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"I think most of you know Eric Riggs." Daniel Logan, the billionaire CEO and founder of Project Justice, spoke from an enormous video screen positioned at the head of a gleaming mahogany table, making it appear as if he were actually in the conference room, presiding over the staff meeting.
Eric nodded in acknowledgment and tried not to look as nervous as he felt. This conference room was not so different from countless others he'd visited as an attorney. But it had been three years since he'd worn a suit. Three years since he'd focused on anything except proving his innocence and getting out of prison.
He'd accomplished that goal, with the help of his brother and this very organization.
Eric had always thought that once he was free, he would simply start living again-albeit without his wife, the woman he'd thought was his true love. But nothing about his life was simple. Prison had changed him.
His old firm hadn't wanted him back. They were a stodgy lot, and they wanted nothing to do with what they referred to as Eric's "unsavory notoriety." But Daniel Logan had generously offered him a temporary job here, just until Eric got his bearings. His specialty was real estate, not criminal law, but Daniel had assured him he wouldn't be required to do that much-maybe file a few pleadings, oversee contracts with clients and act as a consultant.
He was still nervous as a kid facing a dentist with a drill. He surreptitiously wiped his palms on his pants.
Today's gathering was a routine weekly staff meeting. Lead investigators gave updates on cases they were working, and everyone brainstormed through any roadblocks and used each other as a sounding board. The creativity and passion gathered in this one room was mind-boggling. But his new colleagues went out of their way to make Eric feel at home. He even made a couple of contributions, discovering that he could recall his criminal-law classes. No one laughed or rolled their eyes. Maybe he'd do okay here.
He had to do more than survive. He had to keep this job until he found something else. MacKenzie needed him-not just his emotional support but his financial sustenance. She was seeing the best child psychologist in Houston on a weekly basis, and the therapy didn't come cheap. Then there was the private school, the karate lessons. None of these would make up for the fact that she'd witnessed her mother's bloody murder. But he was determined to give her the best of everything.
The last few minutes of the meeting were devoted to going over new cases, which Daniel assigned to his senior people based on interest, expertise and availability.
"The last case I want to talk about is an interesting one," Daniel said. "This man was convicted seven years ago of rape and attempted murder. The crime was believed to be connected to a string of murders. The victim, Philomene Switzer, was the only one to survive.
"The man was convicted based solely on the victim's testimony. There was no DNA, no fingerprints, just one very credible and sympathetic witness. However, that witness recently recanted."
"Sounds like a slam dunk," said Ford Hyatt, a former cop who had been with Project Justice since the beginning.
"Not so fast," Daniel replied. "The victim confided in a friend, but she refuses to go on the record. So whoever takes this case has some work ahead of them. Who among you is feeling persuasive? Oh, here's our man, by the way. His name is Kelly Ralston."
Eric's head snapped up. My God. A prison ID photo of a man scowled at them from the video screen. It was him. Ralston. Eric brought a reflexive hand to his chest and rubbed it over his dress shirt.
"You think that man's innocent?'" Eric blurted out.
Everyone in the room turned their heads in unison to stare at him.
"Everyone looks bad in their prison ID photo," said Jillian Baxter-Blake, the foundation's newest investigator, a young, stylish blonde with a deceptively innocent look and a sharp intellect. "I'm sure yours didn't make you look like a movie star."
"Jillian!" Daniel glared at her.
"No, it's okay," Eric said quickly. "No offense taken. I didn't mean to imply Ralston must be guilty because he looks like a bad guy. The truth is, I know him. We were housed in the same cellblock at Hunts-ville. And there's no way that guy should be let loose on an unsuspecting public. He's he's a monster."
"A monster?" Daniel sounded dubious.
Eric realized this group of seasoned professionals, obviously very good at what they did, weren't simply going to take his word for it. He was the outsider here. They didn't know him and had no reason to trust him. They were going to take some convincing.
"He tried to kill me. He cut me."
Silence. Then Daniel broke the quiet. "Eric, as I'm sure you know, prison doesn't bring out the best in anyone. People do things when they're locked up that they would never do as free citizens. Here at Project Justice, we concern ourselves solely with the crime for which the client was convicted."
"That's just it. Ralston isn't innocent." Though the room was cool, Eric's forehead broke out in a sweat. "He raped that woman and tried to kill her. He killed other women, too. He used to brag about his crimes in the most bloodcurdling detail. He cut them up, right? Lots of stab wounds? That was the part that turned him on." He paused, forcing himself to slow his breathing and lower the timbre of his voice, then looking at first one, then another of his coworkers. "Do you want me to go on?"
"Obviously this changes things," Daniel said. "If you're sure he's guilty-"
"I'm positive." Except that he wasn't. In truth, he'd never heard Kelly Ralston say word one about the crimes he'd committed. Eric had just told the biggest lie of his life.
"Then I guess we'll deep-six this one. Unfortunately, I told our applicant that we were taking on her case. Someone has to tell her we're not going to help get her boyfriend out of prison."
Kelly Ralston had a girlfriend? That was hard to picture.
"I think the best man for that job is you, Eric."
"Me?" He'd thought his job was all about filing papers with the court. No one said anything about meeting with the deluded girlfriends of scumbag serial rapist-murderers. He was still reeling from just the sight of Ralston's face on a screen. How was he supposed to now greet that man's girlfriend with any sort of professionalism?
"Frankly, I don't think this woman would believe me if I repeated your words," Daniel said. "I think she needs to hear it from you. And she'll be in the lobby in about ten minutes."
Eric was stunned to numbness. He couldn't believe what he'd just done. He'd lied, straight-faced, to the man partly responsible for giving him his life back. Kelly Ralston was going to stay buried in Huntsville, and Eric was responsible for that, too.
Prison is where Ralston belongs. The man was a dangerous psychopath. Kelly Ralston had said that if he ever got free, he would find Eric and slit his throat. Even worse, he'd threatened MacKenzie, a six-year-old girl who was the picture of innocence.
MacKenzie had been the victim of enough crime in her young life. She might never recover from the trauma of losing her mother in such a violent manner; she still had nightmares about blood. Eric would do whatever it took to protect her.
After reminding everyone that the building would be fumigated on Thursday and everyone should plan to take the day off, Daniel disconnected.
Eric dragged his feet on the way down to the lobby, opting for the stairs because he didn't want to talk to anyone about his outburst. Helluva way to start the second day of a new job.
The marble-floored reception area was deserted except for Celeste Boggs, the foundation's office manager, receptionist and self-proclaimed head of security. As far as Eric knew, her actual job responsibilities had nothing to do with security, other than keeping undesirable visitors from gaining access to the rest of the building from the lobby.
But she was pretty scary. In her seventies, she was the antithesis of a sweet little old lady.
"Mr. Riggs," she greeted him without the hint of a smile on her blood-red lips. "Leaving so soon? You haven't even had time to warm up your office chair or fill out forms for the personnel office."
"Actually, I'm looking for someone. A woman named Brianna Johnson has an appointment-"
"At ten, yes, I know. She's not here yet. I can call you when she arrives."
"Okay. I'll just be in my office." He could start setting up a filing system or count paper clips or maybe prepare a resignation letter. So far breaking the bad news to Ralston's girlfriend was the only thing anyone had asked him to do.
He turned and had almost made it through the frosted-glass wall that separated the lobby from the rest of the building when he heard the front door open. He turned-and froze. The woman who walked through that door was mind-bogglingly beautiful. She had creamy white skin, black hair and deep blue eyes-he could see the color even from a distance. She reminded him of a young Elizabeth Taylor, except in a more petite package.
She dressed like a River Oaks debutante-a brown suede jacket over a creamy silk blouse and black wool trousers, along with black leather high-heeled boots. And she walked with the grace of a ballet dancer. This couldn't possibly be the girlfriend of a rough character like Kelly Ralston. No possible way.
The woman smiled uncertainly at Celeste, who didn't return the favor. "Hi, I'm Brianna Johnson. I have an appointment with-"
"Sign here. And I need some ID." Celeste thrust a clipboard at her.
As the woman signed her name in three quick strokes and accepted a clip-on visitor badge from Celeste, Eric continued to study her. She had pretty hands, but the blunt, unpolished nails didn't really match up with the rest of her.
Celeste glanced over at Eric, waiting for him to say something.
"Ms. Johnson?" He closed the distance between them and extended his hand. "I'm Eric Riggs."
"Oh, hello. You can call me Bree." She shook his hand firmly, decisively. This was a woman of confidence and power. She had either money or a prestigious job. Or both. Again he had to wonder why someone like that would associate with a vicious, violent man like Kelly Ralston.
Bree treated him to a steady, measuring gaze but without a hint of recognition. A month ago Eric had achieved minor celebrity status when the governor had pardoned him, and his conviction for murder had been overturned. Eric's brother, with Project Justice's help, had found the real killer, who had damn near taken another victim before being subdued. But a few splashy headlines later, it appeared Eric's fifteen minutes of fame had run its course. Or maybe Brianna didn't watch the news or read the papers.
"So are you going to handle Kelly's case?" Bree asked.
Oh, boy. This wasn't going to be easy.
"Why don't we.. " He started to say they should go to his office. But it was still a mess. No diplomas on the walls, boxes sitting around unpacked, and there was only one guest chair. He'd rather go somewhere more comfortable.
"Yes?" She looked at him with bright, inquisitive eyes.
"Why don't we go to the break room. I need a coffee." Or a shot of bourbon.
He led her down a long hallway toward the kitchen, which was always stocked with all kinds of healthy snacks as well as the ubiquitous office vending machines and a huge bowl of candy. Daniel insisted his people eat well and take care of themselves. The foundation had a workout room, too.
"You can't imagine how excited I was when I got the news that Project Justice was taking up Kelly's cause. For seven years I've been trying to get someone to listen to me, to believe that he couldn't have committed a violent crime. Finally, someone is willing not only to listen but to do something."
This was getting worse by the minute.
"Okay, sure. Black, please." The sitting area adjacent to the kitchen was deserted. It was furnished with a couple of comfy sofas, coffee tables and a selection of recent magazines. Occasionally it was used as a waiting area for guests, since the lobby was intentionally without any chairs.
Bree settled with her coffee in a wingback chair- the highest chair in the room. The power seat. He sat on the sofa opposite her, his stomach feeling as though a nest of vipers had taken up residence.
Without delay she placed her briefcase on the coffee table and opened it.
"Daniel said to bring all of the materials I have relating to Kelly's arrest, conviction, appeals-"
"Bree, wait." He couldn't let this go on any longer. It was awful to have to be the one to crush her hope, but better now than later. He would hate to make her cry. "I know Daniel told you we were taking on your, um, boyfriend's case, but circumstances have changed and, unfortunately, it's not going to be possible."
Bree stared at him, her mouth open for a few brief seconds before she clamped it closed.
"What circumstances? I only talked to Mr. Logan yesterday."
"Sometimes priorities can change rapidly, and our first responsibility is always to the cases we're already working-"
"That's a load of crap! Something happened. Someone got to you. Was it Needles?"
"Sam Needles, the Becker County prosecutor who tried Kelly's case. That bastard would stoop to just about anything to prevent this conviction from getting overturned. Frankly, I can't imagine Daniel Logan bowing to pressure, and I don't even know how Needles would have found out-"
"It's nothing like that. No one applied any pressure."
"Then what happened? Specifically? Mr. Logan said he would assign the case to an investigator this morning. Was that person you? Are you refusing the case for some reason?"
"Actually, I'm an attorney for-"
"Oh, I get it. You're the cover-your-legal-ass guy. You want to make sure I can't sue Project Justice for breach of contract or something."
"That's not it at all." This wasn't going as smoothly as he'd envisioned. And Bree Johnson had lost any resemblance to an angel. But was Eric a sick puppy for feeling even more attracted to her now that she was angry?
Those blue eyes of hers practically shot sparks, and her cheeks were pink with passion.
"Then what is it? You owe me an honest answer."
Eric had hoped to duck out of taking personal responsibility for causing Daniel to make this unpopular decision, but apparently Bree wasn't going to let him off the hook.
"We're not taking on Ralston's case because he's guilty."
"What? Wait a minute. Yesterday Mr. Logan said my evidence was compelling. Why this sudden change of heart? You can't possibly know he's guilty, because he isn't. As I've told anyone who would listen for the past seven years, Kelly is not a violent man."
"I happen to know he is."
For a few moments they locked gazes. He'd seldom seen a woman look so furious.