Love Proof (Laws of Attraction)
Author:Elizabeth Ruston

Three

The woman at the afternoon deposition had hair not that different from Sarah’s. It was that same dark auburn, not the lighter shade of red Sarah always thought was so pretty. It had the same thick texture, and even though the woman had obviously blown it straight, Sarah could imagine the thousand crazy, mini spirals just waiting to pop out again the minute her hair was wet.

“It used to be long,” the woman told Chapman after he finished an hour’s worth of irrelevant questions and finally got around to asking about her hair. “Even longer than hers,” she said, pointing at Sarah. “I was growing it out since high school. People said it was my nicest feature. Then that iron thing of yours caught it on fire and now all I’ve got left is this . . . ”

She held up a hank of the shortened ends, but Chapman couldn’t be bothered to look.

“Did you call the toll-free number on the Atheena website?” he asked.

“Did I what?”

“The toll-free number,” he said. “It’s there for a reason. It’s under Customer Service.”

“No, I didn’t call some number,” the woman snapped, her anger practically steaming out through her pores. “A friend of mine had to rush me to Urgent Care. My scalp was burned. You could smell the hair—it was disgusting. They had to cut a whole bunch of it off—even the part that was okay—so they could put bandages all over my head. And then I still had scabs all over for weeks—”

“Mm-hm, mm-hm,” Chapman answered, sounding bored and still not looking up from his notes.

Sarah saw the woman turn to Joe and give him a look that asked, Am I allowed to punch him?

As soon as Chapman finished, Sarah jumped right in. “Ms. McIntyre, I’m sorry we didn’t get to hear your whole story before. Please start at the beginning again and walk us through it, moment by moment. You said you felt the unit getting hotter . . . ”

Sarah enjoyed the psychology of law as much as she enjoyed law itself. She liked trying to understand what people wanted and needed in every situation so she could mold a case to her advantage.

And just as Sarah expected she would, Joe’s client seemed to calm down—to sound less hostile—the more Sarah let her talk. She had seen it before with people involved in law suits: this desperate and angry need to make someone listen, to feel like they’d finally been heard.

It was why some parties refused to settle until they had their “day in court.” Sometimes all it took was that one day. They just wanted the formality of sitting at a table next to their lawyer, with their opponent at a table nearby, and a judge sitting behind the raised bench in front of them. They wanted to see the faces of a jury looking at them sympathetically. They wanted to see all the trappings of law they’d grown up watching on TV: the Hear ye, hear ye, all rise, the Honorable So-and-So presiding, even though that wasn’t how it was in the real world.

And more times than not, just that one day was enough. Litigation was nerve-wracking. People didn’t realize how stressful it was to actually be part of the pageantry of court. To have to sit there silent and unemotional while people told lies about you.

That was how it always sounded, Sarah knew: like lies. It was the nature of law to pit one person’s story against another person’s completely different one, but lay people didn’t understand how brutal that would feel while they had to be on their best behavior in front of a judge and jury.

So even though many lawyers gave up trying to settle a case once they began their opening statements, Sarah always scheduled time at the end of that first day of trial to meet again with her opponent to see if the client had changed his or her mind. If not that day, then Sarah would try again once the client had had a chance to testify. Just listen to me! their whole attitudes seemed to scream. I want someone to hear my story! So Sarah listened, and it had been one of the secrets of her success.

When Ms. McIntyre finally finished taking Sarah through the events, step by step, Sarah asked her a few more questions about where she purchased the product and when.

“Thank you,” Sarah said. “No further questions.” She saved the work on her laptop and immediately began packing it away along with her files. She could catch up on her notes at the airport.

She purposely didn’t look over at Joe. She had felt his eyes on her the entire time she questioned his client, and she felt tempted to check for his reaction: did he approve of the way she was handling it? Did he think she was good? Did he still think she was smart?

Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care . . .

She knew the secret to remaining immune to him was to keep her defenses on high alert every second the two of them were together. Sarah had no intention of melting into a little puddle at his feet, desperate for any sort of acknowledgment or compliment.

He could tell her she had the most brilliant legal mind of the twenty-first century—that she was beautiful, gorgeous, that he couldn’t believe he had lived without her all this time—and it wouldn’t make up for one minute of the anguish he’d put her through. He could think whatever he wanted to about her. Sarah was there to do a job.

And if she could somehow figure out a way to win this case against him as part of the bargain, then bonus.

She retrieved her carry-on bag from where she had stored it in the corner of the room, thanked Marcela for her work, then nodded to Chapman and Burke. “Gentlemen.” Then she strode through the door and headed for the hotel lobby.

She could see taxis lined up outside. She wanted to get to one before either of the other lawyers could catch up with her and suggest they share a ride to the airport.

She needed the time alone. This was only her first day, and already she felt drained. Not from the two depositions—those were nothing. It was Joe. Being in the same room with him. Hearing his voice again. Seeing the way his body had changed, improved, and wondering what new muscles and contours hid beneath those expensive lawyer clothes. Looking into that face again and realizing it had only grown more handsome and masculine over time.

Damn him.

Her friend Mickey had asked her, point blank, once they were alone again in his boss’s office and Sarah had just accepted the job, “Are you going to be able to handle spending all that time with Burke?”

She pretended it was a stupid question. “Of course.”

“I mean without killing him?”

“We were children back then,” she said.

“I don’t know,” Mickey said. “I seem to recall I had a kid of my own by then, so we all must have been at least out of puberty.”

“Barely, in his case,” Sarah said.

“This could go one of two ways,” Mickey said. “Either you’re going to be the best lawyer our client could ever have for this case because you’ll pummel Burke to the ground. Or . . . ”

Sarah waited, but Mickey was having too much fun.

“Or?” she prompted, knowing she was playing into his hands.

“Or Burke is going to steal you away from me for the second time.”

“You and I were never together, Mickey.”

“In my dreams we were.”

“How’s Julie doing?”

“Julie who?” he asked.

***

Sarah sat in the gate area eating a teriyaki vegetable and rice bowl from the food court and checking her e-mail on her phone. She saw Joe out of the corner of her eye, but continued staring at the small screen. Even though she could almost feel him as he came within the last ten feet of her.

Without asking, he took the seat next to her.

Sarah couldn’t help but turn her head just the slightest and glance at him, but then she went back to appearing busy.

“How are you, Sarah?”

“Fantastic.” She could feel the heat from his nearest leg and arm, even though both were at least four inches away.

“No,” Joe said, his voice serious, “I mean how are you really?”

Sarah forced herself to turn to him and smile. “What, are we going to talk about our hopes and feelings now, Burke? I don’t think so.”

He studied her face for one long moment, then nodded. He stood and grasped the handle on his bag and found another seat far away.

Sarah looked down at her phone again, pretending to be absorbed. But she couldn’t help swallowing the bitter taste in her mouth. She had planned to say something exactly like that to Burke, but it felt much better in her imagination. He looked hurt, and she should have been glad. She’d rehearsed it that way.

She sat up straighter and crossed a different leg. She still wore her suit. She could have changed into something more comfortable in one of the airport bathrooms, but Sarah preferred keeping her armor on until she was safely away from Joe for the night.

She had dressed very carefully that morning, all the way down to the black bra and panties that reminded her she was a warrior, a black belt in this game. She had no intention of ruining the effect by packing her outfit away and putting on the only other outfit she’d brought: loose workout pants, a T-shirt, and running shoes. She noticed Joe had taken off his coat and tie, but he still wore the suit pants and shirt.

Everything was power, Sarah knew, clothes in particular. She had known that since childhood, when her own generic jeans and off-brand shoes had marked her as poorer than most of the kids at her school, even though none of them would have qualified as rich.

There were so many nuances to how people saw you, Sarah thought: whether they assumed you were better than they were or worse. And she intended to capture and hold every single advantage she might gain now in her adult life, no matter how small that advantage might seem to someone else.

If wearing a tight skirt and high heels for a few more hours might make her appear more powerful than she felt at the moment, then they were worth it.

She took another bite of vegetables and rice, no longer enjoying the taste. But she needed the energy. It was the same reason she decided to make sure she got at least seven hours of sleep every night while she was on the road. And she wouldn’t have a drop of alcohol, even if a day spent with both Paul Chapman and Joe Burke would drive any woman to drink. Each of them for different reasons.

Sarah understood the rules of engagement: stay alert, always be watching for opportunities, and never let your guard down.

Check, check, and check.

She stole a glance at Joe, who now sat reading his own phone. Keeping his own gravitational force to himself, way on the other side of the room.

She felt it, and it bothered her. That familiar, comfortable pull of a body she used to know so well. A body she used to claim with as much right as if it had been her own. And a body that treated hers the same way.

Sarah sighed and stopped trying to read the irritating little screen. Her eyes naturally wandered in search of something more interesting.

And found Joe’s in return.

Sarah didn’t look away this time. She needed to be fiercer than that. The key was to have absolutely no expression on her face.

Joe obviously played by the same rule book. When he was done looking at her, a few long moments later, he calmly returned to his own work.

But Sarah knew: no matter how he acted now, she had gotten to him, if only just a little. How did she know? Because he was the one to make the first move.

And she was the one who shut it down.

Victory would taste a lot sweeter if only her chest would unclench. She’d have to work on that.

That, and the way all the cells in her body seemed to pull her in one direction whenever the man came too near.

But that was easy to fix: just stay as far away as possible.