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If Jane Prentice had seen Matthew Gray in the elevator, she would have taken the stairs. But as she stepped on board, she was reading case notes and didn't spot him until the doors were gliding shut behind her.
That voice. It still had the power to remind her she was a woman first. Lawyer second. She stuffed her papers into a side compartment of her briefcase, then looked at him. And away.
An awkward pause followed. At least they weren't alone. Two men in business suits flanked her, neither man familiar. When the elevator stopped at the twenty-eighth floor, only she and Matt stepped off.
"Going to the partners meeting?" Matt asked, as they headed in the same direction.
She nodded. Crap. Obviously, so was he. What was going on? Over the past year they'd become adept at avoiding each other. She'd requested an office on the opposite side of the building from his. By tacit agreement they'd begun attending alternate partners meetings. And she and Matt both avoided places they used to go together, like Sully's Tavern and the deli downstairs.
Everyone at Brandstrom and Norton was in on it; even the managing partners no longer assigned them to the same cases.
A year ago the rumor had been everywhere. Matthew's marriage is in trouble. And Jane's the other woman
"Russell dropped by my office this morning," Matthew explained. "He made it pretty clear my presence was mandatory today."
"I wonder why."
"Some new case he wants me to work on."
Jane sneaked a sideways glance at him. The year had taken its toll, adding some lines and a few gray hairs, but he was still handsome in that intellectual, Robert Downey, Jr, way of his.
"Iwas sorry to hear about you and Gillian."
She hadn't expected him to challenge her, and wasn't sure how to respond. A part of her was sorry, naturally. Matthew didn't deserve what had happened. He was a good man, honorable in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Yes, he'd spent too much time at work. Yes, he'd neglected his adolescent son and much younger daughter.
He wasn't perfect.
But who was?
They rounded a corner, and the open door to the conference room was now in sight. Matt's voice became coolly professional. "By the way, congratulations on the Laskin case."
She could feel her cheeks grow hot. They may have avoided each other the past year, but he'd kept tabs on her. "I was lucky with the judge."
"You're too modest. The story in the Hartford Courant was pretty complimentary."
The admiration in his voice was contained, yet unmistakable. She tried to meet his gaze again without losing her composure. But she couldn't.
So she made her way into the room, where she headed for a vacant seat next to another of the junior partners at the firm. "Hi, Susan. How was your weekend?"
While Susan chatted about her three kids and husband, Jane organized her papers and located a pen.
" and then Jeremy tells me it's his turn to bring the morning snack for circle time! I had to leave Jack to handle breakfast and drive to the market to buy enough fresh fruit for twenty-five children. And when I get in the car, what happens? Jack's run me low on gas again!"
Jane murmured a sympathetic comment, feeling anything but sorry for Susan's predicament. Did her colleague have any idea how lucky she was? She and Jack had been married ten years and had three healthy children.
Finally, Jane found her pen amid the clutter at the bottom of her briefcase. She inhaled deeply and checked around the table. All the familiar faces calmed her. This was her family, and now that her father had moved to Texas, it was the only family in Hartford she had.
She'd been working at Brandstrom and Norton since she'd graduated from law school twelve years ago. Eve Brandstrom had hired her, and had become her mentor and close advisor.
Eve made a powerful ally. Some claimed she was too hard, too driven. But Jane had never found her so. Now she caught Eve's eye and smiled.
I hope I look that good when I'm in my fifties.
Eve returned her smile, but her eyebrows were knit. When her eyes shifted in Matthew's direction, her frown deepened.
Had Eve noticed them walk in together? That she might be keeping an eye on the two of them was more than a little discomfiting.
Eve, along with two junior lawyers from the firm, had been present at the restaurant last January when Jane and Matt had met for their disastrous, final lunch together. Eve's party had been sitting at a different table, but in plain view.
All three of them had seen everything. The whole sordid scenario.
Jane wanted to believe that one of the other lawyers—and not Eve—had subsequently spread the rumors about her and Matt. But she couldn't be sure. She and Eve had never talked about that day. Jane had hoped that eventually it might be forgotten.
The expression on Eve's face told her it hadn't.
All the usual suspects were in place as Matthew entered the conference room. Sensing Jane would prefer it, he headed to the other end of the table from her, putting as much distance between them as possible. Unfortunately, when he sat down he realized he'd selected a seat with a perfect view of her. If he wasn't careful, he'd end up staring at her throughout the meeting.
In an attempt to distract himself, he glanced around. The conference room was in the southwest corner of the twenty-eighth floor. Two walls were all windows; the other two were covered with paintings by New England artists. The room was impressive. The inlaid wood table was itself a work of art.
But he'd seen this room a hundred times before.
Whereas Jane he hadn't seen in a year.
And now that he had, one thing was clear. She still hit him like a shot of caffeine—jolting him, making him feel more alive. How could she not? Besides being one of the most intelligent lawyers in the firm, she was also kind, compassionate, honest and decent.
Her attractiveness and beauty were all the more potent to him because of these other qualities. And it was precisely because of them—in particular the honesty—that he'd worked so hard to stay away from her.
That hadn't been easy.
But to do otherwise wouldn't have been fair to her. Rumors had buzzed around the office after the "lunch from hell"—as he tended to think of it. When he'd announced his divorce from Gillian, the gossip had started again. One of his coworkers had screwed up the courage to ask him, "Is this about Jane?"
"No," he'd insisted, but his protestation hadn't had much impact on the opinions at the office.
He'd wanted to protect Jane, but he hadn't known how. The best he could do, it seemed, was keep his distance.
No doubt about it. This past year had been hell. For most of it he'd lived in an apartment full of rented furniture that he hated. He'd never felt more alone. His mother was busy with her new life in the seniors' complex she'd moved to, and his two brothers were preoccupied with lives of their own.
His ex-wife considered him a cheating liar. And while his three-year-old daughter still loved him unconditionally, his adolescent son didn't want anything to do with him.
On top of all that, he had lost his valued friendship with Jane.
"Coffee, Matthew?" Davis Norton was the oldest senior partner and the only surviving founder of the firm. He was approaching seventy and rarely took cases. Still, he never missed a partners meeting.
Davis filled a bone china cup with steady hands and passed it to Matthew, then returned the carafe to the sideboard and settled in his place at one end of the table.
Sitting at the other end of the rectangular table was Russell Fielding and, next to him, Eve Brandstrom.
Russell was one of those men who had finally grown into his looks in his fifties. With his steel-gray hair, strong jaw and broad shoulders, he had the sort of distinguished presence that juries loved.
Eve, also, had developed an air of distinction as she'd aged. Thick, dark hair framed a face grown more attractive with the sculpting hand of age. As she peered over stylish, turquoise glasses, her eyes were clear and sharp, as was her mind.
Although the firm bore her family's name, Eve's preeminent position here had little to do with nepotism. She'd never married and seemed to live for her job, having few outside interests. Since her father had passed away two years ago, she was determined to do his memory proud.
In addition to the three senior partners, there were six junior partners at Brandstrom and Norton, including Jane and Matthew. All were in attendance today. Each had nodded at him earlier, but not one would meet his eyes now.
Something was up.
Matthew felt a surge of adrenaline. Just what was this case Russell wanted him to handle?
He checked his BlackBerry. One minute before nine. Russell, who usually chaired these things, was a stickler about starting exactly on time.
Matthew's gaze slid over to Jane. He just couldn't stop himself. He noticed details he'd been too flustered to pay attention to in the elevator. She was wearing a black suit, impeccably tailored, and a slim-fitting shirt. The thin red stripes in her white shirt brought out the color in her lips and on her cheeks.
She wasn't looking at him. Wasn't looking at anyone in particular, really. She nodded when Davis offered her coffee, and when he'd finished pouring, she brought the cup to her lips with a steady hand.
Matthew gave her credit. She had to know everyone in the room had watched them walk in together. The curiosity in the air was almost palpable, yet she affected the utmost nonchalance.
As she set the cup back on the saucer, Matthew's attention moved to the long, fine bones of her fingers. Her gold watch dangled on her elegant wrist. As if she could feel the spot where his gaze lingered, she pushed the watch higher on her forearm.
She looked around the room, let her gaze rest on his briefly, then carried on. Jane was one of few who had resisted the lure of the BlackBerry, and she set a pad of paper on the table and clicked her pen to release the nib. She was ready.
Russell cleared his throat. "Good morning, colleagues. I trust you all had a pleasant weekend. Before we discuss new business, we'll go around the table with our usual updates."
Though he hadn't expected to be at this meeting, Matthew was prepared when it was his turn to speak. Most of his cases were minor, not worthy of discussion in this forum. But he'd be going to preliminary hearings on a manslaughter case next week. He summarized the facts, answered a few questions, then leaned back in his chair as the spotlight shifted to the coworker on his right.
Again Jane's gaze sought him out. This time several seconds passed before she glanced away.
His heart was drumming so loudly he almost didn't hear Russell as he proceeded to the next order of business—assigning new cases.
Two phrases leaped out at him, though.
" sexual misconduct involving a minor soccer coach ."
Matthew's mind stopped wandering as he noticed everyone was looking at him again. Was this the case?
"I realize no one in the firm will be clamoring to handle this one."
Russell had that right. Sexual misconduct involving a minor.You couldn't get much uglier than that. Usually, such cases were assigned on a rotating basis. Who had handled the last one? Matthew knew it hadn't been him.
"According to the schedule, this one is Jane's."
Matthew, like everyone else in the room, turned to her. Jane's face paled, but she showed no other reaction.
"However, in this instance," Russell continued, "our client has requested a specific lawyer. Matthew Gray."
Matthew felt sucker punched. "Who is this guy? Did he give any reason for requesting me?"
"He's the coach of your son's soccer team. He says you met at the season start-up party for the Blazers."
Matthew did his best to organize his thoughts. "You must be talking about Wally Keller."
Posted July 18, 2011
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