long have you been dating Miss Atwood, Mr. St John?” Estevan began.
“A little over a year,” Rog replied calmly.
“And have you had sex with Miss Atwood at any time in that year, Mr. St. John?”
Rog hung his head, embarrassed for Bella. “No, sir.”
“Oh, come on now,” Estevan taunted. “You mean to tell me the whore of Starlight Shores isn’t putting out for you, her own fiancé?”
“I object, your Honor,” Hal said a third time.
“Sustained. That last question will be stricken from the record.” The judge leered at Estevan. “I will not have another outburst like that, Mr. Best. Do we have an understanding?”
Estevan waved him away as if the judge was a mosquito. Hal looked at Bella, a frown on his face. She had forgotten to tell him they were engaged. She shrugged and mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to him.
“So,” Estevan continued, annoyed the judge had dismissed his last question. “You claim you have not had intimate relations with this woman. Can you prove your statement, Mr. St John?”
Rog, throughout the two-hour hearing, had heard his fiancée accused of many terrible things, and no one was turning it around on Estevan. But that was going to end, now. “Let me ask you a question, Mr. Best. Where is YOUR proof that Bella has done all the things you claim? Isn’t the burden of proof on you, the accuser?” Rog was ticked off, and Hal let him continue to cross-examine the cocky young man.
Estevan’s temper flared up. “I am the one doing the questioning here, Mr. St John! NOT YOU!”
The judge banged his gavel. “I am going to allow this line of questioning. Please answer the question, Mr. Best.”
Estevan couldn’t answer the question and he had no corroborating witness or evidence. Maria wanted to crawl under the table. After listening to Estevan throw the equivalent of an adult tantrum, the judge had heard enough and declared a 10-minute recess.
“This is unusual,” said Hal while they waited for the judge to return. “He must be preparing a ruling on this mess.” He nudged Rog and gave him the thumbs up. “You were brilliant up there turning it around on him like that. If you’d like a job at my law firm, the invite is open!”
The recess was over and everyone involved went back into the courtroom. The judge entered and read a statement he had written.
“Before I read my decision I want to speak directly to Mr. Best. Sir, you have done your best today to destroy your family’s good name. Your father must be rolling in his grave today, son. Shame on you for subjecting this young woman to your lies because she rejected you well over 11 years ago. After this court adjourns Mr. Best, you are not to come within 20 feet of Miss Atwood under any circumstance. I am signing her request for restraint and I see that her request is warranted.”
“I am finding for the plaintiff in this hearing. You have put this young woman and her fiancé through a living hell over the past 12 months and she is entitled to every penny I am awarding. This judgment will be enforced to the fullest extent of the law and non-compliance will land you in prison in Strangeville. And Miss Best, I don’t know where your relationship with Miss Atwood went south, but the fact that you were complicit in this with your brother makes you liable as well. As for damages I am awarding $100,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. I believe that will wipe out what remains of your father’s estate. I am also awarding ownership of the Gonzales Agency to Miss Atwood for her to do with as she sees fit.” With the bang of his gavel, the judge pronounced the hearing over.
“Not one penny, you hear me whore? Not one PENNY!” Estevan shouted at Bella as he and Maria left the courtroom.
“Este, it’s over.” Maria sobbed. “Let it go.”
Bella ran to Rog and hugged him. Hal shook Rog’s hand and thanked him for a job well done on the stand. Then Hal hugged Bella.
“I’ll be in touch so we can go over fees.” Bella gave him her card.
“Fees? Nonsense!” Hal announced. “Consider it a favor to your father. It was my pleasure.”
“I feel terrible about Maria,” Bella said. “She looked totally defeated and for what?”
“Don’t feel bad Bella,” Hal reassured. “She could have ended this without any expenses. Now they will pay the price.”
After they left the courthouse, Rog hugged Bella and kissed her cheek. “It’s my turn to treat.” They got into his truck and drove to his favorite restaurant, and celebrated the victory.
Up Next: Chapter Six, Generation Three