New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin’s Desperate Girls is a tightly wound, fast-paced thriller that examines intricate relationship dynamics in the wake of a killer’s symbolic revenge spree.
Defense attorney Brynn Holloran is right at home among cops, criminals, and tough-as-nails prosecutors. With her sharp wit and pointed words, she has a tendency to intimidate, and she likes it that way. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom, but in her personal life, she’s a mess.
When a vicious murderer she once helped prosecute resurfaces and starts a killing spree to wipeout those who put him behind bars, one thing becomes clear: Brynn needs to run for her life.
With no help from the police, Brynn is forced to take matters into her own hands, turning to a private security firm for protection. But when Brynn defies advice and gets involved in the investigation, even the former Secret Service agent assigned to protect her may not be able to keep her safe. With every new clue she discovers, Brynn is pulled back into the vortex of a disturbing case from her past.
As the clock ticks down on a manhunt, Brynn’s desperate search for the truth unearths long-buried secrets and reignites a killer’s fury.
"I love a strong, smart heroine, and defense attorney Brynn Holloran is exactly that. DESPERATE GIRLS is a nail-biting read from the very first page to the final, shocking twist. I could not put this book down."
— Wall Street Journal bestselling author Melinda Leigh
“DESPERATE GIRLS by Laura Griffin is a keeper; I know because I carried it everywhere with me until I’d finished it. It has chills, thrills, action, and romance. The characterization rings true, and the supporting characters are as individual as the main protagonists. I liked it so much I’m buying her backlist.”
— New York Times bestselling author Linda Howard
"Griffin (Touch of Red) weaves just enough romance into this intensely suspenseful novel of murder and passion.... Griffin pulls out all the stops in a phenomenal twist ending that will leave readers stunned."
— Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
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Jen Ballard planned to get lucky tonight.
The thought made her heart do a little hopscotch as she slid her Volvo sedan into the driveway and checked her surroundings. No news vans. No beat-up hatchbacks belonging to reporters. She skimmed the street in both directions, but saw only familiar cars in familiar driveways. She glanced in the rearview mirror at the driveway across the street, but it was empty—which might or might not be a good sign.
Jen pulled into her spacious garage and gathered her groceries off the passenger seat as her phone pinged with an incoming text. David.
Running late. ETA 20 min.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Perfect. Now she’d have time to shower and change into something more alluring than the charcoal pantsuit she’d worn to work.
She slid from the car and hurried into the house. Even laden with groceries, she felt empty-handed this evening. She had no briefs to read, no pretrial motions to consider. She’d left everything at the office, including her laptop, which felt good for a change.
Jen stashed the steaks and the salad ingredients in the fridge, then washed the potatoes and put them in the oven. She checked the clock. Fifteen minutes. She uncorked the merlot. It needed to breathe anyway. Really. She poured half a glass, then made her way to her bedroom as she sipped a little liquid courage.
David liked merlot. And he was allergic to bees. Funny the things you learned about your neighbors over the years. She also knew he was divorced, no kids, and he was one of the top cardiologists in Dallas.
Jen set her glass on the bathroom counter and turned on the shower, twisting her thick hair into a bun because she didn’t have time to dry it. She stripped off her clothes and stepped under the hot spray.
A date. Tonight. Her stomach fluttered with nerves, and she wished she hadn’t sampled the wine.
She’d bumped into David at Home Depot last week, and he’d asked her out right there in the light bulb aisle.
We should have dinner sometime, he’d said with his easygoing smile.
She’d been so shocked that she stood there staring at him for a full five seconds until I’d love to! popped out of her mouth.
It was impulsive. And ill-timed. But once the words were out, there was no going back.
She’d told him they should probably wait until her trial was over, but his blank expression made her realize he might not even know about it. How could he not though? Didn’t he read the papers? Maybe he was too busy saving lives to take notice of the media circus that had been going on in her courtroom for the past four weeks.
His utter obliviousness to her professional life appealed to her. A lot. She liked the prospect of seeing someone who didn’t think of her as Judge Ballard or Your Honor. Most men were intimidated by the robe, and she hadn’t had a single date in the two years since she’d been elected to the bench.
Jen stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in a towel. Nerves fluttered again as she opened her closet and skimmed the endless rack of suits.
“Crap,” she mumbled, combing through the hangers. Everything was drab, even her weekend clothes.
Very few women could exude sex appeal in the courtroom and still be taken seriously. Brynn Holloran came to mind. The auburn-haired defense attorney wore low-cut blouses and spike heels, and everyone knew she was a force to be reckoned with. Jen had always dressed down, in muted colors and sensible shoes, even during her prosecutor days. She wanted people to focus on her brain, not her boobs, but lately she’d felt sick to death of the whole conservative-jurist shtick.
Her gaze landed on the coral sheath dress she’d worn to her niece’s graduation. It was pretty. Feminine. She remembered feeling confident in it. She grabbed the hanger and before she could change her mind, slipped into a lace thong and pulled the dress over her head. She tugged up the zipper and rearranged her breasts because the tight fit didn’t leave room for a bra.
Jen checked herself out in the mirror. Not bad. She freshened her makeup and fluffed her hair into breezy style to match the dress. She slid her feet into sandals and downed a last sip of wine.
Her phone chimed from the bedroom, and she rushed to check it. Maybe another update from David. But instead it was Nate Levinson, a former colleague. What would he want? She’d missed two calls from him while she’d been in the shower, as well as a call from a Beaumont area code. She let Nate’s call go to voicemail. It was business, no doubt, and she was taking the night off.
She glanced at the mirror one more time before heading into the kitchen. The house felt warm, and she stopped at the thermostat to turn up the A/C. The clock read 7:25. David would be here any minute, and she still needed to season the steaks and throw the salad together. She walked into the kitchen felt a crunch under her feet.
She looked down. What the…?
Glass. All over the floor. She glanced at the patio, and a warm waft of air turned her blood to ice.
She whirled around to see a black pistol inches from her face. Her heart leaped as she looked at the man holding the gun. Dear God, no.
The calls from Nate, from Beaumont all made sense now.
The man stepped forward. “On your knees.”
“Don’t hurt me.”
Her legs folded, and she was on the floor, chunks of glass biting into her skin. This can’t be happening. How can this be happening? Her heart hammered wildly in her chest.
“Don’t hurt me.” She gazed up at him, and the utter calm on his face made her stomach quiver.
He brought the muzzle of the gun to her forehead. It felt cool and hard, and bile rose in the back of her throat.
“Please,” she croaked. “I’ll do whatever you want, just—”
“That’s right.” His eyes were flat and soulless. “You will.”
Brynn Holloran dipped her fingertips in the warm water and eyed the clock.
“What’s your mood today?” Chrissy spun the nail polish carousel and glanced at Brynn’s ivory blouse. “Nude? Blushing bride?”
“Oh, no.” Brynn picked a bottle and plunked it on the table.
“Cha-ching cherry.” Chrissy smiled. “You must have a trial today.”
She nodded. “You’ll win,” she said, snipping away at Brynn’s cuticles. “Red’s your lucky color.”
Brynn darted another look at the clock as nervous energy buzzed through her. She appreciated Chrissy’s confidence, but it did little to quell her stress. Nothing would until she stepped into that courtroom.
“Big case?” Chrissy asked.
“Yes.” Big was an understatement. “It’s a murder trial, and I haven’t gone up against this prosecutor before.”
Chrissy swiveled in her chair and took out some hot towels. Wrapping Brynn’s hands, she studied her face through the steam. “You’ll do great. He won’t know what hit him.”
Chrissy had been a fierce supporter ever since Brynn had repped her in a dispute with her toad of a landlord, who was jerking her around over the rent. Brynn hadn’t even represented her officially—just sent a nasty letter on firm stationery. The toad had backed down, and Chrissy had offered Brynn a lifetime of free manicures—which she wouldn’t take, of course. Brynn would never hit Chrissy up for freebies, but she wasn’t above coming in on a busy Friday and asking to be squeezed in.
Chrissy unwrapped the towels. She pumped lotion into her hand—eucalyptus mint—and started massaging Brynn’s forearms. It felt so good, she wanted to drop her head on the table and weep.
The massage was over way too soon, and Chrissy thwacked the bottle of polish against her palm before twisting off the top.
“The trial’s in Dallas,” Brynn said. “I have a thousand things to do, but I couldn’t leave town without stopping in.”
She raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Not if you’re going to Dallas,” she said, expertly stroking red over a nail.
Chrissy understood the importance of appearances. She was in the image business. Thanks to skin treatments and relentless workouts, the sixty-two-year-old salon owner didn’t look a day over fifty, and Brynn hoped to be as lucky someday.
If she didn’t work herself into an early grave first.
A text landed on Brynn’s phone from Ross, her law partner. She swiped the screen with her free pinkie.
Perez is missing.
“Damn it.” She looked up. “I have to make a call, sorry,” she said, tapping Ross’s number. He picked up on the first ring.
“Where are you?” he demanded.
“In a meeting. What do you mean ‘missing’?”
“We were supposed to have a video conference at nine to practice his testimony, but he blew it off and he’s not answering his phone.”
“Try his girlfriend.”
“I did. That’s what worries me. She hasn’t seen or heard from him since Tuesday, and she has no idea where he is.”
Brynn bit back a curse. “Did you tell Reggie?”
“I’m headed to the office.”
“I’ll meet you there,” she said. “We’ll figure out what to do.”
As soon as the phone was down, Chrissy took Brynn’s hand and swiftly finished the first coat. She examined her work and did a quick second coat before switching on the drying lamp.
“I have to run. I—”
“Five minutes.” Chrissy’s stern look shut down any objections. She borrowed another lamp from a neighboring table and arranged Brynn’s other hand beneath the heat before walking into the back room.
Brynn gazed longingly at her phone. She wanted to call Reggie. And check her email. Shit. How could Perez be missing? Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was sleeping off a hangover somewhere. But a tight ball of dread formed in Brynn’s stomach as she thought about all the implications. Her eighteen-year-old client was going on trial for his life, and their star witness was MIA.
She took a deep breath and tried to relax, letting the lingering eucalyptus scent calm her. That worked for about a minute and then she cast a furtive look over her shoulder. Chrissy had disappeared, and Brynn made a break for the cash register. She pulled out the credit card she’d left on top of her purse so she wouldn’t have to rummage with wet nails. After leaving an extra big tip and signing the bill, she stepped from the cool salon into the sweltering summer heat.
Brynn slid into her black SUV and headed across town, which wasn’t a long drive. Pine Rock was a sleepy bedroom community just north of Houston—six stoplights and two churches.
Her sister’s Wonder Woman ringtone emanated from the speakers, and Brynn answered.
“Have you left yet?” Liz asked.
“We leave Sunday.”
“What is it?”
“Mike’s got a college friend in from out of town. We’re taking him out for Tex-Mex tomorrow night and we want you to come.”
“I wish I could, but I’m slammed,” Brynn said.
“You’re just saying that because you think it’s a setup.”
“Well, isn’t it?”
“It’s Tex-Mex and margaritas. Totally casual. And this guy’s cute. I know you’ll hit it off.”
Liz and Brynn had a special language when it came to men. “Hot” meant drool-worthy alpha. “Cute” meant a teddy bear, and the last “cute” guy her sister had set her up with had been three inches shorter than Brynn.
Not that it should matter. Who cared what he looked like if he was decent and smart and managed to get through the evening without burping or bad-mouthing his ex? Brynn was the problem.
“I really have to work,” Brynn said. “I have a whole new fire drill, as of ten minutes ago. Our star witness is missing.”
“Really.” She turned into the parking lot beside her building and whipped into her usual space.
“Well, call me if you catch a break and want to go out tomorrow.”
“I will. Love you.”
Brynn strode across the lot, careful not to catch her Jimmy Choo sandals in any of the potholes. She dropped her phone into her purse as she mounted the steps to the converted Victorian that housed the offices of Blythe and Gunn.
Reggie had bought the property three years ago when he moved his law practice from Dallas to Pine Rock. From the street, the place looked charming. But years of dealing with leaky windows and temperamental plumbing had dampened Brynn’s enthusiasm for the architecture. The building was originally a boardinghouse, but Reggie had renovated it to accommodate six lawyers, two paralegals, an administrative assistant, and a receptionist—not to mention the steady flow of clients who drifted in and out seven days a week. Big trials were the firm’s gravy, but Saturday night arrests were their bread and butter.
The waiting room was empty of tearful mothers and hand-wringing spouses this morning. The receptionist’s chair was empty, too, and Brynn followed the smell of fresh coffee to Reggie’s office.
Faith sat behind her mahogany desk, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Brynn stopped short. Reggie’s assistant never cried. The mother hen of the law firm was unflappable, no matter how crazy things got.
She glanced up, startled, and her usually perfect mascara was streaked down her cheeks.
It was Faith’s boys. Had to be. Her two teenage sons were constantly getting into trouble, and Faith had started to worry that her oldest was on drugs.
Brynn walked over and knelt beside her. “Faith, what happened?”
She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
“Brynn!” Reggie boomed from his office. The door jerked open and her silver-haired boss stepped out. “Brynn, get in here.”
She shot him a glare and returned her attention to Faith. “Are you all right?”
She dabbed her nose. “Yes, just… go on.”
Brynn stood and followed Reginald H. Gunn, Managing Partner, past the nameplate bearing his title. Shelves crammed with law books lined the walls, and towers of file boxes crowded every corner. Reggie walked behind his cluttered desk, and Brynn noted the pinstriped suit jacket hanging on the back of his chair. The pink silk handkerchief in the front pocket told her he planned to be in court later.
“Close the door, would you?”
She followed his gruff command, taking one last peek at Faith as she eased shut the door.
“Sit down,” he said.
“I’ll stand. What’s up?”
Reggie’s leather chair creaked as he sank into it. He ran a hand through his thick hair.
“Nate called me.” He glanced up. “Jen Ballard was killed last night.”
Brynn sagged back against the wall. “What—”
“I don’t have all the details yet, but she was murdered sometime yesterday evening in her home.”
Brynn’s blood turned cold. Beautiful, witty Jen Ballard murdered. The words didn’t belong in the same sentence.
She stepped closer to Reggie’s desk. “How—”
“I don’t know, okay? I haven’t even had time to call the police up there. And there’s something else—”
A sharp knock came at the door. Ross leaned his head in and immediately zeroed in on Brynn. “You tell him yet?”
“Tell me what?” Reggie asked.
Ross stepped into the office, oblivious to the tension hovering in the room. “Perez is missing. We were supposed to run through his testimony at nine, but he blew off the appointment.”
“Try his girlfriend.”
“She hasn’t seen or heard from him in days.” Ross looked at Brynn and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
She cleared her throat. “Jen Ballard.”
“What about her?”
“She was murdered,” Reggie said.
Ross’s face went slack. “What?”
“She was killed in her home last night. Up in Sheridan Heights, right outside of Dallas,” Reggie told him. “I just got off the phone with Nate Levinson twenty minutes ago.”
Ross shot Brynn a look, as if she might somehow make sense of what he was hearing, but she couldn’t. The forty-two-year-old woman who’d once been their boss, their mentor, and their friend was dead.
“What’s the other thing?” Brynn asked Reggie. “You said there was something else?”
Reggie stared at Brynn. A veteran trial attorney, he had a talent for creating drama, but the solemn look on his face was all too real.
“What is it?” Ross asked.
“James Corby is out.”
Brynn’s eyebrows shot up. “Out?”
Beside her, Ross made a strangled sound.
“Are you kidding me?” Ross clutched his head with his hands. “How do you escape a freaking maximum-security prison?”
Reggie’s gaze locked with Brynn’s. “I don’t know.”
But he did know. And so did Brynn. As an assistant prosecutor, Brynn had tried James Corby’s case alongside then lead prosecutor Jen Ballard. Brynn had learned that James Corby was not only violent and sadistic, but also smart. Frighteningly smart. And the prospect of him slipping out of prison had lurked in the darkest corners of Brynn’s mind for years.