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“So you see, Ms. Austin, what I’d like is for you to explain to my daughter that pursuing a legal career is in her best interest. Law school is unquestionably the right next step for her.” Wholly satisfied with his own analysis, the man on the other side of my desk leaned back comfortably in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.
His twenty-three-year-old daughter, on the other hand, perched miserably on the edge of her seat, looking defeated and angry at the same time. She hadn’t spoken a word since they’d arrived, and she only made eye contact with me in short, painful bursts. This noon visit to my firm had obviously been an ambush. Poor girl had probably thought her dad was taking her to lunch.
Inwardly I sighed. No good deed goes unpunished. Not that this “mentoring chat,” as it had been sold to me, could be categorized as a good deed. When the named partner of your law firm—a law firm you’ve only worked at for six months—asks you to have a “mentoring chat” with the daughter of his oldest friend, you really can’t say no. “She’ll respond to you,” the partner had said, just before dropping the father-daughter pair in my office with less than ten minutes’ notice. “I’m sure you have a lot in common.”
I eyed the young woman, Gwen Meadows, as she sat across from me in trendy high-waisted jeans and a cropped red top. Her eyeliner was dramatically winged and a perfect complement to her asymmetrical haircut with bright blue streaks. Not only was I almost a decade older, but in my conservative gray suit, I was dressed more like her father.
We were both stifling yawns, but I would have bet hers were because she was out on the town clubbing with friends late last night, whereas I was in this very office until 1:00 a.m., eyeballs-deep in research. No, I doubted we had a lot in common.
Well, except pushy fathers.
I took a deep inhalation through my nose and furrowed my eyebrows thoughtfully. So Dad wants his daughter to go to law school. Daughter has no interest in law school. Dad drags daughter to best friend’s law office and best friend digs up the only young female lawyer in the vicinity to try to talk her into it.
This was a strategy that would never work in a million years. Even if his daughter had interest in the law—which this one clearly did not—a little power play like this from Dad would be the exact wrong move.
Like visualizing chess pieces maneuvering on a board, I imagined and dismissed strategies as quickly as I could. There was only one worthwhile move here: the mind I needed to change was Dad’s. Not an easy task. But if, under all that pushiness, her father loved and respected her, not impossible.
I nodded seriously in response to his last statement. “Law school is certainly one path to a successful career.” I flicked my eyes to my computer screen, where I’d done some frantic Googling in the ten minutes I’d had to research Gwen Meadows. “Though it looks like Gwen has been remarkably successful at forging a different path.
“I see that you’ve been working at Fulcrum Digital Marketing,” I said cheerfully. “Crain’s New York Business has nothing but praise for Fulcrum. And you, personally, are building quite a reputation there.”
For the first time, her gaze caught mine and held. Her spine straightened.
“Do you like what you’ve been doing at Fulcrum?” I asked.
“I love it,” she said immediately.
Her father frowned at both of us. “She spends every waking hour at this…‘start-up.’” He said “start-up” like it tasted bad in his mouth. “She doesn’t have any time left to study for the LSAT.”
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off, pointed at my framed diplomas on the wall. “Ms. Austin, what did you study in college?”
Another sigh. He was going to take me off track, but a good lawyer always knows how to account for verbal detours. “Engineering.”
He nodded approvingly and then shook his head at Gwen. “See? A real course of study.” Her shoulders slumped back down. He leaned forward, as if his gravity would physically pull me into his argument. “I wanted Gwen to study something solid, like engineering or computer science. But her mother indulged her and look at where we are.” Gwen’s lips thinned and she glanced at the door.
I tried to win her back with a light, tinkling laugh. “Where we are? With a daughter who’s not only gainfully employed, but absolutely exceling in her chosen profession? At such a young age too!”
They both blinked at me, wearing identical expressions of distrust. It was kinda funny.
The dad opened and shut his mouth a few times, before deciding on “It’s kind of you to say so, but Gwen knows very well how I feel about her dabbles in marketing.” His mouth turned down at the corners. “I would have loved for her to join my business, but she’s never been interested in it. At least law school would lead her to a real career. To something important—not like whatever she’s doing in her current job.”
Apart from the fact that Gwen looked ready to commit patricide, I wanted to bounce up and down with glee. His carelessly cruel words had given me the ammunition I was looking for.
“Importance,” I emphasized. “Right.” I glanced one more time at the quick data I’d compiled and then stared at him across the desk. “I’d have to say that most companies consider sales to be pretty important. Wouldn’t you agree?”
He smirked at me indulgently. “As a business owner, yes, I would agree.”
“Well,” I continued, “as a result of Fulcrum’s last marketing campaign for Scandal Shoes, which Gwen led, the store enjoyed a forty percent sales increase in their last quarter.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, the smutty shoe store. I’m so proud.” Gwen’s hands turned to fists.
“You should be,” I said. “But if you have something against shoes, consider her other most recent project. Did you know that her digital campaign for Trident Bank caused a twenty-five percent increase of Trident ATM usage on the Upper East and West Sides? Or, how about her campaign for Pepper, the online grocery delivery service? I don’t have the exact statistics, but the New York Post article I read about the ad campaign credited it with Pepper’s advance to the number-one vendor in that space.”
He froze, pummeled into silence by my calm, factual defense. Gwen was making eye contact with me again, a proud open-mouthed smile on her face. Before now, I hadn’t even known she had teeth.
Dad started to say something, but I was on a roll. “What’s the name of your business, Mr. Meadows?”
“Manor Supply,” he sputtered. I cocked my head at him, my face purposefully blank. “We sell medical supplies,” he explained.
I snapped my fingers. “Like Vocida Industries?”
His eyes narrowed. “Vocida is one of our main competitors.”
I nodded. “I’ve heard of Vocida. Not Manor though.” Shrugging innocently, I let my voice go dry and just a tiny bit scathing. “Vocida must have a better marketing team.”
When his mouth dropped open, Gwen let out a huge, honking laugh. “You just got lawyered, Dad. Maybe you were right. Maybe this meeting was a good idea.”
In spite of her mocking words, there was a note of care in her voice that I was happy to hear. Even happier when she stood and softly squeezed his shoulder. My chest twanged like a guitar string.
Father-daughter dynamics could be tricky, and I knew this particular one well. Sometimes career-focused fathers only knew one way to open a connection with their grown daughters—by talking about work. I rarely spoke to my own dad about anything else. It wasn’t a terrible way to connect, but often these powerful older men needed to be reminded that listening is pretty key to relationships.
Mr. Meadows looked at Gwen’s hand on his shoulder and then up at her face, surprised, like they hadn’t touched in a very long time. “I didn’t know about the bank and the grocer,” he mumbled. “You never said anything.”
Well, of course not. Resentful daughters didn’t always feel the need to justify their life decisions.
Luckily, Gwen seemed intent on taking the high road now that he’d softened a bit. She tugged on his arm. “Can we please actually just go to lunch? I’ll tell you more about it.”
I walked them to the lobby, smiled until they got in the elevator and disappeared. Whew. Thank goodness they had only taken twenty minutes of my day. At last glance, my whole afternoon was blocked full with meetings, and I needed at least an hour to prepare for them.
I had to make time for a very personal conference call today as well.
The thought made my stomach roil, so I was glad when my assistant, Rosie, appeared and handed me a cup of my favorite black tea as we strolled back to my office. “Thank you!” I said. “I need the caffeine more than I need oxygen right now.”
“How late were you here last night?”
“I left a little after 1:00 a.m.”
“Early for you!” She mock-glared at me. “You’re a robot, right? Only a robot could function as many hours of the day as you do.”
“Not a robot.” I yawned, although I’d been called it many times in the course of my career.
Rosie grinned slyly at me, and I knew that look. She was a woman with a juicy secret. “What?” I demanded. The assistants were always the first to know everything.
“Breaking news! It has to do with that idea you proposed to the team last Thursday,” she hinted.
I felt a zing of excitement on the back of my neck. Last Thursday I’d presented a possible strategy for case settlement, but it was risky and I hadn’t expected the partners would actually go for it.
“Depositions are being canceled left and right,” she said. “Urgent email in your inbox. Your case is going to settle, baby.”
“Wow,” I breathed, hovering at the threshold to my office. “That’s unexpected.”
“Right?! Yay you!” she exclaimed, offering a fist bump that I fumbled returning. “Bets are already being taken on which high-profile case they’ll give you next. Girl, you’re gonna be running this place in a few years.”
“That’s the plan,” I said breezily. Rosie greatly appreciated my blatant ambition, which is one reason I greatly appreciated her.
“So, some immediate schedule changes,” she started, holding up her tablet so I could see the calendar app. I nodded along, face serene and composed, but not really listening.
I was thrilled. Of course I was. This would be a huge boon for me so early into my tenure at this firm. Since I’d started, I’d proven I would work like a demon. But I hadn’t solely devised a case-winning strategy until now.
Huh. If the case was going to settle, all sorts of time in the very near future would free up. My afternoon, my evening, tomorrow, the day after that.
“You OK?” Rosie asked.
“Of course!” I chirped.
She waggled her eyebrows. “I bet the firm will throw a happy hour together to celebrate. They usually do on occasions like this. Probably Friday.”
I made a practiced cooing noise, a delighted yet noncommittal sound that said, “How lovely, but I’m not sure I’ll make it.” Did I have plans Friday night? Nope. Would I go to a happy hour? Only if there was no way I could avoid it.
Colleagues were often surprised at how quickly I could go from badass in the boardroom to awkward wallflower at the bar. Innate social shyness plus an intense reluctance to discuss anything personal kept me eons away from being the life of the party.
Rosie glanced at the tablet again. “The only thing left on your calendar today is whatever personal meeting you have blocked at 5:30.” She looked up, eyes twinkling. “Please tell me it’s time that you’re spending with a sexy adult man, Robot Emily.”
“Ha.” I laughed weakly and shut the door to my office without answering.
Yeah, it was time spent with an adult man. But no, Rosie, poor Cal was not sexy in the slightest. On the Zoom screen in front of me, my divorce attorney’s face looked particularly shiny.
I’d met Cal Bergman several times back in San Francisco, and he was always covered in a light sheen, even in the Bay Area’s cool climate. I used to surmise that he was intimidated by all the power players at the various social events where I’d seen him, but then I randomly ran into him at a dry cleaner’s one morning. He was perspiring then too, and I felt sorry for him. My looks weren’t anything special, but at least I didn’t walk around the world constantly drenched in my own sweat.
I resisted the urge to blot his screen-forehead with a paper towel and forced my attention back to his last words. “Apologies, Cal. Can you repeat that please?”
He nodded furiously at me as though I’d said something very smart instead of spacing out for the last several minutes during his warm-up small talk. “As an attorney yourself, you know that California is a no-fault state. Between that and your iron-clad prenup, this should be a very simple situation.”
A Very Simple Situation. Sure, Cal. Divorces were always notoriously simple.
But I knew what he meant. Bobby and I had only been married for nine months. There were no children. He had his own money and no access to mine. I wouldn’t think of taking his. So yeah. In that context, it was a Very Simple Situation.
If you didn’t take into account the embarrassment factor of being married for less than a year.
If you didn’t factor in…I don’t know, freakin’ feelings.
My face felt pretty hot, so maybe I was broadcasting the sarcasm. A line formed between Cal’s brows and he spoke quickly. “Not that I’m trying to minimize anything, of course. I fully understand—”
“It’s fine,” I said, cutting him off before smiling sweetly. This mess wasn’t Cal’s fault, and I’d hired him specifically because I knew he was deathly afraid of my father and would take care of this discreetly.
Outside of my office window, the mid-September sun was beginning to set. In the skyscrapers around me, office lights began to pop on to fight off the encroaching dusk. I hadn’t quite gotten used to my Manhattan view yet. I’d been working on a case in London from March until August. My New York case was supposed to last well into the new year, but now the settlement would open my schedule for something new. The country’s highest-ranked intellectual property firm never had a shortage of work.
“Shall I put together the paperwork?” Cal asked quietly. He spoke in such a gentle tone, probably perfected over a dozen years of handling Silicon Valley first wives. “We can file whenever you’re ready.”
I glanced down at my left hand, even though I’d stopped wearing my ring a month ago. “Yes, let’s get started.”
Cal bobbed his chin briskly, switching from sympathy to no-nonsense, and poised a pen over a legal pad. “Good. It takes a minimum of six months for divorces to become final in California, so the sooner we get started, the sooner this unpleasantness will be behind you.”
Unpleasantness. What a bland word. If the end of my relationship with Bobby was unpleasant, that would imply that the beginning was pleasant. Which was insipidly inaccurate. I could use a thousand different words to describe the beginning of me and Bobby March and not one of them would be pleasant.
Of course, at the core of the word pleasant was “to please”…and that had different connotations, different memories.
“I’ve just realized something quite silly.” Cal adjusted his glasses with a nervous laugh. “I don’t know what your legal name is, and I need it for the paperwork.”
I swallowed a sigh and gave him a practiced smile. I dealt with the name question constantly. I’d planned on taking Bobby’s last name to end the confusion once and for all, but things were over between us so quickly. I never became Emily March.
“I generally use the name Emily Austin.” That name was on the door to my office, it was how my coworkers and clients knew me, and I was comfortable with it. “But Austin is actually my middle name.” It had been my mother’s maiden name, and my parents had decided that I’d go by Emily Austin when I left home to go to college thirteen years ago. It was an attempt at protection, at anonymity. There were always paparazzi willing to stalk billionaires’ kids to try to get incriminating photos.
“My legal name is Emily Saturn.” The S got caught coming out, and I slithered the “Saturn” like a snake. The name never rolled off my tongue easily. I hadn’t answered to it since I was a child, and I didn’t like using it now. It was a weird, distinctive name to begin with. My father had imbued it with such power and status that it didn’t sit well on my very innocuous shoulders. The name felt wrong. Unearned.
“Got it.” Cal jotted away. “Is your permanent address still the San Francisco place, or have you officially moved to New York?”
I hadn’t officially done anything. I’d left our condo in the middle of the night on March 31, and I hadn’t been back since. But I hadn’t moved. Exactly. “I’m just traveling for work right now,” I said smoothly. “Use the San Francisco address.”
On autopilot, I answered more simple questions, watching the day fade away outside. It would be a beautiful, crisp September evening. The kind of night that made you want to walk the long way home. I would, I decided. For once, I didn’t have a case keeping me here late, and my rented studio was blank and depressing. I’d walk the streets for hours and distract myself in the Upper West Side.
Cal’s voice turned gentle again. “I assume you’re filing on the grounds of irreconcilable differences?” Since California was a no-fault state, those were the default grounds. It was a formal way of saying that you and your spouse had serious differences that had broken your marriage beyond your ability to repair it. No one was at fault, but you still wanted a divorce.
“Yes.” It came out as a whisper, so I cleared my throat and tried again. “Yes,” I said firmly. No one is at fault. That didn’t feel true.
If we had gotten married in an at-fault state, there would have been different grounds to choose from:
Adultery? Nope. Or at least, it hadn’t been an issue as of the night I left him. Since then, I suppose I couldn’t blame him if he’d…well.
Of course, at this point, he could claim desertion, if he were the one filing in an at-fault state.
Maybe we could both blame mental incapacity at the time of marriage. We’d been so crazy for one another, so obsessed with each other’s every thought, so insane with lust. What was that if not a form of mental incapacity?
Anyway. We got married in California. So irreconcilable differences it was.
No one is at fault. No, that didn’t feel true—but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered now, except getting the damn thing over.
Cal turned a page of his pad over. “The Summons Form is relatively simple. This one tells Mr. March that you’ve started a court case and the repercussions if he doesn’t respond within thirty days.” He cleared his throat and looked off into the distance. “Ah, is Mr. March still residing at the San Francisco address?”
I ground my jaw. “I don’t believe so.” I looked at the footage from our security cameras every few days. Bobby hadn’t been there in almost two months.
“I see. Has he taken up residence somewhere else in the city?”
“I don’t know.” A long hiss escaped my tight lips. “I don’t know where he is. We haven’t spoken in some time.”
Not one conversation. Not since that horrible phone call at the beginning of August when he’d called me at my London hotel, drunk off his ass.
No more texts or voice mails either. From March until that call in August, Bobby had texted or called every single day. Sometimes multiple times a day, even though I rarely responded. Usually he was sober and his messages were reasonable, asking what was going on. But sometimes he was miserable and pleading. Rarely, he was angry. The angry ones were the messages I listened to the most.
“No need to worry,” Cal assured me. “If you prefer to have no contact with him, we can handle everything.”
“I think that would be best,” I said demurely. My current dream was to get this divorce settled without seeing Bobby’s face or hearing his voice.
“We’ll find him,” Cal said confidently.
After a slight hesitation, he dropped his pen and entwined his fingers over his keyboard. Oh no. Here it comes: the unasked-for sympathy.
He cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips in a sad frown. “Might I say, Emily, how sorry I am that your marriage didn’t work out as you hoped. You’ve always been such a nice, sweet, good-natured young woman.”
I lifted my upper lip in an attempt to smile, but in my Zoom window, I was snarling. Why were so many people such lousy judges of human nature?
Being quiet is not the same thing as being nice.
Being shy is not the same thing as being sweet.
The ability to plaster on a smile in social or professional situations is a survival skill for women; it doesn’t make us all good-natured.
Ironically, the first person in my life who immediately saw through my quiet, shy-smiling bullshit to the real person underneath was my soon-to-be ex-husband.
End of Excerpt