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"We, the jury, find the defendant, Edward Blanco, not guilty on all counts in the murder of Evelyn Cox."
A synchronized gasp filled the courtroom accompanied by cries of horror and heartbreak from Evelyn's family. They knew that justice had not been served.
Members of the defense team pounded Leif Dalton on the back and reached for his hand. Edward Blanco flashed the same innocent smile he'd displayed for the jury through weeks of testimony. Only this time contempt for the trial and everyone connected with it burned in his ebony eyes.
Leif avoided eye contact as Blanco expressed his gratitude in gloating terms. Then Leif turned and managed a nod toward the judge and jury. The handshakes Leif exchanged with members of his defense team were forced and meaningless.
For the second time in his life, he was almost certain he'd helped a killer escape punishment and walk free to likely kill againunless someone killed him first.
The prosecution hadn't had a chance. The evidence to convict Blanco simply hadn't been there. Everything their lead attorney fed the jury was strictly circumstantial, and that wasn't enough for jury members anymore.
They wanted the kind of proof they witnessed every week in countless TV police procedurals. They wanted a DNA match. They wanted a killer who looked like a killer instead of the handsome, sophisticated man you'd choose for your own daughter to marry.
But he couldn't fault the jury for being fooled by Blanco. Leif had had his doubts about the man when the firm pressured him to take the case, but Blanco had quickly won him over. Throughout the trial Blanco had given an Oscar-worthy performance.
Until two days ago when the final arguments had been made and the jury had gone into deliberation. Then, confident that he was going to walk from the courtroom a free man, Blanco had let one careless comment slip.
The comment was not an admission of guilt, but it was more than enough to convince Leif that not only was Blanco a psychopath capable of stalking and brutally murdering an innocent woman, but that he'd experienced no guilt afterward.
Leif had done his job. He'd argued his client's case honestly and effectively. He'd given Blanco what every citizen was guaranteed, the right to legal representation and a trial by jury.
Knowing that did nothing to alleviate the rumblings of guilt and remorse in the pit of his stomach.
"Let's go grab a drink," Chad encouraged. Chad was always the first one on his team ready to get down and party.
"Best whiskey in the house on me," another team member said. "Leif Dalton, still undefeated."
"I smell a promotion," Chad said as he offered another clap on the back.
Their enthusiasm failed to generate any gusto on Leif's part. "Sounds like fun, but I'm afraid you guys are going to have to celebrate without me."
"You're surely not going back to the office today. It's almost five o'clock."
"Plus, it's the Monday before Thanksgiving," Chad added. "Half the staff is on vacation."
"So am I, as of right now," Leif said. "But the trial was grueling. I'm beat."
"That sounds like code for you have a better offer," Morgan, one of the firms young law clerks, mocked.
A better offer. Damn. He was supposed to have dinner with Serena tonight.
"You caught me," he said, faking a grin and trying to think of a halfway decent excuse for getting out of his date with the ravishing runway star.
He should have ended his relationship with her weeks ago. It was going nowhere. Probably mostly his fault. Relationship problems usually were. But possessive women made him feel caged, and Serena was growing more possessive by the day.
They walked out of the courthouse and into the bruising gray of threatening thunderclouds. He ducked from the crowd to avoid the flash of media cameras and the reporters pushing microphones at him.
When he looked up he was face-to-face with Evelyn Cox's mother. She crucified him with her stare, then turned and stormed away without saying a word. He was tempted to run after her, but there wasn't one thing he could say that would make her feel any better or hate him any less. Her beloved thirty-two-year-old daughter, the mother of her two precious grandchildren, was dead and her killer was free.
When he reached his car, he called and left a message for Serena. She'd be pissed. He'd broken at least a dozen dates during the weeks he'd been working on the Blanco case.
Leif sat behind the wheel of his black Porsche, staring into space while the jagged shards of his life played havoc with his mind. He was only thirty-eight.
He'd accomplished every professional goal he'd set for himself. His coworkers didn't know it yet, but the deal was already in the works. He'd be named partner in Dallas's most prestigious criminal defense law firm next month.
So why the hell was he fighting an overwhelming urge to start driving and not stop until Texas was so far behind him he couldn't even see it in his mind?
Finally, he started the engine and began the short drive to his downtown condominium. He flicked on the radio. A local talk show host was reporting on a woman's murder in a rural area just outside Dallas.
The victim's identity hadn't been released, but the body had been found by a hunter just after dawn this morning. The hunter had told reporters the body was covered in what looked like wounds from a hunting knife.
Sickening images crept into Leif's mind, remnants of crime-scene photos that had a way of lingering in the dark crevices of his consciousness long after the juries had made their decisions.
He frequently had to remind himself that the world was full of kind, loving, sane people. Psychos like Edward Blanco and whoever had committed this morning's murder were the exception. That didn't make it any easier on the victims' families.
Leif listened to the detailsat least the details the police had given the media. He knew there were a few they'd keep secretidentifying facts that only they and the killer would know.
The body had been discovered in a rural area southwest of Dallas near the small town of Oak Grove.
Leif had been in that area a few months back when he'd made a wasted trip to Dry Gulch Ranch. For all he knew, he might have driven by the victim's house. She would have been alive then, planning her future, thinking she had a long life in front of her.
Or perhaps not. She might have been involved with drug addicts and dealers or a jealous boyfriend who'd kill rather than lose her.
A streak of lightning slashed through thick layers of dark clouds as Leif pulled into the parking garage. The crash of thunder that followed suggested the storm was imminent.
Leif flicked off the radio, left the car with the valet and took the key-secured elevator to the twenty-second floor.
Once inside his condo, he headed straight for the bar and poured himself two fingers of Glenmorangie. Glass in hand, he walked to the floor-to-ceiling windows, pulled back the drapes and stared out at the city just as huge raindrops began to pelt the glass.
His thoughts shifted to the Dry Gulch Ranch and the infamous reading of R. J. Dalton's will. Not that his biological father was dead, at least not yet. Or if he was Leif hadn't been notified. He wouldn't have made it to the funeral under any circumstances.
The old reprobate had had no use for Leif or his younger brother, Travis, when they'd desperately needed a father. Leif didn't need or want R.J. in his life now. He definitely wouldn't be letting R.J. manipulate his life as specified in his absurd will.
Leif took a slow sip of the whiskey and tried to clear his mind of troubling thoughts. Only along with everything else that was festering inside him tonight, the truth about his own failures forced its way to the forefront.
His failed marriage. The divorce. His relationshipor lack of onewith his teenage daughter, Effie.
His daughter had blamed the split between him and her mother totally on him. Leif had let it go at that, though the marriage had been a mistake from the beginning.
What they'd taken for love had probably been lust and their drives to succeed. In the end their shared workaholic, competitive tendencies had driven them apart. Marriage had become a stressful balancing act between two people who had nothing but their beloved daughter in common.
Celeste had suggested the divorce, but Leif had been the one who moved out. That was five years ago. Leif had been sure Effie would understand and come around with time. She hadn't, and she was fifteen now.
His career move from San Francisco to Dallas hadn't helped. What with his and Celeste's schedules and Effie's school and extracurricular activities, quality time with his daughter had become harder and harder to come by.
He saw Effie twice a year now, a week of summer vacation and the week between Christmas and New Year's. He made the trip to California. In spite of his coaxing, she'd never once visited him in Dallas.
He downed the last of his drink and then went back to the bar and refilled his glass. He'd just set the bottle down when he heard a timid tapping at his door. No doubt one of his neighbors since a visitor had to have a key to the building or else be buzzed inside by a tenant.
He ignored the would-be visitor and loosened his tie.
There was another knock, this one much louder than the first. Irritated, Leif walked to the door and peered through the keyhole to see who was so persistent.
Tattered jeans. A gray hoodie. Bright amber eyes shadowed by smeared mascara peering from beneath strands of dark, wet hair that had fallen over her forehead. A jolt rocked along his nerve endings.
His hands shook as he opened the door to greet the last person he'd expected to see tonight.
* * *
Effie lowered her gaze to the toes of her wet boots, suddenly sure that coming here had been a miserable mistake.
"Effie. What are you doing here?"
Not the welcome most girls would expect from a father they hadn't seen in months. She went back to staring at her boots since she didn't have a great answer to his question.
He opened the door wider. "Come in. You're soaked."
"It's raining," she said, stating the obvious. She pushed her wet bangs to the side and leaned against the wall to wiggle out of her boots.
"There must have been some miscommunication," her dad said. "I had no idea you were coming."
"I meant to call first." She shrugged out of her wet hoodie.
Her father took the hoodie and placed it on an odd-shaped granite-topped table that took up most of the marble entryway. "Where's your mother?" he asked.
"She's in England on business. But it was her idea that I fly down and spend Thanksgiving with you."
"I'm glad she did." Finally, he pulled her into his arms for a hug.
Once the hug was out of the way, the reunion grew even more awkward. He looked past her, picked up her two suitcases and set them inside the condo.
She shifted her heavy computer bag from one shoulder to the other.
"Here, let me take that for you," he offered. Once the bag was on his shoulder, he closed and locked the door. "So you just flew from San Francisco to Dallas by yourself?" he asked, still looking puzzled.
"And no longer a kid, I know. Still, I can't imagine your mother letting you make the trip without checking with me first. What if I'd been out of town on business?"
"I was supposed to call, but then I forgot and " She was never easy with lying. She'd actually hoped he'd be out of town. "If you have plans for the holiday, you don't have to change them on my account."
"I have no plans. If I did, I'd definitely change them. There's nowhere I'd rather be than with you."
His expression didn't mimic his words.
She turned away, aware of all the leather, glass and mirrors that surrounded her. The room felt more like an impersonal waiting room in a fancy office than a home.
"When did your mother go to England?" he asked.
"Two weeks ago."
"That's a long time to be away from home. Does that happen often?"
"It has this year. Mom's working on a big project." And a new life. Which meant a new life for Effie, as well. It definitely wouldn't be here in this condo. Not in London, either, if she got her way. Which was the real reason she was here.
"I didn't realize she's away so much."
"It's her job, Dad. And it's not like I need her around every second. I have school and my friends. And I've been helping out at a local horse stable in exchange for riding lessons."
"I heard about that. Your mother emailed a picture of you in the saddle. She said you were becoming a full-fledged cowgirl."
"Not so much a cowgirl, but I like horseback riding."
"So do I, though I haven't done much of it lately. Who stays with you when your mother is away?"
"If she's on a short trip, you know, less than a week, then she usually lets me stay with my friend Bettsnot that I need a babysitter." Try telling that to her mother.
"And when it's a long trip, like this one?" he questioned.
"Grandma and Granddad drive down from Portland. They dropped me off at the airport before they drove home today."
"How are your grandparents?"
"Grandma's doing fine. Granddad's having problems with his arthritis. He can't get around as well as he used to."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
She was tempted to bring up her other grandparent now, but she decided to wait. As her mother always said, timing was everything. And she couldn't risk any problems with her plan.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
"I could eat. All they gave us on the plane was peanuts. They were selling sandwiches, but they looked as lousy as some of that stuff they pass off for food in the school cafeteria."
"I can order pizza. You do still like pizza, don't you?"
"Sure. As long as it doesn't have weird stuff on it like asparagus or pineapple."
"No way. I'm talking real pizza. Pepperoni, sausage, extra cheese, the works. But first we should probably call your mother and let her know you arrived safely."
"I texted her when the plane landed and told her I'd made it to Dallas."
"You should have called me from the airport. I would have picked you up myself or sent a car for you."
"I called your office. They said you were in court so I took a taxi."
"How did you get inside the building?"
"Easy. When the driver let me out, I dashed for the awning over the front door and just walked into the building with a woman who was fighting to close her umbrella in the wind. I figured if you weren't here, I'd try calling your cell phone."
"Thankfully, I came straight home from the courthouse. I got here a few minutes before you." He took a phone from his pocket and ordered the pizza.
Effie looked around a bit more. There were several framed photographs sitting around of her and her dad together. Guess that meant he didn't totally forget her when she was out of sight.
One of the photos was of him holding her in his arms when she was a baby. At least she guessed that was her. Another was of her holding his hand, a pair of Mickey Mouse ears propped on her head, the Disneyland sign in the background. Both of those had to have been taken long before the divorce.
The other photos included a shot of the two of them in the surf on Oahu and another with them zip-lining over a Puerto Rican rainforest. She remembered both of those trips well. Trips were okay, but she'd felt as if she were traveling with some big-shot stranger.