She was going to kill him.
Brigid Anderson stood next to the bar, scanning the room full of lawyers and their partners for her date. As expected, Grady Coughlin had let her down. Like so many people before him on so many levels. She never should have let him come alone. Who knew what he’d be wearing or when he’d get here and who knew how he’d be received. A contractor for home repairs was not the typical guest for a law firm gathering, unless he was a business developer. Grady was not her standard plus one for these events but her usual companion, an assistant district attorney, was busy on a case. Since the evening was celebrating Grady’s brother’s promotion to partner, it was natural to invite him. Besides, he would have been there anyway and she would have had to explain to him why they weren’t together, leading to a really uncomfortable discussion, one she was not prepared to have at this time. Or any time.
Deep emotional conversations were not her thing. Law, legal precedent, and facts were more Brigid’s wheelhouse. Social chitchat, emotional baring of the soul, and girl bonding made her break out in hives. The next week or so was going to be a nightmare for her with Caroline and Matthew’s wedding, not to mention this little soiree tonight. Mentally, she shook her head. Get one thing out of the way, then deal with the rest. Survive tonight with the sharks, then onto the emotional quagmire of the wedding week.
She shuddered at the reminder of the wedding, despite vowing not to think about it. How could she avoid it? All of her college friends, together again after five years apart. A reunion of sorts, disguised as a pre-wedding party, according to Caroline. Brigid couldn’t avoid it, even with the big Cournoyer deal this week. She owed Caroline and Matthew too much. Caroline had bullied her out of her books and the library, pulling her into the friendship with the other girls, Anna Costado and Delaney Winters, freshman year when Brigid would have gotten lost trying to live up to her parent’s high expectations. Instead, Brigid had found something infinitely more rare-a lifetime friendship. It helped that Matthew was in law school himself and Caroline’s father was an executive partner, so Brigid’s father excused the friendship and didn’t dismiss it as useless. She was making connections, something her father could commend and support, at least.
The relationship with the three women had kept her going through those college years, a friendship she had never experienced. She had never had friends like them before and when they all separated, it had been devastating, like a raw, gaping wound. Caroline had been just as destroyed, and she had needed Brigid. When Delaney Winters’ father had been arrested for the Ponzi scheme then died shortly after, Delaney had cut herself off from her friends, an amputation that hurt Caroline, as Delaney and Caroline had been childhood friends. Anna headed off for Hollywood and the bright lights, leaving Brigid to pick up the pieces. Now, she was seeing them all again and wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about the whole situation.
“Miss? Can I get you something?” The bartender spoke behind her.
With barely a glance away from the doors, she said, “Scotch on the rocks. Single malt.”
Would anyone notice if she slipped away and went back to her office? Crowds of people made her skin itch. She didn’t have the smooth conversational skills of her interior designer younger sister, Andrea, who had probably worked with half the women in this room at one time or another. Andrea knew exactly what to say at exactly the right time to exactly the right person, while Brigid, well, Brigid was counted on to be the one who was hiding in the corner or spilling something on herself or, God forbid, the most important person in the room. Even her older brother, the brilliant neurosurgeon who was smarter than everyone around him, could socialize better than Brigid. Yet here she was, hiding out at the bar, waiting for her date to help her navigate the social conventions of the room and act as a buffer between the people she spent eighty hours a week with yet knew absolutely nothing about. That was okay really; they didn’t know anything about her either, and everyone was happy that way.
If only Grady was on time.
“Ms. Anderson. Very happy you were able to join us.” Bill Peterman, her boss and partner at the firm, spoke next to her, jarring her train of thought. He gestured imperiously to the bartender. “Scotch, on the rocks.”
She stiffened, almost as if he were a drill sergeant and she was a raw recruit. Having worked for him for over two years, she had not lost her intimidation for the tough man who held her future in the palms of his hands. Her mother’s voice echoed in Brigid’s head, the conversation prompts she had made her memorize before every social event with her father’s business colleagues when she had been growing up, all designed to help her father impress the people he worked with, to improve his status. Although somehow these timeless conversation starters always failed her at critical moments, usually quite spectacularly. Instead, she went with her strengths and ran through the case sitting on her desk and the remaining items on her task list.
“Yes, sir. I finished the last of the contract reviews and put them on your desk before I came here.” While everyone else was at the event.
Leave it to Peterman to assign her the bulk of work as punishment for a vacation while in the middle of a deal. It didn’t matter that she was attending the marriage of the daughter of one of the executive partners as a bridesmaid. No, instead, he was punishing her for her close ties with the Masters family and their only daughter, Caroline. As if she was getting special treatment. Hell, even Matthew, Caroline’s fiancé, never got special consideration, although some people thought the timing of his promotion to partner just before the wedding was evidence of his connection to the family. Which was bullshit. Matthew worked just as hard, if not harder than anyone else, wanting to prove his worth to Caroline’s father, even though no one ever asked for that.
“Miss?” The bartender slid the glass of scotch across the bar top to her and another to the partner.
Peterman raised his glass and clinked hers. “To a successful deal for Cournoyer Hotels.”
She smiled and sipped, feeling tension in her shoulders rise. The scotch burned a trail down her throat, igniting a different sort of fire in her stomach. Brigid refrained from pressing her fist to her chest, not willing to let anyone see any hint of weakness. Chivas. Nothing but the best for the firm’s celebration of new partners. She worked hard acquiring a taste for the liquor, wanting to fit in with the firm, making sure they saw her as partner material, not as the scholarship kid from the state university that she often felt when she listened to the pedigree of the other attorneys. Vanderbilt. Georgetown. Stanford. Harvard. University of Texas at Austin was good, very good, but add in the family name, which she had none, and she was on the outside looking in again. Unlike her brother and sister, she didn’t have the blazing social skills or brilliant mind to dazzle her partners.
“Mr. Peterman, I’d like to talk about one of the contract reviews. I noticed one clause looked a little off to me,” she said, sucking in a breath to launch into a deeper explanation but Peterman shook his head once slightly, considering her with a half-cocked head.
“You’re doing a good job on the deal. Your review of the lease agreements was well done and you discovered several key issues that could have delayed the deal if we hadn’t caught them. We should be able to finalize them while you’re on vacation. If you keep up the good work, you may see a promotion to the next level. I don’t have to tell you how unusual this is for a second year. But you’ve impressed me, despite your obvious limitations.” He then gave her a patronizing smile. “But we’re not here to talk work. We have plenty of time for that when we’re in the office. Tonight is a celebration.”
She continued to smile, her face brittle and her back molars grinding. Damn that pompous ass, only caring if someone went to an Ivy League law school or came from a prominent family, not the daughter of a mid-level insurance manager from Dallas. Even her connection to the Masters family was not enough for Peterman. He wanted his own promotion to executive partner and he wanted the connections to get him there. He believed he needed the staff who had the right contacts and background to support him in his journey. And he was snobby enough to believe only people from a certain level of society would be worthy of his time. Brigid didn’t fit that mold. Nice to know she was performing well though, although she was in her third year, not that he would care to remember that. How many scotches had he had to compliment her like that?
Where the hell was Grady?
“Mr. Peterman. Brigid. Nice to see you.” Terrence Darby, her colleague under Peterman and her biggest competition, stood a couple of feet away, utterly confident in himself and his pedigree. He barely spared Brigid a downward look but focused his entire attention on Peterman, probably pissed that Brigid had gotten there first.
“Terrance.” Peterman clapped him on the back, a broad grin on his face. “Nice job on the construction loan papers and finalizing the details yesterday. Thanks for stepping up and taking point on the finalizing of the lease agreements while Brigid is away next week.”
Terrence shot her a triumphant look and Brigid ground her teeth, taking another sip of the scotch to hide her grimace.
“My pleasure, sir. I rarely take vacations. Work is my life right now. Well, except for my lovely girl, Sarah.” He smirked.
So, what had been the island vacation in the spring? Definitely not a work event. And Brigid hadn’t taken a vacation since undergrad, spending all of her vacation time interning for law firms.
Reining in her anger, she bared her teeth. “I see you have a nice tan. Leftover from St. Bart’s, Terrence, or something more recent?”
“Tennis at the club every weekend. I believe exercise is good for the body and mind. Keeps you sharp and focused at the office.”
Brigid gritted her teeth and tried not to snarl a response, not that she had one ready. No, her mother had ingrained manners and not office politics in Brigid. She always told Brigid, “If you can’t be witty, then say nothing.” And, Lord knew, Brigid was not the witty one in the family.
“As do I, Terrence. Although this bum shoulder prevents me from playing tennis. How about you, Brigid? So, you play any sports?” Peterman turned his attention to her, eyebrow raised.
Flashbacks from school gym class had her breaking out in a sweat. Tripping over her own feet, picked last for every team. Sports were never her thing. Another set of genes that skipped the middle child in her family. Before she could respond, Peterman’s wife, Louise, joined the group and slipped her arm around her husband.
“Honey, I just talked to Susan. Her contractor is available for our formal living room. He’s a master of design and would be amazing for us. Much better than your nephew and how he screwed up our kitchen.”
He patted her arm. “Did you get his card?”
She waved it in the air before tucking it in her purse. “Right here. Hello, Brigid and Terrence. Nice to see you again. Is my husband treating you right?” Without waiting for a response, she glanced around. “Terrence, where is your lovely girlfriend? Sarah, is it?”
He smiled, shooting a quick satisfied glance at Brigid. “She’s my fiancé now. I proposed in the spring and we’re planning a Christmas wedding.”
Brigid resisted the urge to gag. Leave it to Terrence to one-up everyone around. She refocused as the congratulations were shared then realized Louise had asked her a question.
“I’m sorry, Louise. What did you say?”
The older woman smiled. “Of course, dear. I wish we could have used your sister. She is absolutely brilliant at design but her schedule was just too busy and we absolutely need this done before the holidays. I wish you could have convinced her to maybe make some time for us?” Louise’s voice rose on the suggestion and Peterman’s gaze narrowed at Brigid in an unspoken order.
Like her sister, Andrea, had any interest in helping Brigid’s career whatsoever. But Brigid obligingly pasted on a smile. “I’ll give her a call and see what I can do, Louise. I know her firm is often booked a year or two in advance now. Would you consider someone under her direction?”
Louise pouted briefly. “I suppose I could consider it, if your sister oversaw this person directly. I would appreciate anything you can do. Her work has been showcased in Texas Monthly this month and that would be just wonderful, wouldn’t it, Bill?”
Peterman made a sound of agreement as he sipped his scotch and gave Brigid one meaningful nod. Terrence watched the exchange with a tight smile on his face and Brigid could almost smell the wheels turning in his brain. He’d be finding some amazing designer soon to offer to Louise and save her design efforts when Brigid failed, as she probably would. Andrea would not do a damn thing for her sister, especially not for a small potatoes account as this one was.
Louise turned her full attention to Brigid. “Are you seeing anyone, Brigid? Your partner at home is just as important as coworkers in the office. Look at me and Bill. He works hard and I make sure everything run smoothly at home, hosting his business colleagues and dinner parties. Look at Terrence. He’s dating a financial adviser, bringing in more contacts for him and the firm.”
Brigid closed her eyes briefly and sucked in a breath. She was going to kill Grady, abandoning her to this fresh hell with her boss and the biggest kiss-ass in the department. Matthew would just have to find another groomsman and brother. Matthew wouldn’t mind. He’d understand, right?
A warm hand settled on her lower back and a figure leaned over her. “Sorry I’m late, honey.” He pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Did I miss anything?”
She let out a relieved breath. “You’re right on time, honey. This is Bill Peterman, my boss, and his wife, Louise. This is Grady Coughlin.”
Grady held out his hand and shook Peterman’s. “Pleased to meet you, sir. And Mrs. Peterman.”
“Coughlin? Any relation to Matthew?” Louise asked.
Grady had no problem carrying on a conversation with anyone, no worrying about topics or anything. Brigid envied that skill. She actually felt like his arm trophy, as if this was his event and she was his date. He and Louise were chatting as if they were old friends, casually, comfortably as if they had known each other forever. Meanwhile, Brigid’s skin was crawling with a desperate need to escape. As if sensing her tension, he placed one hand on her lower back and rubbed in light circles, soothing her and igniting a different kind of heat.
“Yes, he’s my older brother. In fact, I stopped to see him before I came over here. I got held up for a few minutes with Caroline’s parents.”
Terrence’s perfect girlfriend, tall, thin, blonde, and beautifully dressed, walked up and the Peterman’s turned their attention to them, congratulating them on their engagement. Meanwhile, Brigid relaxed into Grady, who leaned down as if they were sharing sweet nothings. His body pressed against her, warming her against the chill of the air conditioning and she longed to rest against him, but she resisted, needing to remain strong both as a lawyer and a woman. She could not afford to show any weakness, no matter how good his hand felt on her lower back and how much she relied on his steadying presence.
“Where have you been? Was I not clear on the time?” She kept a casual smile on her face, but the words were sharp.
“I waited outside until ten after, then Matthew found me and I’ve been trapped with him ever since. Where were you? Tied up at work again?” His voice roughened, a hint of anger in his tone, his hand stilling.
“I didn’t have to come from outside. I work here. I just took the elevator to the top floor. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I tried. It went to voicemail. So, you were working late?” His tone held a note of censure but she chose to ignore it. He pulled his hand away and she mourned the loss of connection.
“I always work until seven or later. Damn, I left my cell downstairs. Nice suit.” She glanced back at him, quickly noting the nice fit of the suit.
Normally seeing him in jeans or casual clothes hadn’t prepared her for how sexy the suit would look on him. A low hum of arousal that had started with his touch simmered hotter. It had been too long, she’d been too busy with work to find some personal time. Maybe she needed to make the time before the wedding.
“You were very specific when you called.”
His voice was neutral but the undertone was still there and made her pause and stare up at him, wondering what the problem was.
Louise turned her attention back to them. “What do you do, Grady?”
He smiled. “I’m a contractor, mainly houses and renovations, but I specialize in historic preservation.”
She cocked her head, speculation in her gaze and Brigid went on alert. “You mean like museums?”
“No, I take old houses and renovate them to historical accuracy.” Grady took a sip of his beer casually, not picking up on the subtle put-down.
“I see. Is there a lot of business in that?” Peterman asked, skepticism in his voice along with a note of judgment.
Brigid tensed and opened her mouth to step in but Grady replied smoothly. “There can be, especially in the midtown area. But it’s a small market, which is why I do other work. Building houses, doing renovations.”
“Really? Houses? Do you do additions and formal living rooms?” With a slightly predatory expression, she drew him away, linking her arm with his. “I have a few people to introduce you to, plus a potential business opportunity. You don’t mind, do you, Brigid?”
Their voices faded as she led him toward a group of people at the other side of the room, Brigid watching in bemused silence and concern. She wasn’t worried about Grady. He could handle himself with any crowd, only this group was more predatory than he might be used to, and she’d hate to see him insulted or treated poorly because he didn’t work in a lofty office like they did.
“Well, it looks like Louise may have found her contractor and I’ll have a few checks to be writing. Brigid, will we see you tomorrow in the office or are you leaving early?”
Terrence smirked at her. “I’ll be there.”
Grady looked across the room at her, a hint of panic in his eyes. Looked like he realized the crowd was less interested in his business than he’d thought. She grinned and picked up the not-so-subtle challenge from Terrence, even though she almost always worked on Saturdays. “Of course I’ll be there. I have a few small loose ends to wrap up. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll rescue Grady. Gentleman.”
She walked across the room and, as promised, she rescued Grady from a group of women, feigning a need to greet her boyfriend appropriately. She drew him into an alcove in the hall. He reached for her and leaned down to press a kiss to her lips. She slapped a hand to his chest and pushed him away.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Greeting my girlfriend?” He pulled back and frowned at her.
“We’re not dating. This is just a favor since Mike couldn’t make it.”
“Mike?” He growled, brows furrowing. “Who the hell is Mike?”
“A guy I went to law school with. He works in the DA’s office. He usually goes to these events with me but he had a case or something tonight.”
“On a Friday night? Oh, wait, he’s like you. All work and no play.” Grady scowled. “When are you going to lighten up and learn there’s more to life than work?”
She glared at him. “Look, all I need is for you to pretend to be my boyfriend and not make any other business connections, especially no jobs, okay? I can’t afford for you to be working for one of them and they find out this is all fake.”
“Don’t worry. Have you heard about Louise Peterman’s kitchen she had done last year? I mean she asked her contractor to tear down a load bearing wall because it got in the way of her Feng Shui or something bizarre like that.” He shuddered. “The woman has high maintenance written all over her. No thanks.”
“Well, see that it stays that way,” Brigid grumbled.
She started to slip by him but he slapped a hand on the wall, holding her in place. He lowered his head and forced her to look at him. “Now, about this Mike guy. I didn’t know you were seeing anyone.”
She scowled at him. “I’m not seeing him. He’s a friend and it’s a business arrangement. Neither of us have time to date so we go to business functions together. It’s no big deal. Now, can I go?” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently.
He dropped his arm and stepped back. “Fine. But this isn’t over.”
“It is for me.”
As soon as they reentered the party, Matthew called for Grady to introduce him to some of the partners, leaving Brigid alone to navigate the room, just the event she had been trying to avoid. A date was the perfect foil for her social anxiety but she couldn’t get in the way of brothers, especially when one of them was the reason for the evening. A low rumble in her stomach reminded her she hadn’t eaten since the small salad at lunch, which was several hours ago. And scotch on an empty stomach was a recipe for disaster, in more ways than one. She made her way to the buffet, where several appetizers and finger foods were laid out, stopping dead at the sight of one of the partners all alone, filling a plate.
Elizabeth Wardwell was an older woman, in her fifties, attractive in a stern schoolmarm way. Her hair had once been black, now liberally streaked with white, the classic salt and pepper coloring. It was cut in a blunt bob at her shoulders and straight bangs across the forehead, adding to her no-nonsense attitude. She was a tough partner on the interns and junior lawyers, but fair, and acted as a mentor to some of the women lawyers including Brigid. But ol’ Barracuda Betty, as the juniors all called her, was a ball-buster and no one wanted to be on her bad side. Peterman was bad enough, but Barracuda? Brigid shuddered. Even she made Brigid nervous.
Before she could turn and be swallowed up by the crowd, because even starvation wasn’t enough for Brigid to face Barracuda, the other woman turned and saw her. She arched an eyebrow, her version of a summons. Brigid froze, then pasted a polite, but deferential smile on her face and approached the woman, wishing she dared down the rest of the scotch but it would cause bigger pain for her and her stomach if she did so. So, she squared her shoulders and walked the remaining few steps to the other woman.
“Ms. Anderson. I hear good things about you from Bill Peterman, which is a feat in itself since it’s well known that he’s fully invested in the old boys’ network. Well done.”
The note of approval tinged with disdain confused Brigid so she settled for a very neutral response. “Thank you, Ms. Wardwell. I’m gaining valuable experience with Mr. Peterman.”
“You’re lucky he lets you do anything at all. So, either you’re incredibly competent or your colleague is incompetent. So, which is it?” The older woman waved a hand. “Never mind. It will all be sorted out eventually. I met your young man. Coughlin’s younger brother, isn’t he?”
Bewildered by the sudden change in topic and not sure if she should have been offended or not, Brigid said the only thing that came to mind. “He’s not my young man. Just a friend.”
“Interesting choice of partners, Ms. Anderson.” Elizabeth picked up a plate and walked over to a tall table on the side, leaving Brigid no choice but to follow.
“How so, Ms. Wardwell?” Again, with the neutral responses.
No wonder she didn’t choose a litigator’s role. She must sound like an idiot to the polished partner. She took the last sip of her scotch, praying it would lend her some courage for the rest of the conversation, wishing she had more in the glass.
The woman studied her intently, as if weighing a decision. Finally, after a few long moments, she nodded. “Our life is not an easy one, Ms. Anderson. Women in a male-dominated world. Power players. We’re either bitches or bedmates. Now, I don’t see you as a bedmate so that leaves one option. No matter how you act, if you want to get ahead, you’ll have to accept being called a bitch. Can you handle that?”
“What does this have to do with my choice of partners?” Brigid asked, taking the bold step to question the partner while she seemed approachable.
“With men, it’s easier. Traditionally, they marry a woman who is the perfect hostess, knows how to work the room at parties, and deal with the everyday life. With women, our challenge is finding a man willing to be that person for us, willing to support our careers without feeling threatened or intimidated by our success. Now, if both parties are career minded, you have a different problem. Who will back down if you decide to have a family? One party always has to give in. Or you take two different paths and one day you wake up and find out that you have nothing in common. Or maybe you find out he’s been doing his assistant at lunch and your marriage is over. Do you understand?”
“Not really.” She decided on honesty.
Supposedly, it was always the best policy, although in this case, she wasn’t so sure. She really didn’t know why the partner had decided to unload on her right now and she was worried this was a trap of some sort. Experience had taught her that advice was never free and everyone always had an agenda. What was Betty’s?
“Can your young man handle the long hours, the stress, and the demands of your job?” She arched her eyebrow and tapped a finger on the table top.
“Well, first off, he’s not my young man. He’s just a friend. Second, he’s a contractor, so he has his own business to think about.” Uncomfortable with the questions raised by the woman, Brigid decided to deflect. “To be honest, I haven’t really thought about this much at all.”
“I like you, Ms. Anderson. No need to look so terrified. I know what the junior lawyers call me. Barracuda Betty. I’m proud of that name. I see a lot of me in you and I think you could be an excellent lawyer. But you have some personal decisions to make. Are you prepared to do that? Do you know what you want?”
Sensing it was not a rhetorical question, especially as the silence dragged on and people milled about them, giving them a wide berth, Brigid considered her words carefully. Finally, she said, “I haven’t thought about the future much at all, not beyond making partner.”
Elizabeth stood, wiping her hands on her napkin carefully. “You’d better consider it. The law makes a very cold bed partner and you should make your decisions now while you have a choice. Your partner will be in a position to help you or hurt you. Your promotion doesn’t only rely on your work but on your connections and on the cases you can bring into the firm, cases coming from your contacts. A contractor might not be a position to help you in your future here at the firm. He’s a nice young man and has done well for himself, owning his own business and carving a niche out for himself. But ask yourself this. What can he offer you for your future?”
She turned to walk away and Brigid held up her hand to stop her. “Ms. Wardwell? Do you ever regret your choices?”
Elizabeth turned around, a guarded look on her face. “Of course not.”
Why didn’t Brigid believe her?
End of Excerpt