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My presentation was only ten minutes away, and I was nervous. Okay, not nervous—apprehensive. Maybe a little bit apprehensive because this was so obviously a test. There was simply no other reason for the partners to have given me this particular assignment.
My fellow second-year law associate Cecily Green stopped in my office doorway and gave me an upbeat smile. “You’ve got this, Laila.”
Cecily was also my roommate, so she knew how many hours I’d spent preparing.
I couldn’t help but wish this was a morning timeslot. My brain worked better when it was fresh and firing on all cylinders, but our potential new VIP client only took afternoon meetings.
I’d probably do the same if I partied as hard as she did.
Twenty-eight-year-old Annalisa LeFroy was a staple of New York City’s social scene and a favorite subject of its most sensational media sites and influencers. They framed her as a spoiled rich wild child who’d never been given any boundaries.
It might be true, or it might be hype. I wasn’t about to get judgy on her. People glorified anything for clicks these days.
Annalisa LeFroy had been a golden child, cosseted by her uber wealthy parents then orphaned in her late teens. She was now the sole heir of the LeFroy business empire and was looking for new legal representation. Laatz Wallingsford, the law firm where Cecily and I worked, was in the running for her business and intended to land the multimillion-dollar account.
I returned Cecily’s smile, attempting to look calm and composed. It was good practice for the boardroom.
Her grin widened at my efforts. She could tell when I was faking. Luckily, Mr. Laatz and Mr. Wallingsford didn’t know me nearly that well.
The clock ticked down and I toed off my flats, slipping into a pair of stylish black high-heeled pumps. I’d learned a lot about the New York City legal dress code since I’d joined its ranks two years ago after graduating from Columbia.
Today I’d dressed in my newest steel-gray blazer, a scalloped-edge white blouse, and a coordinated skirt—not too short, not too long. My earrings were little diamond chips, while a tiny, star-shaped crystal pendant hung around my neck to subtly tie it all together.
Lawyers weren’t flashy, but we weren’t dowdy either.
I pushed back my chair and lifted a stack of papers from my desk. I’d made handout copies of the presentation in case anyone wanted them. My assistant had set up my laptop in the boardroom, and I had a backup file on a memory stick in my pocket just in case.
“Nervous?” Cecily asked.
“Absolutely.” I wasn’t about to lie to Cecily, not that I’d get away with it anyway.
Beyond the importance of Annalisa LeFroy’s extensive jewelry, clothing, and accessories empire, this was my first presentation in front of both name partners Harold Laatz and Roland Wallingsford.
“You know you know it all,” Cecily said as I stepped around the end of my desk. She was my biggest cheerleader, and I loved her for it.
“Thanks,” I said, grateful for the last-minute pep talk.
I knew the LeFroy divisions and companies backward and forward: their successes, their failures, their current objectives. And I trusted the expertise and experience Laatz Wallingsford could offer. I’d come up with a variety of relevant examples of the law firm’s success with other corporate clients. My secret plan was to pretend I’d remembered one or more of them on the spot if the conversation steered itself in the right direction.
I liked to plan my spontaneity.
“Rock and roll, you,” Cecily said, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze as I passed by.
“Thanks,” I said again, then I practiced my calm, composed smile.
She laughed at my effort. “Keep it up, Laila.”
I left her and headed for the eighty-ninth floor. It was the executive floor and accessed by a special elevator with polished gold doors. Mr. Laatz and Mr. Wallingsford’s offices were on eighty-nine along with the firm’s executive boardroom.
I’d been up to that rarified air only once, on my first day at the firm when I was given a brief tour of the five floors Laatz Wallingsford occupied in the Berske Building on Madison Avenue. I hadn’t left the elevator then, but I remembered the gleaming oak floor, the arched windows and brickwork, and the stylish burgundy furniture grouping beside a hand carved wooden reception desk. The tone had been hushed and the air had smelled of fresh citrus.
Now the elevator rose smoothly up to the inner sanctum.
Executive receptionist Marcy Blackwell was waiting for me when the doors slid open.
I recognized her, although we didn’t socialize. The eighty-ninth was self-contained with gourmet coffee and exclusive catering in its posh break room. There wasn’t much of a reason for the eighty-niners to venture downstairs.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Arquette.” Marcy looked sleek and professional in a forest-green Chivalist dress. Chivalist was one of LeFroy’s most exclusive brands.
I guessed her short black jacket was the product of a LeFroy company too. And her belt bore LeFroy’s discreet silver Zimma label. It seemed likely that her sapphire earrings, bracelet, and necklace set had a similar pedigree.
I thought it was a smart move for the firm to buy her the outfit. I assumed Marcy didn’t buy it herself—unless executive receptionists made a whole lot more money than second-year associates. I wasn’t complaining about my salary. Laatz Wallingsford was very competitive compared to other firms. But I sure wasn’t in the market for designer clothes and jewelry—at least not yet. I hoped to be someday, if my career went really well.
I loved the law. I also had a healthy appreciation for the cost of living in the city. I’d spent my early years in Brooklyn, but I loved Manhattan, and Midtown was where I wanted to put down roots.
“This way,” Marcy said and gestured across the expansive foyer.
I fell into step beside her as she glided on a pair of Zimma pumps with heels a good inch higher than mine. I hoped she didn’t have to spend too much time standing today. After a couple of hours, those things had to hurt.
I heard several voices come through a set of open double doors.
“Has Ms. LeFroy already arrived?” I hadn’t wanted to be early, but I sure didn’t want to be late either. A quick glance at my watch told me it was about ninety seconds to two o’clock. That was as perfectly on time as I could be.
“You’re the last to arrive,” Marcy said.
I was disappointed that my timing wasn’t as perfect as I’d planned. I prized punctuality, and I knew others did too. I shook off the feeling that I was already one step behind.
I tilted my chin and drew back my shoulders, knowing the next best thing was to project confidence.
Harold Laatz, Roland Wallingsford, Annalisa LeFroy, and third-year associate Thad Nelson were standing in a cluster talking among themselves. At least ten other people were sitting silently in chairs around the perimeter of the room. I recognized Mr. Laatz and Mr. Wallingsford’s assistants sitting side by side. The others I guessed might be with Annalisa.
The group was bigger than I’d expected, and I hoped I had enough handouts. I’d have to make sure I projected my voice.
I didn’t know where they expected me to stand or sit, so I hovered near the door for a moment.
“. . . and then Bangle became so upset by the noise from the jackhammer,” Annalisa was saying to the little group. “And the traffic was absolutely horrible. Did you know you don’t have a helipad on top of your building?”
Mr. Laatz spoke up. “I’m afraid city regulations don’t allow for—”
“Shh.” Annalisa shushing Mr. Laatz was almost comical. But her attention was on a stylized black-and-gold bag in her hand.
The bag jiggled.
The movement startled me. Then I saw it was a pet carrier—a deep purple, richly gold-embossed pet carrier.
It had to be her little Pomsky dog, Bangle.
Bangle was almost as internet famous as Annalisa herself—which spoke to the frivolity of her social media followers. Black with dark eyes and gray markings on his face, people cooed and fussed about the cute and precious little Bangle. Someone even wrote a comedy blog in his name—a Bangle-eye-view of social events, like the Met Gala, the Paradise Club, or the Snowflake Ball.
Mr. Wallingsford reached for the case. “May I help you with—”
Bangle gave a sharp bark.
Mr. Wallingsford snapped his hand back, and my stomach jumped.
Dogs made me nervous. They always had. At least they had since I’d been bitten at six years old.
It was Ollie, my neighbor Mrs. Putt’s purebred Maltese, the prettiest most harmless-looking little fluff ball you’d ever seen. My mom was allergic to everything, so we couldn’t have animals while I was growing up. I decided to befriend Ollie, hoping Mrs. Putt would let me take him to school for pet day.
Instead of becoming my friend, Ollie had chased me across his little yard and got a good bite on the inside of my calf before I could scramble back over the fence. I have a wicked scar to this day.
Bangle began barking in earnest, and the sharp sound jangled my nerves.
I swallowed, telling myself to stop being irrational. The dog was in a carrier, not running free. He wasn’t going to pay any attention to me.
“Now, now,” Annalisa cooed to Bangle.
He stopped barking.
I steadied my breathing.
But then Annalisa flipped open the top and lifted him from the case. Bangle wiggled in her hand, bicycling his legs in the air while his gold and gem-crusted collar sparkled around his neck.
My heart rate jumped to flight mode.
“He needs his lunch,” Annalisa said to no one in particular.
The dog looked my way then. His black nose twitched like he could smell my fear.
Annalisa nuzzled the top of his head. “He can’t have his medication without food, can you my little darling . . .” She let the words dangle, obviously expecting someone to step up and solve the problem for her.
I looked at her staff sitting along the wall, but none of them volunteered. They weren’t even making eye contact. I had to guess they weren’t Bangle fans.
“He only eats the highest quality meat,” Annalisa said, lifting her face. She began stroking his head. “But nothing spicy. Is there a good deli on the block? His favorites are chicken breast or roast beef, but it has to be thinly sliced.”
Bangle barked again and lunged my way. I held my ground. I couldn’t let a dog of all things mess with me before my big presentation.
“He likes you,” Annalisa said to me.
I couldn’t immediately find my voice. I sure wasn’t interpreting Bangle’s glare as friendly.
“Laila,” Mr. Wallingsford said in a meaningful tone.
I glanced his way, trying to figure out what he wanted.
He nodded to the dog. “Please take Bangle for Ms. LeFroy.”
I blinked. I couldn’t possibly have heard him right.
“He really does like you,” Annalisa said, edging my way.
“Laila.” Mr. Wallingsford sounded slightly testy. “Take Bangle and find him some lunch.”
“But,” I managed to squeak out.
Annalisa extracted a bottle of pills from her purse. “You have to break the capsule open and sprinkled it on his food. Be sure to rub it in. It tastes bad.” Her voice turned singsong. “Doesn’t it, little boo-boo?” She nuzzled the top of the dog’s head again.
Mr. Wallingsford raised his voice. “Laila.”
“My presentation,” I managed to squeak out.
He waved a dismissive hand. “We’ll take care of that. Just give your notes to Thad.”
I barely managed to hold back an exclamation. I’d committed most of the facts to memory. Thad couldn’t just jump in with my notes—and I really wanted this opportunity. I wanted to shine.
“Laila loves dogs,” Mr. Laatz interjected.
My eyes lost focus for a second.
Annalisa pushed a wiggling Bangle into my arms. His back feet scrabbled against my handouts, and his front claws scratched my shoulder. I reflexively squeezed to keep him from climbing over my shoulder, and he growled his annoyance and lunged at my ear. I squealed in fright and dropped my handouts as he jumped and hit the floor running.
“Laila!” Mr. Laatz shouted.
“You dropped him!” Annalisa cried. Her pretty face flushed red. “Catch him! Somebody catch him! Oh, Bangle. His legs could be broken.”
Judging by Bangle’s sprint across the boardroom, his legs were perfectly fine. He skidded around a chair, sliding under the catering table and disappearing behind the white cloth. Seconds later, he was out the other end, but his jeweled collar caught on the fabric.
The tablecloth pulled him to a choking stop, but not before the dishes shifted. The five-tiered dessert tray tilted dangerously to one side.
“Bangle!” Annalisa shouted again, rushing across the room on her pink spike heels.
I watched in horror as the elaborate dessert tray tipped over, bouncing off the table before smashing to the floor. The sound scared Bangle who made a desperate lunge. He broke free of the tablecloth, but the tall floral arrangement came down next, soaking the hors d’oeuvres, breaking the champagne flutes, and knocking three bottles of champagne to the floor where they exploded and foamed out in a flood.
Bangle streaked for the open boardroom door, but Thad had the presence of mind to close it before the dog could escape. Then Thad scooped up the dog and returned it to Annalisa, who cuddled and cooed, burying her face in his fur.
Everyone else stared at me with varying degrees of censure and blame.
End of Excerpt