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This was it. A lifetime of preparation for the case that could make or break her career.
Barbara Callister drew in a discreet breath for reassurance as she smoothed the impeccable camel-colored wool of her severely tailored suit, then pushed open the door to the courtroom. She'd checked and rechecked every detailfrom each line of every document resting inside her briefcase to the raw silk blouse that softened her power suit.
Barrett and Barrett could send out every top gun in their arsenal and they wouldn't catch her unprepared. She scanned the crowd, wondering which one of the "suits" was the infamous Kenneth Gerrard, the barracuda sent from the San Francisco legal office to outpower the local legal talent. Barbara, along with the partners in her firm, Coker and Rigley, had been surprised by the turn of events.
She'd been assigned this case because she was goodone of Salt Lake City's best litigators. But no one in her firm had expected the opposition to call in a high-powered litigator from out of town. Expecting once this news broke to have to relinquish the case to one of the senior partners, Barbara had been amazed to find they still wanted her to represent Coker & Rigley in the case of the decade. Corporate litigation was her specialty and she sensed this case could propel her forward on the partnership track sooner than she anticipated.
A whirlwind of barely contained energy honed to fighting form, Barbara moved with confidence through the crowded courtroom. She found she was anticipating this match. Gerrard might be good, but she planned to be better. She took a deep breath as she looked around the room. At least she hoped she would be.
Gripping her briefcase, she wove through the spectators, headed for the plaintiff's table. As always when intensely concentrating, she saw little other than the direct path in front of her. But that path ended quickly when an overpowering, distinctly male form blocked her way.
She looked up to see who had so rudely moved to obstruct the aisle, a caustic comment already forming, but it died away as she met twinkling green eyes. Coupled with a grinning mouth beneath a well-groomed mustache that indented charmingly in a face that made the most of hard planes and edges, it was a knockout combination. One that touched some forgotten chord before she nudged the thought aside.
One eyebrow rose as he made a slow appraisal from the top of her midnight-colored hair to the tips of her high-heeled kidskin pumps. And his expression made it clear he was pleased with the entire package.
She resisted the urge to respond in kind. Now was a time for business. Nothing else. Not even for the most attractive man she'd stumbled across in far longer than she wanted to count. She smiled to take the sting from her words. "One aisle per person. And I believe this one's mine."
He moved aside, allowing her to pass, but his gaze remained trained on her departing form. "The view just gets better."
Angling her head back, she saw the admiration painted on his features. At some other time she probably would have appreciated his casual good looks, the confidence that emanated from him as naturally as his cocky grin. But not now. Despite a bracing dose of courage, she was keyed-up about this case.
Sending the man a distracted smile, she slid into place and greeted her client. As she snapped open her briefcase, she again ignored the niggling feelings that persisted as she thought of the good-looking stranger. Carefully she lifted out her notes and a legal pad, making sure her exhibits were lined up in precise fashion.
Barbara checked her watch, noting that it was five minutes until court time. Judge Donald Herbert was punctual to a fault. Unfortunately her associate and harebrained friend Dani wasn't. If not for her legal brilliance, Barbara would have opted for someone else to sit this trial, but Dani, despite her faults, was the best.
With seconds remaining, Dani slid into the chair next to Barbara's, her winsome smile in place beneath a riot of strawberry curls and flushed cheeks. "Hi! Got the courtroom number mixed up. Thank God I beat Horrible Herbert."
Barbara restrained the desire to strangle Dani as they both rose at the judge's entrance. There was no room in this case for error and the thought of dueling with a high-powered litigator was making her more anxious than usual. Glancing at opposing counsel's table, Barbara's jaw nearly dropped as she saw the flirtatious stranger manning that very table.
Momentarily forgetting etiquette, she hissed into Dani's ear, "Who is that?"
Dani's gaze followed hers, her lips quirking into a satisfied grin. "That, my dear, is the Kenneth Gerrard."
Barbara withheld her reaction. Spared from meeting him before the trial, she hadn't any idea . Dani had done all the prediscovery work conducted in San Francisco and Gerrard had sent competent associates to the Salt Lake office, one of whom was sitting at the table with him now. Barbara's communications with Gerrard had been by mail or fax. Throat dry, she wondered how she'd stand being seated opposite the Armani-clad Adonis for the duration of the trial.
Suddenly aware of Dani digging a sharp elbow into her side, Barbara dragged her gaze away from Kenneth Gerrard and stared up at the judge.
"Miss Callister," the judge repeated with exaggerated patience. "If I can have your attention, we will begin jury selection now."
"Yes, sir," she mumbled, acutely embarrassed by her unprofessional behavior.
"He's a hunk," Dani whispered, "but not worth blowing the case over."
Barbara straightened up and fiddled with the legal pad, positioning it carefully so as not to let her gaze wander. Taking notes on the first prospective juror, she found her usually unshakable concentration fading as her eyes slid to the defendant's table. There was something about Kenneth Gerrard, something she couldn't put her finger on .
"Miss Callister, are we keeping you from something else?" the judge questioned, pushing his half glasses down his nose, the skin on his bald head shining beneath the unforgiving courtroom lights.
Barbara flushed. "No, sir. That is I'm ready to question the juror."
"That's fine, but Mr. Gerrard has already struck him. Call the next name on your list."
Dani's eyes were wide with concern, and Barbara called on the poise that she'd cultivated over fifteen years. For the next few hours, furious with herself, she gave new definition to concentration. She wasn't a hormonal teenager, easily thrown by an attractive man no matter how handsome.
When the judge adjourned the proceedings for the day, Barbara gathered her papers with a vengeance. She planned to spend the night going over the notes she and Dani had made, making sure she hadn't missed anything during her ridiculous daydreaming.
"Miss Callister." Kenneth Gerrard's smooth voice glided over her.
Her spine automatically stiffened. "I think it's a bit late for introductions."
His smile was as smooth as his voice. "You didn't seem interested earlier."
"And I'm not interested now," she retorted, embarrassed by her behavior and mortified that he hadn't clarified his identity.
"Perhaps we should have all worn ID tags," he suggested, that smile still lurking, just waiting to turn up his delicious-looking lips.
She wanted to chuckle at the ridiculousness of the suggestion, the frank smile that said he knew she was peeved. But she still felt too embarrassed to appreciate his levity. One brush with blowing the case was enough. She snapped her briefcase shut dismissively. "And perhaps you could have remembered your manners earlier."
"Then let me make it up to you now. How about a drink?"
Shock overrode caution. From his reputation she hadn't expected him to be the type to break the rules. "I don't think so. I have my client's interests to consider."
His brow winged upward again. "I doubt either of our clients would mind your pointing me in the direction of a drink. I promise not to photograph everything in your attaché case."
Her gaze slid downward toward her briefcase before she snapped her eyes back up to meet his, caught again by something she saw there. Her gaze lingered on the sculpted waves of chestnut hair, then drifted over his handsome features, yet she steeled herself to sound uninterested. "Funny. But I'll have to pass." Not allowing herself to say more, she pivoted and exited the courtroom.
"A pity," he muttered to no one in particular. The twinkle in his eyes faded along with his grin, replaced by longing and a shred of pain he'd never quite conquered. Some lark. He should have had his head examined for thinking he could simply look and then walk away. A yawning emptiness reminded him that it was impossible to let go of some things.
Things like Barbara Callister.
But she had left before seeing the conflicting emotions covering his face, the disappointment coupled with something far deeper. Something he'd never quite been able to forget.
Lingering tendrils of sunshine greeted Barbara and she breathed in deeply, relieved to be outside. Normally relief was a rare sensation. Usually she felt a letdown when leaving the courthouse, preferring the battle to the intermissions. Until lately
"Barb, wait up." Dani danced down the steps and into unison with Barbara's long-legged stride. "We still on for tonight?"
"Sure." Now that she was outside the courtroom she could relax. Flashing Dani a wide grin, Barbara eased her killer pace. "I'm sorry. Just had a lot on my mind."
"Yeah, like that yummy Kenneth Gerrard."
Barbara mumbled something unintelligible, but distinctly unflattering.
"Maybe good looks are a requirement to get hired at Barrett and Barrett. Did you see how cute his associate is?" Dani's voice turned dreamy. "Brian Thomas. Even his name sounds cute. Maybe not as overpowering as Gerrard, but definitely high on the appeal scale."
Barbara had barely noticed the other man. Something about Kenneth Gerrard overwhelmed anyone else. "If you say so. But then you're obsessed," she teased. "I have to peel you off the screen every time there's a rerun of a Costner movie."
Dani remained unperturbed. "Let's go to my place, order pizza, get crazy, attack some Ha¨ agen-Dazs or even the pizza guy if he's cute."
Barbara felt the laughter float upward. It was the effect Dani always had on her. "Think we can fit some work into the evening?"
"Sure." Her tone turned to one of mock reproof. "Even though I'm not the one mooning over opposing counsel instead of paying attention."
"Which is something we're going to talk about." Barbara pinned Dani with a knowing gaze. "Why were you holding out about Gerrard?"
Dani smiled mischievously. "I wondered how long it was going to take you to nail me on that."
Barbara lifted one eyebrow. "Not long, my friend. And you've got a whole pizza, not to mention the delivery guy, to come clean."
An empty pizza carton and a demolished quart of Chocolate Chocolate Chip ice cream littered the already cluttered table in Dani's dining room.
Barbara wrinkled her nose as she pushed aside a pile of dog-eared magazines and a coffee-stained collection of letters and junk mail. "Doesn't this uh stuff ever bother you?"
Dani shrugged. "Not everybody likes a sterile environment. You could do with some loosening up yourself, kid."
Instead of a witty retort, Barbara stared out the wall-size windows at the lights of the valley twinkling below. "Yeah, I know."
Dani screwed her face into a puzzled question mark. "Excuse me. Has someone kidnapped the real Barbara Callister and left her winsome clone?" Her snapping cinnamon eyes narrowed. "Invasion of the body snatchers. It had to happen."
Barbara threw a colorful, if somewhat ragged, pillow at her.
"What gives, Barb?" Dani's face cleared as her tone grew knowing. "Could it be that Barbie has finally met her Ken? In the form of the gorgeous Kenneth Gerrard?"
"Don't be ridiculous. That's not what he's looking for." His type wasn't looking for anything that permanent. Barbara tossed the notes on the table, rising to pad to the window. "It's just that "
"What?" Dani prompted.
"Do you ever wonder? I mean about something in your past. Something that if you could change, it might mean your life would have been completely different." Barbara fingered the drapery cord as she stared into the darkness, thinking of a long-ago night.
"I take it this involves another person," Dani guessed correctly as she sipped a diet Coke.
Barbara shifted restlessly. "I know my career's on track. I'm facing the greatest case ever. It's just that something's missing ."
"Like a husband, maybe a few kids?" Dani suggested practically.
Barbara wanted to protest, but Dani had struck the mark with disturbing accuracy. Her voice softened reflectively. "I was going to get married once."
Dani sat up, her interest heightened. "And?"
"I was nineteen." Barbara laughed softly. "God, that sounds like a lifetime ago. His name was Billy Duncan. I've never loved anyone so much. We planned to get married."
"We had a stupid fight. He wanted to elope. I worried about losing my scholarship. I wouldn't have had enough money to keep attending Rice University, but he didn't understand since his family footed all the bills for him. And I knew my family would want me to have a formal wedding"
"All the practicalities. That's the Barb we know and love," Dani filled in. "You couldn't make up?"
"We never got the chance. He said elope or nothing. I guess he meant it."
"You didn't try to see him again?"
Barbara nodded, seeing the lights of the city spread out beneath her like fairy dust. "Actually I did. He stood me up the next day. I thought he was sore and would get over it. I let him stew for a few days, then went looking for him." Barbara met Dani's face, smiling sadly. "He'd disappeared and no one in his frat house knew where he'd gone."
"That's kind of strange, don't you think?"
"Not as strange as finding out his entire family had moved, which in retrospect is probably why he was pushing so hard to elope that night. I kept hoping he'd call or write. But he didn't."
"And now you're wondering what would have happened if you'd thrown caution to the wind and eloped with him?"
Barbara hesitated, then nodded. "There's never been anyone else like him." A wistful look crossed her face. "He could always make me laugh. Being the class clown will do that, I suppose, but he was so on fire for life. It was magic just being with him."