"Mr. Justice! Mr. Justice, can you give us a moment of your time?"
Sabrina Eckhart stared at the news broadcast on KTRK-TV. She had watched the segment run on an earlier edition, but found herself watching it again.
The reporter, a small man with dark hair and a determined expression, hurried to keep up with Alex Justice's long strides as he walked out of the downtown Houston Police Department building. "Mr. Justice!" At the sight of several TV cameras, Alex's steps reluctantly slowed.
"Everyone in the city is grateful for what you did," the reporter said. "People are calling you a hero. What do you think about that?" The man thrust a microphone into Alex's handsome face. Six two, dark blond hair and blue eyes, always dressed as if he'd just stepped out of a GQ magazine, Alex Justice was an amazing-looking man.
"I'm a private investigator," Alex said. "I did what I was paid to do-find evidence that would identify the killer of a ten-year-old girl. I was lucky enough to make that happen. There's nothing heroic about it."
"It's been said you'll do anything to catch your man. Is that true?"
Alex just kept walking. There wasn't a glimpse of the deep dimples bracketing his mouth that Rina remembered so well. She hadn't seen him in more than six months, not since the day her best friend, Sage Du-mont, married Jake Cantrell, one of Alex's best friends.
Rina watched him stride away until he disappeared offscreen, then the camera cut to the reporter, who relayed the story of the little girl who had been abducted, sexually abused and murdered three years ago. Ten-year-old Carrie Wiseman's killer had never been found-not until Alex Justice had come up with DNA evidence that directly linked the girl to a neighbor who lived down the street from her home.
Two days ago, the neighbor, Edward Bagley, was arrested, which took at least one killer off the streets.
As the newscast came to an end, Rina hit the button on the remote, turning off the TV. She crossed her living room to the delicate antique French writing desk in the corner. Her apartment was a mixture of comfortable contemporary furniture and French antiques: rosewood armoires, gilt mirrors and marble-topped tables, many pieces from the sixteenth century.
The apartment was softly feminine but not crowded, and it suited her personality perfectly.
Reaching down, she picked up the pile of bills from the desk, began to sift through the stack. In the six months since she had last seen the handsome private investigator with the amazing dimples, a lot had changed.
She had broken up with her live-in boyfriend, Ryan Gosford, and moved back into her own apartment. She had liked Ryan; she just hadn't loved him, and things were beginning to get sticky.
During those months, her finances had dropped sharply. The stock market had taken another dive and this time wiped out the last of the money she had invested in her retirement account. Her job as a stockbroker at Smith Barney Morgan Stanley had become more and more difficult as her clients pulled their money out of the market and put it into gold and silver, real estate bargains and anything else they considered a safer bet than wildly fluctuating stocks.
Alex's image popped back into her head as she sorted through the bills-utilities that would start to soar as summer approached and the heat rose into the hundreds in Houston, the tax payment on her mother's small house in Uvalde that Rina had taken over paying several years back; miscellaneous bills just to pay the costs of living in Houston. In a week, the rent would be due on her uptown apartment.
At the bottom of the pile was a white nine-by-twelve envelope from Delaney, Dennison and Smith, Attorneys at Law, the contents of which she had examined a dozen times. Papers finalizing an inheritance from her late uncle Walter, the probate settled and the estate officially hers: three thousand acres of dry, barren land in the middle of nowhere-or, more accurately, the middle of somewhere in the West Texas desert.
It was probably worthless, as her mother and the rest of her family kept telling her, and yet..
The land was the reason she kept thinking of Alex Justice, and seeing him on TV had finally been the catalyst she needed to push her into taking action. Alex was a former navy pilot, a jet jockey with a cocky attitude and an ego that was out of control. Also, like his friend Jake Cantrell and the rest of the men at the Atlas Security office, Alex was a typical macho man who exuded testosterone and buckets of male sexual appeal.
He was the kind of man females lusted after.
All except Rina. Or at least she did her very best not to.
Still, there was one thing about Alex Justice she couldn't deny. The man was good at his job.
Beyond that, and for reasons she couldn't completely explain, she trusted him.
A knock sounded at the door. It was the moment she had been dreading all morning. The man standing on the porch was wearing an expensive suit, his light brown hair combed straight back. He was in his thirties, a man most women would find attractive, but he looked a little too slick for her.
"Ms. Eckhart? I'm Nathan Billings. I'm here about the car?"
"Of course. I've been expecting you, Mr. Billings."
He gave her a winning smile. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Eckhart, and it's just Nate."
Rina slung the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. "Fine, just Nate, let's get this done." Walking him outside, she pointed to the little red, two-passenger Mercedes SLK convertible that was her pride and joy. A car she had worked sixty hours a week since she'd started her job as a stockbroker to earn. Six years of hard labor and counting, and now even her car was gone.
She handed Nate Billings the keys. "It's all yours. I hope you enjoy the car as much as I have."
Billings smiled and looked covetously at the Mercedes. "I'm sure I will." His gaze returned to her, took in her jeans and a lemon-yellow sweater that showed a hint of cleavage. He opened his mouth to pursue a conversation, but Rina impolitely stared down at her wristwatch-not the ladies' Rolex she had sold last month, but a nice, practical Timex-hoping he would get the drift that she wasn't interested.
He cleared his throat. "Well, then, thanks" was all he said. She watched him climb into her car and start the powerful engine, a smooth, throaty purr that always made her heart beat faster.
She waited until the car drove away, then walked over to the light blue 2007 Toyota Corolla she had purchased last week with most of the money from the sale of the watch. Sliding behind the wheel, she cranked up the much smaller engine and drove out of her apartment complex onto Post Oak Park. From there, she wound her way through the streets till she reached the single-story brick building in the University District that housed Atlas Security.
She knew where it was. Jake Cantrell, her best friend's husband, worked there. As she pulled into the lot in front, she spotted Alex Justice's dark blue BMW M3 coupe in one of the parking spaces, a gorgeous car that reminded her how much she had loved driving her flashy red Mercedes and gave her a soft little pang.
At least he was there. Hiring him wouldn't be cheap, she knew, but she had the rest of the money from the assets she had liquidated, a little savings left in the bank, and she was willing to take the risk that in the end it would be worth it.
She grimaced at the thought, since it was that kind of thinking that had caused her to lose most of her retirement fund.
Now came the hard part.
She and Alex had never really gotten along. Alex was always baiting her and she was always trying to dodge the unwanted physical attraction she refused to admit she felt for him. At the moment none of that mattered.
Rina took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and headed for the front door of the office.
Alex ended his phone call and settled back in the chair behind his desk. The office was busy, considering it was getting close to noon and things had usually slowed down a little by now. Annie Mayberry sat behind the front desk, a once-blonde, now gray-blonde woman in her mid-sixties with the personality of an overprotec-tive bulldog. She was the office manager and receptionist, currently fielding unwelcome phone calls from the media that had been hounding him all morning.
Sol Greenway, the Atlas Security computer whiz kid, sat behind an oversize monitor in his glassenclosed office. Trace Rawlins, the owner of the company and one of Alex's closest friends, worked in the glass-windowed office next to Sol's.
The office decor was masculine, with heavy oak desks, dark green carpet and photos of Texas ranches hanging on the walls. Alex sat at a desk in the main room of the office, a place to return phone calls and keep a few supplies. Most of the work he did was in the field.
A few feet away, dark-haired and blue-eyed ex-SEAL Ben Slocum, another freelance investigator, sat with a phone pressed against his ear. The other P.I., Jake Cantrell, was out on a protection detail for the next few days.
Alex checked his gold wristwatch. He was almost ready to take off for an early lunch when the bell above the front door started jingling. He glanced up to see a petite redhead in a pair of jeans and a sleeveless yellow knit sweater talking to Annie. Great body, he thought, nice full breasts and a round little derriere.
He was smiling when she turned and started toward him, a smile that turned into a flat-out grin.
Alex rose as she drew near. "Hey, Red. Haven't seen you in a while."
Her pretty mouth tightened a little at the nickname, which he'd given her because she reminded him of a little red fox-though he'd never told her that.
She paused in front of his desk. "I saw you on TV this morning. That was a good thing you did."
His smile slid away. "I would have taken that case for free." And practically had. Finding the evidence to put away a murdering pervert was something he'd enjoyed doing. Besides, money wasn't something he needed. Alex's family was East Coast, old-money rich, and his grandfather had left him a bundle. It was the work he loved, doing something productive. He liked it almost as much as flying.
"I know I should have called," she said, "but I was
I was hoping you might have a minute to talk."
"You don't need an appointment, Sabrina. You want a cup of coffee or something?"
"No, thanks, I'm fine." She sat down in the chair next to his desk and he returned to his seat.
what have you been doing with yourself for the last six months? Besides keeping good ol' Ryan entertained."
One of her dark red eyebrows arched up. "'Good ol' Ryan' and I broke up. It was a mutual decision."
He doubted it. Ryan Gosford was pretty well gone over the feisty little redhead. He was a computer geek, a good-looking guy but dull as dirt, while Sabrina was anything but. It was hardly a match made in heaven.
"Who's the lucky guy taking his place?" he couldn't resist asking.
"Nobody. I needed a break for a while. I'm not seeing anyone." She eyed him with a hint of challenge. "How about you? I doubt you're sitting home alone at night."
"I'm not a eunuch. I'm seeing a couple of people. No one in particular."
"Of course not," she said, as if she could have guessed.
His grin returned. "So you're not dating anyone. Does that mean you came by to see me because you're lonely?"
Sabrina stiffened. "Your ego never ceases to amaze me." She came up out of her chair. "I knew this was a bad idea. I should never have come." She started to walk away, but Alex caught her arm.
"Take it easy, Red. I was only kidding. I promise I'll behave myself." He tugged her back to his desk and she reluctantly sat back down in her chair. "So tell me why you're here."
Sabrina smoothed the front of her crisp blue jeans. "Well
the thing is I
inherited this land out in West Texas. I'm not really sure what's there or what it's worth, so I want to take a look. I figured you could fly me out and help me locate the property, take a look around."
He leaned back in his chair, giving himself a little time to assess the situation. "Your hair's longer." His gaze ran over the shiny red locks that now curled softly along her jawline.
Trace had always been drawn to redheads. Alex had never understood the attraction, but looking at those heavy curls his fingers itched to touch, for the first time he thought maybe he did.
A little self-consciously, Sabrina smoothed the tempting strands back from her face. "A good salon costs a fortune these days. It was cheaper just to let it grow."
He noted the remark, thought it was an odd thing for her to say, considering what a successful stockbroker she was.
"I mean, I just thought I'd try it this way," she corrected, making him wonder again.
"Looks really good," he said, and a hint of color washed beneath the faint spray of freckles across her cheeks.
He cleared his throat. "Okay, so you want to see this property you inherited. Why don't you just fly commercial and rent a car when you get there?"
"Because the closest town is Rio Gordo and it's miles from an airport that handles commercial flights."
"Rio Gordo? Hell, that's five hundred miles away."
"That's right. And even after I get there, I'm not exactly sure where the property is. I mean, I know where it is on Google Maps. I've located the land on satellite photos, and I've got county plat maps of the property, but I can't find a road. There's a place to rent a helicopter in Rio Gordo. I was thinking once we get there, we could rent the chopper and you could fly me around the area until we locate the site."
"The site of what?"
He was beginning to get it. Sabrina Eckhart was a businesswoman, first, last and always. "What kind of mine?"
"I'm not exactly sure. Silver, maybe." She sat up a little straighter in the chair. "It's a long story, Alex. The point is, my uncle Walter left me the property. It was all he had in the world. It may be valuable. It may be worthless. But I need to find out. Can you take me or not?"
Not a chance in hell he was going to say no. Aside from the fact Sabrina was Sage Cantrell's best friend and Jake Cantrell was one of Alex's best friends, she was a fox. He'd been attracted to Sabrina Eckhart from the day he'd met her. And though every look, every word she said told him that attraction was not returned, he wasn't convinced.
"I'll take you."