Excerpt: Lust on the Rock
Book Two: The Gables Series
“I want you to consider Victor Marin for the Perry case.”
Samantha Rawlings stiffened, and forced her fingers to finish removing the dark fuzz of lint from her cream linen skirt. With cool precision, she settled both arms along the wide fabric armrests of her chair and locked her attention onto her boss, Raul Martinez. “Not necessary, Raul. It’s covered.”
“He has experience in the area.”
“As do I,” Sam replied, wondering why he would suggest involving a new hire on the firm’s powerhouse complaint. Raul may be the senior partner of Baker, Schofield, Martinez and Brown—one of Miami’s top legal firms—and he may have the authority, but this was her case and she would try it as she saw fit.
“I’m merely suggesting you take advantage of his insight. It may prove fruitful to your case.”
“I’m always willing to listen.”
Raul’s dark brown eyes registered the deflection. “But not inclined to include him for trial?”
The Perry Fitness case was hers, and there was no room for the new guy to work it with her. She might want to get close to Victor, but only in the most personal of terms. Her business affairs were something else entirely.
“Victor won a substantial settlement from a casino out of New Jersey. One of their patrons died on the premises.” He paused. “From sudden cardiac death.”
Sam shifted her weight and fought a rising tide of misgiving. Heart attacks were not rare occurrences. People collapsed in all sorts of places unfortunately, casinos notwithstanding. “I’m well versed in the arena, Raul, from the statistics to the complications and I’ve already consulted Diego on the case.” Diego Rodriguez was her in-house ally and extremely skilled in trial work. “We’re still working up the history now, but if Perry has been found culpable before, as I suspect, it’s going to cost them.” Cutting corners to boost profits shouldn’t come at the expense of people’s lives.
Not in her courtroom.
Raul interlaced his fingers and set them to rest on a manila folder. Despite the steam of summer, his formality seldom changed. From his cufflinks to the perfectly formed knot in his silk tie, the man reigned supreme over Baker, Schofield, Martinez and Brown in both title and appearance. A full head of gray hair and expensive haircut only accentuated his vitality.
“I know you and Diego work well together, but he’s heavily involved in the Esposito trial. You may need the extra hand.”
“Diego says that’ll be wrapped up within the month.”
Curiosity churned in Raul’s eyes like a storm on the horizon. “Is there a problem, Sam? I was under the impression you were pleased with Victor’s performance.”
“I am. He’s sharp, aggressive, and I think he’ll make a great lawyer some day.”
Raul’s brow raised in question.
Sam pulled her top leg in, bracing her body against the chair as she leaned forward. “I want to nail this one, Raul. It’s an important case and likely to be precedent-setting. I can’t be distracted by training the new guy—not on this one.”
“Besides, my understanding is that as soon as we tie up Morgan-Baxter, Vic’s digging into an HMO case. Vic doesn’t have time to work Perry with me.” Nor the experience, but voicing that would only insult Raul.
“I’m not asking you to recuse yourself. Simply bring him up to speed and consider what he has to say. Listen to him. Allow him to assist you with discovery, pre-trial motions, sit alongside you in court when the time comes.”
Alarms started to sound. Was Raul out of his mind? She needed no assistance. Where was this coming from?
“It’s worth a listen. His experience could prove invaluable.”
She heard a distinct retreat in Raul’s voice.
Good. Sam pulled back into her chair and relaxed her demeanor. The air-conditioner kicked on. Her tension eased. “I appreciate the advice Raul and I’ll take it into consideration. I’ll talk to him. But I reserve the right to try this case my way.”
He smiled. “As always.”
Though he had given in, Sam didn’t like the note of victory she detected in his voice. It meant the discussion wasn’t over. “Listen, if it’s all right with you,” she rose from her chair. “I need to get back to work.”
Taking no comfort in the concession, her mind launched into high gear. Something was going on around here. Like a pirate too close to the plank, she knew something was lurking beneath the surface. But what?
Good sense evaporated. “Raul, is there something—”
“Yes?” he asked with soft expectation.
The glimpse of premeditation staring back at her sent Sam’s body shock-still. His tone was too cool, too deliberate. There was more to this—more than his pretense of helpful unity among associates, the man had an agenda.
She held his gaze. “Nothing, Raul.”
He pulled his hands from the ebony desktop and set them on the smooth leather armrests of his chair. His smile was nothing if not gracious, accommodating, befitting that of a patriarch. “If you’re sure.”
Sam wasn’t sure about anything at the moment. But she knew how to avoid a trap. “I’m sure.”
Without another word, Raul waited for her to make her exit. No more arguments, no more questions, he was giving her lead time. For what, she didn’t have a clue, but experience taught that he’d be back.
As Sam headed back to her office, speculation consumed her. Had Diego miscalculated? Was that what bothered her? Maybe she was ornery because Raul had interfered with her caseload, veered into her lane like oncoming traffic, blind-siding her with a full blast of headlights.
Passing her secretary with an absent nod, Sam strode into her office and rounded the corner of her desk. She stopped short. Unable to indulge in her prized view of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, glittering like a sheet of aquamarine crystals out the thirty-second floor windows, suspicion gnawed. Something wasn’t right. She shuffled through a stack of new phone messages, interested by none.
Maria Jimenez breezed into her office, the tight maroon skirt wrapped around her hourglass hips moving with unbelievable ease as she carried a stack of files hugged close to her chest. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing.” Ditching the pink sheets of paper, Sam glanced about the office. Regal blue lampshades and plush navy carpeting, diplomas organized on her wall, it looked like any other in the firm.
Maria dropped the folders onto the edge of the desk. “These are the files you requested.”
“Thanks.” Whipping a hand to her hip, Sam asked, “What’s up with Diego’s schedule? I thought he and Stevens were almost finished, but Raul says they’re still deep in it.”
“I don’t know.” Saucy eyes sharpened and her Spanish accent thickened. “You want me to find out?”
Sam shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.” She wasn’t sure what she wanted or from whom. No sense sending Maria out unarmed.
“So what did Raul want?”
She looked at Maria, the question crystallizing in her brain. What did he want? Was he setting her up? Did he have an agenda? Sam’s gaze wandered to the red leather chaise sequestered in the corner. A bit loud and far outside the dignified image Raul was cultivating for the firm, it was the only piece of décor in her office that hinted to the woman within. She insisted it gave fire to her thought process and was largely responsible for her wins. Who could argue with such logic? Certainly not Raul, so he allowed the one item to stay.
Why was he challenging her now?
“Never mind. None of my business,” Maria murmured, but her black eyes blazed the third degree.
“Actually,” Sam sighed. “I have no idea.” Had he wanted to revoke confidence with her performance? Express disapproval at her budding interest in Vic? He frowned upon office romances, but over the years had come to allow her some wiggle room on the subject. But pushing another associate on her, overriding her authority…
It wasn’t his style.
“You think it’s good news or bad?”
Misgiving pinched her chest. Sam couldn’t answer that one. “You tell me,” she pitched back. “He wants Vic to assist on the Perry case.”
“What? Why would he want to do something crazy like that?” she whipped back.
“My question exactly.”
“Is it Diego’s schedule?” She packed on a matter-of-fact attitude and waved a finger through the air, gold bangles jingling. “I’ll call Suzette right now. She’ll tell me what’s going on over there in two seconds.”
Sam surrendered to a small smile. Maria; her paralegal-secretary-extraordinaire. The woman was a pint of sass packed into a Latin man’s voluptuous fantasy: long black hair and big brown eyes, full pouty lips and enough makeup to make a cosmetician swoon. Damn sharp when it came to following instructions though, making Maria the best assistant since Moses. And indispensable. No doubt she would plunder the information in no time if asked. “Don’t bother, Mare. I’ll ask him myself.”
“I’m sure.” Sam dropped to her chair, careful not to disturb the neat stacks of paper she had arranged on her desk in the form of a triangle. She was visual and these piles represented the three litigants in her current case. Details she needed to keep close for the conference call she was about to make. When the lies took wing, she intended to swat them like flies, pulling facts and figures from the sheets at her fingertips.
Sam pulled a business card from the top pile and handed it to Maria. “Get these guys on the phone for me, will you? They’re expecting my call.”
“You got it.”
“Beep in when you’re ready.”
As Maria exited the office, Sam began formulating her plan of attack—at present, aimed at securing her settlement. Soon enough, she’d target Raul’s sudden generosity and his chosen benefactor. Taking her place among the elite group of women perched high atop their male-dominated fields was the crown of her achievements and she wasn’t about to jeopardize it. Not for anything or anyone.
Wait a minute. Maybe Raul’s suggestion for including Vic on the Perry case was a test. She looked up from her notes. Her mind slashed through the possibilities. Perhaps he wanted her to do more than consult him on strategy. Maybe Raul wanted to see how she handled the role of mentor to a junior associate. Speculation mounted as pressure built inside her. Senior partners carried out the task every day, right? Makes sense they’d want to see how she’d do before they granted full partnership.
Her breathing paused. Sam squeezed her eyes shut. Shit.
Did she screw up?
“I told you!” the elderly woman cried from the stand. “I set up no such meeting between the two of them!”
Victor Marin leaned over the partition. “That’s not what your phone log says. It says you made several calls to the Senator in the weeks leading up to the transfer of funds and several the day of. Two of them were to his cell phone.”
“It was fundraising!” Delicate cheeks flushed bright red within a frame of perfectly-coiffed silver hair. Like a trapped animal, her frightened gaze sought the judge, counsel, anyone who could help rescue her from the jaws of interrogation.
Samantha Rawlings’ focus shot to the jury, taking satisfaction in how deeply engaged they were in the process. Each and every one of them sat riveted upon Vic’s every move. Throughout the entire proceedings, it seemed they couldn’t get enough of him.
She savored a private smile. An allure she understood all too well. Pushing six-four, he had a striking presence. Not only his size, it was also his eyes. Almost black, yet lit by sparks of fire. Factor in his short-cropped hair, sharp-featured nose, and the chiseled edge of his jaw line and Vic reminded her of a bird.
A falcon. Yes, she thought, pressing the tip of her sleek silver pen into the yellow note pad spread open before her. If he were an animal, he would be a bird of prey. Struck by the assessment, Sam felt an odd alliance with the jury. One couldn’t help being drawn to him. Wary, but mesmerized.
Another smile pulled at her. Definitely mesmerized.
Vic hovered closer to the witness and scowled. “You’re lying.”
Petite within the confines of the witness stand, Morgan’s secretary recoiled, but Vic wasn’t buying her lamb-on-the-butcher-block routine. “Covering for Morgan can send you to jail,” he said. “For years.”
The gavel slammed the room into silence.
“Enough!” Judge Chavez flashed an angry look to the twelve men and women seated to his left, a gust of speculation blowing across the packed courtroom.
Vic murmured in warning, “It’s a favor he wouldn’t return.”
“The jury will disregard the defense’s last statements,” Chavez said to the jury, then swung his wrath toward Vic. “Not another word, counselor.”
Sam was on her feet. “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?”
A muffled wave of whispers rippled through the gallery behind them, packed full today because this case had been feeding the front pages for weeks. Hijacking an employee pension fund was bad enough, but a senator?
Vic cast a glance toward her in an appeal for support, but her glare told him to back off. She had seniority here and he’d better respect it.
Judge Chavez approved her request with a nod of his head, but just over his reading glasses, his cold gaze burned a path straight for Vic.
Sam strode over to the elevated perch that towered over the federal courtroom, Vic close on her heels. Chavez’s black eyes were popping mad, his lips set in a hard line. Even the brown of his skin seemed to redden with fury.
Damn, she mused. Vic did have an effect, didn’t he?
Opposing counsel joined them.
“Your Honor,” Sam controlled her tone as she eased into her appeal. “First let me apologize for my associate’s egregious violation of your courtroom. I assure you it won’t happen again.”
Chavez cupped a hand over the microphone and leaned forward. “You’re damn right it won’t.”
“Your Honor,” Vic interjected. “The witness is holding back.”
“Another word from you,” Chavez growled, “and I’ll have your butt hauled out of my courtroom by force.” Then he addressed Sam. “He’s finished here. I want him out.”
The air in the courtroom grew thick with speculation, curiosity clinging to her backside.
But she wasn’t bothered. She had been here before and enjoyed the pressure. It meant people were paying attention. Sam grew somber and leaned in. “I understand, Your Honor. I’ll take it from here.” She paused, tempering the charge of the battle coursing between them. “But if I may be so forward as to ask your permission that he stay on as an observer?”
Vic opened his mouth to reply, but Sam clamped a hand on his forearm.
Chavez balked. “What?”
“He’s a good attorney, your Honor, just a bit overzealous at times.”
“Overzealous is an understatement, Sam.” His gaze hardened behind the black rim of his glasses. “Even a first-year law student knows not to harass the witness.”
Sam lifted her shoulders in an attempt at forgiveness. “He got carried away?”
“You’re much too generous on his behalf.” Judge Chavez allowed a small smile for her benefit, then cut back to Vic. “As for you. You, young man, are severely lacking in good judgment. Harassing an old woman on the stand not only injures the dignity of my courtroom, but it breeds contempt for our entire system of justice.”
One of the attorneys next to them chuckled under his breath. Which had to grate on him, Sam thought. But to Vic’s credit, he remained immobile. And in control, she noted, with another rush of satisfaction. The man is good.
“Don’t play guessing games on my time,” Chavez belabored. “You have questions, you ask them. Can’t get a witness to answer? Get smarter.”
Vic bristled, but pasted a smile on his face. “Yes sir.”
“Very well,” Chavez said. With his look of distaste securely intact, he held Vic in his scope for several seconds more before returning to Sam. “Maybe he can learn something from watching a seasoned professional such as yourself.”
Sam smiled, warm and personal. “I appreciate it, Your Honor. And I promise, you won’t hear another word from him today.”
“Let’s hope not.” The judge sat back, spitting out a round of nasty condescension, “Or he will find himself a guest of the state hotel.”
With that, the group of attorneys returned to their respective tables while murmurs fluttered back to life in the room behind them.
“Your Honor,” she started, plowing right over Vic’s quiet plea. “If it pleases the court, I have no further questions for this witness.”
“Sam,” Vic whispered harshly. “You can’t let her walk!”
But she ignored him.
Judge Chavez spoke to the witness. “You may be excused.”
Like a timid kitten, the secretary fled the chair in the witness box. Refusing eye contact with Sam and Vic, she clutched a shiny black purse to her chest and hurried up the aisle to a set of double-doors leading out into the hallway.
In her case, the hallway to freedom.
The judge gave two rapid smacks of his gavel. “One hour recess for lunch.” He pushed himself up from his seat. “If I can rally my appetite,” he grumbled aloud.
Everyone rose as the judge exited through a side door, the jurors followed, filing out through another.
“What the hell was that about?” demanded their client as he jumped up from his seat. “You trying to mangle this case more than it already is?”
But Sam didn’t flinch. “Nothing more than courtroom antics.” She gathered her files and began to shove them into her briefcase. Behind her, the commotion of mass exodus began as reporters raced to file their stories, others more eager to report the lurid gossip.
“What the hell were you doing?” he railed into Vic. “I told you she wouldn’t break.”
“She’s been the executive secretary at Morgan-Baxter for twenty years,” Sam cut in. “We had to try.”
“Try, hell—you fumbled the goddamn cross-examination!”
Vic stepped forward to defend himself, but the man’s finger landed in his face. “If you screwed this case I’ll have your ass in a canister, you hear me?”
Something inside him clicked.
Around him, people were shuffling about, stacking papers, making phone calls, the bedlam of a courtroom as it emptied, but Vic held steady.
Then there was Sam, staring at him. He could feel her scrutiny. Hovering like a helicopter over a hostage scene, she was waiting for him to lose his temper and tear into the client.
“I’ve got a lot of money invested in this suit and if you’ve blown it…” The man’s neck vein seemed about to burst through his skin, his anger palpable. “You’re done. You hear me? Done.”
Sam lifted a hand to cease the man’s tirade. “Enough. Morgan-Baxter knows nothing about where we’re headed. When the trial resumes, we go in for the kill. I’m calling Dave Brenner to the stand, first thing.”
The corporate bag of wind deflated. “Dave?”
“Dave,” she repeated the name. “He’s the key to the whole case and I intend to rip him open when we return. Once I fill my belly.” She winked. “Snake meat tends to curdle on an empty stomach.” Stuffing the last of the folders into her case, Sam slung the long leather strap over her shoulder. Looking to the men, she asked, “Anyone care to join me?”
“I’ve got phone calls to make,” her client replied, then plowed into the sea of bodies making their exit.
Sam turned to Vic. “How about you?”
# # #
Sam’s choice of restaurants was located just around the corner from the courthouse. On a humid day the walk was unbearable, but this morning it wasn’t too bad, thanks to the breeze whisking in off Biscayne Bay. It tamed the vicious heat rising from the sidewalks, but did nothing to alleviate the sweat climbing up the back of his neck. Vic sighed. But this was Miami, the tropical moisture something you tolerated.
Suit coat folded over his arm, Vic opened the door to Finkle’s Deli and Sam waltzed inside ahead of him. Baskets overloaded with fresh-baked bread lined the top of the display case, the rich aroma of coffee and grilled meat saturated the air.
Sam paused. “Save room for the Key Lime Fantasy Fest.”
“No thanks. Not a fan of sweets.”
“Me neither, but that baby is pure fantasy when it comes to desserts.”
“What’ll it be?” asked a heavyset man behind the counter.
“Reuben,” Sam responded.
“Make it two.”
“You’s got it.”
Hearing the tough attitude, northeast accent reminded Vic of Philly. So much, that eyes closed, he could have sworn he walked indoors from any street corner back home ready to order up one of the city’s finest.
Sam plucked a plastic tray from the stack and reached for a glass. “Water?”
“Fine,” he replied, returning his attention to the counter. Too bad he wasn’t hungry. After his courtroom fiasco, food was the last thing on Vic’s mind.
At the soda fountain Sam filled two glasses, placed them on her tray then pushed it along metal rails, stopping before a young cashier. Vic followed behind and yanked the wallet from his back pocket and flipped it open. “How much?”
Sam eyed the twenty in his hand. “Don’t worry. I got it.”
“Take it.” He shoved the money toward her.
About to refuse, she accepted the money with a shrug. “Have it your way.”
The cash register clanged to life, the girl changed the bill and Vic pushed the remainder into his wallet and back into his pocket. He trailed Sam to a table and pulled out a wooden chair. When she hesitated, he fired a warning flare not to refuse the gesture. She sat. He tossed his suit jacket onto the back of the other chair while Sam did likewise with hers. Dropping to his seat, Vic ripped the paper from his straw.
Sam leaned back into her chair. “Can’t say I remember the last time I saw this place so clean.”
Vic loosened his tie with a yank. “Tends to happen when you’re the first one here.”
“Good point.” Running a hand through her near shoulder-length waves of auburn, she fluffed them off her neck, airing the skin beneath with the blast of air-conditioning blowing from the ceiling vent. Wearing no red today, the feminine shade of yellow softened her strong features, enhancing the female in her.
“Chavez was in some kind of hurry, wasn’t he?”
Vic pinned her with a glare. “Are you enjoying this?”
Sam zapped him with a feisty smile. “Who, me?”
She gave a few quick tugs to her silk blouse. “Why, Victor Marin. I am not so callous a woman that I derive pleasure from the pain of a fellow human being.”
“You doubt my word?”
“I suspect your motives.”
“Is it my fault you got carried away with your witness?”
Vic expelled a grunt. “I didn’t get carried away.” He grabbed his glass of water. “Joe Morgan is guilty.”
Knocking back a swallow of water, he said, “And that woman knows it.”
“Chavez was too quick to her defense.”
“Mmmm…” Sam fudged with a grimace.
“You think I was badgering the witness?”
“Give me a break. The judge was out of line. Her little old lady act was a sham.” He glowered, every muscle in his body so tight they were about to snap. No judge in Philly would have come down on him like that—quite the opposite. They would have thrown him some slack so he could hang the lady.
Bare elbows hit the table and Sam leaned forward, linking her forearms together. “That may be true, but how you go about extracting the information is something else. Not everyone caves under intimidation. Especially experienced corporate felons.”
“I’m not a rookie. Check my record. I’m good at what I do. Damn good.”
“You may have an impressive track record to show for your years with Gilbert and Wiley, but we play with the big boys down here. You’re not the big fish in the big pond, anymore.”
“That’s big fish in the small pond.”
“No,” she corrected. “Big fish in the big pond. Philadelphia is no cracker town, I’ll give you that.” She shook the hair from her face and narrowed her gaze. “You’ve got your mobsters, your crooks, but it ain’t no Miami, either. You’re in the ocean now, where the sharks swim.” Her brown eyes sparked. “They swallow fish like you whole,” she said, “without even noticing the lump of your carcass as it passes through. When you’re dealing with the sums of money we are, the rules change. The players don’t play nice. They lie, cheat and steal. Morgan-Baxter has been around a long time. They’ve gotten good at winning the game.”
“And you should know.”
“A piece of advice,” she said, a smile creeping onto her lips. “You want to sneak up on someone? Sneak up on the sloth, not the fox. It’s why I’m calling Brenner to the stand.”
Vic’s resentment pooled in his gut. Forget Brenner. Where he came from, there was no “sneaking around” about it. Sam may think she has all the answers—and when it came to Morgan-Baxter—she may. But where he came from if a guy interfered in your business, he took a cruise—straight to the bottom of the ocean.
He shoved the subject from his mind. Let her play her games. There was only one case he was interested in and it wasn’t Morgan-Baxter. It was Perry.
And it was hers.
A wave of determination swept over him. Something he intended to change and soon.
Lunch suddenly landed between them. Two plates piled high with golden brown bread, layered with meat, cheese and sauerkraut were delivered without fanfare. Thick, fat French fries surrounded the sandwiches, several enmeshed in the drippings of piping hot Swiss. Both plates boasted mammoth pickle wedges.
“Do you guys need anything else?”
“Not at the moment,” Sam answered, sucking in a chest-full of the aroma steaming from her plate.
“I’m good,” Vic echoed the sentiment.
“Enjoy your lunch,” the server quipped and disappeared from sight.
Sam sighed, and threw the paper napkin in her lap. “God am I hungry.” She grabbed one enormous half of her sandwich and brought it to her lips for a bite, but as Vic watched the first chunk of sandwich vanish, he knew she wouldn’t give up Perry without a fight. It was her ticket to partnership and from what he could gather around the office, she wasn’t sharing.
But Sam was gonna have to change her mind. Resolve filtered through his system. Because it was the only reason he came to Miami.
Taking his time, Vic reached for his sandwich and grasping it with two hands, rested forearms against the table. Time to change the tide. “So tell me. If you’re such a rainmaker, why haven’t you achieved partner status?”
Sam offered a gentle smile. “Deflect the attention from yourself. Nice.” She nodded. “I like it.”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
Swamped by a shit-eating grin, Sam only stared at him.
But she said nothing, only stared with a decisive gleam in her eyes.
Vic felt the sudden zing. Damn… The woman wasn’t talking business, he’d be willing to bet. Her thoughts were going underground.
Then, with surprising skill, Sam extinguished the flirtatious hint in her eyes. Like it never happened. “I’m on the edge of partnership, as we speak.”
Whoa. Did he imagine it?
Not likely. No. No possible way. You didn’t mistake a look like that one. But with no room to pry, he returned to his question, though his edge had been considerably softened. “More than ten years to make partner for a hotshot like you? I’m surprised.”
“Don’t be.” Sam swiped the napkin across her lips and took a quick sip from her water. “I took some time off after high school.”
“Why not? Nothing wrong with taking advantage of one’s youth, much like you’re doing now,” she reminded him with unwarranted thrust. “Miami’s a long way from Philly.”
Vic tensed. Did she know something?
But he refused to rise to the bait. There was too much riding on it. “Backpack across Europe, did you?”
She smiled. “Not my cup of chi.”
“Chi? What the hell does that mean?”
Shrugging it off, he asked, “So what were you doing?”
Did she always speak in half-baked terms? “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Fun?” She grinned. “What’s not to understand about fun?”
“Sounds like someone was avoiding responsibility.”
“No, Vic.” She wiped a drop of grease from the corner of her mouth. “I needed a little space and I took it. A simple recipe for a simple life.”
“There’s nothing simple about you, Sam Rawlings,” he said, his gaze making a quick dodge toward the door. “You’re about as complicated as they get.”
“I am not,” she shot back, but then laughed. “Not really,” she said, softening her tone. “I’m a simple woman doing a simple job. I fight for the good guys. I right wrongs.”
Vic almost choked on his sandwich.
Sam pushed her lunch aside and looked him square in the eye. Customers pushed in across the black and white checkered floor, crowded the front counter as they called out orders, many met with shouted reply. Most were professionals, a few construction workers, but Sam seemed oblivious. At the moment, she only had eyes for him.
“You did well today, Vic. You didn’t win your argument, your performance was a little overpowering, but you did well.” She slid a hand across the table. He would have sworn she was about to touch his, but instead, her fingers curled around the stem of her water glass. “Chavez was out of line. It’s his M.O. Whenever there’s a new attorney in his courtroom, he parades power like a peacock. Don’t take it personal.”
No longer sparring, Vic noted her removal of armor.
“You’re good. Really good. You have phenomenal energy in the courtroom—I mean you had the jury.” A smile crept onto her lips, a gesture which reached deep inside him. “I was watching. Each and every one of them followed you around that courtroom, your every move, your every word, they were right there with you. They didn’t believe her either.”
“Then why won’t you include me on Perry?”
Sam’s breath caught in her throat. Trapped beneath his gaze, the question echoed Raul’s.
Around her, the noise level rose as lunch hour officially reached full sprint. People shouted orders, metal cash registers clanged in action, but she focused solely on Vic.
Her suspicion returned. Because I don’t need any help. Because I don’t want the distraction.
Because I’ll be damned if some unknown hotshot comes in and tries to strip the prize from my hands regardless of how good, or how good-looking he is.
Sam’s spine locked straight. All her life she had to work twice as hard, run twice as fast—because she was a woman. As an adolescent, her parents forced her to share an overload of responsibility for the care of five younger siblings, despite the fact her brother was scarcely a year behind her. In college she was offered more sexual advances than internships with law school providing more of the same.
Sam sighed. Baker, Schofield, Martinez and Brown had been the one interview where she felt wholly respected. Wholly appreciated for her talent and not her looks. Because of Raul. He focused on her abilities and she responded. From there, the man taught her everything she knew, from the law to the lowdown, and groomed her into the legal shark she was proud to be.
Her thoughts chilled. Yet now, he was encouraging interference on her caseload from the new guy. It didn’t make sense.
Sam honed in on Vic. “Give me one good reason I should include you on Perry.”
“You said it yourself, I’m good.”
“So am I.”
“It’s a big case. More than one attorney can handle.”
“I have Diego.”
“I have experience.”
“So I hear.” Sam lifted her glass from the table, but never took her eyes off him.
“It could work to your benefit.”
“I work to my benefit.”
Vic eased his neck from his collar and reached for his glass. “I’m offering to help, Sam. Most attorneys would jump at the opportunity.”
“If you hadn’t gathered by now, I’m not most attorneys.” Sam took a sip from her water, noting his sudden discomfort. Was he agitated? Squirming? “Vic, help me out here. Is there something I’m missing?”
“Missing?” he asked innocently, but his expression took the hit. “Like what?”
“You’re working Memorial, right?”
“Planning to.” Vic sat back in his chair.
“So why Perry?” She gave a terse shake to her head. “What’s in it for you?”
“Nothing’s in it for me. Diego ran a few details of the case by me and I said I’d help.” He shifted about in his chair. “Forget it. Sorry I asked.”
Sam pulled her arms into a cross over her chest and smiled thinly. “I didn’t just roll off the mango truck.”
“What? What the hell are you talking about, mango truck?”
“You know, mangoes…beautiful golden red on the outside, luscious tasty sweet on the inside?”
Vic looked at her as though she’d lost her mind.
But she hadn’t. Not even close.
Sam flicked a glance to his plate. “Finished?”
He slugged back the last of his water then smacked the glass to the table. “Yeah, I’m finished.”
But Sam felt the distinct sense this was far from over.
Vic chugged water from his bottle, tempted to dump the entire contents onto his head. Two hours, not a frickin cloud in the sky—how did people live with this heat? Yet here he sat, feet buried in hot sand, sweat pouring from every inch of his body, the temperature had to be pushing a hundred.
Sitting here, because Diego left him no choice.
The man was a volleyball fanatic, his every weekend devoted to some city league tournament. Vic shook his head. Squinting against the glare, he watched Diego make a vertical leap and pound the ball into an opposing player. The other guy’s reactions were good. He rebounded fast, sending the ball flying high into the air whereby another player pelted it back onto Diego’s turf.
For the score.
Vic frowned. That sucked. If Diego lost, his mood would crash rendering his play for information fruitless; the only reason he was here. Vic threw back a swallow of water. He was getting nowhere with Sam and opportunity was quickly slipping away. He had to get inside the Perry case if he wanted a crack at putting Scaliano behind bars.
Vic ground his jaw closed and allowed his gaze to drift over the bodies scattered like sea lions across the beach. Not settling on a one, his mind was content to coast. It burned him that Scaliano continued to walk scot-free for what he did, but one thing was for sure. As long as he was breathing, it wouldn’t happen again. On that, he could bet his life.
Vengeance soured in his gut. After the trial, the bastard tried to become invisible. Eventually forced out of his position at Regency Hotels, Scaliano did nothing for a while But greed didn’t rest for long and after a few failed attempts with other companies, somehow he convinced the fools at Perry Fitness to sign him on. And Vic tracked him move for move. When he learned of the Albright death at their Miami facility, he waited for the inevitable lawsuit, but this time, Vic planned to take matters into his own hands. Monetary settlements weren’t good enough.
The man needed jail time.
The day Vic learned Baker, Schofield, Martinez and Brown was retained by the widow to sue Perry Fitness Centers for wrongful death was the day he made the call. Law firms could use and extra body and with his experience and background, he’d be an easy sell. With one phone call he initiated the application process and within a few months, had the job.
He recalled Raul’s surprise during the interview. Why leave a successful career path to start over?
Vic suppressed a swell of bitterness. He hated to lie, but there was no feasible way to tell Raul he wasn’t starting over, rather making good on a promise. Frank Scaliano would pay for what he did—or didn’t do—and with more than money this time. He’d pay with his freedom.
“Diego’s team isn’t faring too well.”
Startled, Vic looked up and found Selena’s large brown breasts squishing together as she pulled the flimsy cotton cover-up over her head, revealing a next-to-nothing white bikini. She tossed the dress to the towel beside him. “Wanna join me for a swim?”
Diego’s sister was as hot as they came, with her long black hair and deeply-tanned skin. And her legs. Despite her full-figured rear, they bore not a speck of fat. Probably due to the fact she was barely twenty.
“You sure?” Selena gave herself an exaggerated fanning with one hand, long red nails flapping back and forth. “It sure is hot out here.”
Vic smiled at her obvious play. Though sweet, she wasn’t his type. He preferred strong women. Tough women. Women who could take him one on one. “It’s definitely hot, but swim for me, I’m sure.”
Her smile dimmed, but remained solidly in place. “Suit yourself.”
He watched her trot off toward the water and shook his head with a grunt. If Selena was interested in a man’s attention, she’d have no trouble finding it between here and the shore. Vic watched her slow to a stroll, employing a practiced hip-sway, and instantly wondered what Sam looked like in a bikini.
The woman stood damn near six foot in heels, and though usually covered by business suits, he could tell her body was that of an athlete. Desire fired through him. Just the way he liked. Strong, lean and mean. Treated to her bare arms on the occasion she strode through the office wearing only a tank top and skirt, he liked what he saw. Not only her figure, but from head to toe. From the wild mess of auburn curls to the confident way she moved, Sam Rawlings was his kind of woman.
Did she play sports? he wondered. Exercise to keep in shape? It occurred to him he knew little of what she did in her spare time. No suntan, he figured it had to be something indoors that kept her busy.
Work, most likely. Vic chuckled. Unlike Selena. Her focus at the moment was on attracting the opposite sex, a young stud who undoubtedly spent most of his time in the gym.
Vic’s humor shriveled. Rivulets of sweat dripped from his brow and stung his eyes, but he ignored it. Scaliano had to pay. The only way that was going to happen was if he got involved.
And he would. One way or another, he would get on the Perry case. Or at the very least, be privy to every detail so he could steer Sam and Diego toward the correct outcome.
Jail time wasn’t unheard of in wrongful death cases, especially once the facts of Scaliano’s past were revealed. But to do that he needed access, without sending up any red flags.
“Selena couldn’t talk you into a swim?”
He jerked his head around.
Diego towered over him and laughed, wrapping a small towel around his neck, sporting shades in the latest high tech style. He tossed his chin in Selena’s direction. “I think she has a crush on you.”
“Oh.” Vic drew in his knees and settled his forearms atop them. He sideswiped his friend with a glance before his gaze was drawn back to Selena, sauntering into the breaking waves. “Isn’t she a little young?”
Diego reached a hand down and fell onto the oversized beach towel beside him. “Hell yeah, but that never stops her!”
Vic felt a stab of melancholy as he watched her ignore the catcall from a nearby male and make her way into the water. “Doesn’t make your job easy, does it?”
“Not even close. But she doesn’t care how many fights big bro gets into, as long as she doesn’t run out of dates.”
“Be thankful you have the chance to fight for her.”
The comment stopped Diego short. His tone dropped. “I guess.”
At the plunge in mood, Vic forced the memories back into their corner. He wasn’t here to bring his buddy down. He was here for information. “How’s the game going?”
“Crap.” Diego rolled back into sport mode. “One of our players is missing so we’re playing with a new guy.” He wiped the back of his hand across his brow, a fresh sheen of sweat breaking through. “He’s not very good.”
“Tell me about it.” Hope rushed into his expression. “Hey—you don’t play, do you?”
“Me?” Vic laughed. “No I don’t play. Hell, I don’t even know how you can play without collapsing of heat stroke! Damn sun feels like it’s burning the top layer of skin off my body.”
“You get used to it.”
“You get used to twenty below, too, but that doesn’t mean I want to.”
Diego chuckled and grabbed a bottle of spring water. He twisted the cap off and inhaled half the contents as he surveyed the beach. “That’s right.” He glanced over at Vic. “You snow ski, don’t you?”
“Every chance I get.”
“Never tried it, myself.”
“I’ll have to take you some time. Beats the hell out volleyball any day of the week!”
And though Vic enjoyed talking about his hobbies, he wasn’t interested in small talk. He wanted meat. “So how’s Perry going? You guys making any headway?”
Diego pulled a knee up and slung his arm over it while checking out a curvaceous blonde passing nearby. “I think so. It looks like they may have some history which can only help our case.”
That was the understatement of the year. “Like what?”
“Couple of deaths, both in California.”
“That’s where they’re headquartered, isn’t it?” Vic played along.
Diego turned to him in surprise. “Yeah, how’d ya know?”
He shrugged it off. “I think I read it somewhere, paper or something.”
“Both lawsuits were settled out of court.”
“Are you and Sam sticking strictly to civil charges?”
“You mean, as opposed to criminal?” he asked, the question marked in his eyes.
“Yeah.” Conscious of the need to keep his interest level tame, he added, “If a company has a habit of killing people, I’d look into some harsher punishment, wouldn’t you?”
“State attorney didn’t bring any criminal action.”
“Maybe they should.”
“Has to be warranted.”
Vic’s body tensed. “How many people have to die before they decide it’s warranted?”
Diego appeared on the verge of reply, but then seemed to think better of it and downed the remainder of his bottle instead.
Let me answer for you, Diego. It takes one. Only one.
“Either way,” Diego continued, “we’ve got a strong case. Sam is going full-bore with this one.”
“Because it means partner for her?”
“That, and it’s how she does everything. Woman goes straight for the jugular.”
The admiration radiating from him was so close to awe, Vic instantly wondered at their relationship. Was it personal? Lovers? A streak of jealousy cut through him. “You two work together a long time?”
“A few years.”
“Is there more to it?” The question was out before he could stop himself.
Diego’s response was more gape than anything. “You kidding? With Sam? The woman’s a barracuda!”
“What’s wrong with that?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “You must be a braver man than me, amigo. Or stupid. I like getting close to women without being torn to pieces in the process.”
Challenge, Vic mused. That’s how he’d describe Sam. And he never met a challenge he didn’t enjoy—or couldn’t win. But his satisfaction was brief as he spied Selena swimming out into the open water, the sun reflecting off her sleek wet arms. He pointed. “Isn’t your sister getting a little deep?”
Diego followed the line of his direction and shook his head. “Nah, she’s all right.”
“Those are some pretty big waves.” While the sea breeze was the only thing saving him from the heat, it also raked across the ocean’s surface, making for some serious whitecaps.
“She’s a strong swimmer. She can handle it.”
“What about rip currents?” He gawked at Diego. “I didn’t think anyone could fight those.”
“She’ll be okay. She knows what to do. Anyway, there are lifeguards on duty.” He gave a tight smile. “Probably glued to her every move.”
Unsettled, Vic returned his attention to Selena. “If you say so…” But he wasn’t so sure. Off by herself, her nearest aid in case of emergency was a couple embraced on a bright orange raft.
Absolutely worthless if the girl got into trouble.
“Hey,” Diego said as he popped to his feet. “I’ve got to get back.”
“No problem.” Vic rose with him, bothered his pal wasn’t more worried about his sister’s safety.
“Yeah, I could use a cool-off.”
“How about you tell Selena to come in and cheer her bro on in his last game, then maybe we can go grab a celebration brew.”
“I thought you weren’t doing well,” Vic said as Diego jogged off.
“Positive thinking, man,” he called back over his shoulder, then gave him a thumbs up. “Positive thinking!”
Yeah, maybe that plus a couple of ringers!
Have fun, he mused and chucked his sunglasses down to the ground, landing them on his folded white T-shirt, then headed toward the water. Coarse sand littered with dark brown sprigs of seaweed ran hot through his toes as he walked. An eye on Selena, he noticed she had moved further offshore. His concern grew.
Positive thinking isn’t going to save your sister if she gets caught in a life-threatening undertow, Diego. Vic may not know much about beach tides, but it looked to him like she was out of her element. He glanced to the lifeguard. Perched on top of a small one-man stand, dressed in red shorts and silver shades, the guy was more interested in carrying on with the brunette lounging at the base than watching for swimmers in trouble.
Honing in on Selena, Vic decided to take Diego’s advice and round up his sister for departure. Besides, he’d had enough sand and surf for one day. Dodging a Frisbee as it whizzed by, he forged into the crashing waves, struck by the powerful pull at his. With a glance back to their towels, he gauged Selena was drifting. Intentional?
Continuing until he was waist deep, Vic dove into the arc of the next wave. The warm ocean temperature was cool compared to his body, but hardly refreshing. Surfacing, he stood submerged to his shoulders and gave a brisk shake of his head. Wiping salty water from his eyes, he searched for Selena.
Apprehension mounted. She was at least five yards further than before. Not okay. Vic launched into a freestyle. Keeping his head above water, he maintained focus on her as stroke after stroke he worked to close the distance between them.
With each swell his body rose, giving him a glimpse of her. But with every up came a down and he quickly lost sight. Undaunted, he kept his pace.
Seconds later, the crest of an incoming wave smacked him in the face. He spit out water and blinked hard against the sting. Immersed in water, a slew of mixed emotions coursed through him. Selena was still within sight, but too far to make out her face clearly.
It was clear she was moving too fast and too far offshore to be safe. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. She was in trouble. Kicking hard, his arms sliced through the water as he swam, his mind battling old memories…another girl…another day…
A better outcome. Stopping, he searched for sight of her, but between the water in his eyes and the glare of sunlight glinting off the ocean’s surface, he lost sight. He whipped his head side to side. But she couldn’t have moved that quickly. He treaded water and scanned the surface. But he saw nothing. A burst of wind kicked up sea spray.
He ground his jaw. No, he wouldn’t lose her. Not again.
—there! Twenty yards out. No longer swimming, she struggled to stay afloat. Instinct forced his muscles to task—move!
Water filled his ears. His mouth, his nose, but he ignored it. Vic’s heart thumped in his chest. Fear fired like raw electricity.
But he ignored it. He ignored everything but getting to her. Before it was too late.
When he felt a sudden ease, Vic knew he’d hit the current. Perfect. It meant he’d get there faster. With renewed vigor he fought the chop of water. Each stroke grew harder and harder but he remained determined, his focus coiled tightly around Selena.
“Help!” she cried.
She whirled around. “Vic!”
The frantic shriek-call of his name cut deep. Brown eyes gripped by terror, they mirrored the call of another. In a silent plea from his past, she beckoned…help me.
Vic could see the fear in her eyes, the long strands of black hair snaked around her body. Need willed him ahead, faster.
He could do it. He was almost there.
Selena went under.
Grief ripped through him and he pushed harder. He couldn’t fail her. He pummeled wave after wave. Wouldn’t fail.
Vic spotted the bob of black hair only yards away. Relief swept through him. “Hold on!” he roared. “Selena, hold on!”
She turned to him, panic scoring her dark eyes. “Help me… I can’t—“ Selena choked on a mouthful of water.
And then she was gone.
Dread wound deep into his core. “Selena!”
His body responded first and he dove under. Determined sweeps from his arms and powerful kicks from his legs propelled him through churning ocean water. It bit into his eyes. It sapped his strength. But personal vindication drove him harder. He was not going to let her die. Selena would not drown.
Through the murky water, he saw her. A blurred vision, she gently thrashed about. Long waves of hair undulated around her. Oxygen bubbled from her in a slow pursuit to the surface. No longer a billowy eruption, but in a steady foregone conclusion.
Need clamped down hard.
No. She would not drown.
But as he swam closer to the limp figure, a horrible realization settled into his chest. His stomach clenched. It wasn’t Selena.
He twisted around, weightless in the gentle rise and fall of warm water. There was nothing. No one.
Panic swelled. Confusion mixed time and place. No—it couldn’t be. He saw Selena. She’s here!
Shaking his head, Vic cleared his mind. He wasn’t imagining things. He’d seen her. It was Selena. Ten feet to his left, he caught sight of her again. Through the limited visibility, he could see her shadowy form.
His ears plugged with water. The ocean felt dense yet eerily hollow, as though he were suspended in time. Once again her body lost its fight, began its slow descent.
Stop. Vic shook the insanity from his mind. It’s nothing more than a memory; another dark-haired girl sinking to the bottom.
Pressure built in his lungs. He was running out of time. He pressed his lids shut, then opened them. Eyes blistered against the saltwater. His side cramped. Vic yanked his head back and forth, spun his body around in the deep sway of water.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard a low whine.
Get a grip, he warned himself. Or Selena dies.
With a powerful scissor-kick, Vic burst through the ocean’s surface. Gulping for air, water flooded his mouth, burned his throat. The next wave carried his body up and he scanned the horizon. Nothing.
Damn it! She was here! Is here! he corrected quickly. Is here… She is here. Vic rallied his logic. He was close. He had to be. Gauging his position off the land, he set off in the direction he last saw her—thought he saw her.
But it had to be right. She had to be this way. He dove under again. Through tepid currents, despite his breath pressing for release, he swam and continued to swim. Because he couldn’t quit. He couldn’t lose her.
He looked behind him, next to him—anywhere. Where the hell was she? Need for air forced him up. Breaking the surface he engulfed a lung-full of air and winded, struggled to get his bearings. How far had he moved?
A heavy wave smacked into the back of his head. Damn it, he muttered. Where was she? She was here—I know she was!
Exhausted, stressed, Vic didn’t know how much more he had. How much time she had—and gave in to a shot of despair. Visions of frozen eyes stared at him from the pool bottom. Help me. Her silent plea pierced him to the core. Help me, Victor!
His body began to tremble. His vision tunneled. He hadn’t been able to help—time had been too short, the pull too strong. He couldn’t save her. Instead, he watched her die.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Focus. You can do this. His pulse skipped and careened. She never had a chance. The blade lodged deep.
But Selena does… It was a whisper from nowhere. Wishful thinking for a man who needed to beat the odds. Treading water, his gaze floated over the surface. Blinding green into white, Selena was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere.
His heart leapt to his throat. Wait—
He caught sight of the sun’s reflection off her slick black hair. Not far off, she was bobbing. Moving.
A jolt of exhilaration ignited him to action. Yes! Vic lit into his muscles. He pounded wave after wave. He kept his eyes trained on Selena. His body moving, he kept his mind zeroed in on her. Using every ounce of strength he had left, Vic felt a sudden certainty he could reach her in time. Hold on, Selena. I can see you. I’m almost there.
When he neared, Selena was on her back. Arms outstretched she worked them to remain afloat. A burst of admiration swept through him. The girl was a fighter. Feet away now, a deep sense of vindication spread through him. He could save her. This time, he could save her.
As he neared, Vic planned his rescue. Crossing her chest with his right arm, he would secure her body, his hip wedged into the small of her back. He’d coast with the current, regain his strength, then swim them back to shore at the first break in undertow.
Startled by the sharp sound of an engine, Vic whirled around. What the—?