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They say bad things happen in threes. When her fiancé, Sam, disappears on the same day her mentor and biggest client is killed, hotshot Chicago attorney Izzy McNeil starts counting. But trouble keeps coming. Sam is implicated in the client's death, her apartment is broken into and it's not just the authorities who are following her.
Now, to find Sam and uncover her client's murderer, Izzy will have to push past limits she never imagined. Lucky for her she's always thrived under pressure, because her world is falling apart. Fast. And the trail of half truths and lies is red-hot.
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Laura Caldwell, a former trial lawyer, is currently a professor and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She is the author of eleven novels and one non-fiction book. She is a nation-wide speaker and the founder of Life After Innocence, which helps innocent people begin their lives again after being wrongfully imprisoned. Laura has been published in thirteen languages and over twenty countries. To learn more, please visit www.lauracaldwell.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"McNeil, she's not signing this crap."
"She told me she was signing it last week."
"She told you she was considering it."
"No." I moved the phone to my other ear and pinned it there with my shoulder. With my hands free, I shifted about ten stacks of papers on my desk, looking for Jane Augustine's contract. I punched the button on my phone that would send a bleating plea to my assistant. "She told me she was signing it. Period."
"That's insane. With that lame buyout clause? No way. No. Way. You have no idea what you're doing, kid."
I felt a hard, familiar kernel of fear in my belly.
"It's the same buyout clause she had in her last contract." I ignored the personal comment he'd lobbed at me. I had gotten my fair share of them while representing Pickett Enterprises over the past three years and, although I acted like such comments didn't sting, I often thought, You're right. I have no idea what I'm doing.
I finally found the current contract under a pile of production- facility agreements. I flipped through it as fast as I could, searching for the clause in question.
My assistant, Q—short for Quentin—stuck his head in my office with a nervous what now? look. I dropped the document and put my hand over the mouthpiece. "Can you get me Jane's last contract?"
He nodded quickly, his bald, black head shining under the fluorescent lights. He made a halfhearted attempt to find it amongst the chaos that was my law office—redwell folders that spanned the length of my visitors' couch, file folders, motions and deposition transcripts stacked precariously on my desk. Throwing his hands up, Q spun around and headed for his own tidy and calm workstation.
"I'm not messing around, kid," Steve Severny continued. Severny was the biggest agent/lawyer in town, representing more than half of Chicago's broadcasters and nearly all its top actors. "Change the buyout or we're walking. NBC has been calling, and next time I'm not telling them no."
I swallowed down the tension that felt thick in my throat. Jane Augustine was the most popular news anchor at the station owned by Pickett Enterprises, my client. The CEO, Forester Pickett, was a huge fan of hers. I couldn't lose Jane to another station.
Meanwhile, Severny kept rolling. "And I want a pay-or-play added to paragraph twenty-two."
I flipped through the contract and found the paragraph. It was tough, yes, and it was favorable to Pickett Enterprises, but as much as I couldn't lose Jane, I couldn't simply give in to anything her agent wanted. My job was to land the terms most favorable to Pickett Enterprises, and although the stress of that job was always heavy, sometimes so heavy I could barely see through it, I would do my job. There was no alternative.
"No pay-or-play," I said. "It's nonnegotiable. I told you that last time, and I'm telling you again. That comes from Forester himself." It always helped to throw Forester's name in the mix, to remind people that I was here, making their lives tough, because he wanted me to.
"Then let's talk about the non compete."
"Let's do that." I thumbed through the contract, grateful to have seemingly won a point. Q darted into the room with Jane's previous contract, cleared a space on my desk and put it down.
I nodded thanks.
Q then placed a sheet of white paper on top of it, giving me a sympathetic smile. In red ink, he'd written, Izzy, your meeting with the wedding Nazi is in forty-five minutes.
"Crap," I said.
"That's right," Severny said, his voice rising. "That's what I told you before. It is crap. And we're not signing it!" And with that, he hung up.
"Mother hen in a basket!" I yelled, slamming down the phone.
I was trying not to swear anymore. I thought it sounded crass when people swore. The problem was it sounded great to me when I did it. And it felt so damn good. But swearing wasn't appropriate at a law firm, as Q had reminded me on more than one occasion, and so I was replacing things like goddammit with God bless you and Jesus Christ with Jiminy Christmas and motherfucker with mother hen in a basket.
Q sank into a chair across from my desk. "I know you're crazed, and I know you have to leave soon, but first I need some of your fiery, redheaded decisiveness."
I sat down, crossed my hands on my desk and gave Q my army-general stare. "I could use a quick break. Hit me."
Q was wearing his usual crisp khakis and a blazer. He tugged at the blazer to try to hide the slightly protruding belly he hated—his personal nemesis to the perfect gay physique. Not that this deterred him from sizing up the rest of the male species. Q had emerged from the closet six years prior, and though he had a live-in boyfriend, Max, he still enjoyed the "new gay" privilege of ogling every man he came across.
He paused dramatically now. "Max's mother is coming to town tomorrow."
"I see your problem." Max's mother was a former Las Vegas showgirl, an eccentric woman with whom you'd love to grab a martini, but who wears you out after two hours. The last time she'd come to Chicago, Q nearly broke up with Max just for an excuse to get out of the house.
"How long is she in for?" I asked.
"That's not going to work."
"I know it's not going to work."
"You can make her help with your Halloween party this weekend."
He nodded, reluctantly conceding the point. "What am I going to do the rest of the time?"
"Watch a lot of football?" Q had retained many of his straight-man tendencies. A love of football was one of them.
Q had gray eyes that I'd always found calming, but they flashed with irritation now. "That's another not decisive, Izzy. There's a question mark at the end of that sentence. And you know she'll hover and talk, hover and talk. I won't see a single play."
"Okay, okay. Tell Max she has to stay in a hotel, and you guys will pay for part of it."
Q ran his hands over his head again. "I guess maybe that would work." He sighed. "God, I hate being in a relationship."
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do."
Just then Tanner Hornsby, a high-ranking partner in his mid-forties, walked by my office. He was tall, with deep-black hair (dyed, I suspected) that arched into a widow's peak. He was rumored to run five miles a day, every day, before work, and so he was lean and wiry, but he had the tired, slightly puffy eyes of a career drinker.
He stopped now and frowned at us.
Q turned in his seat. "Oh, hello, Mr. Hornsby," he said in a breathy, effeminate voice, which he doled out only to annoy certain people like Tanner and his father.
"Hi, Tan," I said.
His frown deepened. No one called him Tan. He was Mr. Hornsby to most, and Tanner to the elite few, myself definitely not included, but I needed him to consider me his legal equal. I ignored his disdain and called him Tan because I wanted him to know he didn't scare me, even if he did. Behind closed doors, Q and I had other names for him—Toad Horny, Tanned Hide, the Horned One...
"I couldn't help but hear your phone conversation from down the hall," Tanner said. "Was that Steve Severny you were speaking with? Problems?"
Tanner Hornsby had negotiated hundreds of contracts with Steve Severny. Severny would never tell Tanner he didn't know what he was doing.
"No problems." I gave Tanner my dutiful-nice-girl look that served me well at the law firm of Baltimore & Brown. Though truthfully, I didn't need the look anymore. The ludicrous amount of dough I pulled in through the Pickett Enterprises work allowed me to get away with just about anything. I was my own little island amid a sea of associates who hadn't been as lucky as me and, as a result, were forced to be ass kissers and line-toers.
"How are your hours this month, Isabel?"
"Just fine, Tan, thanks for asking."
Ever since Forester Pickett had made me the lead attorney for Pickett Enterprises, taking the cases away from Tanner, Tanner had hated me. Tanner was lifelong friends with Forester's son, Shane. He'd originally gotten the Pickett Enterprises work because of that connection and thought he'd never lose it. Every so often, Tanner tried to throw his lean, wiry weight around and remind me that he was still my superior by asking questions about billable hours or continuing legal education. I felt bad for him. I felt guilty. I hadn't tried to take Forester's work from him. Forester had simply taken a shine to me, and I rode that windfall as far as I could. I knew many attorneys at the firm thought I'd gotten the work because I was a woman—a young woman with long curls of red hair who wasn't afraid to wear high, high heels and drink with Forester until the wee hours.
Even if that was true, I didn't care. I adored Forester. He was a smart, sweet man—not one of those older guys who oh so accidentally kept touching your hand... and your elbow... and your lower back. No, Forester was a prince, and like a prince he'd swooped in and saved me from the torment and agony of being just another associate slave. The job was hard, but I knew I was now doing good things for Pickett Enterprises. Still, that knowledge couldn't hedge my occasional yet powerful bouts of self-doubt or the feeling that I was an impostor, one who could be exposed at any time.
Tanner grunted. "Keep the hours up. We've got the end of the year soon."
I put a concerned look on my face, as if I didn't have the top billable hours of any associate at the firm, and nodded. "Sure. Will do."
He left. Thank God.
My cell phone dinged from where it sat atop a monstrous deposition transcript on my desk. I picked it up. A text message from Sam. Hey, Red Hot Leaving for Cassandra's. See you there.
"Dammit." Cassandra was the wedding planner.
Q raised his eyebrows.
"Darn it," I corrected.
I swiveled around and started scrambling through the chaos on my credenza until I found my bag. I couldn't be late again. Plus, I needed to talk to Sam about this wedding stuff, which was starting to weigh me down as heavily as my job.
"Are you taking home the Casey research?" Q asked. "We have to file the motion by tomorrow."
"I know, I know." I stuffed a pile of case law and my Dictaphone into my bag.
"And don't forget Sam's work dinner tonight at the Union League Club," Q said.
I tried to ignore the mountain of panic taking over my insides. "Yeah, it's going to be torture. Those financial dinners always are. But I'll leave early and work on the motion."
"You can do it," Q said. "You always do."
"Thanks." I stopped and smiled, and he flashed one back.
As I kept stuffing things into my bag, I thought about how a big blowout wedding had not been my idea. In fact, when Sam and I got engaged, I was fine to book a trip to the Caribbean with a few friends, throw on a little slip dress and get married to the sound of steel drums. But my mother, who hadn't planned much of anything, or didn't usually care about much of anything, seemed stuck on a huge, traditional wedding. And my soon-to-be husband, who had legions of friends from grade school, high school, college, business school and work, said he was on board for that as well. I want everyone to see how much I love you, he'd said. How does a girl say no to that?
My phone rang. Q took a step toward my desk and we both looked at the caller ID. Victoria McNeil. My mother.
Q picked it up, handed it to me and left the office.
"Hi, Mom." I zipped up my bag. "What's up?"
"Izzy, I know you two picked out the plates with the silver border for the reception, but I think we should consider the gold again." My mother's voice was calm and smooth, as always. "I've been thinking about it, and the linens are a soft white, rather than a crisp white, and that really lends itself toward gold rather than silver."
"That's fine. Whatever you think." Reflexively, I extended the fingers of my left hand and glanced at my engagement ring, an antique, art-deco piece with an emerald-cut diamond. Looking at my ring used to make me grin. Now, it made me wince a little.
"Okay, and another thing. If you talk to your brother, Charlie, give him a little encouragement, will you? We need him to try on suits."
"The wedding is still six weeks away."
"That's right. Only six weeks away."
My stomach hollowed. Only six weeks.
"Charlie has to stop dragging his feet," my mom said.
I murmured in vague agreement, but for once I felt sim-patico with my brother. Mentally, I, too, needed to stop dragging my feet about this wedding thing.
"Don't forget, you have another dress fitting tomorrow night."
I tried not to sigh. "I know," I said. "Battle number five."
During the first visits with my bridal seamstress, Maria, it seemed she was trying to flatten my breasts and hide my hips, parts of my body I rather liked. I kept telling her, "I think the dress needs to be sexier," and so she'd been dutifully making the bustline lower and the waistline tighter, until the last time, when she'd taken the pins out of her mouth and said in her accented English, "You want to look like hooker on wedding day?"
I told her I'd think about it.
I realized that most women wanted an ethereal look for their wedding, but I liked wearing sexy clothes on a daily basis, so why not for my wedding day? Plus, Sam said he wanted me in something hot. So I was going to give him hot.
"Izzy, really," my mom said. "I don't want you showing nipple on your wedding day."
I laughed, and it felt good, like it was loosening up my insides. "See you tomorrow."
I logged off the computer, grabbed my bag and left to meet Sam.
It was just an average day.
The funny thing—although maybe funny isn't the right word—is that I already knew a single day could slap you around and send you reeling. I'd had such a day twenty-one years ago when my father died. It was Tuesday, and it was gloriously sunny and clear—I always remember the weather first—and Charlie and I were playing in the leaves in the backyard, making painstakingly neat piles, which we would dive into with a yelp and destroy in an instant.
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