Love Proof (Laws of Attraction)
Author:Elizabeth Ruston

One

“You’re the hired gun?” Joe asked.

Sarah made two pistols with her fingers and shot Joe Burke in the gut. It felt remarkably satisfying.

She had been looking forward to the look of shock on his face when she showed up at her first deposition, the one in San Diego, but instead Joe had the bad judgment to smile.

“Well, welcome to it, Red,” he said. “Nice to have you along.”

“Red, huh?” said the other lawyer, a man named Paul Chapman. “You two know each other?”

“No,” they both answered at once. Joe shot her an amused glance.

They took their seats around the hotel conference table, Joe and his client on one side, Sarah and Paul Chapman across from them, the court reporter at the end of the table between them.

“This ought to be interesting,” Joe said, looking Sarah in the eye.

She had learned that sometimes the best strategy when dealing with other lawyers was to say nothing at all. Let her opponents talk and talk, let them bluster and threaten and boast, until finally they realized they sounded more idiotic and less effective with each passing moment. That was when Sarah would quietly enter back into the conversation with one simple statement—“The judge won’t see it that way,” or “You can try that, although the jury in my last trial gave the plaintiff absolutely nothing for the same argument”—then she would quietly wait again while the lawyer blustered and threatened some more.

In the end, Sarah usually got what she wanted, whether it was a favorable settlement for her client or a ruling from a judge on a key motion. Her opponents had learned over the last five years never to underestimate her. Not to be fooled by the package she came in. The petite, feminine redhead in front of them could be as lethal at trial as any silver-haired, seasoned litigator or one of those tough-talking women Sarah used to look up to until she actually had to try cases against them and saw them for what they were.

What Sarah realized was that nearly everyone in the law business was insecure. Some of them tried to cover it with fancy offices and expensive cars and other proof that they were successful and unafraid. Others drank. Some believed the more they bullied people, the less likely anyone would notice their own weaknesses.

But Sarah noticed. She’d been noticing her whole life. And finally she reached a point in her own career where she could use that knowledge to bring her the kind of success she had worked so hard for since high school.

Until one single moment six months ago had brought it all crashing down around her. And now she found herself in this cramped conference room, sitting as calmly and as casually as she could across from the man who had hurt her almost as much as losing everything six months ago.

But he never needed to see that on her face. So when Joe spoke directly to her—“This ought to be interesting”—Sarah practiced what she’d perfected since the last time they saw each other. She simply gazed at him in return, saying nothing, keeping her face as neutral as possible.

While Joe made absolutely no effort at all to hide a wicked smile.

***

He’d filled out since she last saw him, Sarah thought. Not fattened up—far from it—but become broader in the chest and shoulders, as if he put on more muscle. He even looked taller than the six-foot-two she remembered, although she doubted he kept growing between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-one. Maybe he’d just grown into a man, period. Better late than never.

He wore his dark hair shorter now, clipped closer to his head, and his face was clean-shaven instead of scruffed up with that constant stubble she had gotten used to. He looked good—better than she expected, better than she had hoped—dressed in his navy suit, striped shirt, and tie. She wanted to find him hollow-eyed and haunted, with the look of a man who knew his best years were already behind him. Instead he looked fit, strong, and, worst of all, content.

Joe glanced up just then, and Sarah quickly started typing again on her laptop. That was all she needed, for him to catch her studying him.

Maybe it wasn’t so surprising that he looked better, she thought. They had all been so unhealthy and malnourished in law school, living off of fast food, caffeine, and beer. Sarah kept up with the first two, unfortunately, for another several years before finally seeing the light, but obviously Joe had taken good care of himself. The results were . . . impressive. She couldn’t deny it, even if she would never admit it to Burke’s face.

But she was glad she wore her best suit today: the slim black skirt and perfectly-tailored jacket, with a white silk shell underneath. Her hair had behaved, looking smooth and under control and curling only at the ends the way she wanted. Normally it fought her—hard. She had taken special care with her makeup, too, giving her eyes more drama than she normally would for a daytime work event, and making sure the color on her lips would last for several hours.

It had been a long time since she had a reason to put on her full lawyer uniform and war paint. She’d gotten a little too used to spending her days bare-faced and in workout clothes. But she was back now, ready to do battle. And she knew she looked the part.

Joe wasn’t the only one who had grown up over the past six years, Sarah thought. She couldn’t help wondering if he noticed.

***

“I think I have something for you,” Sarah’s friend Mickey said when he called her the week before. “Get off the couch and come down here this afternoon.”

“I’m not on the couch,” she said, panting into the phone.

“Then get off of whoever you’re doing right now and get down here,” Mickey said before hanging up.

Sarah ended the call and her music kicked back on. She had both ear buds in and had already run two miles on the treadmill. Now Neko Case sang to her while she sweated through the next quarter mile. She already had her lineup of music to carry her through the last three miles, but glancing at the clock, she knew she had to cut it short or she’d never get the weight-lifting in, too. As much as she hated short-changing any workout—and what a laugh that was, considering how she felt about exercise as little as a year ago—she knew she needed the time to go home and shower and change and make herself look like a lawyer again. A working lawyer. An employed one. God, she hoped so.

Whatever the job was, she’d take it. If Mickey really had come through for her, she owed him something big. Just not the thing he pretended he wanted.

Sarah slowed to a walk, then hit the stop button a few minutes later. She signaled her trainer, Angie, who had her own ear buds in as she worked through a weight-lifting session of her own. Sarah’s time didn’t start for another half hour, but she hoped Angie wouldn’t mind taking her early. This could be it. This could be Sarah’s salvation.

Even, as she found out a few hours later, with Joe Burke on the other side.

***

“It’s just a contract job,” Mickey’s boss, Calvin, told her. “We decided to bring in someone from the outside instead of using manpower from in here.”

Mickey handed Sarah an expandable file that was expanded to its full capacity. “Here are the pleadings so far. It’ll probably take you the weekend to read through them.”

“Are you saying I have the job?” Sarah asked both him and Calvin.

“Mickey says you’re a killer,” Calvin answered, rising to his feet and signaling the interview was over. “Check in with HR and they’ll get all your paperwork.”

“We haven’t discussed the pay yet,” Sarah said, and even though Mickey gave her a look that said, Not now, Sarah persisted. She was doing this for the money, not for the prestige. Especially since there was absolutely no prestige in being the traveling lawyer who would take depositions all around the country for the next five months or so while the real attorneys on the case would sit comfortably in their plush Los Angeles offices waiting for her to report back in.

Calvin mentioned a number, and Sarah shook her head. As desperate as she was for the job, she guessed Mickey’s firm needed her, too. It was hard to find a lawyer with her experience and reputation—or at least her former reputation—who would be willing to fly to four or five different cities each week and sit through hours of testimony about how the firm’s client had ruined the plaintiffs’ lives.

And if Sarah could actually make something of the case, she thought, come up with some defense none of the other attorneys had considered, maybe this would be her ticket to a full-time job.

But she held all that in check as she haggled over her price. It amused her how no one sat down again—the three of them stood clustered in front of Calvin’s door, just where they’d been when he rose to see her out. Sitting down, accepting a lower elevation than the others, might signal a loss of status. Sarah always liked to notice the different methods her fellow attorneys used to try to hold on to their power.

Finally they reached a deal. If the job really was going to last only five months, Sarah knew she would need every single penny of that salary to dig herself out of the debts she’d incurred since April. She might even be able to rebuild some of her savings, to protect against the next dry spell if this job didn’t turn into something more permanent.

But she couldn’t think that far ahead. She had work now, and that was what she needed.

She offered her hand first to Calvin, then to Mickey.

“She’s a killer, all right,” Calvin said to Mickey.

Mickey held Sarah’s hand a little too long. “Told you.”

Sarah gave her former law school classmate a wry look and a raised eyebrow until Mickey chuckled and released his grasp.

“Sorry to hear about that whole mess,” Calvin said in parting.

Sarah nodded. “Unfortunate,” was all she said.

The worst experience of my life, was what she thought.

***

The first series of depositions would begin in San Diego, then continue to Pasadena, San Jose, and Fresno. But Sarah knew this first one would set the tone for all the others.

Set the tone between her and Joe.

Unfortunately, two full hours passed before she got to ask a single question.

Paul Chapman was one of those lawyers who didn’t understand the crux of a case. He had his standard deposition questions—ones he’d probably learned in his first year as a lawyer, twenty or however many years ago—and Sarah assumed he never deviated from them since, no matter how irrelevant they were to the particular case before him.

“Where were you born? . . . What are your parents’ names? . . . Where did you go to high school? . . . Do you have any degrees? . . . Describe your work experience . . . When were you married? . . . How many children? . . . Their ages?”

Sarah could barely contain her irritation. The deposition could be over in one hour, two at most—even with her questions as well as Chapman’s—if only he’d get to the real issue at hand:

When did you buy your hair iron? Where? How many times per week did you use it? When did it catch on fire? What happened then? What injuries, if any, did you sustain? What expenses, if any, did you incur?

Out, deposition over, on to the airport.

At one point, when Chapman actually had the idiocy to ask the woman whether she tried to call the toll-free number on the Atheena Hair Glory website to ask them what to do in case her hair caught on fire, Sarah looked up and caught Joe smiling at her. She narrowed her eyes, and just for something to do, said, “Objection.”

Chapman turned to her, obviously out of sorts. It was the first time either Sarah or Joe had said anything to interrupt his brilliant line of questioning.

“On what basis?” Chapman asked.

“Sustained,” Joe said, even though only a judge had the power to do that. “Are you almost done, Paul? I think we could all use a break.”

Chapman flipped through his notes. Notes, Sarah thought, as if he couldn’t ask those useless questions from memory. How did a guy like that get to be a partner in one of the largest insurance defense firms in L.A.? But Sarah knew very well the inequities of a climb up the ladder of a firm. She had been a partner once, too. Briefly, for what it was worth.

And that turned out to be not much at all.

“Have you done anything to try to restore the damaged hair?” Chapman asked the woman.

“Like what?” she shot back. “Get a damn wig?”

“Yes,” Chapman answered, undeterred by the woman’s tone, “something like that.”

“Hats,” the woman said. “Lots of ugly-ass hats.”

“Okay, thank you, Darlene,” Joe said, gently touching the woman’s arm. “I think we need a break here. Back in fifteen?”

Sarah stood up and stretched, then turned over her legal pad and closed the lid to her laptop before heading out into the hallway. The court reporter joined her as they both went in search of a restroom.

“I’m Marcela,” the court reporter said, offering her hand.

“Sarah Henley—but you already know that,” Sarah added with a smile. The court reporter would have listed the names of all the attorneys present at the beginning of her deposition transcript.

Unlike some lawyers she had met over the years, Sarah always made a point of being nice to the support staff, whether they were court reporters, bailiffs, legal assistants, law clerks—anyone and everyone who did the behind-the-scenes work that she knew made the machinery hum. Having spent years as a secretary herself, she understood the value of a good assistant.

“Hope you don’t mind me saying this,” Marcela said, “but it’s nice to see a woman in there for a change.”

“Thanks,” Sarah said, pushing open the door to the bathroom. “It’s nice having you in there, too. Balances out the macho.”

“That poor woman,” Marcela said, shaking her head.

Sarah smiled politely. “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to talk to you about that.”

“Oh! Of course,” Marcela said, clearly embarrassed. She disappeared into one of the stalls. “I’m sorry,” she continued from inside. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

The bathroom door swung open again, and Joe Burke’s client entered. She frowned when she saw Sarah, and quickly went to one of the empty stalls. Sarah was used to opposing parties hating her—of course she was the enemy, the evil lawyer, all of that. It went with the territory. She rarely took it personally.

But she’d also stopped trying to make sure everyone liked her. If people thought she was evil, so be it. If they thought she was a bitch, oh well. Like her mother always said, “You’re not a bite of candy. Not everybody’s going to love you.”

Sarah checked her hair, her makeup, her suit, and satisfied that she still looked put together, quickly moved to the last empty stall before the other two women could emerge. She stayed where she was until she heard them both leave. Then she came out and spent a few extra minutes washing her hands and looking herself in the eye in the mirror.

He’s just a man. He’s no one special. He was six years ago.

No, Sarah corrected herself, five years, ten months, and three days.

She gave herself a mean, steely gaze in the mirror.

“Go show him,” she whispered to herself.

Although she knew what she really meant was, Make him suffer.