Amid the sparkling snow-swept mountains of Lake Tahoe, Nina Reilly has made a home, juggling the demands of her one-woman law practice and raising a teenage son alone. Now Nina has taken on a case that will threaten everything she holds dear, drawing her into a tangled web of loyalties and alliances within one of Lake Tahoe's most prominent families. Her client: a man accused of murdering his own brotheron the ski slopes of Tahoe. The law says Nina must give Jim Strong the best possible defense. But Strong's family has turned violently against him, and suddenly Nina is at the center of the storm. As she works a flawed and troubling case and gets swept into an unexpected love affair, the two sides of Nina's life come crashing together...in the ultimate act of malice.
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Through her office door, Nina Reilly heard the gentle guitar and coaxing voice of Carlos Botelho, singing that love is a paradox that disappears the moment you find it. Sandy Whitefeather, her secretary, had developed a fixation on this particular recording and had been playing it over and over for two weeks. In the outer office, Sandy hummed along with the tune, if that rasping monotone could be called a hum.
After a long morning in court, Nina had just had lunch, a spicy quesadilla from Margarita's Mexican Restaurant across Lake Tahoe Boulevard from the office. Her yellow silk blouse now sported a salsa stain on the front, right where it stuck out the most. Men didn't have this structural difficulty. Also, sometimes they had the advantage of those patterned ties, so useful for catching drips.
Naturally, the prospective client who had come to consult her was an attractive male, tieless but stainless, who had immediately noticed the blouse. He had noticed all of her very thoroughly before he sat down, and now he was looking around the office, getting his bearings.
A, amor . . .
Love takes its rhythm from the sea
Seeking and leaving eternally
Outside her window a light, dry snow fell, shot through with sunlight as the squall moved on across the Sierra into the high desert of the Carson Valley. It was only the beginning of November, and snow already capped the giant peaks that surrounded South Lake Tahoe. At over six thousand feet, Tahoe caught the cold currents of winter long before the valleys of the San Joaquin and the Pacific Coast.
Stretching out her legs under the desk to relieve the pressure on her stomach, she gazed past him toward that calming fall of snow, thinking, here it comes again, the change of weather, the new case, the trouble that falls endlessly through the door.
"You're gonna love this one," Sandy had told her the day before, handing her the phone message slip. This could mean anything; that Sandy approved of the client's political beliefs, family ties, or bank account.
Nina had written his name and address and phone number at the top of her legal pad: James Strong, Paradise Lodge Manager, care of Paradise Ski Resort, Stateline, Nevada. "Call me Jim," he had said as he looked her over, holding out a hand. He had taken off his red, white, and black Tommy Hilfiger parka and seated himself in one of the client chairs, but he didn't seem ready to talk yet.
She watched him check out the office with its fiddle-leaf fig in the sunny corner, the picture on her desk of Bob, looking not-too-thrilled at being caught on film by the school photographer, and the framed certificates on the walls. Nina Reilly, attorney-at-large. Graduate, Monterey College of Law. Admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the State of California.
Hard-earned certificates. So hard earned, it had taken five years to pay off the student loans.
The low-key surroundings seemed to reassure him. Some prospective clients preferred ostentation. They went elsewhere. The Law Offices of Nina Reilly consisted of the front office where Sandy reigned and clients waited, the library and conference room next door where coffee was made and depositions were held, and Nina's small office in back, just big enough for the oversized desk and a couple of orange chairs given to her by her sister-in-law.
While Jim Strong looked around, she formed her own impression of him: blue eyes burning out of his face; brown hair, cropped close; powerful neck, finely honed features; a jock with brains. Skiing as a lifestyle had tanned his skin, beefed up his shoulders, and narrowed the rest of his profile. He was younger than Nina by a few years, in his late twenties. He wore a red sweater and jeans.
His physical presence was blinding. The ski bunnies must love him.
But it was his expression that her eyes lingered upon, the compressed lips that held things in, the furrow of skin between the thick brown eyebrows, the jaw that clenched and unclenched, working the muscles of his cheeks.
A man in the worst trouble of his life, she diagnosed, getting up to close the door that Sandy had left cracked open.
Slowly my love changes and becomes beautiful
Sending out sparks, and I catch fire
She knew the Strong name from constant references in the Tahoe Mirror. Straddling Nevada and California, with runs in each state, Paradise was one of the oldest local businesses, a major employer at Tahoe, and one of the few ski resorts that was still run by a family and not a distant corporate conglomerate. Philip Strong, father and owner, also sat on the City Council, got loads of kudos for his philanthropy, and his fair share of respectful reverence for being among the area's founding fathers.
Also favoring the steady stream of publicity was the family's extraordinary athletic skill. Various members competed in world-class ski and snowboarding events that led to awards and exciting close races. It didn't hurt either that their physical good looks cried out for a Sunday photo spread. Nina suspected that they encouraged the coverage, which could only be good for a small resort struggling to wrestle patrons from the behemoths of Squaw and Heavenly.
But the most recent coverage, she remembered now, had been because of a tragedy.
She sat back down and swung her chair around to face him better. He focused on her face and she smiled.
"Any time," she said. "When you're ready."
"It's not easy, coming here." His voice was deeper and older than she had expected.
"I sure do agree with that. I have to come here every day."
A final hesitation, and then he came out with it.
"I think I'm going to be arrested."
She could smell his suntan lotion. Running a lodge at a ski resort, he must need to use a lot of it. His wide hands were like mallets, so hard used they were cracked and earth colored. He obviously spent more time outdoors than in the lodge. He pushed himself back in his chair, compacting himself, as if trying to contain his energy.
"They're saying I killed my own brother." Opening his mouth, he held it that way for an instant, then snapped it shut, then began grinning in embarrassment and shaking his head. "Sorry. It sounds like such a bad joke. Kill my brother? Can you believe it?"
"Alex Strong was your brother? I read about his death in the paper. I'm very sorry." The front page of the Mirror had headlined, "Championship Skier Dies in Accident." She hadn't had time to read the rest, but there had been a large photograph . . . the face had looked like Jim's, the hair lighter and longer, the face younger but no less intense.
"Yes. Alex. First he dies on me, then all this. It's the worst week in my whole life. I'm licked. I can't handle it. I need help. I'm not too stupid to figure that out."
She allowed herself to feel a slight sympathy. He had lost his brother. She, too, had a brother. She had experienced grief, also, that lightless sea that rolls in, drowning everything.
But the truth was, almost every person who walked through the door and into her office had experienced misfortune. It was a given. Over the years she had had to become less sensitive to other people's pain and more attuned to her practical role in alleviating it.