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"Your Honor, what matters most here? A hunk of tin and four wheels, or that three children get to spend Christmas with the mom they love?"
Megan Merritt knew that in describing a Mercedes CLK500 convertible as a hunk of tin, she risked losing the sympathy of Judge Potter, presiding over Courtroom 1-C in Atlanta's Fulton County Superior Court. But she'd weighed that risk and decided the need to keep her client out of jail justified it.
She clasped her hands in front of her so she wouldn't fiddle with the button on her pale gray suit jacket. "When my client was driven to deface her husband's car—" deface being a euphemism for pour paint stripper over "—she was conscious only that he'd made love with his mistress in that car, while his children waited for a father who never showed up to kiss them good-night." Megan kept her voice low and neutral. Despite the emotional subject, she was presenting facts. Theatrics weren't her style.
Judge Potter pursed his lips, removed his spectacles and polished them with his handkerchief. Megan took that as disapproval of Mrs. Carter's failure to consider the consequences of her actions. This was an incarceration-worthy offence, that deliberate rubbing seemed to say.
Mrs. Carter wouldn't go to prison if Megan had anything to do with it.
She continued her closing argument, making sure to maintain eye contact with the judge, except when a dismissive glance at the husband and his attorney was required.
"And so," Megan concluded, "in light of my client's genuine and justifiable distress, and of the fact that her children have already been abandoned by one parent, I ask the Court to exercise leniency."
The judge thanked her and the opposing counsel and adjourned the case. He would announce his sentence after lunch.
Along with everyone else, Megan stood while he left the courtroom.
"What should I do now?" Brandi Carter asked in her little-girl voice. It was a question she posed often— Megan imagined that, until recently, Brandi had seldom made major decisions. The thought was both appealing and repugnant.
"The judge will be at least an hour," Megan said. "Take a break, I'll call you when you need to come back."
Brandi squeezed Megan's hand. "Thank you." She was a sweet woman who didn't deserve the pain she'd been through.
Megan watched her walk hesitantly out of the near-empty courtroom, alone after years of marriage to a husband she adored. Megan shivered.
Then her gaze alighted on the tall, silver-haired man seated in the back row. He'd come! She'd hoped, of course, that he would read the material she'd sent over this morning, but she'd not really expected… This had to be a good sign. Megan's heart beat faster, and she steadied her hands as she gathered her papers into her briefcase.
By the time she walked briskly down the aisle, she was the collected professional her father needed to see.
"Hi, Dad." She kissed his cheek, and couldn't help beaming at him. Don't take anything for granted, she thought.
Jonah Merritt levered himself out of his chair, holding on for just a moment to the seat back in front of him. "I'll buy you a coffee," he said.
She couldn't tell what he was thinking—small wonder, given he'd made a career out of being inscrutable in the courtroom. But he wouldn't be here if it wasn't good news, would he? She had a crazy urge to ask of him what she'd asked of Judge Potter: leniency. Maybe that wasn't the right word. She wanted her father to withhold the certainty that made him think he knew her, knew the limit of her abilities. Just this once.
"Let's go next door," Megan said. "I don't want to get across town and have the clerk call to say the judge is back."
They walked out of the courthouse tower on to Central Avenue, where the weak November sunshine battled a bone-deep chill. Almost before she could shiver, they were indoors again, inside The Jury Room, a bar and café frequented by lawyers and, less often, their clients.
Several people hailed Jonah as the two of them made their way to a table in the corner of the L-shaped room. Everyone wanted to know how the founder and senior partner of Merritt, Merritt & Finch, one of Atlanta's most prestigious law firms, was doing after the heart attack that had almost killed him a few months back. Jonah replied with unnecessary evasion—the grapevine had long since established that his health was forcing him to retire. The only mystery was who would take over from him.
By the time they sat down, Megan's nerves were stretched tight, and it was nothing to do with the judgment she was awaiting. She settled herself in her chair, put her cell phone on the table, knowing better than to rush her dad.
"Risky closing back there." Jonah jerked his head in the direction of the courthouse. "You'd better hope Judge Potter doesn't drive a convertible Mercedes."
It was one thing having her courtroom rivals continuously underestimate her… but having her father still do it after twenty-eight years rankled.
Megan spread her fingers on the table, pressing them into the polished wooden surface. "The judge drives a three-year-old Chevrolet sedan. His two cars before that were also Chevrolet sedans. His last two vacations were in the U.S.A." She was counting on the judge having little sympathy toward owners of flashy, foreign sports cars.
Her father chuckled. "I should have known you'd be on top of it."
"You should have," she agreed, suddenly fierce.
Jonah puffed out his cheeks, then said, "Potter will rule for your client, no doubt about it."
Her dad had practiced law in Atlanta for forty-some years, and when he called a verdict, he called it right. If he wasn't certain, he didn't call it.
She liked to think she'd inherited his instincts, his focus. And that he would see that.
To be on the safe side, she ordered an espresso, rather than the Christmas latte with gingerbread syrup and whipped cream. Jonah considered all frothy coffees frivolous—if Megan's younger sister Sabrina had been here, he'd have ordered her the fanciest latte in the place, with an indulgent smile.
Megan modeled herself on her older sister, Cynthia, though she couldn't bring herself to order the double-shot Cynthia would have.
She knew Jonah would like a double-shot—he and Cynthia were kindred spirits—but he was on decaf thanks to a couple of postoperative complications. He muttered "decaf" to the server so quietly, it was plain he was hoping the guy wouldn't hear. When his coffee arrived, he took one sip and grimaced—obviously there was nothing wrong with the server's ears.
"Tell me what's going on with the O'Shea case." Jonah needed Megan to keep him informed, thanks to his cardiologist's decree that the office was forbidden territory. In the past, he'd have asked Cynthia, but Cyn had been on a break from the firm, gaining prosecution experience as a district attorney. In the past twelve months Megan and her dad had talked more than they had in twenty-eight years.
Now, she had an opportunity to make the new bond between her and her dad permanent. If only they would move on to the reason Dad was here….
"The O'Shea team is ready to go to court next week." She filled her father in on the details of the complex homicide defense the firm was handling. Megan wasn't working on the case; she was the partner in charge of the family law division of Merritt, Merritt & Finch. "I know the team plans to emphasize that the brother had more motive than O'Shea," she said, "but I think they need to pull a few more people into the net if they're going to challenge reasonable doubt."
Her father nodded once. "Good."
Was this a test?
Suddenly afraid to know, Megan let herself be distracted by a burst of laughter, rising over the piped Christmas carols. She glanced across the room. No surprises, the hilarity came from what her colleagues called Ambulance Corner. The lawyers who frequented the far corner, next to the crowded but untouched magazine rack, were more likely to be drinking beer than coffee. And if they weren't exactly ambulance chasers, they took the cases that were too low-rent or too far-fetched or just too plain unimportant for firms like Merritt, Merritt & Finch.
The Ambulance Corner crowd were all men, most of them vaguely familiar. But the booming laugh that had caught Megan's notice belonged to a man she hadn't seen before. He'd captured the attention of most of the other women in the room, too.
Maybe because he didn't look like an attorney. His dark wavy hair was tidy enough and he wore a well-cut charcoal suit… but something about his sprawling pose said I-make-my-own-laws-thanks-very-much. And yet, he definitely wasn't a client. Megan could tell from the way the other ambulance guys were angled toward him. As if he were the chief.
Still laughing, relaxed in a way Megan didn't think she'd ever been, the Chief let his gaze wander the room. She didn't bother to glance away—people tended to overlook her. In court, her invisibility was a secret weapon. With her dad, it was a pain in the butt and a childhood resentment she knew she should have gotten over by now.
To her surprise, the Chief didn't look past her for a more out-there woman. He grinned at Megan. Nothing flirtatious, just friendly, one side of his mouth quirking in a way that was…
Excuse me? Where had that come from?
Megan felt the color crawling up her face. Chief-guy grinned wider, then he leaned into the guy next to him and said something. The other man, who wore a dark green suit when no one from a reputable firm wore anything but gray or black, eyed Megan.
The Chief was asking who she was! Megan looked determinedly away, back at her father. She picked up her cup, took a sip of the too-bitter brew. She imagined the green suit telling the Chief her name, imagined the recognition, imagined him looking at her with…
What? Disappointment that she was out of his league?
Yeah, that happened to her all the time. Carefully, she pressed her palms to her cheeks. She chanced a glance back at the Chief.
He was talking seriously now to someone across the table. Quite clearly, he wasn't the victim of a sudden heat wave.
"So," her father said, "what do you think?"
She stared at him, aghast. What had she missed?
Jonah chuckled. "Don't fret, sweetie, I know what it's like when you're waiting for a judge to make up his mind. But I told you, this one's in the bag."
"I can't help worrying," she murmured, seizing the excuse. "Brandi doesn't deserve to go to jail."
Her father shook his head. "You're just like Cynthia, can't leave your work in the office."
I'm just like me, Megan wanted to say.
"I worry that you work too hard," Jonah said.
"I like my work. I love it."
"Which brings me," he continued, "to the reason for this meeting."
He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, and pulled out the material she'd sent him—her résumé and a letter detailing why she thought she should take over as head of Merritt, Meritt & Finch after Jonah formally retired. "You should have brought this to me in person," he said.
"I wanted you to take an objective look at my skills," she replied. Because on paper, she was better qualified than anyone to run the firm. Whereas face-to-face, she was always the daughter who wasn't as smart as Cynthia, and who wasn't as beautiful and charming as Sabrina.
"Truth is, I've never thought of you as a candidate for head of the firm," Jonah said with characteristic honesty.
Sometimes, Megan thought, honesty was overrated. "That's because you—we all—assumed Cynthia would take over." Nowadays, the speculation was that Cynthia had a brilliant career ahead of her as a judge. Some had even mentioned the Georgia Supreme Court in the distant future.
"You need someone who loves the firm as much as you do," Megan said. "That's me. You need someone with excellent legal qualifications—I graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. You need someone who can help grow the business—I built our family law division from scratch, and it's been profitable almost from day one."
"It represents just twenty percent of our revenue," he reminded her.
"Which is why I've made a point of understanding the other divisions," she said. The commercial and criminal practices each represented about forty percent of the firm's turnover. "I'm confident I can help bring in clients across the board."
"It's not just about your capabilities," Jonah said. "I need someone who commands the respect of all the partners."
"Name one partner who doesn't respect me."
"You keep such a low profile outside your practice, they don't know you," Jonah said. "How can they respect you? Megan—" he pushed his cup away, the decaffeinated sludge untouched "—I love you, you're my daughter, you're an excellent lawyer. But you're not the kind of person I have in mind to lead the firm."
How could she be, when she was never in his mind at all?
"I'll admit I'm a quiet achiever." She used the phrase that had appeared in every school report she'd ever brought home. "I'm not as outgoing as you and Cynthia. But there's more than one way to do this job."
"I'm not convinced you can attract the big clients we need in commercial, and that's where the growth is. I'm not convinced I can sell you to the other partners as their new boss." He began checking off his points on his fingers, "I'm not convinced you have the handle on the business that Cynthia does." He stopped, three fingers in the air, three top-notch reasons for him to overlook her once again.
"I'm sorry, Megan," he said, "you're not a candidate."
Her cell phone rang, and through a haze of tears that she would never, in a million years, let her dad see, Megan recognized it was the courthouse. She answered, listened to the clerk. "Thanks, I'll be right there."
She pushed her chair away from the table. "Potter's back." Already she was stabbing Brandi's number into her phone, her finger thankfully steady.
"I won't come with you." Jonah stood. "I know you've won."
Megan negotiated her way past clusters of dark-suited lawyers engrossed in conversations, doubtless unaware of her existence. Then past Ambulance Corner—she was no longer interested to know whether the Chief was noticing her departure. Failure beat a tattoo at her temples, drumming up a headache that somehow had a matching pain in her heart. Her father's confidence in her imminent victory for Brandi Carter did nothing to console her.
What does it matter if I win the battle, if I've already lost the war?