The low pitch of an angry male voice carried all the way to the elevator, eclipsing even the sound of smooth jazz piping in from the speakers over Carter Hill’s head in the elevator. Despite the gruff tone to that low rumble, Carter smiled. After several years working with the man as one of his top consultants in hydrology and water rights management cases, and even having become friends, she accepted it as a bright spot of her day when she got to mess with him.
“Dammit. Where the hell is she?”
No doubt Logan meant her. Carter glanced at her phone. Not that she was late. In fact, she had arrived at the law offices of Courtier and Browning with two minutes to spare. However, Logan always got like this during a trial. She’d seen it happen every time he hired her.
Maybe I shouldn’t have insisted on watching that movie last Friday.
At least she’d given him the weekend to concentrate, though. Otherwise, he’d be way worse right now.
She paused at Mrs. Landingham’s desk. As always, Logan’s executive assistant had her salt-and-pepper hair scraped back in a severe bun. In combination with a gray suit, no makeup, and unsmiling countenance, the woman was intimidating at best. She was also the most efficient person Carter had ever met, and Logan’s moods didn’t put a dent in her rawhide exterior.
As soon as she spied Carter, Mrs. Landingham stood from behind her desk, coming around, not to greet her but to open the door.
“Please go in.” Mrs. Landingham practically shoved her into the room, closing the door behind her with a decidedly put-upon snap.
The man standing behind his desk jerked his head up from a stack of papers, recognition flickering in his hard, dark eyes for a miniscule moment before thick black brows descended into a scowl.
He opened his mouth, no doubt to ream her, but Carter beat him to the punch, sending him a sugary smile. “You bellowed?” She blinked at him in innocent curiosity, biting back a laugh, as his brows practically met in the middle.
Carter had to admit she loved those brows. They kept Logan’s face—all symmetrical with chiseled angles and a surprisingly full mouth—from falling into the realm of too pretty. Plus, they were practically a telegraph of his thoughts.
His gaze skated down her person and his frown deepened, the lines bracketing his mouth going deeper.
Carter beat back a shiver of awareness with a mental broom. A sensation she’d had to contend with more and more lately. When they’d met, she was dating Brian. Then engaged. So friendship had been the only thing on offer. She’d broken her engagement a while ago, though, so what the heck? Why awareness for her friend now?
She had no idea on the timing. The why was pretty obvious. Logan was just too damn good-looking for her own good. When she’d been off the market, she’d registered Logan’s sex appeal—after all, she wasn’t dead—but that was it. Merely a general appreciation.
Maybe her problem was that he was currently the only man in her life.
Not that she had any intention of going there. She knew Logan Cartez well enough to be painfully aware that he was not remotely interested in a romantic relationship with anyone. Not after the number his ex did on him. Carter’s breakup looked like a birthday party in comparison. If she ever met Angela Hayes in person, Carter might do something unladylike and punch the woman in the nose.
No one ever said Carter was a lady, anyway, even though her mother had tried her best.
Regardless, Logan hadn’t once, in all the time they’d known each other, sent even an inkling of sexual attraction in her direction. Not even a smoldering smidge of it. The few times she’d encountered him with another woman, he’d had supermodel types with him. Never the same woman. And he never, ever, talked about dating.
While Carter was well aware she’d been blessed with the Hill dark coloring and general good looks, she was also a cowgirl at heart. Even her job in hydrology and water management involved a lot of time in boots hiking over all sorts of terrain. Sure, when she was in the city, she liked to dress up, but a supermodel she was not.
Besides, she knew herself well enough to realize she was white-picket-fence all the way… and Logan was not. Not to mention, he was one of her only friends in Austin. No way was she about to ruin that with an unrequited crush. Therefore, she’d gotten good at ignoring her gut instinct. Something she did now, pushing the tingling awareness behind her amusement, and the prospect of verbally tangling with him.
“You’re late,” he snapped.
“I’m right on time.”
He glanced at the crystal-cased clock that sat on his pristine mahogany bookshelves. The only decorative item in the room, if she discounted the law degrees and accolades framed on his walls. Otherwise, he didn’t have a single personal item in the beautifully appointed room with its polished wood furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows letting in lots of natural light. No pictures of family or even a squeeze ball.
Heaven knew the man could use some kind of stress relief. Maybe she’d get him a squeeze ball for his birthday. Something goofy to lighten things up in here.
She flicked an uninterested glance at the clock. “You set it ten minutes early,” she reminded him dryly. “Just like all the clocks in your apartment.”
He lifted a single eyebrow.
“What? You didn’t think I’d notice?” She smirked.
“Sort of like you didn’t think I’d notice the buttery handprint you left on my leather couch Friday night?”
Busted. Carter winced. “Sorry about that. I hoped it would just dry up and disappear. Bill me for the cleaning.”
He waved the suggestion off and dropped his gaze back to the papers he was shuffling into his pristine and no doubt ridiculously expensive leather briefcase. The man had a thing with leather.
Carter dropped into the upholstered armchair in front of the desk, careful not to wrinkle her brand-new tailored suit. She would’ve preferred the gorgeous deep red number she’d tried on a few weekends ago. The one with a peplum trim to the jacket that made her waist appear smaller and gave her a sexy edge. Except Logan wanted black suits only for court. Pant suits, more specifically, which meant she didn’t even get to dress it up with a skirt. The more austere the better as far as he was concerned. As evidenced by his own attire.
For a woman who traipsed around in jeans and boots most of the time, Carter loved a good chance to dress up. Too bad this wasn’t it.
Taking advantage of having Logan’s focus elsewhere, Carter studied the man in front of her.
Tall and lean, even the cut of his impeccable black suit couldn’t hide his broad shoulders and muscled tone. He arose at the butt crack of dawn to work out. Given his drive, she was shocked he didn’t run a marathon every single day.
If she didn’t already know Logan was city bred from the top of his short black hair to the bottom of his shiny black shoes, she’d have pegged him as a cowboy. He had the whip-lean build to him and walked with a bit of a swagger. Even his cologne reminded her of home, subtle and outdoorsy and flagrantly male. However, in the time she’d known him, she had yet to see him step foot on a ranch or a farm. Even to do his interviews. Usually, he brought people into his office for those.
Logan finished organizing things to his exacting standards, then picked up his briefcase and looked at her. “Ready?”
Carter pushed to her feet and had to hide a wince.
“What’s wrong with you?” Logan demanded.
Damn. He caught that? Carter shrugged. “Nothing that a long soak in my Jacuzzi bath won’t fix.”
He paused and stared at her with an inscrutable expression that meant he was waiting for more.
Carter sighed. “I visited home this weekend and rode Mae West for the first time in forever. I’m still feeling it in my behind.” She gave her tush a smack.
“Of course you named your horse Mae West,” he muttered.
Which only made Carter snicker. She was always quoting the actress. “Hey! Don’t knock her. The woman has some of the best life advice for women.”
“You once answered the door and asked if I was happy to see you or if I had a pistol in my pocket.”
The dry tone to his voice only had her cracking up more. “That’s a good one.”
“I don’t see how that’s advice.”
“Well, you wouldn’t.” The man was pulled tighter than a cinch on a saddle.
“Excuse me?” He paused holding the door open for her.
“You need to let loose and live a little.”
“I’m perfectly happy with my life,” he said with all the emotion of a wet blanket.
“You’re wound up like a pocket watch. I never see you put a foot wrong, but you don’t have any fun that way either. To quote Mae, ‘To err is human…’” She reached up to pat his check. “‘But it feels divine.’”
If Carter didn’t know better, she would’ve sworn those ebony eyes of his dropped to her lips. Just for a second. Too quick for her to be certain. Which was silly. This stupid—very temporary—crush was messing with her brain. They were coworkers and friends, nothing more. Even if she had made it a bit of a mission in life to make him have fun.
“I’ve had my share of failures,” he said.
“And learned all the wrong lessons, in my opinion.” Only one failure in Logan’s life that she was aware of. And the experience of his fiancée walking out on him to be with another man, claiming it was all his fault—thanks to his obsession with his career—had cut deep.
“I wasn’t asking for your opinion,” Logan practically growled.
No surprise there. He always got that way when Angela was brought up or remotely hinted at.
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” She gave a sassy grin and walked past him with a quick, “Thanks.” For holding the door.
They paused at the elevator and Carter ignored the glowering man at her side to enjoy the view out the floor-to-ceiling window beside the elevator doors. Sparkling glass of the buildings around them reflected the blue skies of a perfect Texas spring day. Beyond the buildings, the Colorado River created what the locals called Town Lake, with its wide bridges, dark waters, and the bright greens of newly leafed trees along its banks.
The Austin skyline had changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, with the addition of skyscrapers and urban living. Carter had opted for an apartment on the other side of I-35, still within walking distance of the bars and restaurants downtown, but not quite as claustrophobic. After growing up with wide open spaces, the metropolis of the Texas state capitol—though small compared to San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas—had been still been overwhelming.
“I liked the red one better.”
Carter whipped around at the sound of Logan’s voice, which had come off as strangely hostile. “Sorry?” she asked.
What was he talking about?
“The red suit.” He turned his face to stare at the elevator number as it changed. “I liked it better.”
Carter stared at him like a catfish caught on a fishing line—mouth wide open. “How on earth did you know about that?”
“Social—” She couldn’t get the words out because she was too busy coughing over the image of the man in front of her doing anything on social media let alone bothering to follow her feed. Friends or not. Carter plonked one hand on her hip, tipping her head to give him a cockeyed stare. “Logan Cartez, are you social media stalking me?”
That earned her a flat-lipped lawyer stare. “No.”
The elevator arrived, already half-filled, and he waved her inside.
In a quieter voice she kept verbally poking at him. “Then why do you know about—”
“You friended me.” He glanced over his shoulder at the others in the elevator with them.
That was true. He had been one of her only acquaintances in the area at the time. She’d been shocked when he’d accepted, but otherwise assumed he didn’t do social media.
“I keep tabs on everyone I do business with.”
The small buzz at the thought of him checking on her fizzed out faster than flat champagne. Of course he kept tabs on anyone for his work. He’d want to make sure people like her, who he used for expert analysis, and testimony, were unimpeachable.
“Smart.” She did her best to keep that one word neutral.
“You told me black suits with pants,” she pointed out.
He turned his head to look at her finally, dark eyes skating over her again, just as he’d done when she showed up in his office. “This one is fine.”
With a metaphorical shovel she buried the skitter of awareness under a pile of reality. “I know it is.”
She’d get over this eventually and they’d get back to normal. Hopefully with him none the wiser.
They reached the underground parking garage and he escorted her to the understated car he drove—black, classy, expensive, but not ostentatious. His modus operandi in life.
“Out of curiosity, about the suit…” she murmured.
“I feel a nightmare coming on.” He flicked her a glance as he started the car and pulled out. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“You live. You learn,” she replied in sing-song voice. Then grinned when he huffed a laugh. A miracle on trial day. “What would you have said if I’d shown up in the red one?” she asked.
“Oh, really?” She let the challenge linger in her voice. “I bet you would’ve reminded me to wear black for trials.”
“Maybe. Speaking of which, we should focus on the trial.”
He wasn’t wrong, so she dropped her teasing. “We’ve already been over everything a thousand times. I’m ready.”
“I don’t worry about you.”
Carter sat up a little straighter. That was news to her. But she’d take what essentially was a compliment from the perfectionist behind the wheel. “Good.”
She’d studied her ass off for a PhD in hydrology and water management while working full-time, getting experience as a water engineer. In her opinion, water was the priority resource in the world, and it needed protecting now. The world was squandering it. Having witnessed firsthand the devastation of draught and how nasty water rights disputes could get, she was determined to be part of the solution. In Texas at least.
Her career was everything to her. She could make a difference. She’d walked away from the love of a good man and staying close to the family ranch and loved ones she adored, in order to make that difference.
Time to do that for the Morgans, the people Logan represented today.
That red suit comment had been an idiotic thing to say. Logan leaned back in the uncomfortable wooden chair behind the table facing the judge, his arms cross, and listened through Carter’s cross-examination on the stand. And did his damndest not to picture her in the red.
She’d posted pictures in different outfits, apparently having gone shopping with a friend. Including a few more formal dresses.
For dates? As far as he was aware, she hadn’t dated since she’d broken off her engagement and decided to stay in Austin. At the time, he’d convinced himself he only cared about the fact that one of his best experts would be sticking around.
With ruthless determination he blew up the tracks on that particular train of thought before it even reached the station. Doesn’t matter. Keep your head in the game.
Except an inconvenient attraction had been plaguing him for months now. An awareness he hadn’t even contemplated when she’d been someone else’s. An attraction he couldn’t give credence to now. Thanks to Angela, and his career, relationships beyond a few casual dates and a night of good sex, were off the table for him. They didn’t fit his life.
Carter didn’t like Angela, but she hadn’t been around when they’d been together. Their breakup had been all him. He’d put his heart and soul into each case, because they meant something. He’d assumed, as a lawyer herself—they’d meet in law school—Angela understood. He hadn’t seen how he’d neglected her, hurt her. Hell, he’d practically chased her off. She’d gone on to date another man from their law cohort for several years, but he’d heard that had broken up recently.
Not the enticing witch Carter seemed to have pegged her as. An impression he’d probably given accidentally when he’d made the mistake of drinking a bit too much and telling Carter all about her.
Unfortunately, his filter seemed to disappear around Carter Hill. Something about the way she was never intimidated by him, and how she made him want to laugh even when he shouldn’t, combined with the unusual shade of her eyes. Deep blue, rimmed in black, made even more blue by black lashes and long black hair, currently pulled back in a professional knot at the back of her neck. Her skin was tanned like she spent a lot of time outside, which she did for her job. Plus the family ranch she was always talking about visiting.
He’d developed a habit of saying whatever was in his head when she turned her blue eyes on him. Like he was hypnotized or something.
He mentally shook his head at the memory of her first salvo today. “You bellowed?” she’d said. No one else would’ve dared, except maybe Mrs. Landingham. Life whenever Carter was around was never dull, that was a bona fide fact.
She’s only a friend.
Not the first time he’d had to remind himself of that situation. Though the long dark hair, big blue eyes, and enticing curves made that a difficult sell to his dick. Not that he had a type per se. More like the “home and hearth” type was not his, and Carter definitely fell in the “girl you marry” category of female, not the “girl you take to bed for a few nights of fun and that’s it” category.
She suddenly turned her eyes his way with a sharp look, and Logan put a full stop to his mental musings, reviewing what had just been said by the defense lawyer.
Shit. How could he have let his mind drift?
“Objection,” Logan barked. “Leading the witness.”
Good thing one of them was paying attention. Damn it, Cartez. He never let anything distract him from a case. Never. And certainly not in the middle of the trial.
He didn’t dare turn to see what his team thought about it. No doubt they’d kept professionally neutral expressions. He only employed the best. They wouldn’t say anything either, but damned if they wouldn’t have noticed either.
The defense attorney wrapped up his questions, faster than even Logan had been expecting. Not too surprising. As expert testimony went, Carter was one of the best tools in his arsenal. She knew her shit, her analysis was flawless, she was well respected in the community, never flapped under pressure, and frequently used that sarcastic wit of hers against lawyers trying to dance around her with words.
The presiding judge checked her watch. “I would’ve liked to wrap this up today, but we’re out of time. We’ll resume tomorrow at eight with closing statements.”
The bang of the gavel cracked through the room, and Carter stepped out of the witness box.
Logan didn’t miss how she blew out a breath. Of relief? Why? She’d been spot-on, as always.
As she approached, she directed a pleased smile over his shoulder to the team who’d worked untiringly on this case. Then she shifted her gaze to him, and her smile widened, reaching her eyes fully and gaining a twinkle he didn’t quite trust.
“I think we should celebrate. First round on me?”
Through the happy acceptances of his team, Logan frowned. “We haven’t won anything, yet.”
“Sure you have. Though…” She cocked her head, eyeing him with the untrustworthy twinkle again. She stepped closer, lowering her voice just for him to hear. “I almost had to do your job for you and object.”
“Is that so?” Logan didn’t betray by so much as a twitch that she was dead-on in that assessment.
“You know it is.”
Why the hell did the twinkle make him want to tip her back and kiss her until they were both out of breath?
Off-limits. His new mantra.
“Your testimony was excellent,” he allowed.
With almost comical urgency, Carter dug through her purse and pulled out her phone. Then turned to take a selfie, stepping in close to him, the fresh, clean scent of her winding around his senses like a snare.
“What are you doing?”
“Marking this occasion. Where we were when Logan Cartez gave me a compliment. Smile.” Before he could protest, she snapped the picture. “So…” She tucked her phone back in her purse like that hadn’t just happened. “Where to? I’m thinking Cooper’s BBQ on Congress. I’m craving their blackberry cobbler.”
“I thought you said drinks,” Logan protested.
Drinks he could handle. Show he could be sociable with his coworkers. Dessert implied dinner. That was more time than he wanted to allot for networking.
Carter rolled her eyes. “It’s five o’clock, Logan. A girl has to eat. Besides, Cooper’s has a bar, too.”
Briefcase packed neatly, he snapped it shut and turned to find his team smiling at him expectantly. Damn.
This happened every time Carter was involved.
He had to go over the final statement. Plus, the next case up needed more attention. Which reminded him, he needed to talk to Carter about getting involved with that one.
This job was a lifetime of working toward one goal. Making sure small ranches and farms didn’t get stomped on by large ranches or towns or even large cities when it came to the one thing they couldn’t survive without. Water.
Anytime he thought of taking his foot off the gas, even a tiny bit, an image of his parents spurred him on. Faces pinched with worry, eyes dark with disappointment and a shame that came from circumstances outside their control. Logan had witnessed firsthand how the little guy could lose everything, and he’d fight for them, one case at a time.
“I can’t stay long,” he warned.
A cheer went up, like he never socialized, and Logan managed to smile. His team had earned it.
Gordon Brant, one of the associates at the firm who he worked with most often, bright, ambitious, and detail oriented, had missed his daughter’s birthday party thanks to working over weekends with Logan. Cindy Taketa, who’d clerked for him every summer the last three years, managed to get great research done while still wrapping up two final courses. He’d be working with the office manager to get her an offer this week. Josh Jones, the other clerk, new to the firm this winter, and also a law student at UT, showed a lot of promise. And Elayne Martinez, his paralegal since he’d started, and who he’d never get through a case without. Solid people who contributed to his success almost as much as the work he himself put into each case.
He’d make sure the firm paid, not Carter.
Before he knew it, they’d made their way to downtown Austin, not far from the Congress Street Bridge where the famed bats made a home. The largest urban bat colony in the world. Thousands of people would gather on the bridge and the shores of Town Lake every evening in the spring and summer to watch the bats emerge at dusk.
Logan had never witnessed the event himself. No need to try tonight. He’d do drinks and then head home. He wanted to practice the closing statement a few more times.
The line at Cooper’s wound up outside on the sidewalk. Great, more time wasted. Logan managed to keep his thoughts to himself, taking his place behind Carter, with the others ahead of her.
“Hey.” He touched her elbow to get her attention, careful to release her quickly, keeping the contact impersonal.
She blinked her big blue eyes up at him, curiosity raising her eyebrows.
“I have another case I want you to take a look at.” He could at least get work done.
They took a step forward and she turned to face him. “What’s it about—”
The distinctive ring of her phone—a Big & Rich song, “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy”—sounded, and Carter made a face as she dug in her purse.
A glance at the screen and she gave a little frown. “Just a sec,” she said to him. “Mom?” she answered, her voice a mix of curious, concerned, and happy.
Did her mother not call often? They seemed like a close family, but maybe not. Not that Logan would know how often family might call. His parents had died within months of each other when he’d been in his first year at college.
“Hold on, Mom.” She covered the phone with her hand, like that would make a difference. “I need to take this.”
“Everything okay?” he asked automatically. Because the twinge in his gut couldn’t be concern.
“Yeah. If you get up there before I’m done, can you order me a few slices of the smoked turkey with a salad and the—”
“Blackberry cobbler?” he asked.
“You remembered.” Carter grinned before she stepped away, and damn if he didn’t want to kiss her again. Maybe he should spend less time with her outside the office, and maybe even find another hydrology and water management expert as a consultant. The firm had several on retainer.
Logan chatted with Gordon, who stood ahead of him in line now that Carter had vacated her spot. As the line moved inside the building, he glanced back to see if she was close to being finished with her call and paused.
Carter stood off to the side on the wide sidewalk, out of the way of the busy foot traffic, speaking into her cell phone. Nothing about her specifically alerted him. She stood tall and straight and she wasn’t frowning or gesturing or anything like that. Maybe that was the clue. Her free hand was still and lifeless at her side. Very un-Carter-like. She used her hands when she talked.
The woman standing on the sidewalk, so still and contained, was… wrong. Something was wrong.
She hung up the phone and slipped it in her purse, but stood there, staring into space.
The person behind him cleared his throat, and Logan realized the line had moved well up without him. “Carter,” he called.
She startled at the sound of her name. Definitely lost in thought. Then smiled and scooted ahead of him to take her place in the line again.
“Is everything okay?” Logan asked.
“Yeah.” She turned sideways allowing her to both face him and see the line at the same time. “News from home.”
Her voice indicated it was no big deal, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes even a little bit.
“Good news?” Irritation spiked inside him like stepping on a sticker in tall grass. Usually Logan didn’t pry into other people’s private lives. Even friends. So what the hell was he doing right now?
“Yes. A… friend is getting married.”