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Seven a.m. on the first Monday morning in September. Nina Reilly and Paul van Wagoner snoozed in his king-size bed in the sole bedroom of his Carmel condo. As the sun came through the shutters, striping the rug with light, Paul kicked off the covers on his side and, as Nina opened her eyes, turned over so all his long naked backside was displayed: the blond hair, smooth, well-muscled back, strong legs, and narrow feet.
As if he felt her attention, he turned to face her. Eyes closed, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her tight to his body.
Nina was naked, too, the way Paul liked her. Herself, she favored expensive silks or shabby cottons, but since she had gotten involved with Paul, she had learned to appreciate what he called his simple needs. He liked skin, he liked the smell of her, he wanted nothing to come between them, so nothing did, at least not when they were in bed together.
This time with Paul was precious. Her son, Bob, fourteen, had spent the previous night with his grandfather. She had "freedom," in the way all mothers had freedom, meaning contingent freedom, but at least Bob was safe enough for the moment. She stretched in Paul's arms so her toes reached his calves and kissed his stubbled cheek.
"Mmm, coffee time," Paul said, smiling, eyes closed.
It was her turn. She didn't have far to go in the compact condo. When she came back with the mugs, Paul was sitting up in bed, legs crossed.
"I feel suspiciously elated, considering it's Monday morning," she said.
"Ben Franklin would call us slackers. He would have been up since five, making a kite."
"Progress means we get to do whatever the hell we want this early in the morning," she said.
Nina had moved to the Monterey area from Tahoe in early summer to be with Paul, just to see how things would play for them. She had gone to law school here, at Monterey Peninsula College. Her father lived here, and she had other old ties. But now, after her move from Tahoe and after a brief vacation of sorts, she had signed on for her second murder case in three months.
Her part started today, though the poor client had been counting the days at the Monterey County Jail for four months. A new case, a new chance to test herself and show her stuff, was always a thrill. So she felt good right now, enjoying the smoldering looks she was getting from Paul.
"Get back in here," Paul commanded. He patted the bed beside him.
"Be polite or you won't get this coffee. Triple-strength fresh-ground French roast. You'll never get better."
"All right, I'm begging you, please, get back in here. Or is the plan for me to admire you standing there with your hip cocked like that?"
She climbed into bed and pulled up the sheet, and they both sipped their coffee. Paul seemed to have something on his mind, so she held back the impulse to jump up and throw her clothes on, waiting to hear it. He ran a very successful investigation and security business. Selfishly, she hoped he was worrying about work and not anything that would slow her down.
He set his cup on the bed stand and drew her close. "Back to the grind for our girl. I hope Klaus is paying you a whole lot to compensate you for putting your life in such an uproar."
"I'm just glad to have a paying gig again, even though I'm coming in so late. It's going to be very demanding. But I've got you, and I've got Sandy to back me up, so I'm wallowing in a pleasantly fuzzy false sense of security."
"What about this case snagged you? You told me you weren't going to accept any more work until you made some decisions about the things that really matter. Remember?"
She knocked back some of the coffee left in her mug, remembering a distant time when she made decisions with only her own future to consider. But she had Bob to worry about, too. "Klaus called. He needed my help. And then the case . . ." She stopped. "I don't know much yet, but Klaus is ready to go all the way with Stefan Wyatt. He says Wyatt is accused of stealing a skeleton and strangling a woman in Monterey named Christina Zhukovsky. I'm going to meet the client today and start going through the files."
"Fine," he said, so absorbed in his own thoughts he probably hadn't heard hers. "But what is it about this case that has you looking so damned"--he paused to run his hands through the tangle of her long brown hair--"gorgeous?"
She laughed and hit him with a pillow. "That's your eyes giving you trouble. I've heard that happens as a man ages."
"You don't fool me," he said, pulling her into a full-bodied kiss. "You like distinguished. Aged red wine; ripe bananas; men with faces that show they've lived a life of excess and pleasure; flaky cheeses . . ."
"Shall I compare thee to a flaky cheese? Do you really want that?"
He laughed. "Anyway, have you considered this? Maybe this case will lead to a partnership opportunity. How would you feel about that?"
"Would you like that?" She knew the answer. She asked to avoid answering.
"Yep. You know I'd love to tie you down right here on the Monterey Peninsula. I'm always on the lookout for opportunities."
She smiled at him. "I guess I'll deal with a partnership offer when and if the time comes." Life felt easy here in his arms. Protected. But she was starting to notice something after this time she had spent away from work and from her own solo practice at Tahoe. She felt smaller, younger, less able.
Criminal defense work had always been her big place, her New York City. Good at her job, getting better all the time, she helped the hapless, damn it. She had a calling to go out and save miserable souls who could not save themselves, help them through the labyrinth, make sure the rules were followed and that they had their defense, even if they were guilty. She liked a large life. She wasn't sure yet how big her life could be with Paul.
He looked at her now, considering something, stroking her hair. Then he reached beyond her and pulled open a drawer to the bedside table. "Maybe the time has come," he said.
"What? Nobody's made me a partnership offer," she said.
He pulled out a small, ornately decorated enamel box. "Oh, but I have."
"Ah." She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked at the box.
"We should have talked about this last night, at dinner, when we had time."
He shook his head. "Last night was chaos."
She remembered. Bob had decided he needed their dog, suddenly, for reasons known only to him, but he had been so insistent on her bringing Hitchcock that they interrupted their dinner date to drive back to her house to get him and then drove to her father's to deliver him. Paul had done it all so patiently, even though she had been fuming.
"Anyway, I don't want to talk, Nina. We've said it all and now's the right time for this. Mornings with you are so beautiful." He took her left hand and turned her to face him, popping open the box to reveal a twinkling square diamond ring, with two tapered baguettes flanking it.
He had asked her to marry him before, but the ring was a new, serious development. Nina held up her side of the sheet, gazing at the ring, her lips parted. The band, a sleek platinum, held the big stone between elongated prongs so that the light could dance around it in all directions.
"It's called an azure-cut--four equal sides. It was my grandmother's," he said. "A bluestocking in the early 1900's, I'm told. Seemed like the symbolically perfect thing for you."
"It's gorgeous," she said, stammering a little.
He took the ring from its box. "Nina, will you marry me?"
He had been patient with her. He deserved an answer. "I think . . ."
She took her hand out of his, and covered the hand holding the ring with both of hers, feeling tears coming to her eyes. "I really love you!" she said.
"Then say yes."
"Marrying you means what? Staying here? Or would you come with me back to Tahoe?"
"I want you with me, Nina, forever and ever." Blond hair fell over his forehead, and his bare flat stomach creased delightfully at the waist.
"There's Bob," she said.
"He's a kid. He'll adjust."
"My work. Matt, Andrea, their kids. My whole life is in Tahoe."
"Unless it's here with me." He pulled the ring out and turned it in the sunlight, watching it twinkle. "Wear it?" he said. "Be mine?"
"I am yours."
"Yet, I get no answer." He said it lightly, but she could hear his disappointment.
"I just . . ."
"Okay. Bad timing, trial comin' up. So here's what we'll do. You try it on for size. See how it feels on your finger. Take some time. Think if you must. Sound like a plan?"
She let him slip the ring on her finger. She liked the way it felt, and how pretty it looked there.
They kissed for a long time, languorous, loving.
"Maybe I should wear it on a chain around my neck," she said, "or everyone will assume we're engaged."
"Wear the ring. Maybe you'll discover you can't take it off."
She glanced toward the clock on the bureau. Well, if she was a little late, so be it. Her client wasn't going anywhere. "Paul, I have questions."
"Being together," she said slowly, "what's that mean to you?"
He leaned back and laughed. "I don't want a Stepford wife, okay, or why pick you? There's a babe out there somewhere who is ready to bake a rhubarb pie for me, and even wash my dirty laundry once in a while as part of the deal. I hope you will sometimes. Maybe I'll do the same for you, in a pinch. I'm willing to go untraditional. I just want us to take the next step. It would be beautiful to marry you."
She rubbed a finger against his rough morning cheek. "What I'm trying to say is, how about a counteroffer? I don't see why two people who love each other, two strong people, have to . . ."
"Marry? It's not a bad word. Go ahead. You can say it."
She nodded. "Marry. It's not as if--you always said you don't want kids."
"I do say that."
"So that's not an issue. I mean, you have such a fine life here, your business, friends. And I've got another one up in Tahoe. I miss it. I think all the time about my little house and my brother's family, and I check the weather up there every day. When it's foggy here, I think about how sunny it probably is in the mountains. When it rains here, I wonder if they're getting snow."
"Is this a no?"
She shook her head. "Just, I have questions. Isn't what we have good enough? Isn't it excellent?"
"I don't know what to expect. I don't know if you're coming, going, staying."
"I'm not sure I know what you mean by 'marry.' "
"Enough discussion, okay?" He fiddled with the ring on her finger, centering the stone so that it glittered. "You know what I mean when I ask you to marry me. You know. Don't start quibbling. Now come closer, you're making my brain ache with all this talk."
Her thoughts whirled. Only his touch brought them to a screeching stop. "Is this close enough?" she asked.
"You always know exactly what you want and you aren't afraid to make your wishes known," she murmured. "I have to get to work. I have a meeting."
"I really can't. Five."
"Five isn't enough for what I have in mind."
"Okay, ten, if you can convince me you'll make it worthwhile."
"Damn lawyers! Everything's a negotiation."
Later, his body wrapped tightly around hers, he said, "Nina?"
She was busy covering his neck with tiny kisses. "Yes, Paul?"
"I love you."
"Ditto," she said.
"I await your final verdict."
Nina walked down the hallway at the Salinas jail behind the guard and went into the cubicle he indicated. Featureless, windowless, worn, it held one scarred chair, a wall phone, and a shelf under the large window through which her new client would soon spill his secrets.
As soon as she had pulled the chair up to the window and placed her briefcase on the floor, the door on the other side of the glass opened and a hesitant young man entered. Stefan Wyatt had a soul patch on his chin and enormous biceps developed during, or maybe due to, his months of imprisonment. He wore the usual jail-issue orange jumpsuit, and tripped over the chair that faced Nina through the window before sitting down. The deputy, just closing the door from his side, reflexively reached for his weapon at the sudden movement.
At this first meeting with her client, Nina examined him as severely as she would a new pair of shoes, checking for hidden defects. Sometimes clients brought a smog of evil into the room along with their stories, and she knew right away: here's one who could have done it. This one didn't strike her that way.
"It's all right, man." Wyatt said to the deputy, who relaxed, seeing there was no harm intended. Fumbling with the phone, twisting the wire straight, he said, "Hello, there." Twenty-eight, tall, a college dropout with a spotty employment history--odd jobs, bartending, almost a year at a moving company, and six months on a fishing boat--he had blue eyes, an average IQ, and a great smile that indicated a nature so sunny even this dungeon hadn't stolen his spirit.
Nina showed him her State Bar card and smiled back, saying, "How are you?"
"Fine?" He shook his head as if uncertain of the truth of his own words. The blue eyes on her were wide open, bewildered.
Had Klaus forgotten to mention her during his visit the day before? "Er, I'm Nina Reilly."
"Right. You're working with Klaus. I'm Stefan. I guess I didn't expect . . ." He paused, smiling. "I guess I thought you'd look like Klaus."
Nina raised an eyebrow. "I probably will, at his age."
"Nooo. Not ever."
"Ready to settle down this morning and do some work?"
"Like Klaus, I'm your attorney, and you have the same privilege of confidentiality in talking with me as you do with him. Do you understand that, Stefan?"
From the Hardcover edition.