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Rafe Diaz's long stride took him swiftly across the grassy, tree-shaded area that formed the center of Oklahoma City's Reunion Square. He was a tall man, nearly six foot three, with a rangy disciplined build he'd honed to pure muscle during the years that others had control over his life. His slacks were black, his white dress shirt starched, the collar open. He'd bought his functional gray sports coat off the rack.
He strode past several boutiques, an antique shop and a bakery before halting on the sidewalk outside a wide display window that glinted in the morning sun. While he watched through the glass, the hot wind raked through his black hair like wild fingers. Rafe didn't notice. Not with his attention focused on the woman inside Silk & Secrets.
Allie Wentworth Fielding, heiress, socialite and party girl. Former centerfold model. College graduate. She was as stunning as he remembered, in a slim yellow business suit that managed to look both professional and feminine. The trio of gold chains draped around her neck added flash. A small, sparkling clip held back one side of her shoulder-length, honey-blond hair. Her eyes were laser blue and whispered of seduction from beneath thick lashes. Her skin was luminous, her lips glossed in warm coral that might make a man fantasize the heat was kindling for only him.
The sudden fire blazing through Rafe's blood had nothing to do with desire. It came from biting anger over how much had been stolen from him. Anger he didn't know he still harbored until his newest client had brought up Allie Fielding's name.
Seven years had passed since Rafe last laid eyes on her.
Seven years since he'd sat in a courtroom and listened to her testimony that had helped put him in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
He knew she'd told her version of the truth. Knew the evidence pointed to him. Still, he'd lost two years of his life and the chance to pin on a cop's badgethe only career he'd grown up wanting.
Curling his hands into fists, he shifted his gaze to the clock in the brick tower in the center of Reunion Square as it began to bong in slow, ponderous tones. Rafe counted the nine strikes while waiting for the resentment chewing at his insides to ease. He was free, dammit. Had been for five years. During that time he'd carved out a life for himself. It wasn't what he'd grown up envisioning, but it was enough.
He was his own boss. He lived alone. By his own design there was no one he had to answer to. For a man whose freedom had once been snatched away, having total control over every aspect of his life was all that mattered.
When he felt steadier, he turned his gaze back to the woman on the other side of the shop's window. He watched in silence while she arranged a pair of shoes on a velvet-draped pedestal positioned beneath a single spotlight. The shoes were embroidered and beaded, and looked like something Marie Antoinette would have worn.
Or a pampered, spoiled socialite with money to burn and country-club parties to attend.
While Allie positioned a small placard beside the shoes, Rafe focused on the dark bruise marring her left temple. Only a few days had passed since she'd found Mercedes McKenzie's body and gotten clubbed by the killer.
Standing beneath the strengthening sunlight, Rafe knew if he'd been gazing at any other woman, he'd be thinking about the fear that must have spiked into her when the killer lunged from behind the condo's kitchen door. And the pain she'd surely suffered when he slammed a fist against the side of her head. But this was Allie Fielding, and his foremost thought was that she could have wound up as dead as he had felt when she testified against him.
Rafe rolled his shoulders in a futile attempt to ease the tightness that had settled in them. He reminded himself he was here on business anchored in the present, not the past. There wasn't room for emotion, not when his client's freedom was on the line.
Rafe had already acknowledged the irony that this woman might hold the key to his latest case. He'd been hired by Hank Bishop, the man accused of Mercedes McKenzie's murder. Bishop swore he was innocent, and Rafe knew all too well that being accused of a crime had nothing to do with guilt. He was positive Hank Bishop was innocent, just as he had been.
"Get this over with," Rafe ground out as he headed toward the shop's beveled-glass door.
This time, he had no intention of allowing Allie Went-worth Fielding to play a part in robbing a guiltless man of his freedom.
Allie finished positioning a Plexiglas display cube over the shoes on the pedestal just as the chime at the shop's front door sounded. Her mouth curving to greet the morning's first customer, she gathered up her dust cloth, then looked across her shoulder.
And felt her heart clench.
She made herself turn slowly to face him. Emotion exploded through her. Each second seemed endless, drawn out, excruciating.
The same way it had felt in the courtroom during her testimony.
He was as tall as she remembered, but more muscular. Not even the gray sports coat could conceal shoulders that looked like he tossed around hundred-pound weights on a regular basis. His skin was the same burnished olive, but his face had changed. Hardened. Lines had scored into the corners of his eyes and mouth, giving him a taut aura of danger that hadn't been there before. Looking so dark and foreboding, he could pass for a bad guy. But Rafe Diaz had never been a bad guy, and Allie had spent years dealing with the pangs of conscience over the part she'd played in sending an innocent man to prison.
The cool disdain in his dark eyes sent the message he hadn't forgottenor forgivenher involvement, either.
Her fingers clenched on the dust cloth. "Rafe, what are you doing here?"
Her gaze swept across the racks of silky lingerie and shelves of feminine accessories. "You came to buy something?"
"Hardly." He kept his gaze locked on hers as he moved to the waist-high glass counter near the door. "I'm here on my business, not yours." He pulled a card out of the inside pocket of his sports coat, laid it on the counter and waited.
The fact he hadn't walked to her and handed her the card indicated he didn't intend to make their meeting easy. Fine, Allie thought, as she moved toward the counter, her heels echoing against the polished parquet floor. After what he'd been through, she couldn't exactly blame him for holding a grudge.
She stowed the cloth under the counter, then took in the information on the card. "What business does a private investigator have with me?"
"Hank Bishop's my client. He's been charged with murdering Mercedes McKenzie."
"I heard he'd been arrested." Allie swallowed hard. She hadn't yet been able to rid her mind of the vision of Mercedes lying dead on the condo's kitchen floor. "What has Hank Bishop hired you to do?"
"Prove he's innocent."
"Do you believe he is?"
"I believe in giving him the benefit of the doubt." Rafe dipped his head. "Not everyone who gets arrested is actually guilty."
Ouch. Allie felt heat flood into her cheeks. "No, they're not." She laid the card aside. "You were innocent, Rafe. As much a victim as Nina was, but in a far different way."
Even after so many years, Allie still shuddered at the horrific memories. For the pain her best friend suffered. And what Rafe must have endured. "Does it make you feel better to hear me say you were innocent?"
She saw a shadow of emotion move in his eyes before the shutter came down. "What I want to hear from you are details. What happened when you found Mercedes McKenzie's body?"
Allie eased out a breath. Okay, so his coming here didn't include clearing the air about the past. Talking about finding a dead body wasn't high on her list of subject matter, either.
"I went over everything with the police," she said. "Several times."
"I'm not the police."
She hesitated when a long-ago memory stirred inside her. Nina, her best friend and roommate who'd been dating Rafe, had mentioned his driving goal was to be a cop. His conviction ended that dream. And though it had been expunged as if it had never happened, Allie didn't think any police department would hire a man who had served time in a state penitentiary.
"I want whoever killed Mercedes put away, so I'll tell you all I know about that night," she said quietly. "But I'm still a little unsteady from the experience. I'd prefer to talk over there."
His gaze tracked hers to the plush sitting area tucked into one corner of the shop's main showroom. "Fine."
When she moved past him, she caught the tang of masculine-scented soap. She had to stop herself from turning her head, inhaling deeply of the scent that was indescribably male.
As she walked across the shop, she was acutely aware of Rafe moving behind her.
Allie settled onto the powder-pink love seat. "You might as well get comfortable," she said, gesturing toward the upholstered chair on the opposite side of the round glass coffee table.
Instead of sitting, Rafe stood behind the chair. "About that night?" he prodded.
She leaned back against the love seat's cushions and met his waiting gaze. "All I saw was a dark form lunge from behind the door. I couldn't even tell if it was a man or a woman. I'm sure the police had reason to arrest Hank Bishop, but it wasn't because of anything I told them."
"He was arrested because he was Mercedes McKenzie's lover," Rafe said. "He owns the condo she lived in, his prints are all over everything, his DNA is on the sheets, he has clothes there. And he has no alibi for the time of the murder."
"So Bishop could have killed Mercedes and assaulted me."
"Could have, but didn't," Rafe said. "Do you know the exact time you got to the condo?"
"Right at nine-thirty. I paid attention to the time because I was miffed I had to deliver lingerie that Mercedes was supposed to have picked up here earlier."
"Did you see anyone else? A neighbor out smoking a cigarette? Someone walking a dog, maybe?"
"Did you hear anyone?"
"No," Allie said, then paused. "I heard a car start. And saw it speed by the driveway."
"Going which way?"
"What kind of car?"
"It was too dark to tell. All I saw were the taillights."
She blinked. "What?"
"How many taillights? What shape?"
She arched a brow. "The police didn't ask me such specific questions."
"I believe in being thorough."
You would have been a good cop, Allie thought and felt a wrench of regret for the unfair hand life had dealt him. "The taillights were round. Two on each side." She tried to picture something about the car during the few seconds she'd glanced its way. "I think they were high up, close to the lid of the trunk."
Rafe nodded. "You didn't see enough of your attacker to ID him. But did you get a sense of anything about him?"
"No, there wasn't time. Everything happened so fast. Too fast."
Before she could block it, the vision flashed in her head of the dark form lunging at her. The fear came barreling back, sending a wave of nausea lurching in her stomach. Leaning forward, Allie propped her forearms on her knees and shut her eyes against the blinding white spots spinning before them. God, would the image never start to fade?
"Are you all right?"
She flinched when Rafe's voice came from just beside her. She hadn't even heard him move. "I'm fine." A sheen of clammy perspiration enveloped her entire body. "Fine."
"Fine, hell," Rafe muttered. With one hand, he shoved her head between her knees. "You're as white as chalk and about to pass out. Take deep breaths."
With her head spinning and her vision dimming, Allie had no choice but to obey. Please don't let me heave on his shoes, she prayed as she dragged in a series of shaky breaths against the nausea churning in her stomach.
Keeping his hand pressed against her spine, Rafe lowered himself onto the arm of the love seat. Despite her dazed senses, Allie felt the pressure of each of his fingers through the fabric of her suit, all too aware of the latent strength in his touch.
"You have some water around here?" His voice had lost some of its hardness.
"There's a small refrigerator off the fitting room," she said, keeping her eyes on the blurred toes of her yellow leather heels.
"Where's the fitting room?"
"Just beyond that arched doorway."
Without further comment, he rose and disappeared out of her line of sight, his footsteps hollow echoes as he headed across the shop.
Lord, Allie thought. How many times over the five years since his release had she thought about contacting him? Or writing him a letter to let him know how horribly sorry she was. In the end, she'd done nothing. There was no way to make up for the wrong that had been done to him. That she'd done.
Rafe returned, unscrewing the lid off a bottle of water.
Bracing herself, Allie eased upright and took the bottle from him with both hands. "Thanks."
She sipped slowly, concentrating on the simple act of swallowing the cool liquid.
When her vision came back into focus, she saw that Rafe had relocated behind the upholstered chair. "Feel like continuing?" he asked, his dark eyes measuring her.
"Yes." She lifted her free hand to her bruised temple, felt her fingertips tremble against her tender flesh. "I keep telling myself that it's over, that I'm safe. Then I see this blurry shadow careen from behind the door. I was so afraid."
"What happened after he hit you?"
"I don't know. I don't remember anything after that until I woke up on the kitchen floor." Allie squeezed her eyes shut. "The first thing I saw were Mercedes's dead eyes staring back at me." A shiver ran up Allie's spine and her voice broke. "I was unconscious for over half an hour. He had plenty of time to kill me, too." She took another shaky sip of water, then lifted her gaze to meet Rafe's. "I don't know why I'm still alive."
Rafe's mouth tightened. "The fact you are tells me he knew for sure you didn't get a look at him."
"Which is fortunate for me." Allie took another sip of water. "Not for your client if he's innocent."
Apparently assured she was no longer in danger of fainting, Rafe wandered past an array of display racks holding colorful, delicate silks. Allie noted that he moved with the sinuous tread of a big cat. No wasted motion, no abrupt movements.