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By Sylvia Nobel
Nite Owl BooksCopyright © 2004 Sylvia Nobel
All rights reserved.
Rayna Manchester paused in the doorway of the cluttered office she shared with Deputy Prosecutor Miguel Castillo, meeting his startled gaze as he cradled the phone.
"Hey, look who's here! I didn't expect you back until next week," he crowed, his brown eyes twinkling with good humor. "Please tell me you had a good time. And I hope you kicked back and relaxed for once in your life."
"I did." No point in mentioning the disquieting dream that she'd had again, or that the sound of her own sobs had awakened her. She'd felt confident that after all these years, she'd finally grown beyond it, that the heartaches clouding her past could touch her no longer.
He cocked his head to one side. "You had another week's vacation coming. Why didn't you take it?"
She slid into the leather chair behind her desk. "You know me," she replied, glancing out the window at the morning rush hour traffic crawling through the streets of downtown Tucson, "I needed the break, but I'm happier when I'm in the thick of things."
His knowing grin disputed her response. "I see. So, you're all recovered from losing the Stratton case?"
She edged him a rueful look. "Believe me, I tried to put it out of my mind."
His steady gaze remained thoughtful. "There's no question you worked your fanny off on that one. You should have won it."
Yes, she should have. She tried not to think of the countless hours she'd invested, only to lose the case on a minor technicality. During the sensational trial, the State had introduced more than enough evidence for a conviction, but much to her chagrin, the guilty party, a loathsome man who'd allegedly strangled his own mother and dumped her body into his recycle bin, had walked out free as a bird. And all because a law clerk had failed to file one important document which the defense attorney had gleefully waved in her face - one lousy little piece of paper. Nevertheless, she still blamed herself for the fact that justice had not been served. To her added embarrassment, she'd been raked over the coals, perhaps skewered was a more appropriate term, by every radio talk show host in town. The print press also had a field day headlining that, after four years, Pima County Deputy Prosecutor Rayna Manchester's perfect record of convictions had finally been broken. Remembering the gallons of midnight oil she'd burned on that one case galled her to no end.
"Great tan," Miguel said with an admiring grin. "So, where'd you go skiing again? Aspen? Vail?"
She made a face at him. "Sure. Like I could afford those places on my salary."
"You will someday. You're gaining quite a reputation and I expect one of the big firms to snap you up any day now." He leaned down, dug a newspaper from the stack on the floor beside his desk, and held it aloft. "Did you know about this?"
Rayna adjusted the clasp that gathered her dark, shoulder-length hair at the nape of her neck and eyed the bold headline. MOM AND TODDLER FIGHT FOR LIVES AFTER DEADLY HIT AND RUN.
"I read about it after I left. Have the police got a suspect?"
"Yeah. An eighteen-year-old kid turned himself in a couple of days later. Apparently he'd only been in town a week or two when it happened. He claimed he'd been too scared to come forward and say anything until the description of his vehicle was all over the news."
Rayna's interest level shot up and she felt the familiar tingle in her belly. This could be big, considering the victims were the sister and two-year-old niece of Tucson's popular mayor. "What are the charges?"
"Two counts of Aggravated Assault with a Dangerous Instrument and one count of Leaving the Scene."
"Who did Mitchell assign to the case?"
"No one, yet. And believe me, if my case load weren't up to here," he said, pushing the back of his hand beneath his chin for emphasis, "I wouldn't mind taking a stab at this one myself. I handled the Initial appearance last Wednesday and it made me sick. Damned pimply-faced punk didn't show even a smidgen of remorse. And wouldn't you know it, the kid's rich daddy flew into town and posted bond." His face darkened. "It burns me up knowing that the two of them are living high on the hog over at the Marriott while that woman and her baby are lying...."
"Welcome back." Mitchell Gates's gravelly voice boomed from the doorway. "Ready to hit the bricks?"
Rayna turned to see her craggy-faced boss resting his towering bulk against the doorframe while he extended a folder in her direction. "Add whatever you have to this stack," she said, patting the pile on her desk. "You know I'm a glutton for punishment."
"We'll clear some of the other things from your calendar. Right now, I want you to concentrate on this hit-and-run," he said, dropping the folder in front of her. "I guess I don't need to tell you that there is a considerable amount of pressure from above on this one."
"All right!" Rayna exclaimed, relishing the challenge. Mitchell was well aware of how hard she'd taken the loss of the previous case. She tapped her fingers on the folder and threw him a grateful smile. "Miguel was just filling me in."
His hazel eyes took on a crafty gleam. "Did Miguel also tell you who's handling the defense?"
"No," she said, slowly drawing the word out, her quizzical gaze moving from one to the other. "But, the Cheshire cat grins you're both wearing gives me a pretty good idea."
Mitchell shoved his hands into the pockets of his baggy slacks and laughed out loud. "Go for the gold. Freestone won't know what hit him."
* * *
The first day back at work behind her, Rayna stopped at the gym on the way home. She could have easily done without more exercise since her muscles still ached from skiing, but she needed it nonetheless. She didn't work out five times a week just to stay in shape. It was balm for her soul, the ideal prescription to relieve stress after a twelve-hour day.
After an hour of step aerobics and a half hour of spinning, Rayna showered and changed into a loose sweatshirt and leggings before strolling across the strip mall towards the juice bar, inhaling deep breaths of crisp night air, finally feeling relaxed. She loved winters in Arizona, when the searing heat of summer finally relinquished its iron grip. Once indoors again, Rayna quickly snagged two stools at the crowded counter and ordered a drink. The snippets of animated conversation from the other patrons, mingled with occasional bursts of laughter, created a welcome change from the somber atmosphere of the courtroom. A light slap on her shoulder caused her to jump, and she turned to meet Tracy Butler's luminous green eyes.
"Hey, girlfriend, you missed out on all the excitement at the zoo last Saturday," her friend announced, dropping her backpack at her feet as she eased onto the adjacent stool.
"Don't tell me the white tiger had her cub?"
"She did! But that's not the half of it. While the TV crews and newspaper reporters were all concentrating on the cub, one of the spectators went into labor right there on the spot. It was crazy! We called the fire department and not two minutes later the lady delivered a seven-pound baby girl. The reporters went ballistic trying to cover both stories at once."
Rayna shook her head in wonder. "Go figure. I've been volunteering there for nearly three years and the most exciting thing that's ever happened on my shift was some kid locking himself in the bathroom."
"That'll teach you to take a vacation." Tracy giggled, waving to the dark-haired man behind the counter. "Hey, Brian, I'll take one of your special strawberry smoothies when you get a minute."
He winked at her. "Right away."
Tracy sighed happily and whispered, "He's kinda hot, isn't he?"
Rayna studied the young man's buff body and pleasing profile. "Kinda."
"Speaking of hot," Tracy began, her eyes sparkling with mischief, "how did you and Gary hit it off the other night?"
Rayna gave her friend a sidelong glance. "Hmm. Interesting segue." She pretended to concentrate on her coconut-pineapple smoothie for long seconds before answering. "He was nice."
"Nice? Just nice?" Tracy squeaked in disbelief. "He's young, not exactly a hottie, but not bad-looking either, he has a successful dental practice, drives a new red Porsche, probably has a fat bank account ... and that's all you can say?"
"Young is the operative word."
Tracy grimaced, tucking a strand of wispy red hair behind one ear. "You're not robbing the cradle. After all, he's at least thirty, and you're what, not quite thirty-five? Lighten up, woman, it's the cool thing to do nowadays."
"For Hollywood stars maybe."
Tracy flashed Brian a coy smile and thanked him for her drink before returning her attention to Rayna. "So, what about Kevin and me? He's four years younger and it doesn't matter one bit. So, what's the real excuse this time? Are you going to give Gary the brush-off like the last two guys I've sent your way?"
Rayna appreciated her friend's well-meaning efforts, but Gary had sparked no fireworks. Zilch. "Before I left for vacation, I promised him we'd get together again when I got back from vacation this week. Happy?"
Tracy solemnly clinked her glass to Rayna's in obvious approval. "Happy."
It was closing in on nine o'clock by the time Rayna reached her condo, bone tired, but content to be back at work. Her mind was still humming with details of the hectic afternoon as she walked into the lobby and retrieved her mail from the row of brass boxes along the back wall. Normally, she would have taken the stairs, but tonight she stepped into the elevator, piling the handful of envelopes on top of the files and work clothes nestled in the crook of her arm before punching the button for the third floor.
Dinner first, she told herself firmly. Then she'd dig into the material on the new case. She'd been so swamped all day with court appearances, returning phone calls and tackling the mounds of paperwork on her desk, that she'd never had time to even glance at the folder.
The elevator door slid open and she hurried along the carpeted hallway, head down, rummaging in her purse for her keys. She looked up just in time to avoid colliding with her neighbor, who'd stepped suddenly from her doorway.
"Oh!" Rayna cried, reaching out to steady the frail woman wearing a flowered housecoat. "I'm sorry Mrs. Ansel, I guess I wasn't paying attention."
"No harm done," the woman said with a hesitant smile. "Did you have a good day back at the office?"
Rayna cringed at the expectant gleam in the old woman's watery-blue eyes. She had neither the time, nor was she in the mood, to get trapped in an extended conversation.
"I did." She brushed past and slid the key into the lock before pausing. She hadn't meant to sound so abrupt. Margaret Ansel was kind and considerate, her only shortcoming being that she was usually starved for company. Besides, who else could she trust to take care of Beauregarde when she was away? Rayna turned back and sweetened her tone. "I'd ask you in to visit, but I have a ton of work to catch up on tonight."
"Oh, that's quite all right," Mrs. Ansel said, nervously picking non-existent lint from her housecoat in a transparent attempt to hide her disappointment. "I don't have time to talk anyway. My program starts in a few minutes. I just wanted to remind you that the carpet cleaners are coming this Friday in case you want to bring Beauregarde over while they're shampooing your place."
"Oh, I completely forgot."
"Just bring his litter box and a couple of cans of his favorite food and we'll have a grand time together."
"You're a lifesaver, Mrs. Ansel. Thank you." Rayna flashed her an appreciative smile, pushed the door open and locked it behind her. She snapped on the light and her eyes instantly focused on the six-foot-tall rubber plant lying prone on the living room floor. "Oh, Beauregarde, not again." She shook her head at the large white cat staring back at her from the couch, his cornflower blue eyes brimming with innocence. "And don't give me that I-didn't-do-it look." She set the files on the cluttered antique library table before kneeling to push the plant upright. While dismayed at the damp potting soil scattered on the cream-colored carpet, she consoled herself with the fact that it would soon be cleaned.
She slipped off her jacket and gazed around the airy room, enveloped by a keen sense of satisfaction at her recent purchase. The bold-print throw covers recommended by the store designer had worked beautifully to unify her mismatched antique furniture collection. The oval mirror she'd found last week at the thrift store would finish off the décor nicely.
Beauregarde landed on the floor with a soft thud and approached her, meowing softly, his tail waving languidly as he weaved in and out between her ankles.
"Don't try to sweet talk me," she scolded mildly, scooping him into her arms. She stroked his silky fur and the cat nuzzled her neck before wriggling from her arms to stand by his empty food bowl. "And I suppose you now expect me to reward your shenanigans with dinner," she said with a chuckle, striding past the breakfast bar into the narrow kitchen. The red light on the answering machine flashed, so she tapped the button. As the tape rewound, she opened a can of cat food and poured it into Beauregarde's bowl. She listened to three hang-ups and two sales calls before a genial voice resonated, "Hey there, it's Gary. I hope the skiing was good. Listen, I was wondering if you'd like to see a play with me Saturday night. It's the premiere of 'Corridors,' that off-Broadway show I mentioned, and we could catch an early dinner beforehand. Give me a call if this will work for you."
She kicked off her shoes and stood at the counter, lost in thought, absently watching Beauregarde daintily chew his food. The New York critics had given the play great reviews. Unfortunately, she couldn't muster up any enthusiasm at the thought of seeing it with Gary Sykes. Besides, she'd probably be too busy. Of course she'd be too busy. She'd make damn sure of that. Tracy was right. She'd become a veritable pro at keeping potential suitors at arm's length, a seasoned master at conjuring up convenient excuses whenever a man showed the slightest interest in her. And she knew why.
Her eyes glazed over as fragments of the sensual dream danced in her head, resurrecting conflicting emotions of desire and resentment followed by a crushing sense of loss. Would she ever again meet a man capable of igniting the magnitude of passion that had once consumed her? Lord knows she'd made every effort to forget him after her well-intentioned marriage to Thomas Manchester, who had been the kindest, most patient husband a woman could wish for. But it seemed no matter what she did, no matter how far she ran she was incapable of purging the memories and there remained an indefinable yearning in the deepest recesses of her heart.
With a sigh of annoyance, Rayna grabbed the remote, turned on the TV and concentrated on dinner preparations. It was routine by now. Whenever her thoughts led her to the dangerous precipice overlooking her past and threatened to send her on a downward spiral of depression, her natural defense mechanism would kick in and firmly close the door to the bittersweet memories.
An hour later, clad in her white bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, Rayna settled onto the sofa with the file on her lap and Beauregarde curled beside her, his rumbling purr filling the silence as she scratched his head and flipped the folder open to study the accident report. Then she scanned the witness statement and the notes Miguel had penned during the Initial appearance.
She'd prosecuted numerous DUIs during her career, and dealing with the disastrous consequences of drunk driving cases had hardened her to life's cruel realities. But, as she reviewed the grim details and the extent of the injuries sustained by these victims, the usual objectivity for which she prided herself gradually dissipated. Her face grew hot with anger. How could anyone be so callous, so utterly heartless as to run down a mother and child in a marked crosswalk and then make no attempt to stop or render aid? Her throat tightened as she reviewed the photos of the woman and the little girl. Abruptly, she set them aside, refusing to become emotionally involved.
The preliminary hearing was scheduled for Wednesday. That gave her very little time to prepare. She scribbled a few notes on a yellow legal pad. First thing tomorrow she would contact the investigating officer and the eyewitness to arrange interviews and make sure they would be available to appear in court.
Flipping the page, her gaze zeroed in on the name of the defendant: Scott Brockwell, age eighteen. She stared at it, her hand suspended in mid-air, her stomach turning cold. Brockwell? What were the chances? No, she told herself firmly. This was a coincidence. There had to be literally hundreds of people with that same last name. She tried to shake it off, but the indelible memory began to replay in her mind. She'd been only sixteen the day Tyler Brockwell walked into the little photo shop where she worked, and into her young life - altering it forever.
Excerpted from Chasing Rayna by Sylvia Nobel. Copyright © 2004 Sylvia Nobel. Excerpted by permission of Nite Owl Books.
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