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Evie sat on the bench at her vanity and slathered her body in fragrant moisturizer before applying her makeup. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d worn a full face. As a pastry chef, staring into a hot oven, and hands deep in moist dough most of the day, there simply wasn’t a need for it.
She hastily picked up the damp bath towel from the floor and rushed to neatly fold it, feeling that familiar twinge tightening her skin. But she caught herself. Some habits, even forced ones—Patrick expected tidiness—were hard to break. She tossed the weighted Turkish cotton blend onto the counter and went to her adjoining closet.
Beneath bright recessed lighting, designer dresses hung from heavy brushed nickel rods. Shoes and handbags lined pristine white shelves. The large, thick slab of gray travertine set atop a center island that housed drawers filled with high-quality silk and satin undergarments.
Just about every extravagance in her wardrobe had been purchased by her husband. Patrick called them gifts. But she saw them for what they were: his way to control her all the way down to her bare flesh.
Ann, as my wife, you must present yourself appropriately.
He never called her Evie, preferring her middle name. He’d expressed it was a loving sentiment shared only between them, so she’d allowed it. But later toward the end of the marriage during one of his many outbursts, he’d said Evie sounded infantile.
She was required to dress to the nines. Fine crystal had to sparkle, and silverware had to be properly set at every meal.
Evie looked around the spacious room that was about the size of some of D.C.’s studio apartments. Seven years. How did I endure it for so long?
With a good mental shake, which seemed to be happening more and more lately, it brought her back to the matter at hand.
Well, the Vera Wang blush-pink sheath dress looked professional enough. Its three-quarter-length, color-matched trench coat should provide adequate comfort for the DMV’s forecasted high-sixty-degrees, early summer afternoon.
She slipped her feet into a pair of high-arched, dove-gray leather pumps and grabbed the matching handbag that had been used once or twice at most.
With her red wire-framed glasses in place, she pinned the top of her hair away from her face, letting the rest drape loosely at her shoulders. Her dark toffee curls tended to frizz if someone so much as exhaled too heavily.
After a quick look in the full-length mirror, she headed down the ornate curved stairs into the foyer, her heels clipping along the smooth marble. With each step, the echo that resonated beneath her feet and bounced off the bare walls was a constant reminder of Patrick pilfering the expensive artwork on his departure.
Dixie and Percy made their delightful presence known with the rattle of their cage over in the living room. Evie made a quick trip to the kitchen and grabbed a large handful of baby carrots, then brought the furry pair their veggie breakfast. She’d been caring for her friend and business partner Tabitha’s dwarf rabbits. On strict bedrest with a high-risk pregnancy, Tab had been instructed not to lift a finger.
The security monitor chimed—the only accoutrement adorning the otherwise naked, beige walls. A young Uber driver stared into the viewer at the privacy gate. She tapped the display, releasing the lock, and the heavy iron gates slowly parted. She hurried out the front door as the driver came into the circular driveway and stopped just shy of the flagstone steps. The car’s interior had a surprisingly pleasant pine scent. Her last ride carried a pungent aroma of pizza with a hefty sprinkle of gym sweat.
“Afternoon, ma’am.” The young man smiled, wide and white, his blond ponytail secured in a topknot, the sides and back of his head shaven smooth. The Georgetown University tassel dangled from the volume dial as he lowered Ed Sheeran’s “Beautiful People” to an almost rhythmic hum.
Does being thirty-one merit the title “ma’am”?
“The temp’s dropped since this morning. Let me know if you need me to add some heat. I grew up in Southern California…anything below seventy is cold to me.” He chuckled.
“I’m sure.” She returned a smile to the one beaming back at her in the rearview mirror.
“Nice house,” he said as they rolled away and cleared the gates that closed on the five-and-a-half-acre estate.
Evie looked back at the finely crafted double doors that cleverly sealed in her secrets. Three-car garage with boat storage capacity, eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, home theater, pool house—just shy over fourteen thousand square feet of living space. The contradiction was never lost on her: so much space when she was perpetually restrained. She situated herself in the back seat of the tan Ford Focus. Her BMW was in Patrick’s name. He’d sought to punish her by taking the vehicle on his exit as well. Asshole.
They rode along in respectable silence until her cell phone ringing cut into the long stretch of relaxing quiet. She checked the display and opened the line.
“Hello, my darling. You didn’t return my call last night. I was getting concerned.”
Her mom was clingy, but Evie didn’t mind. They chatted or sent one another a quick text practically every day. “Sorry, I was exhausted. I had to do inventory and didn’t leave the bakery until after ten last night.”
“Sweetheart, you’re the boss. That’s something your staff can handle. Learn to delegate. Now, what is this I hear about you firing your attorney? Kate was over for lunch yesterday. She told your father and me you terminated Gerald Sigler’s services. Does this mean you’ve decided to reconcile with Patrick?”
It was no surprise Mr. Sigler told her soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law, Kate, who in turn told Evie’s parents he’d been dismissed. She recently discovered Sigler was acquainted with her ex’s family, which was one of the reasons he was no longer her attorney.
“Patrick and I haven’t reconciled. I’m hiring another lawyer. As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to my first meeting with him now.”
“Maybe you can take this moment to reconsider your decision to end your marriage. Or at least seek the advice of a marriage counselor as Mr. Sigler suggested. It wouldn’t hurt to try.”
Evie rolled her eyes skyward. She needed to reconcile with who she was, what she deserved, and what she wanted in her future—the six months it took to decide to file for divorce after leaving her husband had been in itself counseling.
“Mom, I’ve been separated from Patrick for a year now and filed divorce papers with Mr. Sigler about six months ago, but I’m still waiting for an arbitration date. He’s simply far too busy with more important clients. And I’m certain it’s the only reason he suggested counseling. It would buy him time.”
“Charlotte, if she wants to hire her own attorney, it’s her choice.”
Apparently, her mom had her on speakerphone. “Hi, Dad.”
“How’s my buttercup?”
Henry Langston had given Evie that nickname the first day she crossed their threshold at four years old. The Langstons officially adopted her at age nine. A little black girl taken in by a white suburban couple, she’d found offense at being called something that was one stem shy of a weed. When asked why he called her buttercup, he simply said, “Like the flower, your smile is beautiful and abundant.” And she’d been his shining sun ever since.
“Dad, I’m fine. Just running a little behind for my appointment.”
“Are you enjoying your new bakery space? I had a good time at the grand opening. The food was delicious. What were those little doughy things with chocolate in the center? I think I ate about a hundred of them.”
Evie smiled. There were several doughy things with chocolate in the center. “Maybe a truffle.”
“It’s just…you ended your marriage so abruptly,” her mom cut in, evidently intent on continuing her point. “Kate said her son felt blindsided by the separation. Frankly, so were your father and I.”
“Charlotte, let’s not—” her dad started.
Evie drew back against the seat. “Blindsided! Patrick told you and his mother he was blindsided?”
You’re supposed to be a chef. I have yet to get a decent steak. In his disapproval, the sirloin along with the plate was tossed into the trash while Evie was told what a mediocre cook she was. Newly folded laundry was often dumped on the floor because he decided she’d done a piss-poor job of it. Throw pillows had to be fluffed and perfectly creased in the center. Dusting and polishing the furniture had to happen, at minimum, twice a week or the house was considered a pigsty. And all while she worked a fifteen-hour day at the bakery. Everything in its place—a significant, cognitive characteristic underlying obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. With one of her three degrees being in psychology and having read hours of case studies on the topic, Evie was always sensitive to his condition. Hiring a housekeeper was out of the question. Patrick’s OCPD tended to rule him. But he also used it as a way to control.
Countless moments he berated and degraded her self-worth. And he wouldn’t stop until the sheen of tears glistened in her eyes. Then he’d cover his torment and hurt with a new diamond pendant necklace or a designer dress and heels, or even a fashionable handbag, while blaming his abhorrent behavior on the stresses of working under the thumb of her father. Her teeth would ache from the syrupy sweetness of his kindness that followed his cruelty.
Patrick was smart and cunning and knew how to abuse her without leaving a mark. Her scars were mental. But she wasn’t a failure simply because her marriage had failed, and she’d found the strength to walk away. Yet she kept those bruises hidden from her family. Failure was unacceptable in the Langston household. If something broke, you got a wrench and fixed it.
“Mom, Patrick’s not the saint you take him for.”
“I never said he was. He has admitted to us that he’s made mistakes, but he’s been working on himself. Numerous times he has said to Kate and me how much he wants to reconcile. Evie, dear—” her voice softened into that warm, motherly timbre “—he loves you.”
And that was why Evie didn’t talk about it. Patrick had an ally in her mom. The fact that her mother-in-law and her mom had become good friends didn’t help.
“I don’t—” Evie paused when the driver shot a glance at her over his shoulder.
“Something’s happening over there.” He pointed at the stopped ambulance holding up traffic, its lights whirling a few steps from the building where she was headed. Cars began merging from two lanes into one, forced by a police cruiser parked at an angle in the middle of the street.
“Mom, Dad, I have to go. I’ll call later.”
“Love you,” both said together.
“Love you, too.” She looked at her watch—2:34. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.” With her purse secured at the crook of her arm, she scooted to the opposite seat, closest to the curb, and got out. “Thank you.”
A brisk strut brought her to the building where law firm—Slate, Ellis, Wardell, and Scott, LLP—took up the entire eleventh and twelfth floors.
Scott. Vincent Scott. Her stomach lurched. Before entering, she fished in her handbag for her mirror and freshened her lip gloss. Hair still looked decent enough. She smoothed a hand down her dress. He once said pink brought out the golden glow in her fair brown skin.
Shit. What the hell am I doing? One would think after twelve years she’d have no reaction to the mere brush of his name. In fact, there should be a deep-seated loathing that churned and soured in her gut for the man who walked out of her life without a word those many years ago. Yet here she was making certain her appearance was on point in case she ran into Vincent Scott. It being his law practice, the likelihood was high.
She never would’ve imagined Vincent becoming an attorney. And from what she’d heard, he kicked ass at it. His firm handled high-profile sorts who expected a certain level of discretion. She required that type of firepower to deal with Patrick’s legal camp. Those bully bulldogs were intent on stripping her of everything. So, yes, she needed an attorney just as ruthless. Thankfully, it didn’t mean she had to work with Scott. There was a long list of other lawyers at the firm, like the one she was about to meet. That said, enduring Scott’s dismissive coldness was all but unavoidable, since her best friend, Kennedi Chase, was about to marry Vincent’s best friend, Trenton Shaw. Small damn world. Some things were simply out of her control.
The woman seated behind the security desk, the closest of the two guards on duty, came to her feet the moment Evie cleared the revolving glass door.
“Good afternoon. I’m Evie Powell here to see Leonard Rosati.”
“Just a minute.”
As the guard spoke on the phone, Evie, along with the other security personnel, watched through the glass entrance the police officer directing traffic. “I wonder what happened. Did someone get—?”
She turned to the woman.
“Go to eleven and see Jasmine at the receptionist desk.”
“Thanks.” She took the elevator up. The doors split open to a whirl of commotion. Oh—! She leaped out of the way as two EMTs came barreling toward her with a man seated partially upright upon a gurney, eyes shut, oxygen mask affixed to his sweaty face, and a blood pressure monitor strapped to his arm.
She twirled and met a tall, African American woman. “Yes?”
“I’m Jasmine. It’s—Excuse me.” The young woman turned away and gave a tap at the headset positioned at her ear. After offering what sounded like directions to their location, she turned back. “Can I take your jacket?”
“Thanks.” Evie shuffled out of the trench while catching last sight of the poor soul struggling to breath as the elevator doors sealed him within. “Is this a bad time?”
Jasmine dashed to the closet at the right of the receptionist’s desk, then returned. “You were to see Mr. Rosati—I’m sorry. One moment.” She tapped her headset once more.
The atmosphere hummed, conversations intersecting. People went about their business—Jasmine included—as if they hadn’t just witnessed a man getting carted off on a stretcher, as though it was merely another day at the office.
Jasmine ended her call. “Sorry about that. My counterpart on twelve is out sick today. His calls are rerouted to me. Now, as I was about to say, I’m afraid Mr. Rosati has taken ill. That was him you saw with the EMTs.”
Evie’s eyes bulged. “Oh goodness!”
“We’ll get an update soon on his condition, I’m sure. In the meantime, alternative arrangements have been made. Please follow me.”
“I can postpone. Clearly, this isn’t a good time.”
“I assure you the firm has everything under control.” She extended a hand toward the stairs and started off.
Evie kept in close step as they moved through the bustling activity of power-suited professionals and took a set of glossy pine stairs up to the next floor.
It was a luxurious suite of spotless glass, high-polished finishes, and rich ivory leather furnishings. The décor said the retainer fee would bite deep into her wallet. If her attorney did his job right, Patrick would be footing the bill. On that note—
“Is Mr. Rosati all right?”
Jasmine glanced back while never missing a strut. “His assistant will provide an update when it becomes available. With his absence, the senior partners understand the concern you have as well as the rest of Mr. Rosati’s clients when news of his abrupt departure is made known. But no worries. They’ve decided to divide his roster among them.” There was an excited lift in her otherwise monotone voice. “In other words, you’ll get to work with one of the four top legal counsels here. You can’t go wrong; they’re all amazing.”
That familiar knot coiled in Evie’s belly. She touched Jasmine’s arm, slowing her determined stride. “Senior partners? Which senior partner?”
“I’m not sure. Everything happened so fast. The four are meeting as we speak to decide who gets which case.” Jasmine continued forward.
The twelfth floor was even more posh than the one below. Wall upon wall of glass separated spacious executive office suites. They entered a rather large conference room.
“Hope you don’t mind; this is the only meeting space unoccupied. It’s been a crazy day. Please have a seat. Can I get you some coffee? Tea?” She gestured to three Keurigs and a host of condiments that lined the credenza on the other side of the room.
“No, thank you.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Powell.”
They turned, and Evie’s stomach did yet another roller coaster-quick drop as she stared back into the very eyes she didn’t wish to see. Why did her damn luck always have to misfire? “Afternoon, Mr. Scott.”
They’d done well at maintaining their distance when around their mutual friends: Kennedi and Trenton. She’d prefer to keep it that way.
Jasmine looked between them. “You’ve already met?”
“Yes,” both Evie and Vincent said in unison, dryly.
Aside from the tightness Evie saw in his strong, angular jaw, there was hardly a hint of readable expression in his otherwise handsome, smooth-shaven, honeycomb-brown features. No surprise. Whenever they were forced to tolerate sharing the same space, it was as if he looked right through her, as if she didn’t exist. His blatant disregard annoyed her more than any cruel words would. It was he who’d ended their relationship practically a lifetime ago when he chose to disappear out of her life without a word.
“Thank you for handling the situation with Leonard. I heard you acted swiftly. The partners and I appreciate it.”
“I’ve notified Mr. Rosati’s wife,” Jasmine said. “She’ll call with an update on his condition. Oh, and I ordered flowers.”
“Appreciate it. What would I do without you?”
“Let me know if you need anything.” A wide, gift-giving grin spread across Jasmine’s face as she soaked up her boss’s praise. “Excuse me, I have a call coming in.” With a tap at her ear, she closed the door on her way out.
So that’s how it is? Evie observed that his deadpan expression had filled with warmth as he addressed his receptionist, contrary to the iceberg chill he tended to project toward her.
Her heels sank into the ultra-thick carpet pile. Luxurious, rich maplewood walls; crystal pendant lighting; top-grade audiovisual; three enormous, mounted flat screens; and a direct backdrop view of the Washington Monument in the distance—Vincent had done well for himself. A far cry from what his life goals had been when they’d dated.
“I have to say, I was surprised to learn you became a lawyer. You once said the profession robs one of his soul.” She chuckled lightly, and he didn’t crack even a hint of a grin.
“Situations in life provoke change. And I’m damn good at what I do here, if that’s what you’re really asking.” He regarded her as he released the two buttons on his dark suit that fitted to the seams.
Okay. Ice effectively unbroken.
A perfectly Windsor-knotted silk tie and polished, black wing-tip shoes. Quite the contrast to the well-worn Jimmy Hendrix T-shirt, motor-oil-stained jeans, and Timberlands she remembered.
She’d hardly recognized him several months ago when he showed up at the bakery, looking for her friend and business partner, Kennedi. The contempt that had flooded his features when he’d spotted Evie that day was unmistakable. The feeling had been mutual, and not much had changed since their surprise reunion. To that end, today she’d try to be civil.
“What I meant was, you were pretty determined to open an autobody repair shop.” She rested her hands atop the spine of one of the twenty or so buttery-soft, high-back leather chairs, needing something to fill her palms to alleviate the tension. “I recall how much you loved working on cars. All you could talk about was owning a garage.”
“Who said I didn’t? And you were pretty determined to marry well.” The subtle curve of the corner of his lips was clearly mocking as he opened his portfolio and started scanning the pages. “We should get started.” His gaze moved over her, resting on significant points of her frame, then returned to his notes. Admiration or abhorrence? His stoic demeanor gave no clue either way. “There’s coffee.” Without looking up, he gestured over at the credenza and pulled out his chair but didn’t sit when Evie chose to remain standing.
Civility simply wasn’t going to happen between them. “Look, no need for us to torture ourselves. It was Kennedi’s suggestion that I consider soliciting your firm. Given our history, I had reservations about it, but after speaking with Mr. Rosati, I thought I’d give it a try. Lord knows I need a good divorce attorney. You have three other partners, not to mention thirty or so junior level, like that of Leonard Rosati’s capabilities. Please hand my case over to one of them.”
His eyes met hers. Flat. Steady. “There are other counsels within the firm who could take your case. But as a courtesy to Leonard, my partners and I are handling his client list. We each have our specialty. If you want the best, I’m the most practiced in dealing with high-profile and messy divorces. From what I gathered of Rosati’s notes so far, your situation falls into the latter category. If you think our past involvement will have any impact on how I’ll litigate, I can assure you it won’t.” He resumed scanning the pages, then looked up again, a slow glide of his gaze from her head to her heels. A blatant scrutiny. “From where I sit, you and I don’t have history.”
Evie winced. Because that organ in your chest is made of jagged stones. Twelve years and his words still managed to stab like a dull blade, making it hard to take an easy breath. The frigid look in his rich-brown eyes registered crystal clear before he centered his attention back on the papers before him. It was the first time he’d shown sentiment of any kind directed at her. She bit the inside of her bottom lip to stifle the quiver of anger.
“I’ve reviewed Leonard’s notes and think—” His head snapped up from the scribble. “Where are you going?”
“Have a nice life, Mr. Scott.” A few short steps put her at the door, which she opened smoothly, contrary to the pumping agitation flickering her temper. She turned back to him, and the surprise that reflected in his eyes gave way to arrogance. “Or not. I don’t care one way or the other.”
Downstairs, she made her way back to Jasmine at the front desk while trying her best to maintain a professional mien despite her irritation building like lava boiling bursts of steam.
“Mrs. Powell, that was fast.”
Evie turned her head to follow Jasmine’s line of sight in the direction of the stairs.
“I’m waiting for Mr. Scott. He usually lets me know when to schedule your next appointment.”
Don’t hold your breath. She didn’t expect he’d come running after her. He was as stubborn, exact, and self-righteous as he’d always been. “I won’t be soliciting Mr. Scott or his firm’s legal services. I’d like my jacket, please.”
The young woman’s head tilted to the side, as though she’d heard words she didn’t understand. As if rejecting the illustrious Mr. Scott was unheard of. “My jacket,” Evie repeated when Jasmine didn’t move.
“Oh. Okay.” She quickly retreated to the closet, then returned while glancing again in the direction of the stairs. “Well, I hope you have a nice day, Mrs. Powell.”
Evie made it down to the lobby, heels hammering against the tile on her way to the exit, cursing herself for ever coming here.
Her Uber had an ETA of six minutes. As she impatiently waited, a black car came to a stop at the curb right in front of the building. In her haste to get the heck out of there, had she mistakenly selected an upgrade? She checked her phone. Behind her, the revolving door swirled, and out strode Vincent Scott with his cell phone to his ear and clutching that smart leather portfolio in his other hand. His stride slowed. The mere sight of him made her stomach drop. The steady blankness of his countenance, the look that always drummed up the guilt she carried, forced her to be the first to look away. The driver got out of the vehicle. Before he could make it around the car, Vincent opened the rear passenger-side door.
With her attention centered on her phone, she didn’t bother to acknowledge him. It wasn’t in her nature to be cruel, but damn it, he provoked her.
Out of her periphery, she took note of Vincent’s study of the white Toyota Corolla slowing behind the sleek black car before he folded himself inside, and his driver closed the door.
As she settled into the back seat of her own ride, she realized Vincent Scott was right about one thing: they didn’t have history. Despite how nasty things ended between them, the callous individual she now encountered wasn’t the man she’d met and spent her entire summer falling hard over. Her first love. First lover. He was no longer the man who she’d freely given a chunk of her soul. A vital piece she had yet to reclaim.
End of Excerpt