“Who is Big Red anyway?” Landon angled his chin toward the tall strawberry blonde standing with her volleyball teammates on the other side of the sports bar.
Boomer laughed as he swung his arm across the back of the booth. “You mean the girl who just kicked your ass?”
“She must have played in college somewhere.” No girl had ever gone toe-to-toe with Landon at the net like she had. Hell, no guy had ever done that.
He took a pull from his longneck beer and studied her. She had to be six feet tall. Maybe even six one. And she wore it proudly—an athlete whose height had served her well. Worn orange kneepads hung at her ankles like badges of honor from victories of the past.
“You think she played at Florida State?” Boomer asked.
Landon shook his head. “I’d have met her at an athletic banquet or something.” After all, Tallahassee had been his town for the last six years. He’d pretty much owned it since earning the starting quarterback position his sophomore year. And even though he’d been out of college for two years now, this town worshiped its football players in perpetuity.
Yes, he’d definitely have noticed her.
“And someone would have recruited her onto their team a long time ago,” Boomer said.
Landon nodded in agreement as he watched her across the bar. She tugged at the bottom of her bright red shirt—a jersey that had undoubtedly belonged to a smaller player the previous season. Landon’s gaze slid from the fabric pulled tight over her breasts to the hint of skin that peeked out above the waistband of her shorts.
Ricardo slid into the booth seat beside him, jarring his attention back to their table.
“You up for some hoops on Saturday?” his friend asked before breaking into a sarcastic grin. “Or are you going to practice your spikes instead?”
Ricardo and Boomer bumped fists, a little too happy that Landon may have met his athletic match.
He drilled them both with a glare. “Can’t. I’m helping Imelda move.”
“The lady who sweeps the gym. She’s moving to a new apartment.”
“Since when are you tight with the cleaning crew?”
“I talk to her sometimes. Her husband had back surgery last week and she was telling me how they had to get a new place.” Landon paused before he took another swig of beer. “I told her you two would help.”
Boomer grunted and looked toward Ricardo. “He didn’t really tell her that. He’s just pissed ’cause the tall girl made him look bad.”
Ricardo chuckled. “Let’s hope she doesn’t play rec football in the fall. I’d hate for her to make him look bad there, too.”
“My place,” Landon said. “Saturday morning at nine o’clock.” He pushed Ricardo over towards the edge of the booth. “Now let me out.”
Ricardo complied. “Where are you going?”
Landon inclined his head to indicate the group across the room. “To talk to the competition.”
He watched her as he ordered a couple of beers at the scarred wooden bar. She stood near the rest of her team, talking with a couple of the girls and the stocky guy with the knee brace. Like everyone else on their teams, she’d come straight from the gym. He liked the camaraderie. Reminded him how most of the players used to hang out together during his football days.
He paid the bartender and headed Red’s way with the beers, trying to remember the last time he’d found a girl this interesting.
“Trying to forget your loss?” one of her teammates teased as Landon approached their group with two bottles in his hands.
“A peace offering,” he said. “For the new girl.” The redhead’s eyebrows rose as he handed her the beer, the same brand he’d seen her drinking from across the room.
“You didn’t buy me a drink when I was new,” the stocky guy said. “But I guess I’m not your type.”
The team hooted with laughter, though they scooted away and gave him some space. He clinked the neck of his bottle against the one he’d just handed her. “Good game tonight.”
“Thanks. They should have warned me the other team had some height.” She grinned. He’d noticed her great smile from across the court earlier, but it was even better now that it was focused only on him.
“I’m Landon.” He offered a handshake. “Landon Vista.”
“Sounds like a subdivision,” she teased as she placed her hand in his. “Gina Blanchard.”
She had a firm grip, but with a softness that made him want to hold it longer. Her eyes locked on his long enough for him to know that she, too, was intrigued.
He liked her confidence. The way she stood her ground. “You’ve played a game or two of volleyball before.”
“University of Tennessee.” She slid her hand away, her fingertips lingering on his. “And you played football at FSU.”
Ahhh, so she did know who he was. He normally disliked his regional celebrity and the people who’d fawned over him during his playing days. And since that time, those pitying looks that implied he should have done more with his football talent. But in this case, the notoriety seemed to be working in his favor.
“You a Seminoles fan?” The garnet and gold of the Florida State Seminoles blanketed this college town, which pretty much made him a hero to the local fans, whether he liked it or not.
Her ponytail floated in a gentle swish behind her as she shook her head. “Just here for the summer. An internship at a local nonprofit. For law school.”
Stacked and smart. “We come here after every game. Kind of a tradition.”
She looked around the dimly lit bar where patrons in their twenties and early thirties moved from table to table greeting friends. “It’s cool how everybody knows each other.”
“Some grew up in Tallahassee,” he said. “Some came for college and never left.” He’d always liked the small-town feel of the place. “Seminole blood gets in your veins.”
“That must make you a pretty important guy around here.” She gave him a teasing grin as she raised the beer to her lips.
“Yeah, I used to be a real player. ’Til some girl started blocking all my shots in volleyball.”
She laughed. “My mom used to tell me to take it easy on the boys on the playground.”
The chorus of a country song bellowed from the jukebox. Several people in the crowd joined in. Landon moved closer to talk over the music. She was tall, but he still had three or four inches on her. A chubby man with a pool cue passed behind her, pressing her toward Landon. Her breast grazed his arm.
He tried to ignore the frisson of awareness that sizzled between them. That one touch gave him the urge to pull her closer. To see if her skin felt as soft as it looked. “Doesn’t seem like you listened very well,” he said.
“At least not in volleyball.” She gave him a flirtatious smile. “But it doesn’t seem to have scared you off.”
He chuckled. He liked a woman who would challenge him. A woman whose brains were as attractive as her body.
“And what did your mom teach you growing up?” she asked.
He sucked in a breath. A jagged memory, like a shard of broken glass, lanced through his brain. The picture of a country store flashed through his mind—his mother’s body bent over the counter, her white thrift-store tennis shoes soaked in blood. That picture he couldn’t shake, no matter how many years had passed. He groped for something else to talk about. Luckily, the crowd started to sing along with Sweet Home Alabama, which gave him an opportunity to change the subject.
“It’s kind of noisy in here.” He glanced through the windows toward the outside deck. “You want to go out on the patio?” At least heading out there would give him a few seconds to think of a different topic of conversation.
She nodded and made her way through the boisterous crowd to the door to the deck. The thick humidity weighed them down the second they stepped outside.
The moonlight glinted off her hair as she settled her hips against the porch’s railing and faced him. The few loose tendrils that framed her face danced from the soft breeze of the ceiling fan.
“So what does the famous Landon Vista do now that he’s not playing football?” she asked.
He cocked his head to look at her. He liked her teasing tone. Her playfulness. “You guys at Tennessee probably hated me.”
“You were the guy my father cursed at while we watched the game on TV.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. He wished he could do it for her. “I saw you play in person a couple of times.”
“Yeah? How’d I do?”
“I think we won once and you won once.”
He nodded, though he knew the score of every game he’d played during his college career. He’d never lost to her alma mater. “You guys were always tough to beat.”
“So what do you do now that football is over?”
“I work in Senator Byers’s office.”
Her eyebrows rose. She started to say something, then stopped herself.
He laughed. “What’s that look supposed to mean?”
“My boss has done battle with Senator Byers since he got elected to office. She pretty much thinks he’s the Antichrist.”
“Because he fights for tougher sentencing laws?”
“Because he doesn’t understand the notion of innocent until proven guilty. He just wants to lock them all away.”
“No—he just wants criminals to have long sentences. So they won’t commit more crimes.” Shit. How did this conversation go in such a random direction? He didn’t want to be talking politics with a girl who . . . looked like that. Sure, he wanted to do a lot of things with her, but this wasn’t one of them. “Where is your internship, anyway?”
“At a nonprofit called Morgan’s Ladder.” She tugged at the bottom of her shirt. “We help wrongly convicted prisoners get out of prison—”
“Using DNA evidence.” His work for the tough-on-crime senator meant he’d come across Morgan’s Ladder a few times before. He thought of Cyrus Alexander, the man Landon had seen running from the country store the day his mother had been murdered. The day his life had changed forever. Thank God Cyrus Alexander would never get out of prison.
“Maybe not what you bargained for when you bought the new girl a beer, huh?” she asked.
Not even close.
She smiled. “I do have some other redeeming qualities.”
There was that playfulness again. He definitely liked the playfulness. “And what might those be?”
“I bake the second-best lasagna anyone’s ever eaten.”
“Only second best? That’s disappointing.” He took a step toward her, enjoying the closeness. Glad they were the only ones on the quiet patio. The beat of a raucous country song from inside the bar thrummed at the windows, but seemed miles away.
“My mother bakes the best, but I use her recipe.”
“And what else?”
“Hmmmm . . . let’s see.” Her gaze fell briefly as she thought, then rose again, her eyes bright. Her forefinger rested briefly on his chest with a playful poke. Her light touch burned him with anticipation. “I’m pretty sure I can still do a back flip off the diving board.”
“Seems like a useful skill for an attorney.” He stepped toward her as she relaxed back onto the railing behind her.
She laughed—a light, airy sound that floated into the Spanish moss hanging from the trees on the other side of the railing.
“And what else?” He wanted to keep her talking. Maybe she’d never have to leave if the conversation didn’t end.
She gave a sultry smile. “I’m a really good kisser.” Her voice had dropped to a husky whisper.
“Oh, yeah?” His hands rose to the railing behind her, framing her hips. “How do you know?”
“Mickey Taylor told me.” Her chin slanted to a cocky angle. “He was my boyfriend freshman year of high school. I had to break up with him when I got to be four inches taller than he was. Tall girls feel gigantic when they date guys who are shorter than they are.”
“I’m six foot four,” he said, nudging closer to her. He was almost always the biggest guy in the room.
She leaned forward and whispered playfully. “Then you would be taller than I am.”
“So Mickey said you were a good kisser?”
She hesitated, then nodded slowly. An invitation.
His gaze rose to hers. “Maybe you should prove it.”
Gina’s skin prickled in the humid air as Landon’s lips grazed hers. Once. Twice.
“Is this okay?” His husky voice was barely a whisper.
“Yes,” she said, bathing in the warmth of his breath. His lips settled on hers, soft and gentle. His tongue flicked against her lips—flirty, but not too aggressive. God, what was she doing? The last time she’d kissed a guy without going out on a date first was during Truth or Dare in Megan Crane’s basement when she was thirteen years old.
But this felt so good. There was no way she could stop herself. Her body had been on alert since she’d first seen him in the gym tonight—his shoulders, arms, and calves sculpted with muscle, but not bulked up like some overmeaty weightlifter or football lineman. When he’d raised the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat off his forehead, she’d gotten a glimpse of his lean, flat belly. That sexy little trail of dark hair that disappeared into the waistband of his nylon shorts had made her warm all over.
And now here he was kissing her. Touching her. Making her want to get even closer to him.
She rose from where she leaned on the railing. His well-muscled body invited her to press against it, to thrill over its hard planes. She opened her lips, welcoming him in. A masculine groan echoed in his chest. His hand rose to her jaw. His fingertips swept across her skin. His touch was so gentle. So unexpected for a man who’d made a name for himself being mauled by oversize linemen. For the first time in ages, she felt wanted.
In the periphery of her brain, the door from the bar swung open. She pulled away from him, suddenly aware of another presence on the patio. His hands fell to her hips and held her still, as if he didn’t want to let her go.
“Hey, Landon. We’re up on the pool table,” a male voice said from the doorway, but Gina’s brain didn’t register anything other than a blur standing at the door. Her senses danced around her—Landon’s scent, his dark, curly hair, those distinctive olive-green eyes.
“Find someone else to play,” he said, his gaze not leaving hers.
“It’s those guys from last week,” the male voice said. “They’ve been talking smack all night about how they’re going to beat us.”
“Not tonight.” Still, his attention didn’t leave her.
“You’re really going to walk away from a rematch?” the other male voice said.
Landon’s shoulders dropped. “You’ll still be here when I finish the game?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “I told my friend . . .” She quickly thought of ways to change the commitment she’d made to her teammate.
“Then Saturday night. Can I see you then?”
Her heart hammered in her chest. “I’d like that.”
He pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “What’s your number?”
She reached for the phone and enjoyed the surprised look on his face as she gently slid it from his hand. She punched in her name and number, then handed it back to him.
He grinned and nodded. “Saturday night.”
“Thanks for the beer,” she called as he headed toward the door to go back inside the bar.
He smiled as he turned to look at her. “No problem.”
“And sorry you had to lose tonight.”
He chuckled, a low, husky sound that echoed through the night air. “I don’t consider tonight a loss at all.”
Gina smiled as she read the text that popped up on her phone.
Is it Saturday night yet?
She glanced toward Suzanne’s doorway to see if her boss could see her. Only she and Suzanne worked for the small nonprofit full time. Gina didn’t want to get caught goofing off during her second week on the job.
And last night’s texting marathon with Landon Vista had shown her that the two of them could go back and forth for hours as they got to know each other.
She smiled as she typed her response. Does the senator know you’re texting the opposition during work hours?
I don’t want to talk about work.
Good. Because neither did she. Talking about her job would lead to questions—what she did all day, how she’d come to work at Morgan’s Ladder. She wasn’t sure how to tell someone she’d put an innocent boy in jail. That the grief of her brother’s death had been compounded by her own unforgivable mistake. That she’d come to Tallahassee this summer to begin making up for what she’d done to Nick Varnadore. I don’t want my boss to catch me goofing off, she typed.
Tell her you’re texting this really hot guy you met last night.
Gina smiled as memories of their kiss washed over her. She glanced toward her boss’s office again, wondering what Suzanne would say if she knew Gina had major lust for a guy who worked for Suzanne’s opponent.
But how could she not lust after him? That dark stubble on his jaw line. Curls the color of onyx, cut just the right length to be a little unruly. A little wild. Have you decided what we’re going to do Saturday night?
I’ve been asking around about the best place for Thai.
A warmth blossomed in her chest. Thai food. She’d said she loved it. He’d texted back that he hated it. Only one of the many back-and-forth volleys they’d exchanged as she lay in bed a couple of hours after their kiss at the Twilight Pub. I thought you hated Thai food.
You convinced me to give it another try.
She typed her response. Or you’re sucking up to me?
Why would I do that?
She laughed under her breath. To get her in bed? Wasn’t that what all guys wanted from girls they took out on dates? But in this case, the feeling was mutual.
Except she didn’t sleep with guys on the first date. Or the fifth. Or the tenth. The intimacy of sex was something she reserved for those who’d shown her that she meant something to them. Who’d shown her they were as interested in the rest of her life as they were in her body. Christopher’s betrayal had proven she was right to feel that way.
But this was Landon Vista. A man who epitomized everything masculine in the world. Just the closeness on the patio last night had tempted her to break all her major rules.
Her phone vibrated, dragging her back from her daydream. Gtg. Conference call.
And a follow-up text. Saturday night. Thai food.
Yes. He was definitely sucking up.
And she was perfectly fine with that.
# # #
Landon walked past the opaque-glass wall of the conference room on his way to get a second cup of coffee. Gina’s kiss last night had left him awake until three in the morning. He’d lain in the dark after they’d texted for a couple of hours, his mind ping-ponging between memories of her soft curves and what he might look forward to with her on Saturday night.
Scott Meredith, the senator’s chief of staff, jumped from his chair as Landon passed the meeting room. Scott held the door open and waved Landon over. “Can you come in here a minute?”
Landon looked around. Was Scott talking to him? Rarely did he get to go into the high-level strategy sessions in the boardroom. He’d long ago realized he was a pawn in a football-crazy town—someone the senator invited to parties when potential donors were being wooed. But he wanted to be one of the guys who set the strategy. Who decided which bills would be written and endorsed. He’d been crunching numbers on important issues—crime statistics, recidivism rates, success factors in turning juvenile delinquent facilities around—but as much as he loved statistics and analytics, he was tired of being a behind-the-scenes numbers guy. He wanted to make a difference. It’s why he’d come to work here and why he stayed—that hope of making this a better place for people to live.
He set his cup on the narrow decorative table in the hallway and walked into the cherry wood–lined room.
“Sit down, son,” Senator Byers said, looking even more serious than usual.
A stranger in a dark suit watched as Landon pulled out one of the rolling leather chairs. Scott introduced him as a prosecutor from Pascaloosa County.
“I assume you recognize the name Cyrus Alexander,” the senator said.
Landon swallowed and looked from one face to the next. His breathing grew shallow as his body went on alert, waiting for what might come next. “I know who he is.” His answer was barely audible.
Scott handed him a chilled bottle of water. He set it on the heavy, custom-made coaster in front of him.
The senator continued. “There’s a group called Morgan’s Ladder that works to—”
“I know who they are”—he stared at his hands where they gripped the edge of the table—“sir.” They get people like Cyrus Alexander out of prison.
“They’ve been digging into the case,” the prosecutor said. “Planning to do a DNA test. Talking about getting him out of prison.”
“The prosecutor’s office thought the senator should know, as a courtesy,” Scott said. “And you, of course.”
A chill shot down Landon’s spine like a jolt of electricity. For a split second, that same feeling of utter helplessness he’d felt as a nine-year-old threatened to overtake him. He tamped it down, the same way he’d been burying it for years. He tugged the top off the bottle of water, hoping to wash down the bile surging into the back of his throat.
Cyrus Alexander’s wiry body and stringy, blond hair flashed through his mind. The slapping sound of the back door of the store. Cyrus running away . . . just moments before Landon had walked in to find his mother’s body.
Even after Landon had been ferried off to live with his aunt and uncle in Jacksonville and Cyrus was behind bars, that pockmarked face haunted him.
The senator rubbed his chin. “Hate to bring it all up for you again, but I’d rather you find out from us than anyone else.”
“I appreciate that, sir.” He could barely concentrate on the conversation. Cyrus Alexander had gotten his trial, had his appeals. And Landon knew what he’d seen. Knew it was Cyrus who’d run out the back door. Had seen photos of the cut on Cyrus’s hand at the time they’d arrested him.
Gina must have known last night when they’d spent time together at the bar. When he’d kissed her. Hell, all of Tallahassee knew his story. Even the national sports announcers had talked about it during his playing days.
There was no way Gina couldn’t know. She must have known the whole time that her organization was trying to get Mama’s killer out of prison.
His breathing was shallow. His hands shook. He wasn’t sure if it was from the little-boy memories crashing inside him or his anger at Gina. Either way, he had to get out of there. “Is that all?”
“We may need to get in touch with you.” The prosecutor slid a business card toward him. “I’ll call your mom’s sister to let her know, too.”
Landon nodded. He hadn’t spoken to his aunt and uncle in months. Not since he’d learned they’d tried to use his name to influence their city councilman on some stupid zoning law Landon knew nothing about.
“The prosecutor’s office will keep us apprised of the situation,” Scott said.
Landon stood and turned toward the senator. “I need to take some time off this afternoon.”
To find out why the hell Gina would do this to me.
“Of course, son.” The senator stood, too. “Whatever you need.”
Landon thought about returning to his desk to shut down his computer, but wasn’t sure he could bear to talk to any of his coworkers. He didn’t want anyone asking questions about where he was going. He felt in his pocket for his keys and cell phone, then went straight out the front door of the senator’s suite of offices. The friendly guy from the deli downstairs was in the elevator, retrieving a half-empty tray of bagels from some office event on a floor above them. The guy tried to make conversation, but Landon could only grunt in response.
How was a person supposed to act when he learned the man convicted of killing his mom might be let out of prison? How could that even happen, given what Landon had seen? It seemed like the last fifteen years had never happened. Like he’d just found her this morning, her dead eyes staring. Did Gina really think he was that stupid? Did she really think it didn’t matter that she was trying to get Mama’s killer out of prison?
He was in his car, driving, before he knew where he was going. He took a left on Apalachee Parkway, then into the parking lot of the shabby building next to the florist, a building he’d passed nearly every day he’d lived in Tallahassee.
A placard on the handle rattled as he pushed open the door to Morgan’s Ladder. The sign read, “Helping the Wrongly Convicted Climb to Freedom.”
Gina swiveled in her desk chair to face the door. She was the only one in the tiny, cluttered room.
“Landon.” Her smile faded as he approached her.
“What the hell were you thinking?” He crossed the room toward her. A musty smell grew stronger as he passed a cardboard box of old files.
“What are you talking about?” She shrank back as her face registered a mixture of fear and confusion.
“You knew last night, didn’t you? You let me kiss you.” He shook with anger. “Jesus, I asked you out on a date. And you knew the whole time.”
“Knew what?” She rose, as if her full height might be a better match for his ire.
A middle-aged woman raced into the room. Her gray hair surrounded her face like a lion’s mane. “What’s going on out here?” she asked.
“Suzanne,” Gina spoke slowly and held her hands in front of her as if trying to convey that everyone should calm down. “This is Landon Vista. He’s here to see me.”
“She’s the one driving this, isn’t she?” He waved his arm toward the older lady. “She’s the one trying to get Cyrus Alexander out of jail.”
# # #
Gina held her hands outstretched and flat, waiting for Landon to give her more information. Her thoughts began to click together, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.
The victim, Barbara Landon.
The little boy in the pictures with the dark, curly hair.
Gina sank into her chair. “You’re named after your mom’s side of the family,” she said. It wasn’t a question. Not now that all the facts had fallen into place in her mind.
Her throat closed as her hand mechanically fell to the file on her desk. The one detailing the death of Barbara Landon. Her hand was like a shield, hiding from Landon the bloody crime scene photos she’d viewed just days ago. She glanced from the file to Landon and back again, knowing that the little boy in the pictures now stood in front of her, his big body surging with anger.
“Her last name wasn’t the same as yours,” she said. Her mind grasped for details as she tried to remember what her thought process had been before this news. “How would I have known?”
He stepped closer, breathing as if he’d just finished a marathon. “I’m supposed to believe you had no idea?”
Those accusing eyes bore into her. Their distinctive olive green haunted her. How could I not have seen it? The room started to spin.
He stomped around the desk to stand over her. “Did you think it’s a complete accident that I work for the guy who takes the toughest stance on crime?”
Anger bubbled in her chest as she realized what he was accusing her of. “It’s the state capitol. Half the people here work for the government.”
“They’re in Tallahassee.” His voice quavered. “To make the laws. To decide what happens to criminals when they kill somebody.”
Gina’s mouth opened, then shut. She’d thought about Landon all night last night. Dreamed of his hands gliding over her skin. Wondered why he made her feel like she hadn’t felt in a long time . . . maybe ever.
But as powerful as those dreams were, they were colliding with the mission she’d had for so long. Her reason for being here. To make amends for what she’d done following her brother’s death. To find justice for people who’d never found it.
Suzanne seemed to understand that Gina was having trouble continuing the conversation. “We have DNA tests now that didn’t exist then.”
“He had a big gash on his arm.” He motioned to his wrist. “He’d already served time for robbery.”
Suzanne thumped the file folder in her hand onto a desk. “That doesn’t make him a killer.”
Landon squared toward Suzanne. “I saw him running out the back of the store. How much more evidence do you need?”
Suzanne hesitated at the sight of the large man now focused on her. “And if he’s the killer, then the DNA test will prove it, once and for all.”
“All my life”—the vein in Landon’s neck corded beneath his skin—“the one little bit of peace I’ve had is knowing her killer was in prison.”
Gina finally felt like the room had stopped spinning. “Don’t you want to make sure the right man was convicted?”
He turned to her, his eyes red-rimmed and hollow. “He had a trial. He’s lost all his appeals.” His jaw tightened. “I know what I saw that day.”
“I’m sorry.” Suzanne’s voice was calm, but stern. “I know this process will be difficult for you, but it’s got to be done. Witness misidentification is the primary reason people are wrongly convicted. People often don’t do a good job of describing what they’ve seen.”
His eyes never left Gina’s as her boss spoke. In them, Gina saw confusion and pain. She saw the little boy whose mother had been murdered.
She hoped he could read her gaze, too. The confusion. The pain from her past that gave them a common bond. Her desire to reach out and touch him. To make everything better.
But instead, he turned and left, slamming the door behind him.
Gina dropped to her chair inside Morgan’s Ladder and stared at the door Landon had just slammed behind him when he’d exited the building.
“I had no idea.” She was mentally processing their argument, so her words were meant for herself as much as for Suzanne. “I should have seen it.” Those eyes. How could she have missed those eyes?
“I take it you two have met.” Suzanne still stood across the room from her.
Gina nodded, still staring at the front door. “Our volleyball league. Our teams played each other last night.”
“You must have made quite an impression.” Suzanne crossed the room and pulled out the chair from the empty desk next to Gina’s.
Gina turned, her eyes searching her boss’s face for what that last comment might mean. No way could Suzanne know Gina had kissed him last night.
A wave of heat crept up Gina’s neck and she knew she was blushing. She swiveled to rest her elbows on her desk, her head in her hands. How could she have screwed this up so quickly?
Suzanne reached out and touched Gina’s shoulder. “There are a lot of emotions surrounding these cases. You, of all people, should know that.”
Gina swallowed and nodded, her head still cradled in her hands. It was the reason she’d come here. The reason she’d turned down more prestigious internships to spend her summer at Morgan’s Ladder.
She took several deep breaths, gathering herself, then raised her head to look at her boss. “I guess I was just surprised by how quickly he rushed in here. I’ll be better prepared next time.” She didn’t want her boss to think she wasn’t up for the job.
“We’ve cracked open a part of his life he thought was settled years ago. It’s a natural reaction,” Suzanne said.
Gina nodded. Of course she knew that anger was to be expected, but it was hard to look at things intellectually when a six-foot-four-inch, two-hundred-pound man confronted you with the kind of ire Landon had shown.
Suzanne continued. “I’m sure your family went through much of the same.”
“Yes.” Her gaze fell to the floor as she steeled herself against the memories. The months following her brother Tommy’s death had been like someone rubbing sandpaper on an open wound. It had nearly torn her family apart. “Do you think I should go talk to him?” She motioned toward the door.
The hint of a smile crossed her boss’s face. She shook her head. “He doesn’t need someone from Morgan’s Ladder to console him. I’m sure he’s got friends he can talk to. Family, maybe. They’ll be able to help him more than a stranger.”
And, yes, that’s all Gina was. A stranger who’d had her tongue in his mouth last night. A stranger whose life now intersected with his in ways they hadn’t known about on the patio of the Twilight Pub.
“This is going to be horrible for him.” She knew, because she, too, had lived through the emotions of a trial. A conviction. The determination that the wrong person had been sent to jail. Nick Varnadore had spent eighteen months in a juvenile lockup because of her testimony. He’d gone in a scared, naive teenager and come out an angry, hardened adult, despite the fact that less than two years had passed. He’d grown up while he was in there, and it had changed him forever.
The details of the case on her desk flooded her mind. Like her, Landon had helped send a person to prison. Had his testimony also been wrong? Had he ruined Cyrus Alexander’s life the same way she’d ruined Nick Varnadore’s?
Even if the right man was in prison, their reopening the Cyrus Alexander case was going to make Landon relive his mother’s murder.
As if reading her thoughts, Suzanne spoke up. “Are you rethinking your decision to come here this summer?”
Gina shook her head. “No.” There was no way she was going to back out now, despite the run-in with Landon. She’d watched from afar as Nick Varnadore had struggled. Gotten snippets of information from others who knew him better than her family had—he’d gotten his GED. Attended one semester at the community college, then dropped out. Had trouble finding a job. Gotten kicked out of welding school.
She’d completely changed the trajectory of his life, and she owed it to him to be here. She’d decided months ago that this was how she would make amends. How she’d pay the world back for her mistake.
Landon Vista could yell at her all her wanted. She had a plan and she was going to stick to it.
Thank you for reading this extended excerpt. I’m grateful to have you in my Bungalow for Booklovers.