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"You've been summoned."
Mallory Sinclair glanced up from the complicated lease she'd been reading to find her secretary, Paula, standing in the doorway. "Sorry, I didn't hear you knock."
"That's because I didn't. When the Terminator calls there's no time to waste. Especially if you want a minute to freshen up before entering his lair." Paula, Mallory's young, beautiful and on-the-prowl secretary, wiggled her eyebrows in a suggestive gesture meant to prompt Mallory into primping for this unexpected meeting with the firm's best-looking partner.
Mallory reached for a legal pad instead of her purse. Though she'd never let her emotions show, for the first time in her eight years with Waldorf, Haynes, Greene, Meyers & Latham, she shook in her no-nonsense pumps. She'd fought for assignments, gone head-to-head with senior partners over issues she believed in, and she'd held on to her job when other female associates had quit, been fired or had moved on to get married or have a family. She was the sole surviving female in a male dominated arena and was only one year away from making partner. She hadn't gotten this far without confrontation and she'd never backed away from a fight. Never been afraid to work with or take on opposing counsel or partner. Until now.
Because as the top real estate associate, she'd never been summoned by hotshot divorce attorney and partner of the firm, Jack Latham. A man equal parts sexy male and lethal terminatormarriage terminator. That he wanted to see her now meant he had good reason.
"I could say you're busy and take notes in your place."
Mallory didn't miss the hopeful note in her flirtatious secretary's voice. The other woman envied Mallory's meeting with Jack Latham. He was an office icona man adored by women and respected by men.
If the grapevine was correct, he neither believed in the institution of marriage nor the idea of commitment. But his views weren't a deterrent to any breathing member of the opposite sex. Every woman in the office thought given the chance, she could change his mind.
"Thanks for the offer but I'm sure I can handle it." Mallory smiled wryly.
Paula shrugged. "Too bad. I could really use the distraction and give him a meeting he'd never forget." She hitched her already borderline-trouble skirt hem up another notch.
Mallory stifled a laugh. Good thing for Jack there was a no-office-romance policy, instituted after an employee had filed a sexual harassment suit against an older partner three years ago. The firm had settled quietly, the founding partner had retired, and the no-dating rule had gone into effect. Women like Paula could drool, but they couldn't put the moves on any of the male attorneys, and vice versa. But rules couldn't stop the imagination and there wasn't a woman in the office, from secretary, to paralegal, to the only female associate, who hadn't fantasized about Jack Latham.
The difference between Mallory and the other women in the office was that she didn't outwardly show interest. She couldn't afford to crack her facade. She glanced at Paula who sat twirling a permed blond strand of hair around one finger, a disappointed look on her face.
"If the man knew what I'd saved him from, he'd get down on his hands and knees and thank me," Mallory said.
"I wish he'd get down on those knees for me." Paula let out an exaggerated sigh before glancing at her watch.
"You'd better get going. He said posthaste or something like that."
"Thanks." Pad under her arm, Mallory headed out of her office and down the hall.
She clenched her fists, only to discover she was sweating. Good God, she felt like a teenager in the throes of her first crush and that wouldn't do. Not when she'd done everything she could think of to join the ranks of this old boys' network and make partner.
Including outwardly suppressing her femininity. She hid her sexy lace teddies and garters beneath conservative suits, covered her hot-colored pedicures with sensible pumps, showed only unlacquered fingernails, and squashed her sense of humor and warmth beneath a no-nonsense personality. When she looked in the mirror she barely recognized the person staring back.
But next year, she'd reap the benefits of her sacrifice: she'd earn both the first female partnership offered at the firm, and her father's respect. The man who'd desired a son and gotten Mallory instead, would finally see she was worthy, despite his belief to the contrary.
She inhaled deeply. "I'm nearly there," she purposely said aloud, to remind herself of how hard she'd worked and how far she'd come. No way would she let a summons from Jack Latham, her secret fantasy, destroy a dream eight years in the making. She let out a long breath. Yes, she could handle Jack Latham.
She paused outside his office to wipe her palms against her skirt and smooth back her hair, then she knocked three times in rapid succession.
"Come on in." A deep sexy voice rumbled from behind the closed door.
Her stomach curled with a combination of warmth and anticipation. She reached for the doorknob and entered. But not before a last glimpse at her chest to make sure her sea-pearl buttons were closed tight and not a hint of lace or silk would make an unwanted appearance. She stepped into his office and shut the door.
Hands linked behind his back, Jack Latham stood at the window overlooking the scenery below, the Empire State Building, tall and imposing in the background.
His broad shoulders were covered by a navy pin-striped suit. European and designer-made, the jacket accented his powerful frame. He presented as potent a vision as the landscape outside the window. Fog surrounded the city; a New York summer day and the view from the corner office at its finest, Mallory thought.
He didn't turn when the door creaked behind her. She wasn't surprised. She knew the game, just as Jack knew who stood at his desk, awaiting his attention. He'd summoned her, after all. But to acknowledge her immediately might shift the balance of power toward equality and he wouldn't do that with an associate. Especially a female associate. Every time she was assigned a new partner, she underwent the same drill, and often asked herself if Intimidation 101 was a prerequisite for men working in the field of law.
She'd learned not to let it get to her and she'd learned to push back. She cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Mr. Latham, but you asked to see me?"
Strange, she thought. But then what did she know of the man? Although he'd been at Waldorf, Haynes longer than she had, the firm boasted over seventy-five attorneys spread out over three floors of a high-rise building. Their paths had rarely crossed on a one-to-one basis. Until now.
One more try and she was out of here. He could come looking for her if he intended to carry this game too far. "Mr. Latham?"
THAT VOICE AGAIN. Softer than Jack had expected and at odds with the tough legal reputation Mallory Sinclair had attained, it penetrated the troubles muddling his thoughts. Her tone was smooth enough to appeal to a man's senses, and husky enough to remind him of fantasies involving hot nights beneath cool sheets.
He shook his head, clearing his mind. From all he'd seen and heard of Mallory Sinclair, she wasn't one to inspire seductive visions. And as he turned to Waldorf, Haynes's sole female associate, her appearance put him squarely back into office-mode. The woman standing before him was as hard as her voice was soft. From her severely pulled back hair, to her overly long skirt and conservative suit, she was every inch not his fantasy woman.
But she was the woman with whom he'd be confined at a resort owned by the firm's biggest client, off the coast of Long Island. For Lord knew how long.
Jack cleared his throat and met Mallory's gaze. Behind the black-rimmed glasses, she'd narrowed her eyes until he couldn't tell if they were a blue or a bland shade of gray. He'd obviously irritated her. He hadn't meant to get on her bad side from the get-go, and he hadn't meant to ignore her.
While waiting for her to arrive, his father had called and delivered a personal blow. Apparently, his beloved mother had embarked on another affair, this one more public than the last. And his tolerant, accepting dad, had finally walked out. Jack's stomach rolled to think his father was about to go through the kind of nasty divorce he specialized in, but it was about time. The marriage should never have lastedmost didn'tand if not for his father's unending acceptance and patience, his mother would be on her own by now. Yet as bad as Jack felt for his father, he had no choice but to deal with family issues later.
Right now he had more immediate problems at hand. He stepped away from the window. "I was preoccupied," he explained to Mallory.
Her hands gripped the edge of his desk. "Obviously.
I can always come back at a more convenient time. I have plenty of work sitting on my desk."
Work he'd obviously taken her away from and she wasn't pleased. He doubted she'd be any happier when she learned the reason for their last-minute meeting. "No, now's fine. Have a seat." He gestured to the wing chair in the corner, a congratulations gift from his father for making partner. His mother hadn't bothered to make it to his law school graduation, never mind acknowledging his career accomplishments.
Mallory lowered herself into the chair and crossed one leg over the other. His gaze fell to the shifting material of the skirt that covered way too much skin, even in this staid profession.
"So." Her voice captured his attention.
Amazing, Jack thought. When he wasn't focused on her plain features or tailored clothes, that husky voice wreaked havoc on his nerve endings, sending the wrong signals from his brain to parts of his body that had no business rising during office hours. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I'll be brief. I understand you're working on a real estate deal, but I've arranged to shuffle your workload around to free you up. For me."
His words sent her into a frenzied fit of coughing. Concerned, Jack rose from his seat and came up beside her. "Are you okay?"
She removed her glasses and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue she'd grabbed from his desk. "Fine. I'm perfectly fine. I just swallowed wrong. Sorry about that." Obviously embarrassed, she cleared her throat and patted around her eyes once more before meeting his gaze.
In the instant those china-blue eyes met his, Jack felt as though he'd been sucker punched. His breath caught and he nearly went into a coughing fit of his own. Sweet heaven, someone should have warned him the woman had such expressive, gorgeous eyes. Before he could continue, she pushed the black frames back on and re-settled the glasses on the bridge of her nose. Once again, thick lenses obscured his ability to see into her eyes, making him wonder if he'd imagined the depth and clarity of hue.
"What do you mean you've shuffled my workload? Didn't anyone tell you Mendelsohn Leasing requested I handle the negotiation on their newest land acquisition personally?"
He rounded his desk and resettled himself into his seat. At this point, he was off balance and uncertain of Mallory Sinclair, something he never felt with a woman or in business. Distance seemed the safest bet. "I assure you I was fully informed of the situation but we decided to weigh all involved interests and the scales tipped in Lederman's favor."
"Our biggest client. One who's been farming out business to other firms, leaving us vulnerable to losing an important money base."
So she was up on all firm business. "Yes. However, this time we're not talking about a potential merger or acquisition but Lederman's divorce."
She inclined her head. "If you're involved, that much is obvious. What isn't clear is where I come in. You could pick any associate specializing in domestic or family law. You don't need me."
Jack leaned forward, elbows propped on his desk. "Now that's where you're wrong. Much as we both obviously wish differently, you're exactly what I need."
Mallory Sinclair hadn't been his first choice as an assistant, but he'd been outvoted. His partners felt a woman's presence would strengthen their position with the client and assure him of their willingness to play hardball against his wife. Jack couldn't argue the point. Waldorf, Haynes couldn't afford to lose Lederman's business and securing the role of counsel in this divorce was of paramount importance.
After a moment she let out a long breath of air. "Why don't you explain why you need me." She paused. "Please."
He picked up a pencil and twirled it between his palms. "It's simple. Lederman wants to win. He wants a team of attorneys who sympathize with him as a man whose wife wants to take him for a ride and who aren't afraid to play hardball to accomplish those goals. And wethe partnersfeel his needs can best be met by having a female attorney sitting at his side. And as you know, when there's direct contact with Mrs. Lederman, a woman dealing with another woman would give us greater strength. You could relate to her in a way I could not."
He watched for the play of emotions sure to cross her face during his explanation. There were none. Whatever her thoughts, she kept them to herself. The woman knew how to play poker, Jack thought, and his respect for her rose. He could see now how she'd come so far with the older male guard at Waldorf, Haynes. But she hadn't earned their trust completely. He doubted any female ever could. This was an old boys' network and they weren't ashamed to admit it.
Jack didn't agree with their way of thinking on many issues, this one included. He didn't trust women in the marriage arenahis family background, client history and divorce statistics providing backup to his beliefs. But regardless of whether women were usually at fault on the domestic front, business was different. Skill alone determined whether Jack would trust their abilities. The old men weren't as easily swayed, but Mallory was useful to them. And she obviously knew it.
She nodded slowly. "So I'm yours by default. Being the only female associate, that is."
He couldn't help it. He grinned. "In a manner of speaking, yes." She was his. In all her tweed and glory.
From all he'd seen and heard, Mallory Sinclair was one of the best. But before they could get down to business, they were headed for an informal get-to-know-you-better session, demanded by their eccentric client. Based on Mallory's cool personality and severe looks, casual and relaxed wasn't her thing. Which meant Jack wasn't looking forward to their enforced time together.
Yet despite himself the memory of those china-blue eyes stayed with him. Intrigued him. Made him wonder what else he didn't know about Ms. Mallory Sinclair.
She rose from her seat. "Guess that means case closed, then."
"I'm sure we'll survive," he said, issuing a grin meant to ease things between them.
He waited for a smile in return and was disappointed not to get one. "I'll need to wrap some things up before I can start on Lederman's case," she said.
"No problem. Our flight leaves at 7:00 p.m. Think you can tie up loose ends, pack and be at the airport in " he glanced at his watch " three hours?"
Her lipstick-free mouth opened, then closed again. He'd managed to get a reaction after all. "Our flight?" The word sounded more like a squeak.
He nodded. "Mr. Lederman is at his resort in the Hamptons. He doesn't care to cut his vacation short, so we're going to head on out there and get to know him. Grab your sunglasses and bathing suit. We're going to the beach."