Martha Stewart is working hard to stay out of prison. After a visit to the probation office last Monday (to submit a urine sample, among other things), she sped off to tell the directors of her $250 million company that they still need her as a "creative force." After all, her new line of garden merchandise is flying off shelves, and her Turkey Hill furniture is selling briskly. (Never mind that CBS dumped her TV show and advertisers are fleeing her magazine.) Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia directors are expected to acquiesce, allowing her to remain in an unspecified creative role, though without her board seat.

Remaining employed is a key to Martha's stay-out-of-jail strategy. At her June 17 sentencing hearing, Martha will argue that 550 jobs depend on her freedom, say sources close to her case. But legal experts doubt the gambit will work. "the idea that no one other than Martha Stewart can pick out matching place mats seems a stretch," says New York University law professor Harry First. Stewart is facing 15 to 21 months, says First. And the best way to reduce that is to admit guilt - which she hasn't done yet. Martha seems to hear only the voices of her admirers as she works to remain free. "I just want to thank everyone for their support," she proclaimed as she emerged from her probation meeting Monday. Back at her company, though, the hallways are buzzing with dark whispers about the fall of the house of Martha. Says one employee, "No one knows if their job is still going to be there in a couple of months." That goes for the boss more than anyone.