Authors: Antoinette van Heugten
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller
Danielle awakens slowly. The room is dark, the curtains drawn. She groans as she thinks of the day ahead—the stultifying boredom whenever she isn’t with Max; her unsuccessful attempts to work; and the constant anxiety about what the assessment will ultimately reveal. Then her eyes fly wide open. She remembers—everything. After their incredible lovemaking, they talked for hours. Tony talked about the disappointment of his divorce and his regret that he had no children. She told Tony about Max (using another false name)—his problems, her fears, her loneliness as a single parent. She did not reveal that she was a lawyer or that Max was at Maitland. Danielle could not bear to speak of the fresh agony of a hospitalized Max. She finally drifted off, awakening before dawn to an empty bed. Embarrassed and not a little piqued at having been loved and left, she got up hastily and dressed. Before she left, she caught a glimpse of something white next to her pillow—a sheet of hotel stationery.
Hate to go, but have to be in Des Moines this morning. Could not disturb your sleep. You look beautiful in my bed. Dinner tonight? Yours, Tony
Danielle sits down at the small writing desk. She reads and rereads the note. Reluctantly, she turns it over and writes. “I can’t tell you what last night meant to me. You are a wonder
ful, lovely man, but my life is far too complicated for a relationship that has nowhere to go.” She pauses. The memory of his hands upon her and the absolute safety she felt in his arms flood her with warmth and desire. She balls up the page and picks up another piece of hotel stationery. “I’d love to. See you downstairs at seven.” She signs her false name. “Lauren.” After that, she takes one last look at the deliciously mussed bed and walks out.
Back in her room, Danielle pulls on her jeans and makes a cup of vile hotel coffee. No sooner does she take a scalding sip than there is a knock on her door. “Damn.”
“Hey, you. Let me in.”
That voice couldn’t belong to anyone else. Danielle grabs the knob and flings open the door. “Georgia!”
Dressed in a dark, navy suit, Georgia walks in and gives Danielle a big hug. “Surprise!”
“My God! What are you doing here?”
She grins. “Just passing through.”
Danielle pulls her farther into the room. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
Georgia sits on Danielle’s lumpy couch. “I can’t believe it, either. Just when you think it’s over, there’s that drive from Des Moines to scenic Plano.”
“Coffee?” She gives Georgia a broad smile.
Georgia peers into the paper cup Danielle offers. “I’ll pass.”
They sit, and Georgia squeezes her hand. Danielle is thrilled to see her dear friend. “Why are you here, by the way?”
“Because I’m worried about you and Max.” She takes a deep breath. “And I have some things to tell you that I felt needed to be said face-to-face.”
Danielle feels a fresh uneasiness. “What things?”
“Later.” Georgia settles back into the couch.
Danielle waits. Their specialty is shorthand speech. Georgia begins the beguine.
“How are you?”
“He hasn’t tried to—”
“No!” She pulls back. “Of course not!”
Georgia places a cool palm on her arm. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you don’t always tell me the worst.”
Danielle gives her a miserable smile. “It’s because I can’t even bear to think about it.”
“Do you have a diagnosis?”
“No.” Before she lets Georgia continue her cross-examination, Danielle changes the subject. “Tell me something about the outside world.”
Georgia doesn’t let her down. There is the latest office gossip—who’s sleeping with whom; who made a fool of himself at the summer recruiting party; which associate is brown-nosing which partner; which partners are trying to screw around other partners.
“So,” says Danielle, “how did you manage to get away from the office? From Jonathan and Melissa?”
Georgia’s lovely face bleeds from blushed pearl to arsenic white. “Oh. That.”
Her deep indigo eyes fall to the floor. “Well, like I said, there are a few things I have to tell you.”
“A lot, I’d guess.” Danielle’s voice is dry. “And don’t try to put a good spin on it, Georgia. You look like shit, and I want to know why.”
Georgia meets Danielle’s eyes. Brilliant tears, unshed, skate
on her lower eyelids. “It’s Jonathan,” she whispers. “He’s been…fired.”
Danielle thinks of the cutting-edge plastic surgery group in which Jonathan has been the boy genius. “What are you talking about? He became a full partner last year, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” Her voice trembles.
“So what happened?”
Wet diamonds course down her cheeks. “They found out.”
“About the drinking? Well, that’s not exactly—”
“He’s been doing cocaine—a lot of cocaine.” Her voice is flat, dead.
Danielle is stunned. “But how did anyone find out?”
Georgia gives her a look of shame and fear. “He operated on a woman while he was high. Everyone in the operating room could tell.” She closes her eyes. The rest comes out in a whispered staccato. “Her face is horribly disfigured. There’s going to be one hell of a lawsuit. It could ruin their practice.”
“When did this happen?”
“A month ago,” she says miserably, her face deathly pale. “He never said a word.”
“Did his partners turn him in to the police?”
“At first they were in damage-control mode, but then they searched his desk and found a huge stash.” Her words are hollow reeds in a blistered wind. “They say he was dealing, Danielle. Can you believe that? Jonathan—a coke dealer!”
“God, Georgia, what now?”
“They reported him to the medical board and fired him immediately. The board suspended him pending a complete investigation.” She shakes her head. “There’s no question that they’ll jerk his license. He’s finished.”
“Where is he now?”
“The last time I saw him, he was in the apartment, locked in the bedroom—drunk. He told me to get out.” The thin thread that held her snaps. Georgia’s head falls into her hands as brutal sobs pound her small frame. Danielle holds her dear friend until they subside. Georgia looks up with frantic eyes. “What am I going to do? What about Melissa?”
“Where is she now?”
“I grabbed her; took her to my mother’s house in the Bronx; and came here.” Georgia’s face is titanium white. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Danielle pats her hand. “You did the right thing. Can you stay for a few days?”
Georgia shakes her head. “I have to leave at noon. I start trial in the
case on Friday.”
Danielle retrieves her keys from the desk and takes one off of the ring. “Stay at my place for as long as you want. When I get back, you two can have the guest bedroom. We’ll figure something out. Right now you need to concentrate on Melissa and that trial.”
Georgia takes the key with a grateful look and wipes away her tears. “I may just use your place as a getaway from the office. I’m desperate for some peace and quiet.” She sighs. “Melissa and I will stay with my mother until I can figure out what to do. Thank God Mom is retired, and Melissa isn’t in school yet.” She takes a deep breath. “Okay, enough about me. What’s going on with Max? How are you holding up?”
“Oh, Christ, Georgia, let’s not.” She hears the tension in her voice.
“Okay.” Her voice is as patient as Danielle’s is not. “I won’t
demand ugly details. Just tell me one thing. When are you coming home?”
Danielle shoves an ashtray full of cigarette butts across the coffee table. “In a week, maybe two.”
“You’re coming back for the partners’ meeting, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely. I don’t want to leave Max, but I’m sure as hell not going to risk my partnership.”
“That’s my girl. You’ll be our first female partner. How can they not anoint someone who won a fifteen-million-dollar case in front of the Supreme Court? Still, you’d better put in some face time very soon.”
Danielle shakes her head. “Not now. They’re having trouble titrating Max’s medication, and he needs me here. He looks terrified every time I even suggest that I have to go back to New York.”
“How often do you see him?”
“Mornings and afternoons.”
Georgia glances around the room. “What do you do the rest of the time?”
A migraine blooms somewhere behind Danielle’s left eye, enveloping her forehead in a deep, twisting pain. She thinks briefly about Tony but doesn’t mention him to Georgia. It already seems as if it were a dream. “I work. That’s not entirely true. I try to work.”
Georgia leans back. “Well, that’s good, because things are heating up at the office.”
“What do you mean?”
Her blue eyes cloud. “It’s another reason I came out here. You need to know what’s going on. That worm, Gerald Matthews, is sucking up to every partner in his usual unctuous manner, letting them all know he’s the natural choice for your spot.”
“I’m not worried about him,” says Danielle.
“Well, worry about this.” Georgia gives her a pointed look. “E. Bartlett is up to something, and it isn’t good.”
Danielle is silent. E. Bartlett again. His unpleasant countenance appears in her mind’s eye. The last few years have been tough on Danielle, now officially designated as his personal lackey. She knows that some of the powers-that-be at the firm hope she’ll give up and go elsewhere—once they’ve made enough money off of her. But they don’t know her. She never gives up. Slowly, grudgingly, E. Bartlett has been forced to acknowledge her talents. Although he will never admit it, she is the associate he turns to when a crisis erupts; when a complex case presents an esoteric legal issue; when an important client from overseas must be wined and dined. He even leaves matchbooks on her chair from the all-male club where he takes the prep boys for lunch. It’s as close as E. Bartlett comes to having a sense of humor. Despite his currently favorable assessment of her, she knows he will use any excuse to keep her from joining the fraternity of the testicularly anointed. E. Bartlett also has a W. C. Fields view of children. If she hadn’t already billed thirty-two hundred hours this year and wasn’t due two years’ worth of vacation, he would have already dropped her in the dirt. She lights a cigarette, ignoring Georgia’s disapproving glance. “Okay, let’s hear it.”
“What about it?”
involves Danielle’s biggest client. It is a juicy class-action suit that has all the earmarks to make the firm millions. That, coupled with her big win in the
case, is her ace in the hole for partnership. Michael Sterns, the young CEO of the company, loves Danielle’s aggressive litigation style and has, thus far, refused to be represented by any of her partners.
Georgia glances away. “The bastard turned over the next slew of depositions to Matthews.”
client—” Danielle cries. “I spent two years wooing that company.”
Georgia shrugs. “Too true, my dear, but you are a mere associate.”
Danielle slaps her hand to her forehead. “Goddammit.”
Only partners are allowed to put their names on the case-generation form. Her initials appear in small type as the assigned minion. E. Bartlett has been getting credit for
for over a year now. That, coupled with the fact that her billable hours have dropped precipitously since Maitland, puts her into the average category. And average won’t make her a partner. Panic rises in her throat. She can’t let this partnership slip through her hands. She’s earned it—not to mention the fact that she needs the extra income to help pay Maitland’s phenomenal bill. As usual, insurance only covers the bare minimum, and there is no way she can cover the uninsured portion on her salary and savings. She also has Max’s future expenses to consider—whatever they might be.
“That’s not all,” says Georgia. “Last night I stayed late to work and ran down to Harry’s for a drink and a sandwich. You know the scene—the whole firm crawls over there before the partnership meeting—boozing it up while they bullshit each other about how great their candidates are.” Harry’s is a terrific place for lawyers to gather. Danielle almost feels the cool dark of the room; the huge oak bar with brass bar stools; the rows of dusky liquor bottles; the deep, red leather booths; the blurred light from the candles on the tables.
Danielle puts her bare feet on top of the cheap coffee table. She wishes she were half as relaxed as she appears. “So this year is exactly like any other.”
Georgia frowns. “You’re wrong there, I’m afraid. Guess who I saw—all closed off and cozy?”
“E. Bartlett and Lyman—two snakes in a pit.”
Danielle sits up straight, her eyes wide. “But that’s impossible.”
Lyman and E. Bartlett started with the firm in the same class and have been bitter rivals ever since. E. Bartlett made partner a year before Lyman, and he’s never forgotten it. The lengths to which the two go to stab each other in the back are legend.
Georgia takes the cigarette out of Danielle’s hand and stubs it out. “Well, the impossible has occurred. They were knocking back a bottle of single malt and grinning from ear to ear.”
It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to know what’s happening. Her absence has so pissed off E. Bartlett that he’s agreed to let Lyman’s boy leapfrog her. She wraps her sweater tighter around her. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“No kidding,” says Georgia. “I also overheard one of Lyman’s lackeys saying that Lyman didn’t trust E. Bartlett farther than he could kick him. It would be just like E. Bartlett to put on a great friendship act with Lyman and then totally screw him over at the partners’ meeting.”
Danielle feels a flicker of hope and grabs Georgia’s hand. “It would be just like him, wouldn’t it?”
“True.” Georgia gives Danielle’s hand a firm squeeze, but something is very wrong with her voice. “Look, E. Bartlett isn’t all you have to worry about. The scuttlebutt is that the partners met last week and decided that, due to financial concerns and low billable hours, they’re considering firing some associates.”