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Sally Dawson sat in her car and waited for disaster. A meteor, perhaps, or a freak bolt of lightning that would knock out power to the city. Whatever happened, it would have to be significant enough to distract her boss from the morning meeting he'd called with her. In her experience, morning meetings with Jack Reynolds were never called to convey good news.
She smoothed a light gloss across her lips, puckered at her reflection in the rearview mirror and took a deep, calming breath. Her father had a term for what she was about to experience: a Day, with a capital D, to indicate the gravity. How tragic that she'd been too upset about this meeting to notice her surroundings until this moment. The sky was the radiant, cloudless blue that seemed unique to early autumn, and the air was clean. She heaved a sigh. The butterflies still flittered against her stomach, but she was already running late. Time to face the Day.
She tapped her hip against the door of the sporty blue BMW to shut it, balancing the tray of coffees in one hand and her briefcase in the other. A few members of the defense counsel bar were gathered along the steps to the courthouse, eyeing her and whispering to themselves. Sally was well aware of the rumors that preceded her. She was a spoiled trust-fund baby, petulant and dramatic. She could be brash and short-tempered. Headstrong. Stubborn. She worked for fun and didn't take it seriously.
Sally had heard it all before, and she'd stopped caring a long time ago. The gossip was as unfair as it was immutable. Besides, people could say what they wanted about her bank account or her temper. She was equally aware of her reputation for being an impeccably dressed fashion symbol, and there was some comfort in that. There was also some comfort in winning difficult cases and rising to the top of her department. In her experience, nothing shut up the naysayers like a show of competence.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she said with a knowing smile as she passed the gossipers. Her quirks had never bothered her. She liked who she was just fine.
The click of Sally's heels up the marble steps resounded like a battle march as she walked into the courthouse. She'd labored for too long over her wardrobe that morning, carefully considering each fabric for optimal effect, but some decisions could not be rushed. She'd finally settled on a gray Valentino dress with a plunging neckline, black Louboutin pumps and a Ferragamo handbag. Every perfect stitch of her clothing bolstered her confidence, the kind of confidence that comes with polish and excellent tailoring. She was unstoppable, a one-woman lawyering machine. These were her fatigues, and this was war.
Well, maybe not exactly war. A business meeting first thing in the morning didn't feel too far off from it, though. Jack Reynolds hadn't said much in his email, only that he'd seen her time sheets, and he was concerned about the long nights she'd been pulling while preparing for the Kruger murder trial. It's time that we discuss getting some help for you, he'd written. Someone who can sit second chair.
She would set Jack straight easily enough. She did not need a partner on the Kruger case. She'd managed to get along without one for this long, and jury selection was only days away. To bring on another attorney, catch him or her up to speed- Was Jack out to sabotage her performance? To throw a wrench in her perfectly oiled machine? No, she couldn't have that. Sally flew solo; she didn't need someone else cluttering up her cockpit, and the sooner her supervisor accepted this fact, the easier her life would be.
She frowned at her watch. It wouldn't help her cause that she was ten minutes late as a result of the wardrobe dilemma. She supposed she could blame the shoes, which forced her to calculate each and every step lest she tumble and break something. Black leather peep-toe pumps with an ankle strap weren't practical in Connecticut's autumn, but since when was fashion about pragmatism? She could concede the three-inch heels were high, but they were also beautiful.
Sally glanced down at her feet and changed her mind. The shoes were divine. She would concede nothing. If she was lucky, Jack was running late, too.
She balanced the coffee tray and pressed her hip against the heavy metal door that led to the state's attorney's office. "Morning, Delia." She beamed as she swept up to Reception and planted a coffee on the desk. "This is for your troubles. I'll no doubt add to them today."
"Bless you." Delia swiped a finger across her temple to tuck a stray hair behind one ear. Sally had purchased hair dye for her once during a lunch break. Shade #47, glossy chestnut. "Jack's waiting for you in his office."
He wasn't late. Shoot. Sally beamed a smile that she didn't exactly feel. "Great, thanks!"
She continued down the hall, taking a breath when she saw that Jack's door was open. Sally always came prepared, and today was no different. She had a plan. She would pretend to listen to his concerns, but she'd already decided that to the extent Jack was feeling worried about her workload, she was feeling equally resistant to working with another attorney. This was why she'd spent last night preparing a compelling speech that would culminate when she peered out the window, turned her face to receive the best of the morning light and declared in a tone that conveyed both struggle with and acceptance of her circumstances, "The thing is, Jack, I just don't play well with others."
As a backup plan, she'd brought him a coffee. Another deep breath. This would work.
She rapped gently on the door, before entering and saying brightly, "Sorry I'm late. You wanted to see me?"
But that's as far as she got. Jack had a guest. So much for blaming her shoes. So much for finding her best light in that lousy excuse for a window, and dramatizing memorized confessions. The skin on her arms prickled. She suddenly didn't care if Jack Reynolds chewed her out publicly and called her a lousy attorney on the record. She didn't care if her beautiful, expensive new shoes spontaneously combusted. All she cared about was the man talking to Jack. The man she'd once lived to hate.
Ben McNamara. The devil himself.
"Hey, Sally." Jack beamed as he gestured to the man. "I'm glad you're here. I wanted to introduce you two."
Ben gave her a cocky smile that showed the top row of his perfectly straight white teeth. "Hello, Sally."
He extended his hand, but she couldn't tear her gaze from his blue eyes. Those familiar cobalt-blue eyes behind those thin silver frames. Even now the anger bubbled in her gut. Just what did he think he was doing here? Here, on her territory. She made a point of looking at his hand before setting the coffee tray on Jack's desk and folding both her arms across her chest. Ben withdrew his hand and brought it down to his side. "Suit yourself," he said.
Jack looked back and forth between them. "You know each other already?"
"Oh, we've met." The tone of her voice was blistering. "Hello, Ben. It's been a long time." And yet somehow not quite long enough.
He was smiling at her as if they were old friends, which they were not. She'd like to pretend that they didn't know each other at all. They had no history worth revisiting, just a series of progressively bad choices. Graduating from law school with someone didn't make you friends. She hadn't so much as thought of Ben in years now. And he had to show up now of all days, just as she was preparing for trial. He had to dampen her trial buzz. Damn him.
"We went to Columbia together," Ben explained to Jack. "I remember Sally. She was second in our class."
Ben arched his eyebrow at her, and Sally's cheeks burned with rage. She'd been second, and in some false display of humility, Ben had neglected to mention that he'd been first. "Oh, Ben. No one cares about law school rankings," she said through a tight smile.
"I couldn't agree more, Sal," he said easily, giving her a little wink. "Nothing's more important than experience."
No doubt he believed his experience, whatever it was, trumped hers. He was still smug and unbearable. Good to know that some things really never changed. Bastard.
He looked all right, she supposed. Healthy. That was good, that fate didn't smite him with some awful disease, like leprosy or rabies. It wasn't as if she wished rabies on him. Now, maybe she could've gotten behind a good case of poison ivy-one that kept him up for a night or two. That would only be karma. But rabies? Too far. So it was good that he wasn't foaming at the mouth and that he looked normal. Passably attractive.
She rubbed at her suddenly pounding temple. Maybe "passably attractive" was an understatement. He looked hot, as if he'd just wandered off a billboard advertising that dark gray designer suit he was wearing. She could admire his bone structure, the sharp angles on his jaw complimenting an aquiline nose. His olive skin had darkened over an apparently leisurely summer, bringing attention to his deep blue eyes. He looked clean and showered and still raging with whatever pheromones he exuded that made women weak-kneed around him.
Other women, not her. His pheromones repelled her. Just the sight of him spiked her blood pressure and made her want to do rash things, like throw something hard through something glass to distract him long enough so that she could run away. And now he was watching her, waiting for some kind of response.
Sally Dawson, in the flesh, after all these years. Ben wouldn't expect her to be happy to see him. Still, he would have hoped that time would mitigate some of the animosity. He ran his gaze along Sally's slender frame. The years had been kind to her, at least. Her blond hair fell to her shoulders before curling loosely like question marks at the ends. She was glaring at him, all trench coat, bare legs and high heels. It entered his mind that she could very well be naked under that coat. His collar tightened.
She was still beautiful, but then Sally had never lacked the financial means to achieve beauty. He'd always had some trouble explaining her to other people. It was as if the high school drama queen had one day become bored with sunbathing and decided to use part of her ample trust fund to go to law school. He had to give her credit for sticking with the profession for this long.
"I didn't realize you two knew each other," said
Jack. He clapped Ben on the shoulder. "Then you'll be happy to know that Ben is joining our team."
Her eyes widened. "No." She looked at him as if he'd just kicked a puppy. "I thought you were working in Manhattan?"
"I left Pitney Stern years ago. Since then I've served as a Marine Corps judge advocate." His back straightened. Being counsel to the marines carried with it the pride of being in top physical condition. All marines were battle ready.
"He completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan," Jack added.
"But now you're here. Why?"
Charming, the way her eyes narrowed to little slits as if she were deciding whether she should slip off one of those stilettos and stab him in the neck.
"Because we need him," Jack interjected. "We've been looking to hire someone for a while, and we're lucky to have him."
"Hmm." She sealed her mouth into a tight line. "I didn't mean to interrupt. Jack, when you're ready to have that meeting you emailed me about, I'll be in my office."
"This is the meeting, Sally," he replied.
That caught her attention. She blinked her wide brown eyes. "You called a meeting to introduce me to Ben?"
Jack arched an eyebrow. "Have a seat."
She eyed Ben suspiciously again and waited for him to sit before taking the chair beside him.
"You've been pulling fourteen-hour days. Working weekends," their boss continued. "You could've come to me sooner. You need some help."
"It wasn't a problem. It's not a problem," she corrected. "I'm preparing for a big trial. One that I'm perfectly capable of handling on my own." She sent a pointed glare in Ben's direction out of the corner of her eye. Cute.
"It's not an insult to you." Jack relocated a stack of files on his desk so he could lean forward to address her. "You know it's policy that we have two attorneys on large cases. You're so capable that I neglected to pay enough attention to the fact that you were going it alone for so long."
Her jaw tightened, and she gripped the seat of the chair. "So what's this mean?"
"I've asked Ben to help you out. Sit second chair. I figured you could get him acclimated to the office."
"Show me the ropes. You know, where to find the pens, how to make the coffee." He gave her what he'd hoped was a disarming smile, but she returned it with a glare.
"I like to do things my way, Jack," she said slowly. "I don't play well with others."
He shook his head. "It's not negotiable, I'm afraid. The Kruger case is too large, and there's too much media attention. I regret not giving you more resources sooner."
Ben cocked his head toward her. "I look forward to working with you, Sally. We'll make a great team."
She gritted her teeth and said to Jack, "Are we finished? I have a busy day."
"We're finished. Thanks for your time."
"Super." She rose from her seat. Then she lifted the tray of coffees, twisted one free and set it before Jack, and proceeded to the door without another word.
As the sound of her angry footsteps receded down the hall, Ben was surprised to hear Jack chuckle under his breath. "What's the joke?"
"Oh." He waved his hand and leaned back in his chair. "Sally. You already know her, so I don't have to tell you that she wears her heart on her sleeve." He popped the top of the coffee she'd left for him and looked inside before taking a sip of the steaming beverage.
So that's what that was: wearing her heart on her sleeve. Here Ben had thought she was acting bratty and rude. "Has she been working here for long?"
"Since the day she passed the bar." The older man leaned back in his chair and opened the blinds behind his desk to allow some sunlight into the dark quarters. "Sweet girl and a hell of a lawyer. But when she gets upset about something I don't have to tell you," he repeated, and dropped back into his seat.
"No. You don't."
Ben was all too familiar with Sally's dramatic tendencies. In law school, she'd had near nervous breakdowns as a matter of routine before finals. She'd show up to the library in ratty jeans and an old sweatshirt, her hair unbrushed, looking as if she hadn't slept in days. She would draw concern from their classmates with her dramatics and endless questions, and then she'd go on to earn one of the highest grades in the class. She'd routinely squandered the time and energy of those around her. He'd found it tedious.
Jack's chair squeaked as he shifted forward again. "Anyway, don't worry about her. You two will be working together on the Kruger case whether she likes it or not. There's always a slew of work to be done during trial, and Sally doesn't need to be a hero."
"Funny. She sure got upset about you." Jack's bushy eyebrows rose mischievously. "Is there some history I should know about?"
Ben started. There was a history, all right, but not one their boss needed to know. Definitely not. "Like I said, we went to Columbia together. Same first year classes." He coughed to politely signal a change in subject. "You mentioned that you had some other cases for me already."
"I've got a stack of them. We had a retirement last month and everyone's been helping out, but as far as I'm concerned they're yours." His new boss slid a piece of paper with several columns across the desk. "Here's a table of the case names and file numbers and the attorneys you should speak with about the status."
"I'm expecting big things from you, Ben. First in your class at Columbia, followed by an impressive military record. We're lucky to have you here. Anything you need, you just let me know."
"I appreciate that, sir." He waved the list of cases and rose. "I'll get started on these right away."