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What a difference two months made.
Or, rather, it was noteworthy how much the passage of time had affected Carter Southard's view of reality. He no longer woke up abruptly looking for a wall of bars that blocked him from the rest of the world. He didn't tense up when he passed a patrol officer on the road while driving his Harley, checking his rearview mirror to make sure the officer hadn't turned to follow him.
One thing that hadn't changed was the image of sexy Laney Cartwright standing in the jail's property room, handing him the freedom that had been ripped from him through no fault of his own. Her face was what he saw the moment he opened his eyes in the morning, and the last thing he thought about when he nodded off at night. And he wasn't granted a reprieve even then because his subconscious was given free rein over his unsatisfied desires and tortured him with fantasies involving the straitlaced defense attorney, fueling even more erotic images.
He hadn't seen her since then. But at least five times a day he thought about reasons he could use to do just that. Partly because he hoped another face-to-face might knock some of the air out of his almost too perfect memory of her. Mostly because he hoped it wouldn't.
Stupid. He knew it was. His recent experiences aside, inviting a woman into his life just now was probably the worst thing he could do.
Carter rolled over in the narrow bed. An ancient clattering fan doing little to cool the hot air in the small, two-bedroom bungalow outside the city.
Then a rancid smell made him draw back. He opened his eyes to stare into the droopy face of the neighbor's old hound that sat next to his bed, watching himexpectantly.
"Damn." Carter sat up and grabbed his windup alarm clock. Just after eight-thirty in the morning. "How in the hell did you get in here again, Blue?"
All things being equal, Blue was as much his dog as his neighbor's, but Carter couldn't remember letting him in the house last night. He rubbed his face. Probably he'd left the back door open again. While he'd repaired the screen on the outer door a few days ago, it wouldn't take much for a determined dog to undo his handiwork if he put his mind to it.
Carter pulled on his jeans and walked to the small kitchen. Old Blue had definitely put his mind to it.
The hound's nails clacked against the wood floor as he followed him. He barked once, a half howl that could wake all the neighbors. Of course, at eight-thirty most were probably already up.
"All right, all right. Hush now. I'll get your breakfast in a minute."
The dog's only response was to tilt his head to the side. Which was about as good as it got with him.
Carter washed his face in the kitchen sink and shook out his hands before pouring the last of the sludge in the coffeemaker into a cup and putting it into the microwave. Then he filled the food and water bowls for Blue and took both out to the back porch, where the puddle of slobber the hound would leave behind wouldn't be as much of a nuisance as it was inside.
He stood next to the dog, looking around the three acres of land that had been in his family for more than a hundred years. The property had once been a couple of thousand acres, but after four generations, the parcel had been chopped up many times for inheritance purposes, and much of it sold off, so all that remained was the piece of land around him. And he was all that remained in the area of the original family. The brush was overgrown, fences were in disrepair. If he needed any further proof of that, he just had to look at the horse grazing in the distance. Another animal that belonged to one of his neighbors, this time the one to the west.
The microwave dinged. Carter let himself back into the kitchen, considering Blue's handiwork as he did, and took the cup out, downing half the scalding contents before picking up the single telephone on the wall. He put a call through to the Jacksons to tell them to collect their horse before it wandered off where they wouldn't find it.
"Thanks, Carter," Julia Jackson said after a long sigh. "I'll go right out and collect her. Damn horse. She'll never learn that the grass doesn't taste any better on your side of the fence."
Carter hung up the receiver and downed the rest of the coffee, his gaze drawn to the calendar on the wall. It was one of those given away by insurance companies, the pictures horrible, the paper already yellow although it was only August. But it showed the days and that was all that mattered.
Carter looked to where his right hand still rested on the telephone receiver. Then, before he knew he was going to do it, he picked it back up and dialed a number he'd memorized two months ago.
"Gavin, Ewing and Clairmont, Attorneys," a receptionist said in a cheery voice that set Carter's teeth on edge.
"Yeah. Give me Laney Cartwright."
Laney Cartwright gazed out her tenth-floor office window. It was lunchtime and Bryan Street bustled with life. Life that would vanish after five when everyone scrambled to their homes in the suburbs, leaving Dallas a ghost town dotted with the few tourists and conventioneers who dared peek outside their hotels.
She hadn't been in the windowed office very long. For the past three years she'd worked in a glorified cubicle on the open floor, one of many associate attorneys competing for a shot at the few offices that went up for grabs. Despite her impeccable résumé, she'd worked long and hard for this promotion to junior firm attorney. Eighty-hour weeks, carrying the load of three, burning the candle at both ends and the middle so that she barely had time to sleep, much less have a personal life.
Maybe that was the reason she'd been preoccupied ever since the legal secretary she shared with two other attorneys told her that a certain Mr. Carter Southard had called that morning to make an appointment. Violet had said there was nothing open, but he'd persisted, saying he needed no more than a couple of minutes and that it was important.
So Laney had told her to pencil something in during the lunch hour. Seeing Carter would at least keep her from thinking too much about the menacing note she'd received that morning.
Now she swiveled her desk chair away from the window and considered the case file open in front of her. When was the last time she'd had sex?
She twisted her lips. That was it, wasn't it? The fact that her love life had been nonexistent for so long was allowing her to daydream about what it might be like to act on that spark of attraction she'd felt two months ago, even though the jail jumpsuit and unshaven appearance of Carter Southard should have been enough to turn her off.
But it hadn't. Instead, in the first two weeks following their meeting, she found herself drifting off mid-conversation during social dinners and even phone calls, her concentration broken by the brief flash of Carter's strong hands. The granite set of his jaw. The half grin he'd given her when he apparently realized she returned the interest he displayed, however reluctantly.
What was she talking about? The sensation had taken her so much by surprise, there hadn't been a chance for her to be reluctant about anything.
Besides, she wouldn't be seeing him again. So what was the harm in returning his smile, letting him see what she was thinking? Saying without words, "Gee, Carter, another time, another place, you and me might have had a good time together. A very good time, indeed."
Laney swallowed hard, realizing that this was another time. And another place. And she was actually looking forward to seeing if that potential for a good time still existed. Oh, she didn't intend to act on it. But that brief interaction with Carter had been enough to fuel some interesting late-night sessions alone up until well, even last night.
The intercom button buzzed. Laney picked up the phone. "Yes?"
The forty-five-year-old secretary said, "Your father on line one. He wants to know why you canceled lunch."
"Tell him I have an important meeting."
Laney sighed. "I'll talk to him." She pressed the button for the correct line and then leaned back in her chair. "Hi, Daddy."
"Hi, yourself. So what's this I hear you've canceled our lunch today?"
"Sorry about that. A new development on the Mac-Gregor case came up and I've scheduled a strategy lunch to work it out."
Laney didn't lie to her father often. Mostly because he knew her better than anyone and immediately spotted an untruth. He would never go so far as to say it, but the few times she had relied on deception to hide her intentions had always ended with them both knowing where they stood.
She supposed that's what happened when you were so close. After her mother passed away when she was twelve, Laney and her father had formed a bond that transcended parent and child. He was her best friend.
"What's the development?"
Laney blanched. Exhibit A on why she should never lie to her father.
Of course, he knew everything that was happening with State v. MacGregor, the case that had dominated her life for the past two months. The case that had also dominated the local and statewide news media, what with her young client accused of first-degree murder during an armed robbery.
The crime itself wasn't so much what garnered interest. Rather it was the fact that Devon MacGregor came from one of the wealthiest families in Texas.
"I received an interesting note this morning," she said quietly.
Laney hadn't planned on saying anything about it just then, but she figured she would have told her father sooner or later, so she might as well use it to her benefit now.
"Yes. Plain block letters. 'Drop MacGregor. Or else.'"
"Or else what?"
Laney sighed and fished out the note she'd placed in a Ziploc bag from the papers on her desk. "Your guess is as good as mine," she said.
"Have you given it to the police?"
"I have a call in. I was told a detective will stop by sometime this afternoon."
There was a brief knock on the door. "Your twelve o'clock is here," Violet said.
Laney felt as if her stomach were full of a thousand butterflies flapping their wings to get out.
"Look, Daddy, people are beginning to arrive for the meeting."
She quickly said her goodbyes, hoping that she wasn't being too transparent, then left both hands on the telephone after she'd hung up.
"Hello again," Carter said from the open doorway.
Laney nearly knocked the receiver from its cradle and she fumbled to right it again.
She looked at the man responsible for her duplicity and discovered that the hectic sensation she'd experienced two months ago was nothing compared with the one the cleaned-up version of Carter Southard made on her now.
What he wore was nothing speciala denim shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. It was the details that did Laney in. The way his sleeves were rolled up over his corded forearms. The cocky way he stood that pulled his well-worn jeans just so across his groin. The scuffed boots that proved he was a man who didn't wear them just for show, but had earned every last speck of Texas dust fused to the old leather.
In Carter's case, he wore the clothesthe clothes didn't wear him.
She looked up to find him grinning knowingly and the bottom dropped out of her stomach altogether, freeing the butterflies there.
Oh, boy. It looked as though she was going to have to get used to her father's concerned reaction because she had the feeling that she was going to be doing a whole hell of a lot of lying in the foreseeable future.