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"Thanks for coming with me today, Suzannah. I can really use the moral support."
"If half of what we've heard about Judge Taylor's temper is true, you don't need moral support. You need a flak jacket." Suzannah Ryder gave her colleague Tony Moreno a wry smile. "You're pretty brave taking on this case, knowing how angry he is about it. Can you believe he hasn't ever had a ruling reversed on appeal before? They say he threw a huge fit when he got the news."
She paused to wince, knowing that Judge Taylor's anger had actually been focused in her direction. After all, she was the attorney who had successfully appealed the judge's ruling. And since he was known throughout Northern California as "Taylor the Jailor" because of his habit of throwing attorneys into jail for contempt of court, she was glad it was Tony rather than she who was handling the Driscoll case from here on out, including this morning's appearance.
"You're sure you don't want to be my co-counsel?" Tony asked, his expression hopeful.
"I don't have a death wish. Plus, I don't really know anything about criminal cases, remember? I only got roped into taking the appeal because Driscoll is my best friend's sister's boyfriend." She shook her head. "I don't know how you guys do it.An appeal is one thing, but here at the trial-court level, it's complete anarchy. Hobnobbing with criminals. Kowtowing to hostile judges like Taylor every day. I'm glad my firm only accepts civil cases. Give me a nice safe stack of contracts any day of the week."
"Yeah." Tony sent a worried glance toward the heavy double doors that would soon admit them to Taylor the Jailor's courtroom. "A stack of contracts sounds pretty good right now. Excuse me, will you? I've gotta go to the restroom and puke my guts out."
"You really do look a little green." She patted his shoulder. "There's a water fountain over there—"
"Nope. When I get this nervous, there's only one solution." Tony was already edging toward the men's room. "If I'm not back in five minutes, tell Driscoll to find another lawyer."
Suzannah grimaced as her friend lurched away. Apparently he really was going to be sick. And she could hardly blame him. The thought of facing Judge Taylor would be enough to scare anyone. But to deal with him on this particular case, the one that had caused the judge so much embarrassment—"Suzannah Ryder?" a voice asked from behind her. She turned to find herself staring into the warm blue eyes of a truly gorgeous guy who was extending his hand toward her. The man had it all—a tall, athletic build, a smile with a provocative blend of sincerity and mischief, and wavy brown hair that was just shaggy enough to suggest he'd been marooned on a desert island for a while, which would also explain his golden tan.
"My name's Justin Russo," he told her, his voice clear and confident. "Congratulations on the big win. My colleagues were just telling me about it. Very impressive."
She accepted the handshake, shamelessly enjoying the R-rated tingle it induced. "Thanks. Do you have an appearance before Judge Taylor today?"
"Yeah. Now that you've got him all riled up," Justin complained.
She bit back a smile. "Sorry."
"You must be one helluva defense attorney."
"Actually, I only took that appeal as a favor for a friend. I'm totally out of my element here. And I'm no longer involved with the Driscoll case. I just tagged along today to give the real defense attorney some moral support."
"I like that. You know your stuff. You're modest. And you're loyal to your friends."
"Hey, Russo. They're ready for us," a nearby man announced, motioning to the courtroom doors, which were being opened.
Justin's associate was a grim-faced man who appeared to be in his early forties, with dark hair and dark eyes. Not as good-looking as Justin by any stretch but still attractive, as was a third man hovering close by who also seemed to be part of the entourage and who had curly hair the same shade of dark blond as Suzannah's.
You should come to the courthouse more often, she teased herself. These litigators are kind of sexy. Either that or you've been out of commission for way too long.
"Gotta go," Justin murmured. "Maybe we can hook up later for some coffee? Assuming the Jailor doesn't lock me up, that is."
Suzannah hesitated, but this was supposed to be a fun, relaxing week, wasn't it? What harm could one cup of coffee do?
She pulled a business card out of her purse and handed it to him. "That's my office number. I'm on vacation this week, but I'll be checking voice mail regularly, so...yes, definitely call me if you survive Judge Taylor."
He flashed a killer smile, pocketed the card and said, "See ya." Then he trailed his companions into the courtroom.
Suzannah hung back for a moment, enjoying the unfamiliar sensation of being a little weak in the knees over a guy.
This is going to be the best vacation ever, she told herself with an embarrassed laugh. Then she remembered that this week wasn't completely about fun. She had to prepare for an upcoming conference in Hawaii, where she was slated to make a presentation—a presentation that was quite possibly the last step in the rigorous timetable she had set for herself and her career.
She called it her "Twelve-Year Plan," a blueprint she had designed at the age of eighteen to help her attain certain professional goals. Four years of college, three years of law school and enough time with a prestigious law firm to establish a reputation and develop a marketable specialty, which could then translate into a house-counsel job with a corporation. It was now year ten and she was way ahead of schedule.
Reminding herself that her rapid progress had been the result of working hard and not dating lawyers—especially not towers of sex like Justin Russo!—she decided it would be best if he didn't call her after all. There would be plenty of time in year twelve for romance—wasn't that the plan, after all?
Resolving to resist Justin if he should call, she pulled out her state-of-the-art PDA to check her calendar, messages and task list, which was a mile long. Forty separate entries for this "vacation." And so far she had only accomplished three—Paint the bathroom, Clean the refrigerator, and Go with Tony to court on Monday.
She was worried about him, not just because they were friends but because if he failed to appear, Suzannah might have to take his place. And since the Driscoll case had only been remanded by the appellate court for resentencing, rather than for a new trial, the option of moving for automatic disqualification of Judge Taylor wasn't available, no matter how angry he was at Driscoll's attorney.
To her relief, Tony finally emerged from the restroom, his face pale but his shoulders squared, ready to do battle.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Bring it on," he said with a wry smile.
Ritual vomiting, she realized in relief. All the great trial lawyers do it before a big case. He's going to be just fine.
"I'll just grab a seat in the back row, if you don't mind," she said, pulling out the oversize, tinted glasses she had brought with her in case Judge Taylor had caught a glimpse of her face on TV the day the news story about the appeal broke. "But I'll be up there with you in spirit."
"You're the best," Tony told her, giving her an unexpected hug. "Driscoll didn't deserve you, and neither do I."
Touched, she followed him into the courtroom, but when he proceeded to a row near the front, she hung back, settling into a seat right by the doors so that she could escape quickly if the judge began hurling expletives in her direction.
Then she sank low in her chair, fixed her glasses firmly in place and prepared to enjoy a little free entertainment, courtesy of the Jailor. It might not be as much fun as a hot date with Justin Russo, but it would be much, much safer.
Apparently Justin and his two associates were first on the docket, because they made their way directly to the defense table. To Suzannah's dismay, her hot date seated himself in the chair usually reserved for the defendant, while the other two men sat in the counsel chairs.
This can't be right, she told herself nervously. What if he's a freaking ax-murderer? That's worse than a lawyer!
The bailiff instructed everyone to rise, then announced that Judge Nathaniel Taylor would be presiding. Grateful for the distraction, Suzannah turned her attention to the massively built, wild-haired jurist who strode into the room, his black robes flapping. He seated himself without so much as a glance at the crowd that was watching him with a mixture of fear and anticipation, but she suspected that he was well aware of the effect he was having on them.
The man had made quite a name for himself in one short year on the bench. Passionate about his calendar of felony prosecutions, he reportedly brutalized any attorney who dared to appear before him unprepared or otherwise unprofessional. And according to some reports, he often berated them even if they had done absolutely nothing wrong. He had sent three lawyers to jail for contempt already—two assistant district attorneys and one defense attorney from a private firm. And he had sent countless others running to the restrooms with their stomachs tied in knots after a session with him.
Grateful that she was beyond his radar, Suzannah was still tempted to flee for her life, especially when the bailiff announced the first case for the morning: the People versus Justin Russo.
Okay, Judge Taylor, Suzannah insisted as she slunk down in her seat and tried to become invisible. I'm counting on you. Do what you do best. Lock up this creep and throw away the freaking key before he ends up stalking me.
After introductions were made, the defense attorneys and the prosecutor sat down, but Justin remained standing, shocking the courtroom by announcing in a loud voice, "I'd like to make a motion, Your Honor."
Suzannah watched with fascinated dread. Maybe he really was going to get himself thrown into a jail cell.
Judge Taylor scowled. "Don't you watch Court TV, Agent Russo? You don't make motions. Your attorneys do." Turning his blistering gaze to the lawyers, he instructed them, "Control your client. Or else."
"Your Honor?" Justin walked around the counsel table and approached the bench. "That's what my motion is about. I don't want these gentlemen as my attorneys. I didn't choose them and I'd like to fire them right away."
"Is that so?" The judge's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Let me guess. You think that means we're done here today? You just get to run around loose indefinitely while you find another lawyer? That's not quite how it works."