Carly stood in the entrance to the ballroom and searched for a safe place. A place to have one token drink and bide her time until she’d done her duty by appearing at the firm’s annual ritual of no fun whatsoever.
“Hey, Pachett, you just get here?”
Damn. Carly managed a smile for Keith Worthington, but it was totally fake. Keith, one of the other associates at the firm, loved to give her a hard time about how little she enjoyed the firm’s social functions. Unlike her, he lived for free cocktails and apps handed out by sleek cater waiters. Tonight he had a date on his arm—a tall, size zero blonde with a little too much Botox for her age—the perfect date for Keith since she wouldn’t be fighting him for the free food.
Carly wouldn’t mind these social events if they didn’t happen so often, but it seemed like every month there was some after-hours drain on her time that had nothing to do with billable hours and everything to do with making small talk with people she wouldn’t care to spend time with outside of the office. Keith loved the schmoozing. He’d been at the firm four years and already had his eye on a partnership spot to which Carly silently said, get in line. She was well into her fifth year at Sturges and Lloyd, and when Jane and Mark, the senior partners, decided to add a name to the partner roster, she expected to be at the top of the list. She didn’t have a lot of hands-on litigation experience, but she excelled at negotiations and her win record on appeal was unparalleled. She’d earned her spot at the top. The only less-than-stellar feedback she got at year-end bonus time was that she would do well to loosen up a little, muck it up with clients to bring in more business. She’d assured them she would do her part, even if it killed her, which was why she’d decided to put in an appearance tonight at the firm’s annual holiday gala.
“Where’s the bar?” she asked Keith, who insisted on leading the way. She gave in, figuring it would save her being buttonholed by firm clients if she looked like she was with a group, even if the group was Keith and his flavor of the month. Her plan failed miserably as Keith stopped at every cluster of people along the way to show off his date, Mia. He’d announced she was a model so often that Carly could recite her resume of photo shoots, and by the time they made it to the bar, she needed a double. She ordered a vodka and soda and wandered over to the side of the bar to recover from way too much interaction until she could escape unnoticed.
The party was the perfect place to people watch. Jane and Mark worked the room like pros, sometimes apart, often together, tag-teaming their way through the throngs of guests, stopping long enough to make everyone feel personally welcome. When they made their way over to her, Carly braced for a talk about mingling with the other guests.
“Hi, Carly, are you having fun?” Jane asked while signaling to one of the tray-carrying waiters. She grabbed three glasses of champagne and handed one to Mark and one to her. Carly set down the now empty rocks glass and took the bubbly. She didn’t care for champagne, but people didn’t say no to Jane, and she’d learned which battles were worth fighting on her personal route to the top.
“Let’s toast,” Jane said. “To a new year full of new possibilities for the firm and for you, Carly.”
Carly raised her glass and clinked each of theirs, suppressing a knowing smile. It was so like Jane not to say the words, but a partnership was in her reach. It had to be. She started to make some comment about how much she was looking forward to what the new year held, but a commotion at the door to the ballroom diverted their attention. A tall blond woman smiled at the doorman, who frowned in response. The blonde just smiled harder and clapped him on the shoulder in a friendly gesture, seemingly undeterred by his attempts to keep her from crashing the party. The blonde looked around the room, her gaze settling on Carly. Her smile was intoxicating, and despite Carly’s best efforts at staying calm and cool, her body hummed as she basked in the stranger’s attention.
Jane turned to Mark. “Did you know she was coming up for the party?”
“No. Probably didn’t RSVP,” Mark said. “You know how she hates to commit. I’ll take care of it.” Mark strode briskly to the door, and Carly kept watching, riveted as Mark swept the stranger into a hug and shrugged off the doorman, who stepped to the side to let them pass. Mark escorted the woman toward the bar, but it took them forever to make the trek because everyone they passed stopped to greet them. It quickly became clear Mark wasn’t the one they were greeting.
“Who is she?” Carly asked, almost in a whisper to herself. Almost.
“That’s Landon Holt, from the Austin office. She started just a few months before you.”
Landon Holt. Carly rolled the name over in her mind. Of course she’d heard the name. The business of the Austin and Dallas offices intersected on occasion, and she’d met several of the partners and associates from Austin, but never Landon. Word was she never came to Dallas, and rumors swirled around the office as to why that was the case, but Carly didn’t spend her valuable time paying attention to idle gossip.
As Landon made the rounds, Carly found it surprising Landon didn’t spend much time in Dallas since she worked the room like she owned the place. She treated everyone to an intense smile, a lingering handshake, and fully focused attention. Landon talked and laughed and handled each interaction like it was the most important meeting she’d have that day, and for a moment Carly forgot her usual reticence about social events and wished she was on the receiving end of a Landon Holt encounter.
Eight months later
Carly stood in front of the courthouse waiting for the press conference to start, but unlike the rest of the attorneys representing football star Trevor Kincade, she made sure she was nowhere near the podium and as far away from the cameras as possible.
Trevor, sporting wavy sandy brown hair, caramel eyes, and a million-dollar smile, was flanked by his agent and the two named partners of Sturges and Lloyd, the premiere boutique law firm in Texas. Jane Sturges stepped to the podium and thanked the press for covering this important story.
“Today, justice was done. Federal District Judge Niven entered an order finding the evidence insufficient to support the unreasonable and unjustified ban imposed on Mr. Kincade by the NFL. Under Judge Niven’s ruling, Mr. Kincade will be able to play without restriction at the start of the regular season, and he is grateful to the court and all of his loyal fans for believing in his character. We’ll take your questions at this time.”
Hands shot up throughout the crowd of reporters, and Carly watched in awe at the way Jane fielded their every question with ease. Jane had been the face of the case in court, but Carly had done all the research and written all the briefs to convince the judge to overturn the ban. She wasn’t jealous of the attention. She preferred to work behind the scenes without the attendant client drama, but Carly couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride knowing that this big win, drawing national press coverage, was due to her legal smarts.
After the press conference, Jane insisted Carly join them for a celebratory lunch. Three courses in, Carly was completely over the social aspect of the meal and engaged in a mental pep talk about how this kind of schmoozing was good for her career. Trevor sat directly across the table, persistently trying to engage her in conversation, while Keith, who’d only worked tangentially on the case, badgered him about inane football stats. Carly could almost get how every straight woman in Dallas found Trevor so appealing. For her part, she found him to be nice but of fairly average intelligence, which didn’t really matter in his profession since he had an insane ability to run really fast and leap high into the air to catch footballs—trivia she’d picked up only since she’d started working on his case. Keith was acting like he wanted to switch teams and ask Trevor out on a date.
Carly had spent the last few weeks learning only what she needed to about the game of football. It wasn’t that she wasn’t sporty. She’d participated in several sports, like cycling, running, and rowing, but none of her activities involved long commercial breaks, six- to seven-figure incomes, and stadiums full of adoring fans, and she was cool with that since being in the limelight wasn’t her favorite thing. Even this lunch, as innocuous as it seemed, was way more interaction with people than she usually preferred. She was happiest when she was hunkered down with a load of files, a puzzle to figure out, and briefs to write.
While Jane and Mark ordered dessert, Carly took the opportunity to go to the ladies’ room. When she emerged from the stall to wash her hands, Trevor’s agent, Shelby Cross, was at the counter, applying a fresh coat of lipstick to her otherwise impeccable face. Shelby caught her eye in the mirror and smiled, a fact Carly found surprising since Shelby had been fairly standoffish from the moment they’d met.
“Hey,” Carly said, waving her hand under the sink in a futile attempt to trigger the motion detector that would set the water running.
“Here, try this one.” Shelby eased away from the sink in front of her and Carly had no choice but to give it a go, and was relieved when the water started flowing. “Thanks.”
“I guess it’s me who should be thanking you,” Shelby said, tucking her lipstick in her expensive-looking handbag. “If he’d wound up having to sit out the entire suspension, it would be hell for all of us.”
Carly nodded, but she thought the sentiment was a bit overstated. She’d worked as hard to win as anyone else and she was happy that her well-briefed arguments had won the day, but if they’d lost it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. It was football, not saving the planet from destruction. “We had the law on our side.”
“You and I both know that you can be in the right but still lose,” Shelby said. “It’s all about convincing the powers that be through whatever means necessary. Why do you think we pay y’all what we do?”
It was a rhetorical question laced with sarcasm, and Carly let it go unanswered. As a fifth-year associate with the firm, she took home a hefty salary plus bonuses, and she didn’t need to mess that up by telling one of their highest profile clients they were being overcharged. Besides, she knew just how important this case was to the firm. Jane and Mark viewed landing this case as a gateway to even bigger things. The services of Sturges and Lloyd were already highly in demand when it came to criminal defense, but if they could get more cases involving administrative issues like Trevor’s suspension, it would create an entirely new line of business.
Lunch lasted another hour, and Carly tried not to think about all the work piled up on her desk back at the office, which would be harder to wade through now that she was loaded up on Dom Perignon. When the bill finally came, Jane leaned over and whispered to her, “This win was all you. Don’t go back to the office this afternoon. Go do something fun with the rest of your day. We insist.”
It sounded like a trick, but the offer was tempting. She saw Keith watching their exchange, his eyes questioning, and she begged off. “I’ll think about it,” Carly said, knowing there was nothing to think about. Even if she took Jane up on her offer not to return to the office, she had a brief due on the Rogers case in two days and tons of research left to do to get it in shape.
Jane persisted. “Seriously, Carly. You make the rest of us look bad. Do it as a personal favor to me.”
Well, when she put it that way.Carly ruminated. Fun for her would be putting the Rogers brief to bed, which spoke volumes about her life. But most of the files were on the network, and she could access them just as easily from home in her pajamas as she could at the office pretending to be sober. “Okay, fine.”
Jane smiled and started to say something else, but a clatter of a commotion behind them captured their attention, and Jane’s expression turned to the steely anger Carly had only seen when one of the associates missed a deadline or she was facing down an opponent in court. Carly turned to see what was going on and gasped at the sight of no less than five Dallas police officers surrounding their table. She whipped her head back around to speak to Jane, but Jane was on the move, placing her body between the wall of officers and the rest of their lunch party.
“Excuse me, officers,” Jane said. “May I help you?”
“No, ma’am,” one of the officers replied. “We’re not here for you.” He started toward the table again, but Jane, not to be deterred, moved into his path. “If you’re here for someone at this table,” she said, “then I need to know what’s going on. I’m Jane Sturges, attorney for everyone sitting here.”
The big guy in the lead sighed and handed her a folded slip of paper. “Arrest warrant.”
While Jane scoured the paper, Carly glanced around the table. Other than Mark and Jane, who regularly skewered the police in court, there was only one other person worthy of such a big public display, but Trevor didn’t look at all rattled to see a herd of police officers standing only inches away. Mark, finally catching on to the show, stood up and walked over to Jane and Carly, and asked in his trademark slow, easy drawl, “What’s the problem, Officers?”
Carly chimed in. “They have a warrant.”
“And it appears to be in order,” Jane announced, handing it back to the lead officer. “Seriously, you couldn’t have just called and asked us to turn him in? Did you bring the press in with you or are they waiting outside?”
The cop shrugged. Carly figured it wasn’t his call anyway. Forgetting for a second—probably due to the champagne—she wasn’t in charge, she spoke. “What’s the charge?”
Jane shook her head. “Not here.”
But the officer got the word out before she could stop him. “Murder.”
“What the hell?” Mark said in an exaggerated whisper. “That’s ridiculous.”
“What do you need me to do?” Carly asked, feeling tremendously out of her element, but now completely sober.
Jane pulled her aside. “Go outside and see who’s here from the press. Give them your card, tell them Trevor has just learned of the charges against him and he is innocent. Tell them you’re not at liberty to discuss the case now, but they can call the firm later for details.” She stared hard. “You got this?”
“Absolutely,” Carly said with tons more confidence than she felt about stepping out from behind the scenes. She shot a look at Trevor. Shelby had moved to sit next to him and was whispering in his ear, no doubt preparing him for what was about to happen. Carly wanted to stick around and watch her client through this mess, but she had a job to do. She dug in her purse for a mint, lodged it in her cheek, and strode toward the front door. She had this.
Landon, like everyone else in the Austin office of Sturges and Lloyd, watched the replay of the arrest of Trevor Kincade on the big screen in the conference room.
“There went my fantasy football season,” Greg Paulson, the senior partner at the Austin office, said. “I guess he did harass that woman after all.”
Landon punched him in the arm. “Shut up. You don’t know jack about the guy, and he’s our client.”
“Like being our client means he’s automatically not guilty. I’ve never met the guy. Have you?”
Landon shushed him as one of the reporters outside the restaurant where Trevor was being arrested started talking. “We’re here with Carly Pachett, attorney for Trevor Kincade. Ms. Pachett, we just saw a group of police enter this restaurant and they tell us they have a warrant for Mr. Kincade’s arrest. Can you provide any specifics about the situation?”
Carly pushed her glasses up her nose and frowned at the reporter. “No, Linda, I can’t give you specifics about the case, but Mr. Kincade has volunteered to help law enforcement with their investigation.”
“But aren’t they here to arrest him?”
“I have no personal knowledge of that.” Again with the glasses.
“Do you have any comment about the big win Mr. Kincade had in court this morning and what impact, if any, this new development will have on any appeals?”
Her response was cut off when a group of police officers escorting a very unhappy-looking Trevor burst through the doors. The press abandoned Pachett and ran after Trevor and the officers like they were chasing a first down.
“Who the hell is Carly Pachett?” Greg asked. “I thought Mark and Jane were handling Trevor’s case.”
“Who knows? Not my problem.” Landon backed out of the conference room. She had plenty of real work to do, and the Dallas office would take care of the big shiny cases.
Back in her own office, Landon pulled out the case file for her hearing the next morning. What should’ve been a simple bond reduction hearing had turned into an examining trial on a new charge after her client said some pretty hair-raising things about the victim while talking to his girlfriend on the jailhouse phone. Clients never listened when Landon told them all those calls were recorded. Everything she ever told a client, from the moment they were arrested to the moment they were released, went through a filter that held back anything that didn’t match what they wanted to hear. Now that this guy had complicated things, it was her job to try to smooth over the very pissed-off district attorney assigned to the case to keep him from filing a new case based on the threats made in the phone conversation.
A couple of hours later, the buzz of a text on her phone jarred her out of work.
Don’t forget, you promised. Seven sharp.
Landon groaned, but she had promised and she didn’t take promises lightly, even when they interfered with her usual routine. If she left now and went straight to the restaurant, she’d make it on time. Landon closed the file and packed up her desk. When she walked down the hall, she was surprised to see she wasn’t the last one in the office. “Hey, Greg, you trying to show me up?”
“As if,” he called out. “Jane and Mark asked me to pick up some slack after their day hit the skids with Trevor’s arrest.” He set the file down. “What’s got you out the door before ten o’clock?”
“Just a thing. I’ll be ready for the hearing tomorrow,” Landon said, hoping he wouldn’t pry. Greg exaggerated about the hours she kept, but it was true that she was almost always the last one to leave. “Just figured I’d mix it up a bit.”
“Right.” Greg looked like he wanted to say more, but settled with, “You know, you don’t have anything to prove. Not to me, anyway.”
“I better get going.” Landon waved good-bye and took off before Greg could say or ask anything else. She’d known him since he’d been a professor at UT and she was a first year struggling her way through Constitutional Law. Greg had always had her back when it came to work, but their close relationship at the office didn’t merit breaking her steadfast rule about not mixing business with her personal life.
Austin traffic was its usual snarl of madness, but a lead foot and quick moves had her at the valet stand just moments before seven. She tossed the valet the keys, grabbed the claim check, and crashed through the doors. “Tremont party?” she asked the hostess.
“Right this way.”
It was seven straight up, but she was in the building, so that should count, right? She followed the hostess to the back of the restaurant, preparing her excuse for why she was slightly late. When they reached a door, the hostess stepped aside, and Landon gave her a questioning look, but before she could ask what was going on, the door swung open and a loud chorus of “Surprise!” flooded her ears.
She pushed into the room and was swept into a hug from her best friend, Kylie Tremont.
“Oh my God, you’re actually surprised.”
Landon shook her head. “Is this the ‘emergency, I have to talk to you tonight and it can’t wait’ dinner you had planned for us?”
“Be nice. It’s your birthday eve and I never thought I’d be able to pull this off without you finding out or coming up with an excuse why you couldn’t make it. I even had to get your boss in on the deal to make sure you didn’t get swept into some urgent case at the last minute. All your friends are here, so act like you’re having a good time.”
Landon looked around the room. A big cake, a buffet line, a bar, and lots of people—mostly Kylie’s friends. Kylie had thrown a surprise party for her, the absolute very last thing she’d expected, and she wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about it. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Perhaps by the end of the night you’ll be saying that with the right tone, but for now have some fun.” Kylie pushed a drink into her hand.
Landon stared at the drink. Kylie had been begging her to come out and play for weeks, but she’d pushed her aside with various excuses, all of which ended in words like write a brief, file a motion, or court appearance. Her fifth year at the firm was kind of make it or break it—either she wound up snagging a partnership slot or it was time to consider other options. She wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted, but she didn’t want to limit her choices, so work had become her girlfriend, her confidant, and the only thing she came home to at night. But one evening off wouldn’t hurt, would it?
Three tequila shots later, she blew out the exaggerated amount of candles in one breath. Not bad for an almost thirty-year-old. While everyone grabbed a piece, Kylie pulled her aside. “Look at you, having fun in spite of yourself.”
“You make it sound like I’m normally a dud.”
“You didn’t used to be.”
“I didn’t used to have a high-stress job. And I was younger. You may be able to party all night and go to work bright and early, but I require a little bit more recovery time nowadays.”
“Now who’s making you sound like a dud?” Kylie punched her in the arm. “Seriously, Landon, I’m not saying you have to party all the time, but you should check in with your friends now and then. We all have jobs too, but we find time to keep in touch.”
Landon flinched. When her personal life had gone south, she’d immersed herself in work and lost any sense of balance. “You’re right. I promise to be better. Thanks for pushing me to come out tonight.”
“Sounds like you’re saying good night, but the evening is still young. Promise me you won’t duck out while everyone’s face diving your cake?”
As if on cue, Landon’s phone rang. Reflex had her looking at the screen before Kylie could grab it out of her hand, and then she held it out of reach when she saw the name on the display. Mouthing I’m sorry, she answered. “Holt here.”
“Landon, it’s Jane Sturges.”
“Hi, Jane. Big day in Dallas today.”
“Yes, it was. Are you up to speed?”
Jane’s delivery was urgent and demanding, and Landon paused before answering. She recognized the tone and was certain there was a big ask coming. “I only know what I saw on the news. It wasn’t much.”
Jane sighed. “That’s okay. I’m emailing you a copy of the arrest warrant affidavit. You can read it later tonight and email me your thoughts from the plane.”
Tonight. Plane. Arrest warrant affidavit. Landon quickly digested the information. “Wait, what? Jane, I have a hearing in the morning and I’m at—”
“I’ll talk to Greg and get him to cover. It’s time for you to come back to Dallas where you belong. Aren’t you tired of working behind the scenes? I’m talking possible partnership. You’re booked on the ten a.m. flight tomorrow morning. See you at the office. Oh, and happy birthday.”
And just like that, Jane hung up. Landon stood with the phone against her ear as the party swirled on around her. All these people, drinking, celebrating, like they didn’t have a care in the world. Kylie stood at the bar a few feet away and raised a glass in a silent toast, but Landon was no longer sure what she was celebrating. Had Jane just dangled a partnership in front of her? In Dallas? She lowered the phone and stared at the screen. She should call her back and tell her she wasn’t interested in moving, that she was happy plodding along as an associate with no real future.
Well, she might not be ready to move back, but the possibility of a partnership did excite her. She’d earned it, and if she had to go back to Dallas to get it, then that’s what she’d do.
Her phone dinged to signal she had a new email and she saw a message from Southwest Airlines with her flight information. Kylie walked over with another drink. Landon shook her head. “Sorry, pal, but I’ve got to bug out.”
“Let me guess. Emergency at work.”
“Kind of.” Landon decided telling Kylie about Dallas would only start a protracted conversation that would be a real downer for the evening.
“It’s your birthday, Holt.” Kylie pressed the drink into her hand. “These occasions come around once a year. Besides, I have someone I want you to meet. Do you really have to be somewhere tonight?”
Landon stared at the drink. If Greg was handling the hearing in the morning, all she needed to do was email him her notes, and she could do that from her phone. She could sleep off the effects of tonight on the morning flight. It was her birthday and she’d gone a long time without giving in to her friends’ entreaties to socialize. She pointed at the drink in Kylie’s hand. “Is that for me, because this is the only place I want to be tonight.”
Carly penned in the final answer to the crossword puzzle while munching the last bite of her egg white and turkey bacon English muffin. She unfolded the paper and set it, front page up, to the side of her plate and skimmed the headlines while she sipped the rest of her coffee. The headline about Trevor’s arrest took up most of the real estate on the front page, from the story of the arrest itself to sidebars about how the cloud hanging over him would affect the team’s chances in the upcoming season. Not giving a whit about sports, she skipped the latter and focused on the lead article, homing in on one key phrase: “Kincade’s attorney was tight-lipped, barely offering any information other than a ‘no comment.’”
Of course they were talking about her. She couldn’t decide if the article made her sound like she didn’t know anything or if she was being prudent for keeping quiet until all the facts were out, but she had a feeling the reporter was knocking her for not sharing information. Jane never should’ve sent her to field the press on any case, let alone this one. Every day until it was over was going to be a media feeding frenzy.
Carly looked at her watch. She still had ten minutes before she usually left for the office, but if she left now, she’d be early, and she could use a few minutes alone in the office before everyone else arrived and the fallout from Trevor’s arrest buried them all in urgent work. She gathered her dishes, rinsed them, and put them in the dishwasher. She brushed her teeth and examined herself in the mirror, taking time to brush her hair up into a French braid. She could use a haircut, but she’d have to make do for another week, until things settled down at the office. Satisfied that she was ready for anything the day might bring, she tucked her phone into her purse, gathered her briefcase, and stepped out the door. She’d just put the key in the deadbolt when a loud voice startled her out of her careful routine.
“Ms. Pachett, I have a piece of your mail.”
Carly plastered a smile on her face and turned to her neighbor, Eugene Jasper, standing at the other end of the hallway, waving an envelope in the air. She sighed. Good thing she was running ahead of schedule since interactions with Mr. Jasper—she always returned his formality—were never quick. “Thank you, Mr. Jasper,” she said, striding briskly down the hall toward him. “I guess the postman must’ve gotten our boxes confused again.”
She stopped a couple of steps from him and held out her hand, but Jasper was not to be deterred so easily. He held the envelope just out of reach. “Nope,” he said. “Not this time. They knocked on your door, but you weren’t in. Guy didn’t give up easy, and I came out to see what the racket was. He insisted someone had to sign or he’d take it away. I remember once a letter came my way that I had to sign for and it was from the lawyer who handled my great-aunt Beatrice’s estate. Barely knew Beatrice, but I happened to recall how she always had a house with a pool—a big one, not one of those little, tiny things people try to squeeze into the backyards of their zero lot line houses—”
“Did you say you had a letter for me?” Carly interrupted. Although part of her was interested in what had ultimately happened with Aunt Beatrice’s estate, Jasper ran long in the telling of any story and this one promised to be no different.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Jasper glanced one more time at the letter before handing it over. “Hope it’s not bad news.”
Carly tucked the envelope into the side pocket of her briefcase and thanked him. “Have a great day,” she called out as she hurried down the hall, not to be deterred by the sad look on his face. No doubt he’d expected her to bust it open and read it right there in front of him. She slid behind the wheel of her car and let it warm up while she fished the letter from her briefcase. Before she could open the envelope, the phone rang. Jane. Carly sent the call to the car’s Bluetooth connection. “Good morning, Jane.”
“Can you come in early?”
“On the way now.”
“Excellent. Landon Holt is on her way up from Austin, and I’d like to have a complete dossier about the case ready for a meeting at noon so you can bring her up to speed.”
Carly froze at the name, and a memory of Landon working the room at last year’s holiday party surfaced. She’d left the event before meeting Landon in person, but the picture of her larger-than-life presence was fixed in her mind. Landon was one of those people who breezed into a room like she owned the place, oozing all kinds of confidence and charm—the kind of person who took over without even trying. Carly had been curious enough after the party to do a little research and had learned Landon was the only daughter of George Holt of Holt Industries, a multi-million-dollar conglomerate of businesses ranging from housewares to clothing lines. More likely than not, Landon’s confidence came from growing up in a family where she had everything she wanted and more. Did Jane think Carly wasn’t good enough to handle the work on Trevor’s case on her own?
“Carly, did you get all that?”
Carly came back to earth at Jane’s urgent tone. “Uh, yes. Put together a summary of everything we know so far about the murder case and include any salient details about the allegations that resulted in Trevor’s suspension.”
“And email her a copy of the arrest warrant affidavit,” Jane said, not bothering to hide her impatience. “There’s a copy on your desk. It’s under seal, and as far as I know, the press doesn’t have a copy yet. Let’s keep it that way. Don’t scan it, email it, or share with anyone outside of you, me, Mark, and Landon. Understood?”
“And if you could pick up Landon at the airport, it would be a nice touch. Get the flight info from Rhonda. See you at noon.”
Carly glanced at the screen in her car, but Jane had disconnected the call. She should be used to Jane’s abrupt manner by now, but she wasn’t and didn’t think she ever would be. It especially irked her that she’d been demoted to the role of chauffeur. What was so special about Landon Holt that she couldn’t be bothered to take a cab or an Uber like any other Sturges and Lloyd attorney arriving from the Austin office? Carly started to steam over it, but pushed the unproductive thoughts away. She spent the rest of the drive to the office summarizing the case file in her head, so it would be easier to get it done when she got to the office, but until she saw the arrest warrant affidavit, she’d be hard-pressed to paint a complete picture.
Less than ten minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot of the firm. Jane and Mark had both been partners in top tier big law firms in downtown Dallas before breaking away to start their own practice. Their first goal was to develop their own style, and they’d started by purchasing and refurbishing a two-story, vintage 1960s office building in Uptown with flat lines and geometric accents. Carly loved the location because she didn’t have to fight the traffic and parking downtown, and clients loved the unique vibe of the retro space.
She’d no sooner pushed through the doors of the office than she was assailed by Jane’s secretary, Rhonda. “Carly, here’s the flight info for Landon. Jane said you volunteered to pick her up at Love Field. What a nice touch to welcome her to the Dallas office.”
Carly bit back a response about how many billable hours her gesture of hospitality would entail, and accepted the piece of paper from Rhonda, who was uncharacteristically friendly this morning. “Thanks. Jane mentioned she’d left the arrest warrant for me to review.”
“Yes, it’s in your office. Top drawer on the right.”
Carly hated that Rhonda had been in her desk drawers, not because she had anything to hide, but because she was careful to keep her office orderly. She refrained from saying anything. It was a few pieces of paper at most and unlikely to cause chaos. At least that’s what she thought before she started reading it. Carly flipped through the pages and then started reading again from the beginning. The affidavit painted a grim picture of Trevor, but that’s what these documents were intended to do. In addition to detailing the alleged harassment of Vanessa Meyers that led to his NFL suspension, it named her as the murder victim. Carly pulled out a legal pad and started listing the evidence.
Vanessa had taken a few days off from work to duck out of the public eye following the round-the-clock press exposure surrounding Trevor’s suspension. When she failed to return to work as scheduled, her employer contacted her family, who used a key to access her house and found evidence of an altercation—smashed glass and overturned furniture—along with Vanessa Meyers’s dead body and the thin length of rope that had been used to strangle her still circling her neck.
Carly made a note to get more details about the cord, and kept reading.
A neighbor told the police he’d heard yelling coming from her house earlier in the week. When he went outside to see what was going on, Vanessa was standing on her porch, alive and with no visible injuries. She told the neighbor it was just more of the Trevor Kincade drama but didn’t volunteer any additional information and he hadn’t asked. The neighbor had not been home at the time the medical examiner believed the murder had occurred.
The detective went on to detail how Trevor had been in town, not on the road to an away game, at the time of Vanessa’s death. In addition, they’d found pieces of rope similar to the length that was found at the scene in Trevor’s trash. Carly underlined her note about the rope. Not rock-solid evidence by any means, but when they tossed it in with Vanessa’s allegations that Trevor had been sending her threatening messages, and what she’d told her neighbor about the argument at her house, the police had convinced a judge to issue a warrant for Trevor’s arrest. Carly reread the detective’s statements several times. He made several references to the pattern and practice of domestic abusers, and while he didn’t come out and say it, Carly suspected he was talking about more than the threatening emails Trevor had been accused of sending to Vanessa or the argument they’d had about those emails.
She made a note and then shuffled through the rest of the papers attached to the affidavit. Copies of the emails, which she already had since they were subject of Trevor’s suspension, and a search warrant for Trevor’s house, served at the same time as the arrest warrant.
“Hey, whatcha doin’?”
Carly looked up to see Keith standing in her doorway. She casually lifted a file folder and placed it over the affidavit. “Just some research. You need something?”
His eyes roved over the interior of her office and then settled back on her desk. “Just checking in. Thought maybe you could help me with some ideas I have for pretrial motions in the Danziger case.”
Carly recognized his code. He wanted her to volunteer to draft the motions and then hand them over so he could take credit. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t mind helping him out. Jane was smart enough to know she’d done the writing, and Carly knew she’d do a much better job than Keith for the client. But she had enough of her own work to do today and she wanted Keith out of her office before he spotted the eyes-only documents and used the information to impress his pals.
“I’d love to help, but I’m under a deadline. I’ll catch up with you later.” She turned to her computer and started typing a random search into Lexis to signal the conversation was over. When she heard him leave, she pulled the affidavit back toward her and reread it twice. The cops had taken a bold move by arresting Trevor before they’d searched the house, and she wondered if they had other information they were keeping under wraps.
Whatever it was, it would have to wait because if she didn’t leave now, she was going to be late to pick up Landon. Her initial annoyance about being called on to chauffeur had subsided into curiosity about meeting the infamous Landon Holt for the very first time. Would she live up to the hype?
Landon rolled over and reached for her buzzing phone, but instead she wound up fisting a handful of hair. Not hers. Her eyes flew open and she struggled to make sense of the tableau in her bed. Ivory skin, long limbs, and big bunches of red hair. The naked woman hadn’t woken up despite the fact Landon’s hand was still gripping her long tresses. Her deep slumber probably had something to do with the near-empty bottle of tequila on the nightstand.
Guess I had a good birthday in spite of myself. Landon reached her arms over her head and stretched, long and hard, as the memories of the evening before drifted back into her consciousness. She’d gotten over being mad at Kylie for the surprise and, after a few shots of Patron, settled into some fun. Red wasn’t the first woman she’d danced with, but apparently she’d been the last, and visions of an evening spent doing gymnastics all around her bedroom made Landon smile. Most of the rest of the evening was a blur, for which she blamed the tequila. Good thing Greg was handling her hearing this morning.
Landon lunged out of the bed, her mind racing. Greg was handling her hearing because she had a flight to catch. To Dallas. To work on the Trevor Kincade case. For a chance at a promotion. All the lingering effects of the tequila burned off, and she started calculating. It was eight o’clock. Fifteen minutes to shower and dress, another fifteen to pack, that was cutting it close, but even then it was unlikely she’d make it to the airport in time to catch the flight and no way would she have time to check a bag. She’d need to pack suits, lots of them, and she had no idea how long Jane planned on keeping her in Dallas before she could make a trip back.
Her car had a full tank and it was parked downstairs. If she hit the road by eight thirty, she could make it to Dallas by noon, which was within the margin of error for when she’d make it if she took the flight, waited at baggage claim, and caught a cab to the office.
“Hey, baby, come back to bed.”
Landon glanced at the forgotten bedmate and factored in another five minutes for making nice and sending her on her way. Damn Kylie for getting her in this mess. She’d managed to stay focused on her work to the exclusion of everything else for a while now, but all it took was one night of abandon, and she was back in a mess. This was not going to happen in Dallas. She would stay completely focused on the prize and that prize was a partnership, one that she would earn all on her own.
Ten, not five, minutes later, Red was dressed and in the back seat of an Uber. Landon took a power shower and dressed for the road in slacks, a collared blouse, and driving flats. Traffic on I-35 was notorious on a regular day, but in her favor, most cars this time of day were headed toward Austin, not away from it, and she lived on the north end of the city. It was a perfect day to ride with the top down, but she wouldn’t have time to correct the windswept look before she showed up at the office, so she kept the top on and her foot on the accelerator of her BMW M5, easily darting around the other traffic on the highway. Once she passed Waco, she settled into a rhythm and started to reflect on what lay ahead. She called ahead to book a room at the Crescent. It was close to the office and had all the creature comforts. After she finished the call, the screen on the dash scrolled through the other numbers in her contact list. She saw the number for Holt Industries go by and considered calling her father to tell him about the impending partnership. She dismissed the idea quickly. She wasn’t going to Dallas for a reunion, she was going to work, and nothing would get in her way.
“She’s not here.”
Carly listened to Rhonda on the other end of the phone tell her one more time that Jane expected her to bring Landon directly to the office. Carly was used to Jane’s aversion to taking no for an answer, a trait that had rubbed off on Rhonda. She started to lay out her case about why she’d determined Landon wasn’t at the airport, but decided it was pointless. She hung up the phone and wandered over to the baggage attendant one more time. “I’m guessing you haven’t had anyone show up in response to the page?”
“No, ma’am. Are you sure your friend was on the flight?”
Carly didn’t bother correcting her. “Actually, I’m not, but I appreciate you checking. Thanks.”
Not that she needed it, but Carly had a picture of Landon on her phone from the firm’s website. She’d arrived at the airport before the flight landed, but hadn’t seen anyone matching Landon’s description wandering from the gates. She supposed it was possible she’d missed her in the crowd and Landon had taken a cab. Probably just a miscommunication. Either way, if she didn’t get back to the office soon, she’d be late for the meeting.
The office was a quick fifteen-minute drive from Love Field, and Carly pulled into the parking lot just moments before noon. She’d already prepared packets of information about the case for everyone and made sure there were sufficient copies before heading to the airport, so all she’d need to do before the meeting was grab a minute alone to review her notes and she’d be all set.
Her plans were thwarted by pastry. Russell, the firm’s receptionist, accosted her the second she walked into the reception area.
“Kolaches!” he called like he was hawking the baked goods for extra cash. “You don’t want to miss these.” He punctuated the admonition by waving a white baker’s box under her nose.
“I’m good,” Carly answered although the loud rumble of her stomach betrayed her.
“Seriously, Car, they’re from the Czech Stop. In West?” Russell shook his head. “None of this is registering, is it?”
Carly resisted telling him one more time not to shorten her name, and peered into the box where several rows of sweet rolls lined the interior. She looked back up at Russell. “Should it?”
“You need to get out more. West, Texas, home of one of Texas’s oldest Czech settlements, and a must stop on the way to or from Austin, exit 353 to be precise. I never make the drive without stopping on the way there and back…”
He kept talking, but Carly had stopped paying attention after he said the word Austin. “Wait a minute. Who brought these?”
“Guilty as charged.”
Carly whirled at the sound of the unfamiliar voice behind her and came face-to-face with the missing-in-action Landon Holt. She opened her mouth to give her a piece of her mind for not being at the airport, but stopped at the sight of her wide smile and stunningly gorgeous blue-gray eyes.
Landon stuck out her hand. “I’m Landon Holt, nice to meet you.” She looked down at her hand which Carly had left hanging, and pointed at the box in Russell’s hand. “You should have one of these. Or two. I risked the wrath of Jane getting them, so it would be a shame for them to go to waste.” Landon reached into the box. “Sweet or savory?”
“You stood me up at the airport.” Carly blurted out the non sequitur, instantly regretting her lack of control. While she fished around for something more intelligent to say, Landon cast a sideways glance at Russell, who merely raised his eyebrows while munching on one of the kolaches. Carly took a breath and tried again. “Jane asked me to pick you up at the airport. I was there. I waited. I even had you paged, but you never showed.” She rolled her hand with each statement as if the physical action would jog Landon’s memory.
“Oh, sorry. I decided to drive.” She rocked back on her heels. “My bad. Guess I should’ve called, but I had no idea Jane was sending someone to pick me up. Please accept my apology with a kolache on the side.” She flashed a big smile and waited for Carly to relent.
Caught in the tractor beam of light, Carly held out for about five seconds before muttering, “It’s okay.” Truce accomplished, she glanced at her watch, noting there was only three minutes before the meeting was supposed to start. Barely enough time for her to consult her notes. She edged away. “I have something I need to do.”
“Before you go, can you let Jane and Mark know I’m here? And who should I talk to about getting a Coke?”
Carly started to ask if Landon thought she was a secretary, but instead she merely pointed at Russell and marched to her office, hoping Landon’s stay in Dallas would be short-lived.