May 2003, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
She had survived.
Pressed against the wood-paneled wall of the bar, her chin resting on her hand, Rylann Pierce listened as her friends chatted on around her, quite content for the first time in a month to think about nothing whatsoever.
Along with five of her law school classmates, she sat at a crowded table on the second floor of The Clybourne, one of the few campus bars frequented by highbrow graduate students who demanded that their watered-down, four-dollar drinks be served in actual glasses instead of plastic. Everyone in the group was in the same section as Rylann, which meant they’d all completed their last final exam, Criminal Procedure, late that afternoon. Spirits were high and boisterous—at least boisterous by law student standards—punctuated only by occasional lows when someone realized a point they’d missed during the obligatory post-exam recap.
Someone nudged her elbow, interrupting her reverie. “Hello? Anyone there?”
The question came from Rylann’s roommate, Rae, who was seated at her right.
“I’m here. Just. . . picturing myself at the pool.” Rylann tried to hold onto the mirage for a few moments longer. “It’s sunny and seventy-five degrees. I’ve got some kind of tropical drink with one of those little umbrellas in it, and I’m reading a book—one I don’t have to highlight or outline in the margins.”
“They make those kind of books?”
“If memory serves.” Rylann exchanged a conspiratorial smile with Rae. Like many of their classmates, they’d both spent nearly every waking hour of the last four weeks outlining class notes and textbooks, taking practice exams, staring blurry-eyed at Emanuel’s law outlines into the wee hours of the night, and meeting with study groups—all in preparation for four three-hour tests that would help determine the course of their future legal careers. No pressure there.
The rumor was that second and third years got progressively easier, which would be nice—there was this interesting activity called sleep Rylann had heard of and was thinking about trying it out. Perfect timing, too. She had a week off before her summer job started, during which she planned to do nothing more strenuous than roll herself out of bed every day by noon and mosey over to the university’s outdoor pool that was open to students.
“I hate to burst the bubble on your daydream, but I’m pretty sure they don’t allow alcoholic drinks at IMPE,” Rae said, referring to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building that housed said pool.
Rylann waved off such pesky details. “I’ll throw a mai tai in my College of Law thermos and tell people that it’s iced tea. If campus security gives me any trouble, I’ll scare them off with my quasi-legal credentials and remind them of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against illegal searches and seizures.”
“Wow. Do you know how big of a law school geek you just sounded like?”
Unfortunately, she did. “Do you think any of us will ever be normal again?”
Rae considered this. “I’m told that somewhere around third year, we lose the urge to cite the Constitution in everyday conversation.”
“But seeing how you’re more of law geek than most, it might take you longer.”
“Remember that conversation last night where I said I was going to miss you this summer? I take it back.”
Rae laughed and slung her arm around Rylann’s shoulders. “Aw, you know you’re going to be so bored here without me.”
Rylann was overcome by a sudden pang of sentimentality. Now that finals were over, Rae and nearly all their law school friends were heading back home. Rae would be in Chicago for the next ten weeks, working double shifts at a bartending job that sounded glamorous and fun and that would pay her enough money to cover nearly a year of tuition. Rylann, on the other hand, had scored a Summer Law Internship with the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of Illinois. While a prestigious and coveted position among law students—particularly among first-years—she would be paid at the not-so-glamorous GS-5 salary, which would earn her little more than what she needed to cover her rent and living expenses for the summer. Perhaps, if she were particularly frugal, she’d have enough left over for next semester’s textbooks. Or at least one of them. Those darn things were expensive.
But despite the meager GS-5 wages, she was thrilled about the internship. As much as she grumbled about her student loans, she wasn’t going to law school for the money. She had a six-year academic and career plan—she was big on having plans—and her summer internship was the next step in it. After graduation, she hoped to land a clerkship with a federal judge, and then she’d apply to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
While many law students had no clue what type of law they wanted to practice after graduation, this was not the case with Rylann. She’d become addicted to Law & Order in high school and had known she wanted to become a criminal prosecutor ever since. Sure, working for a big firm paid the bills, but civil litigation seemed too dry and impersonal for her tastes. Corporation X suing Company Y for millions of dollars in a lawsuit that could go on for years without anyone giving a damn except for the lawyers who billed three thousand hours a year working on it. No, thank you.
Rylann wanted to be in court every day, in the thick of things, trying cases that meant something. And in her mind, not much could be more meaningful than putting criminals behind bars. Secretly, very secretly, she even harbored hopes of possibly being a judge some day—big dreams, no doubt, but with her first year of law school behind her, she was one step closer to achieving them.
A male voice coming from across the table interrupted her thoughts. “Three months in Champaign-Urbana. Remind me how the girl who is second in our law school class couldn’t work herself a better deal?”
The voice belonged to their friend Shane, who, like everyone else at the table, had a drink in his hand and a good-humored glow about him. Rylann could guess the reason for the glow. In addition to being done with finals, summer break meant that Shane got to return home to Des Moines and see his girlfriend with whom he was adorably smitten—although being a guy, he naturally tried to conceal this fact.
“It’s not the place that matters, Shane. It’s how good you are when you get there.”
“Nicely said,” Rae laughed, high-fiving Rylann.
“Scoff if you want,” Shane replied good-naturedly. “But my car is packed, gassed up, and stocked with snacks for the road. At 7a.m. tomorrow, come rain or shine, I’m blowing this popsicle joint.”
“7a.m.?” Rae looked pointedly at the drink in Shane’s hand, his third. “I’m thinking that’s not going to happen.”
He waved this off, the drink spilling slightly. “Please. Like a little hangover’s going to get in the way of a man in love.”
“Aw. That’s very romantic,” Rylann said.
“Plus I haven’t gotten laid in two months and the reunion sex is awesome.”
“And there’s the Shane we know and love.” Rylann took the last sip of her drink and shook the ice in her glass. “Speaking of hangovers, I think the next round is mine.” She collected orders from the group, then scooted around the crowded table and headed over to the bar.
“Two Amstel Lights, one rum and Diet Coke, two gin and tonics, and a Corona with two limes,” she told the bartender.
A voice, low and masculine, came from her right.
“Sounds like a party.”
Rylann turned in the direction of the voice, and—
Guys like the one leaning against the bar next to her did not exist in Champaign-Urbana. Actually, guys like the one next to her didn’t exist any place she knew of.
His dark blond hair was thick and on the longer side, just brushing against the collar of his navy flannel shirt. He was tall, with piercing blue eyes and an angular jaw—slightly scruffy, as if he hadn’t shaved for a couple days—and had a leanly muscular body. He wore dark jeans and well-worn construction-type boots, and, together with the flannel, looked ruggedly masculine and wholly, undeniably sexy.
Undoubtedly, she was not the first woman to blink twice at the sight of him, nor would she be the last. And he appeared to be fully aware of this fact. His blue eyes sparkled with amusement as he rested one elbow against the bar, all confidence as he waited for her response.
It was the first thought that popped into Rylann’s head.
Her second thought was that her first thought was ridiculous and she nearly laughed out loud at herself. Run. Really? He was just some guy in a bar—having spent five years in a college town that allowed people to enter bars at the age of nineteen, she’d seen plenty of those.
She gestured to the crowd around them. It was after eleven o’clock, and the place was packed to the gills. “Last day of finals. It’s a party for everybody.”
He looked her over with assessing eyes. “Let me guess. You’re graduating this weekend. You just took your last exam and tonight you’re celebrating your entry into the real world.” He cocked his head. “I’d say. . . advertising major. You scored a job with Leo Burnett and are about to move into your first apartment in Chicago, a quaint and overpriced two-bedroom in Wrigleyville that you’ll share with your roommate over there.” He nodded in the direction of Rae, obviously having noticed which table Rylann had been sitting at.
She rested her arm on the bar. “Is this ‘guess my major’ routine your typical opening line, or something you break out only on graduation weekend, hoping most women are too drunk to notice how generic it is?”
He looked offended. “Generic? I was going for confident and perceptive.”
“You ended up somewhere around clichéd and smug.”
He grinned, revealing two small dimples that added a hint of mischief to his angular jaw. “Or maybe I was just so dead-on perceptive that it scared you.”
The bartender pushed the five drinks Rylann had ordered in front of her. She handed over two twenties and waited for her change. “Not even close,” she said to Smug Dimples, happy to prove him wrong. “I’m a grad student. Law school.”
“Ah. So you’re putting off the real world for another three years.” He casually took a swig of his beer.
Rylann fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I see. Now you’re going for clichéd and condescending.”
Smug Dimples looked her over slyly. “I didn’t say there was anything wrong with putting off the real world, counselor. You inferred that part.”
Rylann opened her mouth to respond, then shut it. Okay, fair enough. But he wasn’t the only one who could make quick assessments, and she’d bet that hers would be a lot more accurate than his had been. She knew his type—every woman knew his type. Blessed by an abundance of good looks and a corresponding amount of over-confidence, guys like him typically compensated by being short on personality. It was nature’s way of keeping things fair.
The bartender handed back her change, and Rylann grabbed two drinks to make her first trip back to the table. She was about to throw out a sassy parting remark to Smug Dimples when Rae suddenly appeared at her side.
“I’ll help you out with those, Rylann.” With a wink, Rae skillfully grabbed four drinks with both hands, leaving only Rylann’s gin and tonic behind. “Wouldn’t want you to interrupt your conversation on our account.”
Before Rylann could utter a word in protest, Rae had already begun to ease her way through the crowd back to their table.
Smug Dimples leaned in closer. “I think your friend likes me.”
“She’s known for her exceptionally poor taste in men.”
He laughed. “Tell me how you really feel, counselor.”
Rylann glanced at him sideways. “It’s not ‘counselor’ until I graduate and pass the bar, you know.”
Smug Dimples’ eyes sparkled with amusement. “Okay, we’ll do first names instead. Rylann.”
She said nothing as she looked him up and down, coming to one inescapable conclusion. “You’re used to getting your way with women, aren’t you?”
He paused for a second. “Far more than I’d like, actually.”
He suddenly looked serious, and Rylann wasn’t sure what to say in response. Perhaps that was her cue.
She tipped her glass with a polite smile. “I think I’ll head back to my friends now. It’s been a pleasure. . . not quite meeting you.”
She walked back to the table, where her friends were engaged in a heated debate over the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s right to counsel during custodial interrogations. The guys in their group, including Shane, kept right on arguing as Rylann squeezed by, either not having noticed—or not caring about—her interaction with the guy at the bar. Rae, however, practically yanked Rylann into her seat.
“So? How did it go?” she asked eagerly.
“Assuming you’re talking about Smug Dimples over there, it didn’t go anywhere.”
“Smug Dimples?” Rae looked ready to smack her upside the head. “You know who that is, right?”
Surprised by the question, Rylann stole a glance back at Smug Dimples, who was over at the pool table with his friends. Well, she’d had a theory up until that moment. Judging from the no-fuss jeans, flannel shirt, and work boots, along with the slightly too-longish hair, she’d pretty much assumed he was a townie, likely one of those guys in his twenties from Champaign who hung out with his friends at campus bars looking for easy pickings among the co-eds.
But now, given Rae’s implication that he was somebody she should know, she needed to rethink that assumption.
An athlete perhaps. He was tall enough, easily over six feet, and certainly had the body—not that she’d paid attention to that, of course.
Maybe he was the Fighting Illini’s new quarterback or something. Rylann had been living in the insular world of law school for the past nine months and, frankly, didn’t have much of an interest in college football, so that could easily be the case. Although he seemed a couple years older than she would expect for an undergrad; she’d put him around twenty-three or twenty-four.
“All right, I’ll bite. Who is he?” she asked Rae. She prepared to be wholly unimpressed. Whatever name Rae gave her, there was virtually no chance she would recognize it.
Rylann stopped her drink mid-way to her mouth. Well. She actually did know that name. Virtually everyone at the university knew that name.
“The billionaire?” she asked.
“Technically, the billionaire’s son—but yes, the one and only,” Rae said.
“But Kyle Rhodes is supposed to be a computer geek.”
Rae shifted her position to check out the object of their discussion. “If that’s the new face of computer geek, sign me up. He can push my keyboard buttons any day.”
“Nice, Rae.” Rylann resisted the urge to look over again, not wanting to risk that Kyle Rhodes would notice and have the satisfaction of knowing they were talking about him. She wasn’t familiar with all the details of his story, but she knew enough from the Time, Newsweek, and Forbes articles she’d read about his father, a Chicago businessman hailed as the epitome of the American dream. From what she recalled, Grey Rhodes had come from modest roots, graduated from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in computer science, and had eventually started his own software company. She didn’t remember much about his career, except for the one detail that really mattered— about ten years ago, his company had developed the Rhodes Anti-Virus, a software security program that had exploded worldwide to the ultimate tune of over one billion dollars.
She also knew that Grey Rhodes made generous donations to his alma mater, at least, she assumed that was the case since the university had named an entire section of the campus after him—the Rhodes Center for Computer Science. With his billion-dollar empire, he was easily the most wealthy and famous of the school’s alumni. And thus Kyle Rhodes, the prodigal son and a grad student in computer science, was also a name people knew. After all, it wasn’t every day that a person had the chance to rub elbows with a billionaire heir in Champaign-Urbana.
So Smug Dimples had a name now, Rylann thought. Well, good for him.
She watched as Kyle Rhodes leaned across the pool table to take his shot, the flannel shirt stretching tight across his broad, seemingly very toned chest.
“You could always go back over there,” Rae said slyly, her eyes trained in the same direction as Rylann’s.
Rylann shook her head. Not a chance. “Didn’t your mother ever warn you about that kind of guy, Rae?”
“Yep. On my sixteenth birthday, when Troy Dempsey pulled into my driveway and asked if I wanted to go for a ride on his motorcycle.”
“Did you go?” Rylann asked.
“Hell, yes. I was wearing a denim mini-skirt, and I burned my calf on the exhaust pipe. Still have the scar to this day.”
“There’s a lesson to be learned there,” Rylann said.
“Never wear a denim mini-skirt?”
Rylann laughed. “That too.” And stay away from bad boys.
They moved on from the subject of Kyle Rhodes and joined their friends in the Fifth Amendment fracas. Before Rylann realized it, over an hour had passed, and she was surprised when she checked her watch and saw that it was after midnight. She caught herself glancing in the direction of the pool table—her treacherous eyes seemed to have a mind of their own that night—and noticed that Kyle Rhodes and his friends were gone.
Which was just fine with her.