Ethan Millner hit the gas and sped his Porsche past the last traffic light in Tolosa, Texas, leaving the city behind. He raced down the deserted two-lane highway, accelerating until he’d blown past the fifty-mile-an-hour speed limit and was heading for sixty.
The faster he went, the faster he wanted to go.
Even though the sun had long since disappeared behind the towering pine trees that lined the road, still the choking heat of the Texas summer made it hard to catch a breath without searing a lung. Any sane man would have put up the top on the convertible and flicked on the air-conditioning, but Ethan didn’t want comfort right now. The landscape whizzing past him like a video on fast-forward suited his state of mind.
The blonde in the seat beside him ran her fingertips along the polished walnut of the passenger door, then turned to him with a satisfied smile. “Great car, baby. I do love convertibles.”
The scorching night air licked around the edges of the windshield, whisking the woman’s hair into a wild frenzy. She wore a too-tight dress, too much makeup, and an erotic, heavy-lidded expression that said she was ready to get horizontal as soon as he said the word. Ten minutes ago, as they were leaving Bernie’s Bar and Grille, he thought he remembered her saying her name was Sheila.
Almost immediately after the Randall verdict had been read, Ethan had left the courthouse, gone directly to Bernie’s, and ordered a scotch straight up. He’d downed it in a few gulps and ordered another one. Then he’d sat back to let the anesthesia take effect as he watched the Rangers game on the television above the bar.
Halfway through scotch number two, he’d answered a congratulatory cell call from his father, the one he always received whenever word got around to the old bastard that his son had put another check mark in the “win” column for Millner, Millner, Monroe, and Dade. Sometimes Ethan preferred the near-lethal dose of silence he got on the rare occasion when he lost.
During the third inning, the blonde slid onto the stool next to him. He knew within seconds what kind of woman she was, and that was fine by him. He was long past messing with young law clerks who gave him million-dollar smiles paid for by their rich daddies. Women with kids to support who had desperation in their eyes and his money on their minds. Forty-somethings who’d gotten dumped by husbands with midlife crises that only twenty-somethings could resolve. Every one of them was drowning in her own sea of problems that sooner or later became his problems.
At this point in his life, only one kind of woman interested him—the kind who was beyond flowers and promises, who could be bought for a drink or two and a spin in his Porsche, who lit a cigarette after sex and reached for the remote to catch the last of The Tonight Show as he made his way out the door.
The woman swiped her windblown hair out of her face and gave Ethan a big smile. “You told me you wanted to do a little celebrating tonight. So what exactly is it we’re gonna be celebrating?”
He stared at the road ahead. “Winning.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me I picked the right man and you’re talking about the Texas state lottery.”
“I’m a lawyer. Just won a case.”
“So tell me about it.”
“Not much to tell. I won. Saved my client from a prison sentence. That’s all that matters.”
“That’s funny. I thought justice was all that mattered.”
“Justice?” Ethan gave her a sly smile. “Interesting concept. Please tell me you’re not going to sing ‘God Bless America.’ ”
The woman laughed. Even as Ethan smiled right along with her, his hand tightened against the gearshift. Justice? He wasn’t sure he even remembered the meaning of the word. He’d simply done his job as he always did, with a competency that made his clients thank God for the day they’d coughed up the extraordinary amount of money it took to retain his services. Ethan had been taught from his first breath what mattered in this game, and if money was a way of keeping score, he was clearly winning.
The woman leaned across the console and stroked her hand along his thigh. “Well, now. If I ever get into trouble with the law, it looks like you’re the man I need to call.”
“Sorry, sweetheart. You couldn’t afford me.”
“Oh, yeah? I’d say that’d depend on what you’d take instead of cash, now, wouldn’t it?” She inched her palm higher. “Maybe tonight I could give you a little advance payment against future services. How does that sound?”
The woman started talking trash to him, promising him sexual gymnastics guaranteed to take him straight to heaven. Ethan pictured himself peeling away her skimpy dress, stretching her out on a king-size bed, and sinking inside her to the hilt, letting her body take his mind to another place.
But no matter how much he tried to concentrate on her preview of coming attractions, her voice began to annoy him, like the drone of an insect he couldn’t swat away. In spite of the freedom of the road, the wind thrashing past, and the prospect of breathless sex with a woman who undoubtedly knew her way around a man’s body, he felt tense and confined.
He rubbed the back of his neck. It was slick with sweat.
Maybe the heat really was irritating him. August in Texas could be a real bitch, particularly when they were into their third week of hundred-degree heat with no end in sight. Or maybe it was the fact that the two scotches he’d tossed back hadn’t even begun to blur his senses. Or maybe it was the stranger in the seat next to him, a woman whose name he wouldn’t even remember in the morning.
Or maybe it was Thomas Randall.
A big shot at Bryan Industries, Randall had been accused of raping a young Mexican woman after hours who worked there as a cleaning woman. He said it was consensual; she said no way. Because the prosecution had little else, the he-said/she-said testimony had worked in Randall’s favor. It had been a slam dunk for Ethan to convince the jury that a man of his stature couldn’t possibly have committed an act of rape.
Of course, the fact that Ethan had rummaged through the woman’s background and unearthed a significant number of sex partners hadn’t hurt things, either. He’d danced around the rape shield laws with a creative interpretation of the Sixth Amendment, then hammered the plaintiff about those liaisons in excruciating detail, making her look more promiscuous than a two-bit hooker. The expressions on the faces of the jury members as they left for deliberation told Ethan he’d hit a home run and the verdict wouldn’t be long in coming.
Will the defendant please rise.
Randall had stood up and calmly folded his hands in front of him, wearing an eighty-dollar haircut and a thousand-dollar suit, keeping that poker face he’d honed during all those years as executive vice president of a multinational corporation. Ethan stood beside him, his own ability to keep a poker face stemming from something else entirely: He’d been there hundreds of times before.
In the matter of The State versus Thomas Randall . . .
Out of the corner of his eye, Ethan saw Randall’s chest expand as he drew a deep, silent breath.
We, the jury, find the defendant . . .
And then came the pause. Always the pause. Jurors watched too much television and had an overstated sense of the dramatic. Not guilty.
Randall faltered slightly, that momentary weak-kneed reaction that befell even the strongest man when he got the news that he’d escaped doing twenty years in Huntsville. Then he smiled broadly and hugged his wife, who was dressed as if she’d cut her Junior League meeting short to drop by the courthouse for the verdict.
On the other side of the aisle sat the plaintiff, a fragile-looking woman wearing an ill-fitting rummage sale dress. She began to sob, and Randall turned to look at her. When she stared back at him with a teary-eyed expression of utter despair, his victory smile faded. He swallowed hard and looked away. Body language didn’t lie.
Defendants did, though. All the time.
“So was your client really innocent?” the woman asked.
“Innocent?” Ethan said. “Of course he was. They all are.”
“All of them?”
“Sure. Just ask them. They’ll tell you.”
The woman laughed again, but it sounded hollow and unnatural. Dusk had transformed the pine trees along the road into huge, hulking shadows, and as Ethan pressed the accelerator down a few more millimeters, he felt as if he were speeding through a black hole.
The woman’s expression wavered. “Hey, you’re going a little fast, aren’t you?”
Her words seemed muffled and distant, like a radio station he couldn’t quite tune in. He took another curve, the Porsche’s tires squealing in an attempt to maintain their traction against the blacktop. For a split second Ethan imagined what would happen if he touched the accelerator a little harder and that traction disappeared. Knowing his reputation with the Tolosa PD, when the cops pulled his mangled body from the wreckage, the only thing they’d be lamenting would be the loss of a sixty-thousand-dollar sports car.
“Hey, baby,” the woman said, her voice shaky. “It’s time to slow down now.”
Ethan tightened his fist around the steering wheel, the leather hot beneath his hand. He pictured Randall doing a little celebrating of his own tonight. Friends and family surrounding him, glasses clinking, backslapping all around. He pictured the young Mexican woman, crying herself to sleep, then looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.
Then, like a monster creeping to just within his line of sight, Ethan caught a glimpse of himself, a bleak mirror image of something he’d never intended to become.
“What the hell are you doing?” the woman shouted, clinging to the armrest. “For God’s sake, slow down!”
He hit the gas harder, his heart pounding, his mouth dry.
The woman gasped. “Look out!”
Ethan blinked, suddenly aware that a pickup truck had lumbered onto the highway from an intersecting gravel road. He slammed his foot down on the brake and swerved hard to the right, but still he clipped the rear bumper of the truck. The impact sent his Porsche sliding sideways, its tires striking a sheet of sand and loose rocks on the shoulder of the highway. The car skated along, turning ninety degrees before leaving the shoulder entirely, bumping down a low incline and smacking into a pine tree. The impact slung Ethan sideways, the seat belt biting into his neck and shoulder.
Excerpted from Light My Fire by Jane Graves. Copyright © 2004 by Jane Graves. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.