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"Ask him now."
Beth McClelland shrank back into the hallway, her mind screaming Chicken! "He looks busy."
"He's probably just surfing the web. Computer geeks can always look busy." Raleigh Shinn, Beth's best friend, stood behind her with a hand on her shoulder, ready to push if necessary.
But Beth planted her feet firmly. It had seemed like a good idea yesterday, buying tickets to a zydeco concert, then casually telling Mitch Delacroix she had an extra if he wanted to come with her. She knew he liked that kind of music because he often played it as background noise while he hunted online for elusive data or missing witnesses.
"What if he says no?" Beth knew she sounded like a teenager, but she wasn't ready for rejection. Since her last relationship had been so disastrous, she wanted to ease back into the dating world. Shouldn't her first foray be with someone easier? Someone less complicated? Someone she didn't care about?
She and Mitch had become friends. They had an easy working relationship and she genuinely enjoyed hanging out with him. Taking it to the next level might be a logical choiceor a disaster.
"He won't say no," Raleigh insisted. "I've seen the way he looks at you, and you said he isn't dating anyone seriously."
"Then why hasn't he asked me out?" He certainly flirted enough.
"Stop stalling and get this over with, please. I'm tired of watching you make cow eyes at him. If he says nowhich he won'tyou can at least move on."
Raleigh was a compassionate friend, but she never minced words. Her legal training had taught her to get to the heart of the matter in the most direct way possible.
"Can I help you ladies with something?"
Beth stifled a gasp and took a step back. While she'd been arguing with Raleigh, Mitch Delacroix had come out of his chair and walked over. He now stood less than two feet away, his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his faded jeans.
She tried to say something, but her tongue had grown twice its normal size and her brain felt as though it just went through a blender. She had no trouble testifying in court about DnA molecules and ion exchange chromatography, and normally she could hold her own with men, professionally or socially. But just the thought of asking Mitch Delacroix out on a datea real datetwisted her up inside. She'd never been interested in someone she worked with before, so maybe her instincts were trying to tell her this was a bad idea.
To hell with instincts. She wanted Mitch and she wasn't going to let anything stop her.
Raleigh leaned in and whispered, "Don't screw this up. I'm out of here." She walked away, leaving Beth and Mitch standing in the doorway.
He looked at her expectantly, a smile playing on his sexy mouth.
Crap. She struggled to come up with a credible excuse for why she'd walked into the bull pen.
Mitch's desk phone chose that moment to buzz. He ignored it at first, but it buzzed again. "Mitch, pick up." The voice of Celeste Boggs, office manager for Project Justice, boomed over the intercom, sounding bossy even for Celeste. No, not just bossy. Tense and worried.
"You better get that," Beth said, pleased she could string words together.
Mitch rolled his eyes. "What now? You think she's mad because I took the last doughnut?" But he returned to his desk and grabbed the phone. "Yo, Celeste, what's up?"
Beth stared greedily as his attention moved to the phone call. His light brown hair, streaked with blond from the sun, was well past his collar and unrulythe kind of hair that was hard to tame so he didn't bother trying. Her perusal moved to his body; his typical geek's ratty T-shirt revealed biceps and a nicely muscled chest that were decidedly atypical, and his tanned skin meant he did not spend every minute staring at a screen.
How was it that he looked so sexy even talking on the phone? He had this quiet confidence that was so appealingnot like the macho guys she'd been attracted to in the past, the ones with swagger and swelled muscles. But she was so over macho guys. A cute geek with a touch of bad boy might be exactly what she needed in her lifeand in her bed.
"I'll be right up," he said, looking serious as he hung up the phone.
"Is something wrong?"
"Celeste says there's a Louisiana cop asking to see me."
That couldn't be good news. Had there been an accident? Mitch was from a small town in Louisiana, so he was bound to have some family there.
"Walk with me up to the front desk. You wanted to talk to me about something?"
She didn't want to ask him out on a date if he was about to get bad news. Then again, if she didn't do it now, she never would.
Just do it. This was Mitch, her friend.
"Uh, I have two tickets to see Dirty Rice next Friday and I thought you might like to go."
There. She'd at least said the words, though with far less charm than she'd envisioned. She held her breath, bracing for the blow.
"Oh, hell, Beth, I can't Friday night. I have something planned already. Maybe Billy would take the extra ticket off your hands."
"Yeah, maybe. I'll ask him." Dammit. She was going to kill Raleighthis was all her fault. Of course Mitch had said no. He probably already had a date for Friday night. Guys like Mitch didn't sit around waiting for women to ask them out. They made plans. They did the asking.
What had she been thinking?
She wanted to run for the safety of her lab, where she could hide behind a microscope. But Mitch would know something was wrong if she suddenly took off like her tail was on fire. So she kept walking with him down the hall to the lobby, pretending she hadn't just had her heart body-slammed.
"Celeste didn't say what the cop wanted?" she asked, desperate to fill the silence. A Louisiana cop wouldn't drive all the way to Houston on a whim; chances were good he was here on official business, and that usually meant bad news.
"The guy wouldn't say." Mitch sounded unconcerned, but Beth wasn't fooled. When he flashed his playful smile at her, she could tell he was forcing it. "So, Dirty Rice, huh? I didn't know you were a zydeco fan."
"I'm not. I mean, I like it okay."
"So you bought tickets because " He seemed genuinely curious, not judgmental.
She couldn't admit she'd bought them because he liked zydeco. Then, inspiration struck. "I won them from a radio station."
"Oh." He seemed to be digesting that. She wasn't the type to call in to radio stations trying to win stuff.
They passed through a door in a frosted glass partition that led into the lobby of Project Justice, the Houston nonprofit where they both worked. The lobby was a large space with cold marble floors and wood-paneled walls, rather stark, Beth had always thought. It was intended to impress, but not to be inviting. Daniel Logan, CEO of Project Justice, didn't want just anyone wandering in off the street and feeling at home. So the only visitor seating was a couple of hard chairs.
The cop had elected to stand, his back to Celeste, studying an arrangement of framed press clippings on the wall. He was a beefy guy, his muscular shoulders straining against his khaki uniform. His dark brown hair was cut very short, revealing a tan line at the margins.
Celeste made a big show of ignoring him, her nose buried in a Soldier of Fortune magazine, a large knife out on her deskjust in case.
Mitch picked up his pace, striding confidently into the lobby while Beth hung back. "You wanted to see me?" His voice contained a touch of arrogance.
The stranger turned, and Mitch skidded to a halt. "Dwayne?"
"Mitch. Been a while."
"Yeah. A while."
So, they knew each other. Maybe this was a personal visit, not an official one. An old friend, looking him up No, that wasn't right. Whatever their relationship, it wasn't warm and fuzzy. The two men sized each other up, radiating tension.
"Why the big mystery?" Mitch asked. "Why didn't you tell Celeste your name?"
"I didn't want you to get the wrong idea. This isn't exactly a social call."
Mitch looked confused. "Did someone die?"
The cop named Dwayne looked faintly amused. "Funny you should ask that. I'm here in regards to an incident that happened twelve years ago. A Monte Carlo was stolen from the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly. Ring any bells?"
"Yeah, I believe I do recall that incident," Mitch said with an exaggerated Southern accent. "But the charges were dropped. Buried, in fact."
Charges? Mitch had been arrested and charged with a crime? Her throat tightened as she recalled the last guy she'd dated, who'd also had a criminal past. Vince had explained away the assault charges, claiming it was all a misunderstanding, and she'd been stupid enough to fall for it. Until he'd broken her jaw.
She gave her head a quick, involuntary shake. No way was Mitch in the same boat as Vince. He'd freely admitted he'd been a "wild kid," but Beth had pictured him pulling pranks, maybe spray-painting a bridge or decorating trees with toilet paper. She'd known nothing about car theft, but that wasn't violent. Still, it was bad.
"I'm not here about the theft per se," Dwayne said. "You had a friend with you that night. Robby Racine. That right?"
Abruptly Celeste came out of her chair, proving she'd been listening keenly despite her show of disinterest. She was well into her seventies, with wild gray curls and a spare, wiry body that she stuffed into the most improbable outfits. Today it was a zebra-striped, bat-wing shirt, black leggings and red boots. But anyone who knew her was scared of her. "Mitch, don't say another word without a lawyer present."
Mitch turned to Celeste. "This is my brother."
"Half brother," Dwayne said.
Beth thought the distinction odd, as if Dwayne wanted to deny the relationship.
"Whatever, I don't think he's here to arrest me." But when Mitch returned his attention to Dwayne, he looked less than sure of himself. "Are you?"
"I'm just here to talk. So, about Robby "
"Robby Racine was with me that night," Mitch confirmed.
"You happen to know where he is?"
"Robby? Good gravy, no. Haven't seen him since that night. Getting arrested for stealing a car would have been his third felony. He'd have done time for sure. He took off." Mitch seemed to relax slightly. "I figure he's in Mexico."
"You figured wrong. He turned up the other day."
"No kidding. What's he up to these days?"
"Nothing. That's the point. He turned up in a shallow grave on some land owned by your mother. And you were the last one to see him alive."