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1990. The elevator was crowded. Rebecca Cullen was trying to balance three cups in a box without spilling coffee all over the floor. Maybe if she learned to do this really well, she thought, she could join a circus and go on stage with her performance. The lids on the Styrofoam cups weren’t secure -- as usual. The man who worked the counter at the small drugstore downstairs didn’t look twice at women like Rebecca, and who cared if coffee spilled all over a thin, nondescript woman in an out-of-style gray suit?
He probably figured her for Ms. Businesswoman, she thought -- some rabid man-hater with a string of degrees after her name and a career in place of a husband and kids. Wouldn’t he be shocked to see her at home on Granddad’s farm, in cutoff jeans and a tank top in supper, which this wasn’t, with her mass of gold-streaked light brown hair down to her waist, and barefoot? This suit was pure camouflage.
Becky was a country girl, and the sole support of her retired grandfather and her two younger brothers. Their mother had died when she was sixteen and their father only stopped in to visit when he was broke and needed money. He’d moved to Alabama a couple of years back and none of them had heard from him since. Becky didn’t care if she never did again. She had a good job. In fact, the law firm’s recent relocation to Curry Station worked to her favor because her office in the industrial complex right outside Atlanta was now only a short drive from Granddad’s farm where they all lived. It was just like coming home, because her people had lived in Curry County for more than a hundred years.
She didn’t have a complaint about her job, except that she wished her bosses would remember to buy a new coffee urn before much longer. This several-times-daily trip down to the drugstore snack counter was getting to be a grind. There were three other secretaries, a receptionist, and two paralegals in the office, but they had seniority. Becky got to do the mule work. She grimaced as she headed for the elevator, hoping she wouldn’t run into her nemesis on the way up to the sixth floor.
Her hazel eyes scanned the area quickly. She relaxed as soon as she was able to conclude that the towering figure was not waiting around the elevators. It wasn’t bad enough that he had a stare like black ice, or that he seemed to hate women in general and her in particular. But he also smoked those god-awful thin black cigars. In an elevator, they were pure hell. She wished somebody would tell him that there was a city ordinance against smoking in crowded public places. She meant to, but there always seemed to be a crowd around, and for all Becky’s toughness of spirit, she was shy in crowds. But one day it would be just her and that man, and she’d tell him how she felt about his extremely smelly cigars.
Her mind drifted as she waited for the slow-moving elevator to descend. She had worse problems than the cigar man, she reminded herself. Granddad was still recovering from the heart attack two months ago that had brought his career as a farmer to an abrupt halt. Now Becky was feeling the increased burden keenly. Unless she could learn to run the tractor and grow crops, in addition to working as a legal secretary six days a week, Granddad’s truck farm was destined to be a total loss. Her oldest brother, Clay, was a senior in high school, constantly in trouble these days, and no help at all around the house. Mack was in the fifth grade and failing math. He was a willing helper, but too small to do much. Becky herself was twenty-four, and she’d never had a social life at all. She’d just barely finished school when her mom had died and her father had taken off for parts unknown.
Becky allowed her thoughts to drift for a moment, wondering what her life could have been like. There might have been parties and nice clothes and men to take her on dates. She smiled at the thought of not having people depend on her.
"Excuse me," a woman with an attaché case muttered, almost upending the coffee all over Becky.
She came out of her daydream in time to pile aboard the elevator, already crowded from its trip to the garage in the basement. She managed to wedge in between a woman who reeked of perfume and two men who were arguing, loudly, the benefits of two rival computers. It was a blinding relief when they, and almost everyone else, including the abundantly fragrant lady, got off on the third and fourth floors.
"Oh, God, I hate computers," Becky sighed out loud as the elevator slowly began climbing to the sixth floor.
"So do I," came a gruff, disgruntled voice from behind her.
She almost upset the coffee as she turned to see who had spoken. She had thought she was alone in the elevator. How she could have missed the man was the real question. She was only slightly above average height, but he had to be at least six foot two. It wasn’t just the height, though -- it was the man’s build. He was muscular, with a physique that would have done a professional athlete proud. He had lean, beautiful, dark hands and big feet, and when he didn’t smell of cigar smoke, he wore the sexiest cologne Becky had ever smelled. But his masculine beauty ended at his face. She couldn’t remember ever having seen such a rough-looking man.
His face was all sharp angles and fierceness. He had thick black eyebrows and deep-set, narrow black eyes with a peculiar piercing quality. His nose was straight and elegant. He had a cleft chin -- not terribly cleft, but noticeable. His face was kind of long and lean, with high cheekbones, and he had the kind of dark complexion that was natural and didn’t come from sitting in the sun. His mouth was wide and well-formed. She’d never seen it smile. He was in his mid-thirties, but there were some hard lines in that dark face, and he had a coldness of manner that chilled her. His very best quality was his voice. It was deep and clear and very resonant -- the kind of voice that could caress or cut, depending on his mood -- and it projected easily.
He was well-dressed, in an obviously expensive dark gray pin-striped suit, with a white cotton shirt and silk paisley tie beneath it. And she thought she had avoided him, for once. Maybe it was her karma.
"Oh. It’s you again," she said with resignation. She pushed the jolted Styrofoam coffee cups back into place. "Do you by any chance own the elevator?" she asked. "I mean, every time I get on it, here you are, scowling and muttering. Don’t you ever smile?"
"When I find something to smile about, you’ll be the first to see it," he said, bending his dark head to light a pungent cigar. He had the thickest, blackest, straightest hair she’d ever seen. He looked rather Italian, except for his high cheekbones, and the shape of his face.
"I hate cigar smoke," she said, to break the silence.
"Then stop breathing until the doors open," he replied carelessly.
"You are the rudest man I’ve ever met!" she exclaimed, turning back, infuriated, to watch the floors light up on the elevator panel.
"You haven’t met me," he pointed out.
"Oh, lucky, lucky me," she said.
There was a muffled sound from behind her. "Do you work in this building?"
"I don’t really work for a living." She glanced at him over her shoulder with a venomous smile. "I’m the kept woman of one of the attorneys at Malcolm, Randers, Tyler, and Hague."
His dark eyes slid down her trim figure, in its extremely conventional suit, to her small-heeled shoes, then back up again to her face, which had not a trace of makeup on it today. She had nice hazel eyes that matched her tawny hair, high cheekbones, a full mouth, and a straight nose, but her face was rather quiet. He guessed that she could look more attractive when she made the effort.
"He must have failing vision," he said finally.
Becky’s eyes sparkled and narrowed as she got a firm grip on the cup holder and her own temper. Oh, the joy of dousing him with steaming black coffee, even if she had asked for it. But that might have unfortunate consequences. She needed her job, and he might know her bosses.
"He is not blind," she made a half turn toward him and replied haughtily. "I make up for my lack of looks with a fantastic bedroom technique. First I smother him in honey," she whispered conspiratorially, leaning forward, "and then I bring in specially trained ants . . ."
He lifted the cigar to his mouth and took a draw from it, blowing out a thick cloud of smoke. "I hope you take his clothes off first," he said. "Honey is hard to get out of fabric. This is my floor."
She stepped back to let him off, glaring at him. This wasn’t their first encounter. He’d been making terrible remarks and scoring off her since the first day she’d been in the building, and she was heartily sick of him -- whoever he was.
"Have a nice day," she drawled sweetly.
He didn’t even turn. "I was, until you came along."
"Why don’t you take your cigar and stick it up your . . . ?!"
After the doors closed off her last word, the car carried her unwillingly up to the fourteenth floor, where a man and woman were waiting to go down.
She noticed the floor number with a sigh. He was ruining her life. Why did he have to work in this building, when there was all of Atlanta for him to get lost in?
The elevator descended, and this time it opened on the sixth floor. Still fuming, she went into her bosses’ lavish office, glancing as she walked at Maggie and Jessica, the other two secretaries, hard at work on opposite sides of the office. Becky had a cubbyhole adjacent to Bob Malcolm’s. He was the junior partner, and her main boss.
Without knocking, she entered the big office to find Bob and two of his junior colleagues, Harley and Jarard, impatiently waiting for their coffee while Bob talked irritably on the phone."Just put it down anywhere, Becky, and thank you," he said brusquely, with his hand over the receiver. He glanced at one of his colleagues. "Kilpatrick just walked in the door. How’s that for timing?"
Becky passed the cups of coffee quietly and received mumbled thank-yous from Harley and Jarard. Bob began to speak into the telephone again.
"Listen, Kilpatrick, all I want is a conference. I’ve got some new evidence I want you to see." Her boss banged his fist on the desk and his swarthy face reddened. "Dammit, man, do you have to be so inflexible?!" He sighed angrily, "All right, all right. I’ll be up in five minutes." He slammed the receiver down. "My God, I’m praying he won’t run for reelection," he said heavily. "This is only the second week I’ve had to deal with him, and I’m already sweating blood! Give me Dan Wade any day!"
Dan Wade was the Atlanta judicial circuit’s D.A. Becky knew he was a nice man. But here in Curry County, the district attorney was Rourke Kilpatrick. Perhaps, she thought optimistically, her employer had just gotten off on the wrong foot with Kilpatrick. He was probably every bit as nice as Dan Wade when you got to know him.
She started to point this out to Mr. Malcolm when Harley broke in. "Can you blame him?" Harley asked. "He’s had more death threats in the past month over this drug war than any president. He’s a hard man, and he won’t back down. I’ve had a couple of cases down here before, and I know Kilpatrick’sreputation. He can’t be bought. He’s a law-and-order man from the feet up."
Bob sat back in his plush leather chair. "I get cold chills remembering how Kilpatrick once eviscerated a witness of mine on the stand. She actually had to be tranquilized after she testified."
"Is Mr. Kilpatrick really that bad?" Becky asked with soft curiosity.
"Yes," her boss replied. "You’ve never met him, have you? He’s working here in this building now, temporarily, while his office is being redecorated. It’s part of that courthouse renovation the county commission voted in. It’s pretty convenient for us to go up a floor rather than over to the courthouse. Of course, Kilpatrick hates it."
"Kilpatrick hates most everything, including people." Hague grinned. "They say that mean temperament comes from his heritage. He’s part Indian -- Cherokee, to be exact. His mother came here to live with his father’s people when Kilpatrick’s father died. She died pretty soon afterward, so Kilpatrick became the ward of his uncle. The uncle was the head of one of the founding families of Curry Station and he literally forced Kilpatrick down local society’s throats. He was a federal judge," he added, smiling. "I guess that’s where Kilpatrick learned his love of the law. Uncle Kilpatrick, you see, couldn’t be bought."
"Well, I’ll go up anyway and offer him my soul on behalf of our shady client," Bob Malcolm said. "Harley, get the brief ready for the Bronson trial, if you don’t mind. And Jarard, Tyler’s down at the clerk’s office working on that estate suit you’re researching."
"Okay. I’ll get busy," Harley said with a smile. "You might send Becky up to work on Kilpatrick. She might soften him up."
Malcolm laughed gently. "He’d eat her for breakfast," he told the other man. He turned to Becky. "You can help Maggie while I’m away, if you don’t mind. There’s some filing to catch up."
"Okay," she said, smiling, "Good luck."
He whistled, smiling back. "I’ll need it."
She watched him go with a wistful sigh. He was a caring kind of person, even if he did have the temper of a barracuda.
Maggie showed her the filing that needed doing with an indulgent smile. The petite, thin black woman had been with the firm for twenty years, and she knew where all the bodies were buried. Becky had wondered sometimes if that was why Maggie had job security, because she had a sharp tongue -- she could be hard on clients and new secretaries alike. But fortunately, she and Becky got along very well -- they even had lunch together from time to time. Maggie was the only person she could talk to except Granddad.
Jessica, the elegant blond secretary on the other side of the office, was Mr. Hague and Mr. Randers’s secretary. She enjoyed her status as Mr. Hague’s after-hours escort -- he wasn’t married or likely to be anytime soon -- and she primped a lot. Tess Coleman was one of the paralegals -- a just-married young blonde with a friendly smile. Nettie Hayes, a black law student, was the other paralegal. The receptionist was Connie Blair, a vivacious brunette who was unmarried and in no hurry to change her status. Becky got along well with the rest of the office staff, but Maggie was still her favorite.
"They’re going to buy a new coffee urn, by the way," Maggie mentioned while Becky filed. "I can go shopping for it tomorrow."
"I could go," Becky offered.
"No, dear, I’ll do it," Maggie said with a smile. "I want to pick up a present for my sister-in-law while I’m out. She’s expecting."
Becky smiled back, but halfheartedly. Life was passing her by. She’d never even had a real date, except to go to a VFW Club dance with the grandson of a friend of her grandfather, and that had been a real bust. The boy smoked pot and liked to party, and he didn’t understand why Becky didn’t.