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She so much preferred to be the one asking the questions. But she had committed to the interview; she couldn't weasel out.
Raleigh did not like the media. Even when she fought for a popular cause, the press often described her as a bulldog, a terrier, or a sexless, humorless legal machine.
Those descriptions were, perhaps, not entirely undeserved. But now, she needed some good press, because her current cause was decidedly unpopular. It would take a tidal wave of evidence to get the D.A. to reopen the case of Anthony Simonetti, currently sitting on death row for supposedly gunning down his girlfriend in a cold-blooded act of premeditation. Raleigh wanted public sentiment squarely on her side when she made her argument.
Griffin Benedict, roving investigative reporter for the Houston Telegram, could turn public opinion. He was immensely popular—almost a celebrity in his own right. People believed what he wrote. He could help her cause.
Or he could crucify her. She had to take her chances.
After a deep, fortifying breath, she entered Legal Grounds, a coffee shop near the Harris County Courthouse.
She spotted him immediately. Even if she hadn't seen his picture, she would have known he was the one. He was the only man sitting alone, and he was staring right at her.
Lord have mercy, he was gorgeous.
That thought surprised her. She didn't normally think of men in terms of their looks. She sometimes sized up a client's appearance and how it would play with a judge or jury, but she couldn't remember the last time she had found a man attractive.
Griffin Benedict's sexual magnetism hit her like a fog bank, momentarily disorienting her. Brown hair, longish and with a rakish wave, framed a square-jawed, tanned face. The nose had a slight bump, as if it had been broken. Mouth, sensual. That was the adjective that leaped to mind, although she wasn't sure what made it so.
His broad shoulders filled out a button-down shirt rolled up to the elbows, open at the throat, tucked into well-worn jeans. Scuffed cowboy boots, of course.
He continued to stare at her, frowning slightly, and she shook herself out of her stupor. Eyes forward, posture erect. She had to show quiet confidence. She strode forward, hand outstretched. "Mr. Benedict."
He stood and flashed a welcoming smile, his large hand swallowing hers before giving it a firm shake. Either his hand was very warm, or hers was cold. Would he note that? Would he attribute her lack of circulation to nerves? Although it was late September, the weather was still warm, no reason for cold hands.
"Ms. Shinn. Good to meet you. Would you like something to drink? I was just going to get myself a coffee."
"No, thank you."
"Be right back, then."
He was tall, well over six feet. She was five-nine, and she wore heels, so she didn't often look up to people. She watched him walk up to the counter with an easy saunter and then tore her eyes away when she realized she'd focused too long on the way his backside filled out those faded jeans.
Maybe she should have ordered hot tea. It would give her something to do with her hands. But her choice of drink revealed something about her psyche, and she wanted to avoid that. This interview was about her work.
When Benedict returned to the table, he held two steaming cups.
"You must be very thirsty," she said.
"The tea is for you. In case you change your mind."
Raleigh's whole body tingled. How had he known hot tea would be her beverage of choice? Lucky guess? She did not like his presumptive gesture, but she chose not to let him know of her irritation. He might be trying to get a rise out of her.
She firmly set the tea aside, though, perversely, it did tempt her. Darjeeling, her favorite. How could he know?
It would have been prudent for her to do a more thorough background check on Griffin Benedict. She felt distinctly uncomfortable, knowing he had done some digging around of his own. He apparently had learned more than her win/loss record in court.
"I know you're busy." He pulled a reporter's notebook from his breast pocket. "So we'll get right to work. You don't mind this, do you?" He set a digital recorder in the center of the table.
"No, of course not." She had no reason to fear the recorder. She wouldn't make any verbal missteps, and the recording might protect her from being misquoted.
"First, congratulations on your victory in the Eldon Jasperson case."
"Thank you, but the victory belongs to everyone at Project Justice. It was a group effort. All I did was file papers."
"Modest. I like that." He smiled, revealing his blindingly white teeth, and she noticed his eyes for the first time. They were a deep, sincere brown. He had probably disarmed any number of female interviewees with that smile and those eyes.
She couldn't deny a certain awareness of him as a man, but she was pretty sure she wouldn't show it. She met his gaze squarely and gave him a reserved smile, waiting for him to continue.
"Yes, well, let's move on to the Anthony Simonetti case. Another death row inmate. In fact, most of your cases are for prisoners on death row, correct?"
"Project Justice is normally the defense of last resort. We deal with the most serious, the most urgent cases, many of which are capital crime convictions." Raleigh relaxed slightly. Now they were in comfortable territory for her.
"So you believe Anthony Simonetti is innocent?" he asked with an obvious note of cynicism.
"An important piece of evidence has surfaced, which might exonerate Anthony," she said, using her client's first name in the hopes of distancing him from his infamous mobster father. Leo Simonetti was rumored to have beheaded one of his enemies with a machete.
"But do you believe the man is innocent? I mean, come on. He was picked up two blocks from the crime scene, covered with his dead girlfriend's blood. He claims he happened upon Michelle Brewster moments after her murder, and that was how he got her blood on him. But wouldn't an innocent man have then summoned the authorities? Instead of fleeing?"
Benedict had keyed in on the most damning evidence against Anthony. "He was overcome with shock and grief. He fled from the horror of what he had just discovered. No, he did not behave logically. Many people, in a crisis, do not behave logically."
She knew this for a fact. She had walked away from the car accident that had killed her husband. Uninjured, but covered with his blood, she had fled the car and wandered along the icy road in her inadequate coat and shoes until the police had spotted her and picked her up. She'd been dazed, incoherent. To this day, she had no memory of the accident, or the few minutes before and after.
"So you do believe he's innocent."
She suppressed all thoughts of Jason, which could swamp her in grief at a moment's notice. Sudden tears were not something she relished explaining to a reporter.
"I believe only in what the evidence tells me. Additional evidence has been found, and it has something to say."
"The district attorney has said he will not reopen the case, that the right man is behind bars."
"District attorneys seldom admit to mistakes— especially around election time."
"So you think Simonetti didn't get a fair trial?"
"That's not the issue. I believe the D.A. did the proper thing at the time, given the evidence presented."
"And what about now?"
"I don't agree with the police department's decision to ignore the gun that was recently found in the water heater next door to the crime scene—especially since finding the murder weapon is the one thing that could prove someone else was involved in the crime."
"I understand that the gun is corroded. It can't even be test fired, and the serial number is unreadable."
How did he know that? Since the gun's discovery had already appeared on the news, Project Justice had sent out a carefully worded press release regarding the foundation's plans to find out if the gun was significant to Michelle Brewster's murder. The release hadn't mentioned anything about severe corrosion.
She smiled, saying nothing.
"And even if testing were possible," Benedict continued, "aren't you afraid it would put the last nail in Anthony's coffin? That could prove embarrassing for Project Justice."
The reporter had quickly homed in on the weakest point of her case. As he fled the scene, Anthony himself could have hidden the gun inside the neighbor's water heater, which was easily accessible.
"I can't comment as to the specifics of the case," Raleigh said, stepping back onto her comfortable platform. She preferred that her arguments be presented first to a judge—not debated in the media.
"You always say that when you don't like the direction an interview is taking." Benedict leaned forward, too close for comfort. "I've read every news story in which you were quoted, watched every bit of available video in which you were interviewed. When a hard question is asked, you suddenly can't comment."
She tried not to show how much his intensity rattled her. Tough reporters had gone after her before. She was used to it. This was nothing compared to what she'd faced when filing motions on behalf of Eldon Jasperson, a convicted child murderer.
So why did it bother her so much? Why did this reporter bother her so much?
"Difficult questions usually involve the specifics of an ongoing case, which I cannot discuss. No mystery about that."
"I would argue that the Simonetti case is different. It seems out of character for you. You normally don't take on cases without more compelling evidence."
"Each case presented to Project Justice is evaluated based on a unique set of circumstances. We felt this case had merit." Granted, it had been a hard sell to Daniel Logan, Project Justice's founder and the ultimate decision maker. If the gun could be traced back to Anthony or anyone in his extensive criminal family, the foundation would be inundated with negative publicity, which tended to cause donations and sponsors to dry up.
But Raleigh believed in Anthony's truthfulness when he told her he did not own—had never owned—a gun. She had even taken the extra precaution of recording her interview with Anthony on video, then having Claudia Ellison, the foundation's on-call psychologist, evaluate Anthony's demeanor. An expert on body language, Claudia had found no sign of deceit. Daniel trusted Raleigh's and Claudia's instincts.
If Raleigh was wrong about this one, her reputation would take a hard blow. But she felt strongly enough to take the risk.
"I don't believe you," Griffin said, startling her. "Do you want to know why?"
"I feel certain you're going to enlighten me," she said with a smugness she didn't truly feel. Suddenly Griffin Benedict seemed dangerous.
She took a sip of her tea, despite her earlier decision not to drink it. It was easier to hide her emotions behind a paper cup and her steamed-up glasses.
"I have reliable information that you, personally, received incentives to convince the Project Justice decision makers to take on Anthony's case. Specifically, that you accepted a bribe."
Raleigh set her cup down with a thud, splashing tea everywhere. "What? Are you crazy?" Who would tell a reporter such a thing about her? Or had he made it up, trying to shake her composure?
Damn it, he'd succeeded. A few nearby coffee-shop patrons looked over curiously.
Don't make a scene, Raleigh. She could hear her mother-in-law's voice in her ear, trying to hush Raleigh when she'd been out of her mind with grief. Back then, she had let her big, sloppy emotions spill out onto everyone in her path—cops, doctors, reporters, many of whom blamed her for her husband's death.
She had learned self-control since then.
"I'm just telling you what I heard." Griffin took another sip of his coffee.
Raleigh scooted her chair back. "I hadn't realized this was going to be a character assassination instead of an interview. Please don't call me again." She reached for her briefcase on the floor by her chair, intending to make a dramatic exit.
His single word froze her to her seat. She wished she could have ignored him. But he was so damn compelling.
"I didn't just take someone's word for it. I demanded proof—and I got this." He extended a piece of paper across the table toward her. "Does this look familiar?"
Raleigh grew dizzy as every drop of blood in her body fell to her feet. Yes, the paper did look familiar.