JEN BALLARD planned to get lucky tonight.
The thought made her heart do a little hopscotch as she slid her Volvo sedan into the driveway and checked her surroundings. No news vans. No beat-up hatchbacks belonging to reporters. She skimmed the street in both directions but saw only familiar cars in familiar driveways. She glanced in the rearview mirror at the driveway across the street, but it was empty—which might or might not be a good sign.
Jen pulled into her spacious garage. She gathered her groceries off the passenger seat as her phone pinged with an incoming text. David.
Running late. ETA 20 min.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Now she’d have time to shower and change into something more alluring than the charcoal pantsuit she’d worn to work.
She slid from the car and hurried into the house. Even laden with groceries, she felt empty-handed this evening. She had no briefs to read, no pretrial motions to consider. She’d left everything at the office, including her laptop, which felt good for a change.
Jen stashed the steaks and the salad ingredients in the fridge, then
washed the potatoes and put them in the oven. She checked the clock. Fifteen minutes. She uncorked the merlot. It needed to breathe anyway. Really. She poured half a glass, then made her way to her bedroom as she sipped a little liquid courage.
David liked merlot. And he was allergic to bees. Funny the things you learned about your neighbors over the years. She also knew he was divorced, no kids, and he was one of the top cardiologists in Dallas.
Jen set her glass on the bathroom counter and turned on the shower, twisting her thick hair into a bun because she didn’t have time to dry it. She stripped off her clothes and stepped under the hot spray.
A date. Tonight. Her stomach fluttered with nerves, and she wished she hadn’t sampled the wine.
She’d bumped into David at Home Depot last week, and he’d asked her out right there in the lightbulb aisle.
We should have dinner sometime, he’d said with his easygoing smile.
She’d been so shocked that she stood there staring at him for a full five seconds until I’d love to! popped out of her mouth.
It was impulsive. And ill timed. But once the words were out, there was no going back.
She’d told him they should probably wait until her trial was over, but his blank expression made her realize he might not even know about it. How could he not, though? Didn’t he read the papers? Maybe he was too busy saving lives to take notice of the media circus that had been going on in her courtroom for the past four weeks.
His utter obliviousness to her professional life appealed to her. A lot. She liked the prospect of seeing someone who didn’t think of her as Judge Ballard or Your Honor. Most men were intimidated by the robe, and she hadn’t had a single date in the two years since she’d been elected to the bench.
Jen stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in a towel. Nerves fluttered again as she opened her closet and skimmed the endless rack of suits.
“Crap,” she mumbled, combing through the hangers. Everything was drab, even her weekend clothes.
Very few women could exude sex appeal in the courtroom and still be taken seriously. Brynn Holloran came to mind. The auburn-haired defense attorney wore low-cut blouses and spike heels, and everyone knew she was a force to be reckoned with. Jen had always dressed down, in muted colors and sensible shoes, even during her prosecutor days. She wanted people to focus on her brain, not her boobs, but lately she’d felt sick to death of the whole conservative-jurist shtick.
Her gaze landed on the coral sheath dress she’d worn to her niece’s graduation. It was pretty. Feminine. She remembered feeling confident in it. She grabbed the hanger and, before she could change her mind, slipped into a lace thong and pulled the dress over her head. She tugged up the zipper and rearranged her breasts because the tight fit didn’t leave room for a bra.
Jen checked herself out in the mirror. Not bad. She freshened her makeup and fluffed her hair into a breezy style to match the dress. She slid her feet into sandals and downed a last sip of wine.
Her phone chimed from the bedroom, and she rushed to check it. Maybe another update from David. But instead it was Nate Levinson, a former colleague. What would he want? She’d missed two calls from him while she’d been in the shower, as well as a call from a Beaumont area code. She let Nate’s call go to voice mail. It was business, no doubt, and she was taking the night off.
She glanced at the mirror one more time before heading into the kitchen. The house felt warm, and she stopped at the thermostat to
turn up the AC. The clock read 7:25. David would be here any minute, and she still needed to season the steaks and throw the salad together. She walked into the kitchen and felt a crunch under her feet.
She looked down. What the . . . ?
Glass. All over the floor. She looked toward the patio, and a warm waft of air turned her blood to ice.
She whirled around to see a black pistol inches from her face. Her heart leaped as she looked at the man holding the gun. Dear God, no.
The calls from Nate, from Beaumont, all made sense now.
The man stepped forward. “On your knees.”
“Don’t hurt me.”
Her legs folded, and she was on the floor, chunks of glass biting into her skin. This can’t be happening. How can this be happening? Her heart hammered wildly in her chest.
“Don’t hurt me.” She gazed up at him, and the utter calm on his face made her stomach quiver.
He brought the muzzle of the gun to her forehead. It felt cool and hard, and bile rose in the back of her throat.
“Please,” she croaked. “I’ll do whatever you want, just—”
“That’s right.” His eyes were flat and soulless. “You will.”
Brynn Holloran dipped her fingertips in the warm water and eyed the clock.
“What’s your mood today?” Chrissy spun the nail-polish carousel and glanced at Brynn’s ivory blouse. “Nude? Blushing bride?”
“Oh, no.” Brynn picked a bottle and plunked it on the table.
“Cha-Ching Cherry.” Chrissy smiled. “You must have a trial today.”
Chrissy nodded. “You’ll win,” she said, snipping away at Brynn’s cuticles. “Red’s your lucky color.”
Brynn darted another look at the clock as nervous energy buzzed through her. She appreciated Chrissy’s confidence, but it did little to quell her stress. Nothing would until she stepped into that courtroom.
“Big case?” Chrissy asked.
“Yes.” Big was an understatement. “It’s a murder trial, and I haven’t gone up against this prosecutor before.”
Chrissy swiveled in her chair and took out some hot towels. Wrapping Brynn’s hands, she studied her face through the steam. “You’ll do great. He won’t know what hit him.”
Chrissy had been a fierce supporter ever since Brynn repped her in a dispute with her toad of a landlord, who was jerking her around over the rent. Brynn hadn’t even represented her officially, just sent a nasty letter on firm stationery. The toad had backed down, and Chrissy had offered Brynn a lifetime of free manicures—which she wouldn’t take, of course. Brynn would never hit Chrissy up for freebies, but she wasn’t above coming in on a busy Friday and asking to be squeezed in.
Chrissy unwrapped the towels. She pumped lotion into her hand—eucalyptus mint—and started massaging Brynn’s forearms. It felt so good she wanted to drop her head on the table and weep.
The massage was over way too soon, and Chrissy thwacked the bottle of polish against her palm before twisting off the top.
“The trial’s in Dallas,” Brynn said. “I have a thousand things to do, but I couldn’t leave town without stopping in.”
Chrissy raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Not if you’re going to Dallas,” she said, expertly stroking red over a nail.
She understood the importance of appearances. She was in the image business. Thanks to skin treatments and relentless workouts, the sixty-two-year-old salon owner didn’t look a day over fifty, and Brynn hoped to be as lucky someday.
If she didn’t work herself into an early grave first.
A text landed on Brynn’s phone from Ross, her law partner. She swiped the screen with her free pinkie.
Perez is missing.
“Damn it.” She looked up. “I have to make a call, sorry,” she said, tapping Ross’s number.
He picked up on the first ring. “Where are you?” he demanded.
“In a meeting. What do you mean, ‘missing’?”
“We were supposed to have a video conference at nine to practice his testimony, but he blew it off, and he’s not answering his phone.”
“Try his girlfriend.”
“I did. That’s what worries me. She hasn’t seen or heard from him since Tuesday, and she has no idea where he is.”
Brynn bit back a curse. “Did you tell Reggie?”
“I’m headed to the office.”
“I’ll meet you there,” she said. “We’ll figure out what to do.”
As soon as the phone was down, Chrissy took Brynn’s hand and swiftly finished the first coat. She examined her work and did a quick second coat before switching on the drying lamp.
“I have to run. I—”
“Five minutes.” Chrissy’s stern look shut down any objections. She borrowed another lamp from a neighboring table and arranged Brynn’s other hand beneath the heat before walking into the back room.
Brynn gazed longingly at her phone. She wanted to call Reggie. And check her e-mail. Shit. How could Perez be missing? Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was sleeping off a hangover somewhere. But a tight ball of dread formed in Brynn’s stomach as she thought about all the implications. Her eighteen-year-old client was going on trial for his life, and their star witness was MIA.
She took a deep breath and tried to relax, letting the lingering eucalyptus scent calm her. That worked for about a minute, and then she cast a furtive look over her shoulder. Chrissy had disappeared, and Brynn made a break for the cash register. She pulled out the credit card she’d left on top of her purse so she wouldn’t have to rummage with wet nails. After leaving an extra-big tip and signing the bill, she stepped from the cool salon into the sweltering summer heat.
Brynn slid into her black SUV and headed across town, which wasn’t a long drive. Pine Rock was a sleepy bedroom community just north of Houston—six stoplights and two churches.
Her sister’s Wonder Woman ring tone emanated from the speakers, and Brynn answered.
“Have you left yet?” Liz asked.
“We leave Sunday.”
“What is it?”
“Mike’s got a college friend in from out of town. We’re taking him out for Tex-Mex tomorrow night, and we want you to come.”
“I wish I could, but I’m slammed,” Brynn said.
“You’re just saying that because you think it’s a setup.”
“Well, isn’t it?”
“It’s Tex-Mex and margaritas. Totally casual. And this guy’s cute. I know you’ll hit it off.”
Liz and Brynn had a special language when it came to men. “Hot” meant drool-worthy alpha. “Cute” meant a teddy bear, and the last “cute” guy her sister had set her up with had been three inches shorter than Brynn.
Not that it should matter. Who cared what he looked like if he was decent and smart and managed to get through the evening without burping or bad-mouthing his ex? Brynn was the problem.
“I really have to work,” Brynn said. “I have a whole new fire drill, as of ten minutes ago. Our star witness is missing.”
“Really.” She turned into the parking lot beside her building and whipped into her usual space.
“Well, call me if you catch a break and want to go out tomorrow.”
“I will. Love you.”
Brynn strode across the lot, careful not to catch her Jimmy Choo sandals in any of the potholes. She dropped her phone into her purse as she mounted the steps to the converted Victorian that housed the offices of Blythe and Gunn.
Reggie had bought the property three years ago when he moved his law practice from Dallas to Pine Rock. From the street, the place looked charming. But years of dealing with leaky windows and temperamental plumbing had dampened Brynn’s enthusiasm for the architecture. The building was originally a boardinghouse, but Reggie had renovated it to accommodate six lawyers, two paralegals, an administrative assistant, and a receptionist—not to mention the steady flow of clients who drifted in and out seven days a week. Big trials were the firm’s gravy, but Saturday-night arrests were its bread and butter.
The waiting room was empty of tearful mothers and hand-wringing
spouses this morning. The receptionist’s chair was empty, too, and Brynn followed the smell of fresh coffee to Reggie’s office.
Faith sat behind her mahogany desk, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Brynn stopped short. Reggie’s assistant never cried. The mother hen of the law firm was unflappable, no matter how crazy things got.
Brynn stepped over. “Faith?”
She glanced up, startled, and her usually perfect mascara was streaked down her cheeks.
It was Faith’s boys. Had to be. Her two teenage sons were constantly getting into trouble, and Faith had started to worry that the older one was on drugs.
Brynn knelt beside her. “Faith, what happened?”
Faith squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
“Brynn!” Reggie boomed from his office. The door jerked open, and her silver-haired boss stepped out. “Brynn, get in here.”
She shot him a glare and returned her attention to Faith. “Are you all right?”
She dabbed her nose. “Yes, just . . . go on.”
Brynn stood and followed Reginald H. Gunn, managing partner, past the nameplate bearing his title. Shelves crammed with law books lined the walls, and towers of file boxes crowded every corner. Reggie walked behind his cluttered desk, and Brynn noted the pin-striped suit jacket hanging on the back of his chair. The pink silk handkerchief in the front pocket told her he planned to be in court later.
“Close the door, would you?”
She followed his gruff command, taking one last peek at Faith as she eased shut the door.
“Sit down,” he said.
“I’ll stand. What’s up?”
Reggie’s leather chair creaked as he sank into it. He ran a hand through his thick hair.
“Nate called me. Jen Ballard was killed last night.”
Brynn sagged back against the wall. “What—”
“I don’t have all the details yet, but she was murdered sometime yesterday evening in her home.”
Brynn’s blood turned cold. Beautiful, witty Jen Ballard murdered. The words didn’t belong in the same sentence.
She stepped closer to Reggie’s desk. “How?”
“I don’t know, okay? I haven’t even had time to call the police up there. And there’s something else—”
A sharp knock came at the door. Ross leaned his head in and immediately zeroed in on Brynn. “You tell him yet?”
“Tell me what?” Reggie asked.
Ross stepped into the office, oblivious to the tension hovering in the room. “Perez is missing. We were supposed to run through his testimony at nine, but he blew off the appointment.”
“Try his girlfriend.”
“She hasn’t seen or heard from him in days.” Ross looked at Brynn and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
She cleared her throat. “Jen Ballard.”
“What about her?”
“She was murdered,” Reggie said.
Ross’s face went slack. “What?”
“She was killed in her home last night. Up in Sheridan Heights, right outside of Dallas,” Reggie told him. “I just got off the phone with Nate Levinson twenty minutes ago.”
Ross shot Brynn a look, as if she might somehow make sense of
what he was hearing, but she couldn’t. The forty-two-year-old woman who’d once been their boss, their mentor, and their friend was dead.
“What’s the other thing?” Brynn asked Reggie. “You said there was something else?”
Reggie stared at Brynn. A veteran trial attorney, he had a talent for creating drama, but the solemn look on his face was all too real.
“What is it?” Ross asked.
“James Corby is out.”
Brynn’s eyebrows shot up. “Out?”
Beside her, Ross made a strangled sound.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Ross clutched his head with his hands. “How do you escape a fucking maximum-security prison?”
Reggie’s gaze locked with Brynn’s. “I don’t know.”
But he did know. And so did Brynn. As an assistant prosecutor, Brynn had tried James Corby’s case alongside then lead prosecutor Jen Ballard. Brynn had learned that James Corby was not only violent and sadistic but also smart. Frighteningly smart. And the prospect of him slipping out of prison had lurked in the darkest corners of Brynn’s mind for years.
Her chest felt tight. She placed her hand on her sternum and tried to breathe. But it was Ross who bent at the waist and looked like he was going to puke.
“Hey,” Reggie snapped. “Don’t throw up in here.”
Ross straightened and shook his head. “This is insane. Where the hell are the marshals?”
“They’re on it,” Reggie replied. “That I do know. Nate tells me they’ve been working this thing from the beginning.”
“And when was that?” Brynn asked.
“He escaped Wednesday, and we’re just now hearing about it?”
Beside her, Ross let out a blistering string of curses.
“What does this mean for us?” Ross asked. “Our trial begins in Dallas in three days, right down the goddamn road from Jen’s murder—”
“It means we have to take action,” Reggie said. “I’ve already started.”
“What do you mean?” Brynn couldn’t keep the skepticism out of her voice. She’d dealt with plenty of criminals and considered herself fairly streetwise. But what kind of “action” did Reggie think they were going to take here? Was he planning to jump into his Mercedes and hunt down an escaped convict?
“I’m hiring protection,” Reggie said. “The best money can buy.”
“Bodyguards?” She blinked at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am.” He checked his watch and picked up the phone.
“Wait, stop.” Brynn held up her hand. “Before you rush off and hire anyone, we need to talk to the sheriffs up there about protection. This falls on them, doesn’t it? Our courthouse is in their jurisdiction.”
Reggie gave her a dark look. “This law firm doesn’t exactly have a lot of friends up there. As you well know.”
“Reggie, they hate us up there,” Ross said.
“Exactly my point. We can’t count on the locals to do anything for us.”
“Yes, but it’s their job,” Brynn said.
“Yeah, and it’s our job to win this trial. I won’t have my two top attorneys worried and distracted.”
Brynn was still in shock. But not so much that she couldn’t
imagine the major pain in the butt having a bodyguard trailing her around was going to be. This was the biggest case of her career. Reggie had put her in charge of everything, from jury selection to the closing statement. She’d spent countless hours preparing and still had work to do.
“Yes, but . . . bodyguards? As in plural?” She played the money card. “That sounds expensive.”
“Listen, Reggie, I appreciate the thought.” She glanced at Ross. “We both do, but—”
“No buts. And it’s not a thought. I already made the call.” He looked at Ross. “Now, about this Perez thing, did you get Bulldog on it?”
Ross shook his head, and Reggie jabbed at his desk phone.
Bulldog, aka Bull, aka John Kopek, was the private investigator Reggie kept on speed dial. Brynn shook her head. She felt like she’d been sucker punched, and her boss was already back to business.
“Bull, it’s Reggie. I need a locate.” He muffled the receiver against his shirt and gave Brynn a sharp look. “You’ve got a trial to prep for. Better get to it.”
Erik Morgan was almost out when everything went sideways.
An earsplitting boom.
A billow of smoke.
He halted in the narrow corridor and adjusted the body slung over his shoulder. The air around him swirled with grit. Sweat seeped into his eyes. But he pushed the distractions out of his mind as he and his teammates moved into position.
Weapon raised, Erik darted around the corner, instantly spotting two silhouettes. To his right, a man holding a pistol. To his left, a
teenage girl holding a cell phone. Erik fired two rounds at the man, hitting him square in the chest.
He ran for the door, stopping at the threshold to scan for hostiles.
“Clear!” he repeated, then took off down the stairs.
One flight. Two. A door slapped open above him.
Dust rained down as Erik adjusted his load and kept moving. They were running out of time. He could feel it. More smoke, more shouting. He heard his teammates’ footsteps behind him.
“Go, go, go!” someone yelled.
Boots thundered as four men carrying more than eight hundred pounds of dead weight bounded down the stairwell. At ground level, Erik stopped at the plywood door. His teammate kicked it open and peered out to scan the area.
“All clear!” Hayes yelled.
Erik followed him through the door, exiting the kill house with a cloud of smoke and dust. He sprinted the last fifty yards to a concrete barricade, then dropped to a knee in the dirt and lowered his load to the ground.
“Two minutes, forty-six seconds.”
Erik glanced up to see Jeremy Owen looming over him with a stopwatch. The former Marine sharpshooter did not look happy.
The man playing the role of Erik’s protectee groaned and sat up. “What the fuck happened back there?”
Hayes shook his head. “I couldn’t see.” He glanced back at the kill house, a building made up of rooms, hallways, and stairwells where they practiced closed-quarters battle and rescue scenarios. Flash-bangs and smoke grenades were tossed into the mix to ramp up the chaos.
Erik had watched Hayes work, and visibility wasn’t his only problem. Hayes’s protectee had a paint splatter on his shirt the size of a soccer ball. If they’d been facing live rounds, the man would be dead.
“Okay, everybody up,” Jeremy ordered. “Hit the hoses, and we’ll reconvene on the south range at fifteen hundred.”
Erik got up and helped his teammate to his feet. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm and glanced at the sun. It was ninety-eight today—hotter inside the kill house—and his clothes were saturated.
Everyone grabbed the gear and moved out. Jeremy caught Erik’s eye and signaled for him to walk back with him on the trail.
“How’d it go with Becker?” Jeremy asked when they were deep in the woods.
Hayes Becker, twenty-six, of Roanoke, Virginia. As a team leader, it was Erik’s job to help evaluate candidates who wanted to join the elite ranks of Wolfe Security, and Hayes had made it to the final round.
“He’s not ready yet,” Erik said. “But he’s getting there.”
“What’s your take on his skills?”
“His tactical driving’s good. PT scores are off the charts. It’s his shooting that needs work.”
Jeremy grunted. “That’s the problem with these FBI hires.”
“So we’re keeping him?”
They made their way along the running trail and O-course. Set among the towering East Texas pines, the course had been modeled after the SEAL obstacle course at Coronado. The pinnacle in terms of height and effort was a seventy-foot cargo net, which a couple of new recruits were clawing their way up right now. They wore olive-green
BDUs to differentiate themselves from real Wolfe agents, who wore all black.
Erik reviewed this afternoon’s session, making a mental list of the areas where Hayes needed work. Any team they deployed on a job was only as good as its weakest member, and new hires either had to get up to speed or get out.
“I’ll spend some time with him,” Erik said. “We can burn through some mags on the range, see if I can pinpoint his problem.”
“Good. I’ll give Liam the heads-up.”
Erik walked into the clearing as a silver 5-series BMW sped by, leaving a cloud of red dust in its wake. It curved along the dirt road and pulled up to the sprawling log cabin that served as their business headquarters. A man climbed out from behind the wheel. Average height, medium build. From his Ray-Bans and his suit, Erik pegged him for a corporate executive. Then the passenger door opened, and a woman slid from the car.
Erik halted. Her long red hair caught the sunlight as she turned around. She wore tight black jeans and a silky white shirt, and she had a big leather purse slung over her shoulder. She was several inches taller than the guy with her, partly because of her mile-high heels.
“Who is that?” Erik looked at Jeremy.
They got all kinds of VIPs at the compound. Pop stars, politicians, athletes. Some of their clients were just ordinary rich people who’d picked up an enemy along the way and decided they needed protection. Judging from their looks, this couple fell into the last category. They mounted the steps to the building, peeling off their shades as they went inside.
He turned to see Tony Lopez jogging up the trail. In a black T-shirt and tactical pants, he was dressed just like Erik, only he wasn’t sporting a layer of dirt and soot.
“The chief wants you in his office,” Tony said.
Erik’s gaze narrowed. “This have to do with the five-series that just pulled in?”
“You got it.”
“Know who they are?”
He smiled. “I hear they’re a couple of hotshots from Dallas.”
“Think they’re attorneys,” he added.
Tony grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Better you than me, bro.”