Found cowering and covered in blood, Karina Guerrero's fourteen-year-old brother is accused of a crime that she's certain he didn't commit.
Only one man can help Karina prove the boy's innocence. Private investigator Mason Sinclair knows firsthand what it's like to be framed. But the former cop, now committed to helping the falsely accused, is clearly uneasy being back in Albuquerque—and working with his former flame. Still, Karina can't ...
Found cowering and covered in blood, Karina Guerrero's fourteen-year-old brother is accused of a crime that she's certain he didn't commit.
Only one man can help Karina prove the boy's innocence. Private investigator Mason Sinclair knows firsthand what it's like to be framed. But the former cop, now committed to helping the falsely accused, is clearly uneasy being back in Albuquerque—and working with his former flame. Still, Karina can't help falling for the handsome P.I. as they hunt the real killer: a cold-blooded murderer with dangerous ties to them both.
Virginia Smith wrote her 1st story in her mid-twenties and discovered that writing well is harder than it looks; it took many years to produce a book worthy of publication.During the daylight hours, she steadily climbed the corporate ladder and stole time to write late at night after the kids were in bed.With the publication of her 1st novel, she left her twenty-year corporate profession to devote her energy to writing stories that honor God and bring a smile to the faces of her readers.
Loud pounding from somewhere nearby reached into Karina Guerrero's dream and dragged her to wakefulness. Heart thudding in sync with the beats, she forced her eyes open. Darkness blurred the corners of her bedroom like sleep blurred her thoughts. Those guys in the apartment next door hadn't ever been this noisy. Bang, bang, bang.
"Albuquerque police department. Open up!"
The voice, deeply male and harshly insistent, chased away the last tendrils of sleep. The police—here? Not an annoying stereo after all. She forced her eyes to focus on the clock on the nightstand. Three thirty-seven in the morning. Fear, sharp as a knife's blade, sliced through her insides. Had something happened to Alex?
Her voice, squeaky with panic, filled the apartment as she jerked on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt over her pajamas. No time to brush her sleep-tousled hair, so she pulled the thick dark mass into a messy knot at the back of her neck as she hurried across the tiny living room to the front door. A quick peek through the peephole settled her fear deeper inside. A stern-faced man with short-cropped hair frowned at her from the sidewalk outside.
Please don't let something have happened to Alex.
She unlocked the door and opened it. Not just one officer, but two. Both men. Surely if they were coming to give her bad news, they would have sent a woman, right? She grasped at the thought and could not find a voice for the question that screamed in her mind.
"Hello, Karina," the first officer said.
The familiar use of her name made her look more closely at him. A face from the past peered back at her.
"Parker Harding." She hadn't thought about him in several years. Memories of him inevitably brought back memories of his friend and former partner, and she absolutely could not allow herself to think of Mason Sinclair. That was too painful.
The shadowy smile hovering around Parker's mouth acknowledged the painful memories, but thankfully he didn't bring up old times. Instead, he gestured toward the man standing beside him. "This is my partner, Officer Graham. We're sorry to disturb you at such a late hour, but we're hoping you can help us."
A flicker of hope sparked to life. That didn't sound like someone bringing bad news. Maybe something had happened in the neighborhood, and they were checking for witnesses. That wouldn't be unusual in this apartment complex. She nodded, still unable to speak.
He held her gaze as he spoke. "We're looking for Alex, Karina. Our records indicate he lives here with you."
His words landed like slaps across her face. Alex must be in some kind of trouble.
He said lives, not lived. That means he's alive. Right?
Fingers biting into the flesh of her arms, she managed to find her voice. "Is he in some kind of trouble?" She swallowed.
"Is he okay?"
Did she imagine it, or did Parker's expression soften just a fraction? And if it did, was it with pity?
"Karina, it's very important that we talk to your brother. Is he at home?"
"No, he's not. He's staying the night with a friend. I can give you the address."
Parker exchanged a glance with his partner. "Is his friend's name Jose Garcia?"
Oh no. Was Jose in trouble, then? The times Karina had met him he'd seemed like a good kid. "Yes, that's right."
Officer Graham's expression grew grim. "Jose Garcia was killed tonight, ma'am. Several witnesses saw him with your brother right before the shooting. That's why we need to speak with Alexander."
A wave of shock washed over her, leaving her dizzy. She clutched at the door to keep from falling. Jose dead? But he was only fourteen years old. And where was Alex?
"I—" She swallowed, trying to put life into her numb tongue. "I don't know where Alex is. He was spending the night at Jose's. Have you looked there?"
Jose's parents will be devastated!
"Mr. and Mrs. Garcia haven't seen him." Officer Graham straightened and assumed an authoritative stance. "Ms. Guerrero, we'd like permission to look in Alexander's room. Will you allow us to do that?"
"But I already told you, he's not here." Wait a minute. Why did they want to look in Alex's room? She clutched the edge of the heavy wooden door and peered up into Parker's face. "Parker, surely you don't think Alex would do anything to hurt Jose. You remember Alex, right? My brother is a good boy. He goes to school, gets good grades. He even has a job and helps pay our bills."
His answer confirmed her suspicions.
"Karina, we need to take a look. If we need to get a warrant to search Alexander's room, we can have it within fifteen minutes."
Karina opened her mouth to insist that Alex wouldn't do anything wrong. In a city where teenagers ran in gangs and did drugs and robbed convenience stores, fourteen-year-old Alex was an anomaly. He was polite and helpful and responsible. But she kept her arguments to herself. These men were doing their job, but their job chilled the blood in her veins.
If Alex wasn't at Jose's house, and if Jose was dead, then where was her brother? Let them look in his room. They'd find nothing, because there was nothing to find. Then maybe they'd realize that the kid they were looking for wasn't running from them—he was missing. Probably frightened, and maybe even hurt.
Without a word, she swung the door open wider to invite them inside. They followed her across the living room and down the short hallway past the bathroom she and her brother shared. Alex's door was closed, as always when he wasn't there. She twisted the knob, threw it open and flipped the light switch.
And froze, stunned.
There, crouched in the corner between his dresser and closet door, was Alex. His clothes were covered in blood.
Mason Sinclair bit into his toast and examined his schedule for the day. His lone client at the moment would arrive at his office at one o'clock this afternoon to hear a report of his wife's infidelity, complete with pictures. Lots of them.
"Poor slob," Mason mumbled.
A loud snore drifted down the hallway from the direction of the second bedroom. His roommate, Caleb. Six months ago Caleb had moved from Las Vegas to Atlanta at Mason's suggestion. Along with their friend Brent, the three formed the Falsely Accused Support Team to help prove the innocence of people who'd been accused of crimes they didn't commit. Since they began, F.A.S.T. had helped clear four innocent people.
Mason took pride in their success rate. He enjoyed helping people who were in the same tight spot he'd been in four years ago. Only he didn't have a F.A.S.T. team to help him, so he'd faced the accusations alone.
His cell phone interrupted his thoughts. He swallowed another gulp of coffee, then leaned back in his chair to grab the phone from the kitchen counter by the tail of its charger. An unfamiliar number appeared on the screen. 505 area code. He knew without looking it up where that was. Albuquerque. The thought was enough to make him put the phone back on the counter and ignore the call. There wasn't a single person in Albuquerque he wanted to talk to.
After a few rings the call went to voice mail. He waited for the chime telling him he had received a new message. Instead the phone rang again. Same phone number. Somebody really wanted to talk to him. Must be important.
Before he could second-guess his decision, he answered the call. "Hello?"
A sharp intake of breath, then a female voice said, "Mason?"
At the familiar tone, memories engulfed him. Gone were the kitchen and the open jar of grape jelly on the table in front of him. Forgotten were his notebook and coffee mug. Instead, vivid images rose in his mind. Picnics on the grass. Hikes in the Sandia Mountains. Wavy black hair blown by a hot desert breeze. More vivid than the images were the feelings. Sweet lips moving against his. Soft arms wrapped around his neck. And something else.
Primarily he felt the sick bite of guilt gnawing in his gut. Just like always.
He wrapped the fingers of one hand around his coffee mug and squeezed. "Been a long time, Karina."
Another breath sounded through the phone line, this one shaky. "I called because I need help, Mason. I wouldn't ask except I don't have anyone else. We're alone."
Several questions came to mind, but he asked the obvious one first. "We?"
"Alex and me. My dad passed away two years ago." More memories. Nine-year-old Alex playing volleyball with Mason at a church-sponsored picnic, while Mr. Guerrero and Karina sat on the sidelines cheering them on. Karina cheered louder for him than for Alex.
Mason leaned forward and pushed the coffee mug toward the center of the table. "I didn't know. I'm sorry."
"Mason, Alex is in trouble and I don't know what to do."
Alex would be about fourteen now, a teenager. "What's he gotten into?"
"He's being held in the juvenile detention center. They've charged him with murder. But he didn't do it. I promise he didn't."
Mason sat back against the wooden spindles of his chair. Murder. The word fell on his ears like a gong, resonating with horrible feelings from his own past.
A movement drew his attention to the hallway. Caleb stumbled out of his bedroom, lumbered into the kitchen and headed straight for the coffee pot. The big man's hair, normally caught back in a ponytail, hung in tangles after a night of fighting with his pillow.
Mason flapped a hand in his direction to keep him quiet, and said into the phone, "Who do they say he murdered?"
That got Caleb's attention. He whirled around, coffee carafe still in hand, and peered intently at Mason.
"A friend. Jose Garcia." Her voice held a sob. "He was only fourteen, like Alex."
He flipped to the back of his notebook, found a blank page and jotted down the victim's name. He'd see what he could find out later. Caleb moved closer to read over his shoulder, so beside the name he wrote 14 years old and underlined it. Caleb winced.
"Does Alex have an attorney?"
"Not yet. I can't afford to hire one, so he'll have a public defender assigned. But it's been two days, and so far we haven't heard anything. The court wasn't open over the weekend."
Mason wrote public defender beneath the victim's name and exchanged a glance with Caleb. There were some really good public defenders out there, but most were inexperienced and young in their legal careers, trying to build a resume.
"We need you, Mason. Alex needs you." Karina's tone became a plea. "Can you come to New Mexico and help us?"
Before he could stop it, a laugh burst out in a blast. Him, go to Albuquerque? What a suggestion. "Hold on there. I can't just drop everything and hop on a plane. I have a business to run here in Atlanta." Albuquerque? No way. Never again.
Caleb slid into the empty chair on the other side of the dinette table and raised his eyebrows. Mason glared at him.
"But I thought that's what you do these days, help people who are accused of a crime they didn't commit."
That made him squirm in his chair. Where did she hear about the Falsely Accused Support Team? Probably that website Brent had insisted on building. They'd gotten dozens of inquiries and several clients since he'd launched it.
"Listen, we're in Atlanta. Our connections, our contacts, are here." Never mind that their first case, the one that spawned F.A.S.T., had occurred in Vegas. The whole team lived here now, and that's where they concentrated their efforts.
"You have contacts in Albuquerque," she shot back, her voice full of the old fire he remembered so well. He used to tease her about her hot Latin temper.
"Not anymore." He closed his eyes against a wave of emotion. His so-called contacts in New Mexico were all four years old. He'd shut off that part of his life, separated it in a sealed compartment that he never wanted to open.
"Please, Mason. I have nowhere else to turn."
Part of him wanted so badly to help her. He owed it to her, to make up for all the pain he'd inflicted on her in the past. But he had pain too, didn't he? Going back to Albuquerque, the source of the memories that haunted his dreams, wasn't something he was willing to do.
And yet, there's still a killer on the loose there. He probably gloats over the fact that he killed my wife four years ago and went scot-free.
Mason raised his free hand and massaged his temples with a thumb and finger. Not his problem. Not anymore.
He spoke softly. "Karina, I can't."
She was sobbing openly now. "You mean you won't. You won't help me. Alex will go to prison, and you won't lift a finger."
The accusation writhed in his chest. He couldn't argue, because it was true. He opened his mouth to say "I'm sorry," but she had already hung up.
Mason set his cell phone beside his unfinished breakfast and closed his notebook.
From across the table Caleb studied him through narrowed eyes. "What was that all about?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Mason picked up his half-eaten toast and wadded it inside a napkin.
"Sounded like a F.A.S.T. client from this end of the conversation."
"Then what were you saying about—"
"Drop it." Mason loaded the words with warning.
Caleb lifted his head and spoke toward the ceiling. "Lord, please help my Brother to heal from whatever is causing him to be such a jerk."