Her stomach fluttered with trace anxiety as it always did when she was called before the founding partner of Woodhue, Orson, Bernstein, & Jessup, Attorneys at Law, but she maintained an expression of equanimity and lowered herself to the hard wooden chair. Its ruler-straight construction forced the occupant to sit at attention, but that wasn’t what caused her to stifle a wince.
Though redness had faded, muscle-deep sensitivity remained in her buttocks, a sharp reminder of the paddling she’d received the day before. Liz had been a spanked wife for the two-plus decades of her marriage to Otis, and it still amazed her how fast the blushing color faded. Soreness was another matter.
She relived the spanking as her rear end compressed against the unyielding seat. Otis had applied the paddle with equal vigor to both sides.
Liz lifted her chin and waited for Donovan to speak his mind.
“Yesterday’s paper.” Donovan picked up a folded copy of the News Sentinel and dropped it with a splat on his desktop. “I remember the day I hired you.”
Liz did, too. She’d been a green law graduate and a recent bride. Donovan had been a little younger than she was now, discontent already etched into his face. He’d scared her to death, but he’d hired her as a clerk, and, once she’d passed the bar, she’d joined the firm as an attorney.
He didn’t frighten her as much anymore, and with maturity, time, and Otis’s guidance, she’d learned to mask when he did. Thanks to her husband, she’d found an inner strength, a resilience that enabled her to stake a rightful place in the courtroom, leading to a promotion to partner thirteen years earlier.
“You’re one of our top billing attorneys. Your efforts and reputation have been an asset to this firm.”
Liz knew better than to assume he intended to praise her. “I’ve earned my position.” She acknowledged the facts with a nod.
Donovan pinched his thumb and forefinger, leaving only a sliver of space. “This is the distance between a good reputation and a damaging one, the difference between asset and liability.”
Liz remained quiet.
Donovan flicked his gaze at the newspaper. “I’m not going to ask if you are one of the individuals quoted in the column about the Rod and Cane Society. You’d deny it, and I know the answer already.”
The urge to wipe the supercilious expression off his face with a confession of what he didn’t want to hear rose like floodwaters cresting the bank. For years, Liz had skated between privacy and advocacy, cloaking her lifestyle while attempting to foster acceptance for others. How liberating it would be to fling off the mantle of secrecy and say, this is what I do, this is who I am.
“If anyone else learns the answer, you will no longer have a position at this firm. Am I clear?”
Icy anger oozed through her until the only warmth radiated from her aching ass. Liz had had a hunch that Donovan, along with a few others, had guessed her secret. But, as every attorney knew, what one suspected didn’t count—it only mattered what one could prove.
The urge to present them with proof thrummed though her veins. She could leave Woodhue, Orson, Bernstein, & Jessup and open her own practice. Her golden parachute would keep her aloft long enough to get her business established. Rod and Cane members would support her. Oh, it was tempting.
Discipline. Thought before action. She hadn’t come here intending to quit in a huff or get herself fired. “Understood,” she said.
“That will be all, Elizabeth.” Donovan waved at her in dismissal.
Two years later
Liz jerked at the masculine shout a split second before a strong arm yanked her out of the path of a cup of steaming coffee gone airborne.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I tripped,” said a woman. “Are you okay?”
“Are you all right?” The man to whom the arm belonged peered at her.
A splatter of dark liquid puddled on the floor. “I’m fine. No harm done.” Liz reassured them both.
The man released her, and the woman apologized again before stepping to the counter to replace her coffee. A barista scurried over to clean up the mess, and Liz moved out of the way. The man followed.
“Thank you,” she said, staring a little too long into eyes the color of melted caramel. “That could have been disastrous.” She checked her white tunic coordinated with a classic black pencil skirt. Not a mark. “I’d hate to meet a client with a large brown stain on the front of my shirt.”
Some men might have taken advantage of the comment to stare at her chest, but he didn’t. “I’d hate for you to have been burned. The coffee in this place is scalding.”
“I have to confess, I haven’t had the coffee here to know how hot it is.”
He eyed the cup in her hand.
Liz raised her paper container topped by a plastic lid. “Tea.”
He grinned, his smile slightly crooked. In her head, she heard a little ping as if a system booted up. Flustered, she felt like fifteen again, awkward and unsure in a man’s company.
“I’m a coffee man, myself,” he said, confirming her impression.
“I drink coffee on occasion, but Mea Cuppa has good tea, and it’s close to my office.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a lawyer. I have my own firm. Elizabeth Alexander, attorney at law.”
His eyes crinkled with another appealing lopsided smile, and she assessed his age as close to hers. Maybe a few years older. Late forties? She estimated his height at just under six feet. His work-out clothes—a blue T-shirt bearing a marathon-participation logo and baggy running shorts—revealed a trim, but strong, physique. Muscular thighs, biceps, and pecs.
“I’m an attorney, too. Grant Davis.”
Liz shifted her tea to her left hand and shook his right one, conscious of his firm, but not crushing, grip. His slightly rough palm and fingers hinted he didn’t spend all his time in offices and courtrooms. Ping! She disengaged.
“My friends call me Liz. Liz Davenport.” Why had she said that? He didn’t need to know what her friends called her. He was a stranger. Just a man who had saved her from being burned. A man she’d never meet again. A man whose attention heated her from head to toe as if she were curled on the sofa in front of a roaring fire. Ping!
“I practice law under my maiden name, Elizabeth Alexander, but Liz Davenport is my married name.”
Golden-brown eyes dimmed from interested to impersonal.
“My legal name, I should have said,” she amended in a rush. “I-I’m a widow. It’s still so new. Well, not like yesterday, but a while. A year. ” She jabbered like a hair-twisting, gum-popping schoolgirl while revealing personal information to a complete stranger. She only had his word he was an attorney. He didn’t dress like one. She eyed his running attire.
Otis had gone running before….
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, his expressive eyes radiating sympathy.
“Thank you. It was hard, but I’m getting over it.” She peered at him. “Where do you work?” she asked.
“At Woodhue, Orson, Bernstein & Jessup.”
Of course. Liz compressed her lips.
“You know of them?” Grant frowned.
Liz pasted a neutral expression on her face and shrugged one shoulder. “One of the most prestigious law firms in the city. Yes.” She blew out a small huff of air. “I used to work there.” She omitted mention that she’d been a partner. And then had been terminated after the Rod and Cane Society had been exposed in the News Sentinel.
“We wish her well in her future endeavors.” A euphemistic joke for booted out on her ass—yet the firm’s announcement to staff had used those exact words. Donovan Woodhue technically hadn’t terminated her—she’d resigned. However, when she recalled the sequence of events, she envisioned herself as a tiny sports car zooming along the highway until a huge semi crowded into her lane and forced her off the road.
After the Rod and Cane story broke, the firm—Donovan—set out to systematically exclude her from anything important. She’d been assigned cases suitable for junior attorneys, not partners. Been omitted from key planning meetings. The writing on the wall was as legible as the highlighted notes on the whiteboard in the conference room.
Otis’s life insurance and other provisions had left her comfortably cared for, so she hadn’t required the money, but she’d needed the employment, the busyness occupying mind and body to help her manage her grief.
So she’d chosen, under duress, to exit the freeway before she crashed and burned.
The bitch with balls, as the press had dubbed her, had surrendered her testicles and turned tail and run. Her balls floated in an invisible jar on Donovan’s desk.
“The firm is well respected. They have a good reputation,” she said. Which had been Donovan’s issue. He’d feared her involvement with Rod and Cane, an organization of couples who practiced domestic discipline, could damage the firm’s standing in the community. Donovan hadn’t known for sure she and Otis had belonged, but he had suspected and had convicted her on circumstantial evidence. “Have you worked there long?” Liz asked Grant. She’d known all the attorneys from the law firm at least by sight or name, but didn’t recognize him.
He shook his head. “Started two weeks ago. I spent twenty years in the Navy. Judge Advocate General.”
Liz smiled. “Like the TV show? JAG?”
He chuckled. “Exactly. Except for the lack of excitement, danger, and high-profile homicides.” He pointed to his face. “Don’t you think I resemble Harmon Rabb?”
“No, you’re more handsome.” When had her mouth disconnected from her brain? Whatever possessed her to say such a thing? Deprivation, that’s what. She’d been too long without male companionship, and something about this man had awakened her from dormancy. Yes, he was handsome, but that didn’t mean she should comment on it!
His grin broadened, cueing her to exit.
“That was too forward. I apologize. I don’t know why I said that.” Liz gulped the last of her tea. “Thanks again for saving me from the coffee. I’d better get to the office. My boss,” she said facetiously, “is a slave driver. It was nice meeting you. Good luck on your new job.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Liz. Listen, if you ever want to have tea, well, I’m here about this time every morning. Mea Cuppa is close to my condo. I jog and then drop in for coffee before heading to work.”
“Good to know,” she answered noncommittally. Good to know so she could find another place to get her tea. She read the open interest on his face. Despite the ping—or maybe because of it—she didn’t want to run into this man again. She wasn’t ready to date, let alone get involved in a relationship and sleep with a man.
Date? Relationship? Who’d said anything about that? He’d said they might have tea, and she’d spun it into dinner and movie and hot-and-sweaty sex. Heat flooded her face. She flung a hurried good-bye and fled the shop.
SHE WOULDN’T BE back. A man who played it safe would place his money on that and move on, but circumstances had made him a gambler. So, while Liz probably wouldn’t return to Mea Cuppa, he would. Just in case.
In life, you rolled the dice, and sometimes, despite the odds, you came out on top. Surviving lymphoma had proven that—as had getting the job with a major law firm. Number one in the city, top ten in the state. Hundreds of applications for every position. What were the chances the job would be awarded to an ex-Navy officer with no private-law experience? But he’d gotten it.
Retiring from the Navy to pursue a dream of practicing in the private sector had been a bold career move.
Unfortunately, his boldness did not extend to women.
He’d noticed Elizabeth—Liz—in Mea Cuppa the first day he’d jogged in to try the coffee. She’d entered moments later, carrying herself like a dancer, her movements smooth, graceful. He liked that she was tall, only a few inches shorter than his five-eleven frame, so he didn’t have to kink his neck to look at her. She wore her glossy chestnut hair shoulder length. She’d seemed lost in thought, focused on some internal musing, so he hadn’t approached her.
He’d come back to the shop hoping to see her as much as for the hearty java. He didn’t know how to approach women, never knew what to say. His best line was hello, and it had never gotten him very far. If not for the flying coffee, they might never have spoken. He could face down opposing counsel and argue with the best of them in a courtroom full of people, but he stalled out when he attempted to speak to a woman he was interested in.
She seemed young to be a widow, appeared to be in her midthirties. Tough losing a spouse. Grant sighed. A widow grieving the death of her husband and a man of limited social skills probably didn’t have much of a chance together. Right after her comment about his appearance, she’d beaten a hasty exit.
But she’d pronounced him handsome! Better looking than Harmon Rabb, the main character of JAG, played by actor David James Elliot. Grant shook his head and chuckled, drawing stares and frowns from coffee-shop patrons. He didn’t see it, but that she thought so was a positive sign. His mouth curved off-center when he smiled, giving him a goofy expression. His former health issue and stress over it had carved new lines around his eyes, aging him beyond his thirty-nine years. After chemo, his hair had grown back grayer than he remembered it being. But, at least, he still had hair. A full head of it.
Not that he spent much time worrying about his appearance. He’d never been one to place much importance on his looks, and a health crisis had a way of reshuffling one’s priorities.
Grant purchased a coffee and left the shop, hustling to ensure he could get to work early. As the new guy, he needed to make a good impression. Back at his condo, he showered in minutes then donned a suit before driving to the office. It was close enough to walk, and the courthouse was nearby, but one could not predict when transportation might be required. He bounded up the steps to the entrance and met up with a dark-suited older man with stooped shoulders. They reached for the handle at the same time.
Grant straightened his posture and pulled it open. “Good morning, Mr. Woodhue,” he greeted the firm’s founder and senior partner.
“Morning.” Woodhue jerked his head in Grant’s direction and appeared to scowl, but Grant had passed him in the halls often enough to realize he always looked that way. They entered the building, and Woodhue fixed a beady stare on him. “You’re new.”
“Yes, sir. I started two weeks ago.” This was the closest he had been to Woodhue, and he used the opportunity to study him, to catalog details to add to the information gleaned from Internet research. Though Woodhue’s curved posture further lessened his modest height, it did not minimize his stature. He radiated an aura of power. When he’d entered the lobby, the receptionist had sat at attention.
Woodhue lifted his wrist to check the time on a gold Rolex. The cuff of his white shirt was starched so crisp, one could cut oneself on the edge. His dark-blue, nearly black suit probably cost more than junior attorneys earned in two weeks.
“You’re Calvin Jessup’s hire. You were with JAG,” Woodhue said.
“Yes, sir,” Grant answered.
Gossip warned Woodhue kept a dossier on everyone in the firm. “If you have a birthmark on your ass, he knows about it,” one attorney had said.
Already, Grant had determined that staff fell into two camps: those who sought to curry Woodhue’s favor and those who hoped to fly under the radar and escape notice altogether. Woodhue could make or break a career, but the man scared the shit out of people. Deep grooves bracketed his thin-lipped mouth, giving it a permanent downward droop. Sagging jowls further contributed to the notion one had displeased him even before one spoke. And beneath heavy, disapproving brows, his eyes radiated cutting intelligence.
Grant took a breath. “Yes. I interviewed with Mr. Jessup. I’m Michael Grant Davis. I go by my middle name.” He scanned Woodhue’s face for a sign that his name meant something to him other than the fact he was the new guy.
Nothing. Disappointment tinged his relief, making him angry with himself for his foolishness. For goodness sake—what had he expected?
“I hold a bimonthly informal staff breakfast. Second and fourth Fridays. Six a.m. Executive dining room.” Woodhue nodded at him. “You may attend.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be there,” Grant said, and watched his biological father stride to a private elevator leading to the penthouse office suites.
Two years ago, if someone had suggested he would seek employment at the law firm founded by the father who’d never acknowledged his existence, he would have asked what they’d been smoking. After Grant had reached an age of understanding, his mother had informed him he’d been the product of a weekend fling. She didn’t even know the “businessman’s” real name.
She’d lied. Not about the fling part, but about the anonymity. He’d bought her story until he’d grown old enough to question how a single mother who worked as an administrative assistant could afford expensive private school and college. He’d learned the answer after her death when he discovered the paperwork granting financial support in exchange for confidentiality.
He also discovered his father’s name. Donovan Woodhue.
Grant hadn’t planned to act on the knowledge, but after his bout with cancer, he’d reprioritized his life and wanted to meet the man who’d fathered him. Tracking down Donovan Woodhue hadn’t been difficult, but it was almost kismet when the position at the firm had become available. He’d applied and been granted an interview with another of the partners. He brought excellent letters of recommendation from his commanders and fellow JAG officers, but, with so many applicants, he hadn’t counted on getting the position. But he had.
For a fleeting moment, he’d wondered if his identity had somehow played a role in his hiring, but nothing on his curriculum vitae gave away his identity. His mother had married Reuben Davis before Grant started elementary school, and although the marriage hadn’t lasted long, Grant had been given his stepfather’s surname, replacing his mother’s. He doubted Donovan even knew the legal name of the child he’d fathered. From what he could tell, there’d been no contact other than to set up the automatic child-support payments. By all appearances, the man had severed any and all parental involvement.
Today’s conversation comprised the first words he’d ever exchanged with his father. Breakfast on Friday? You could bet he’d be there. Grant nodded at the receptionist and took the public elevators to his office on the fifth floor.