Love Proof (Laws of Attraction)
Author:Elizabeth Ruston

Five

As soon as the plane landed at LAX, Sarah prepared to make a fast exit. Joe’s row emptied before hers, so there was nothing she could do about that, but she could certainly beat Paul Chapman out of the airport before he felt compelled to ask for or offer her a ride.

Sarah had the feeling he didn’t understand the boundaries of co-defense attorneys who worked for different clients. Yes, Chapman was technically on her same side against all of Joe’s plaintiffs, but Chapman’s client was the main manufacturer, whereas Sarah’s was just the subcontractor. If she had any chance at all to heap all the blame on Chapman’s client and get hers released from the case entirely, she would take that victory any day. There was no chumminess on the defense side of the table as far as she was concerned.

She also had the feeling Chapman undervalued her because of her looks. And, no doubt, her age. It wasn’t so much any particular thing he had said, but just this overall demeanor toward her of All right there, little lady, you go ahead, but try not to hurt yourself asking all your big girl questions.

Maybe it was her imagination, but she didn’t think so. She could usually smell a jerk.

Too bad she had missed the scent on Joe.

Although he never seemed to underestimate her intelligence, so maybe that wasn’t a fair comparison. If she was worried about being fair.

She saw him up ahead, reading his phone while he made his way toward the baggage area and ground transportation. She had no idea where he lived, but assumed it had to be somewhere in the Los Angeles area, since he worked in the city. Her place was in Culver City, close enough to tomorrow’s deposition in Pasadena that she decided not to stay at the hotel, but to spend the night in her own apartment instead. She would have to leave with plenty of time to spare in the morning in case of traffic, but it was worth rushing a little in exchange for sleeping in her own bed.

As they neared the doors to go outside, Sarah saw the line of black-jacketed drivers holding up signs with their passengers’ names. Sarah saw one that read “Burke.”

Joe approached the driver, said something, then the two of them continued on. At the last moment Joe turned around and saw Sarah just a few paces behind him.

He’s going to ask me, she thought. He was going to offer her a ride. Then she would tell him no, and finally their first day together would come to a close. She liked it ending on another no.

But Joe simply noted her presence, then turned around and kept walking. Leaving Sarah to fend for herself.

She fished for her keys in the pocket of her laptop case and slipped them into her suit jacket while she headed for the parking garage. Joe had done her a favor. He’d spared her one more conversation with him.

But nice move, gentleman, she thought, not offering the lady a ride in your fancy chauffeured car.

Even after her ill-advised attempt to amuse him on the plane.

The game was on. She knew it and he knew it. They were obviously going to see which of them would bend before they broke.

Sarah had grown stronger in the past six years, not weaker. If he thought he was still dealing with the young woman she used to be, now was his time to learn.

She had been through a lot since their last year of law school, as anyone reading the newspapers would know. Even before then, she had to scrap her way through one trial after another, and through the competitive hierarchy of one of the most prestigious—at one time—law firms in L.A. The girl Joe had known in law school couldn’t have handled that pressure—look how easily she fell apart just because a guy like him dumped her.

But Sarah wasn’t that girl anymore. And she knew she would handle the Joe situation completely differently now if she had a second chance.

Sarah unlocked the door to the car her father found for her back in April. It was old, but it ran well, thanks to his skills as a mechanic, and Sarah wasn’t too proud to drive a twenty-year-old car. It suited her lifestyle now.

When the firm imploded, all of her perks instantly disappeared. Gone were the leased Mercedes and the generous gas allowance; gone was her expense account that she sometimes had trouble spending by the end of each month; gone was the free gym membership that had finally introduced her to the wonders of exercise; and gone was the salary that made her secure enough financially that her parents finally let her start helping them with money. Gone, all gone in the space of a single day.

Sarah flipped on the radio to one of the talk stations that regularly gave traffic news. She slowly made her way out of the airport gridlock into the gridlock that would take her home. Finally she unlocked her front door and returned to the sanctuary of her one-bedroom apartment.

She liked her little apartment. Every time she walked into it, she appreciated how clean and friendly it seemed—especially after a particularly hard day spent fighting with people from morning until night. It all washed off of her, it seemed, the minute she walked through her door.

She spent her first week in the place painting everything white. From the walls, to the wooden paneling on one side of the living room, to the built-in cabinets and the wooden frames on all of her windows. She painted red accents here and there, but mostly she just wanted to see the clean. To know that everything in there was nice and new and something she bought just for her.

When she first started making money—real money—Sarah sat down and made a list. She called it her Flourish list: anything and everything she had ever wanted, but didn’t really need.

It included things like a pillow-top mattress. Plush towels. High thread-count sheets. Red velvet pillows and a beautiful, white faux-fur throw she saw in a catalog draped over a white upholstered couch. She made a point to buy all three of those, including the exact couch. Triple-wicked, scented candles. Sweet-smelling bath salts. A long list that she felt a little foolish making, yet at the same time it made her feel deliciously pampered even to sit there and think about it.

She had held off for so many years buying herself the kinds of things she dreamed about: even something as simple as pretty, lacy underwear, bought at full retail price instead of from a discount store. Every time she checked off another item on the list, she felt more prosperous. And what was most shocking, by the time she got to the end of it, was that the entire spree cost her less than three thousand dollars. Somehow she thought it would cost closer to ten thousand—maybe even more. She had built it up so much in her mind, it seemed an unreachable goal back when she had practically nothing.

She still remembered too vividly that day in college when she looked at her bank statement and saw a balance of $4.32. Back then, spending three thousand dollars on luxuries might as well have been ten thousand—fifty thousand, for how impossible it seemed. But these were different times, she told herself with joy. She had finally made it. And furnishing her perfect apartment was one of the happiest experiences of her life.

She didn’t regret any of it now—not a single purchase. Even though she could have used those thousands of dollars over the past six months. But she had to believe she would find her feet again one day. And when she did, she didn’t want to have to start over, pulling herself up from the kind of impoverished life she had grown so accustomed to since her childhood. She accepted that her rapid rise was over—there was no other way to see it. What she didn’t want to accept was the idea that she might start sliding backward to where she came from in the first place.

The food she ate at the airport wasn’t sitting well in her belly. Sarah pulled out the ingredients for a smoothie—organic orange juice, a frozen banana, frozen strawberries and raspberries and blueberries—and whirled them all in her blender. Then she took sips here and there as she changed out of her battle suit and wiped off all her makeup. She pulled a shower cap over her still-behaving hair and stepped into her bathtub shower. And replayed portions of the day as the warm water washed it all away.

***

Sarah set her alarm for four o’clock the next morning to give herself time to exercise. She never used to be that way. She’d roll out of bed, drink a huge mug of coffee, and answer her e-mails before she even started to dress.

But becoming a partner had reformed her. Her immediate boss, Richard, sat her down the day he made the offer and told her she needed to make some changes.

“We’re making you a team leader,” he said. “Elevating you to partner. Not an equity partner,” Richard had continued before Sarah could even register the news. “So you won’t receive any of the firm’s profits, but we consider this level of partnership an important step to full status, once you’ve proven yourself.”

He assigned her a team of five younger litigators. From then on, Sarah would be responsible for all of their files, all of their cases, and for making sure they turned in time sheets for every minute of their time by the end of every day.

“If you don’t write down the time, it never happened,” Richard said. “We only get paid for what we bill.” Sarah had heard that speech many times. She always had more billable hours than any of the other associates. It was one of the factors, Richard said, they’d considered when promoting her. “We know you understand money, Sarah.”

She agreed that she did.

And then she proved it by negotiating an even higher salary than the last team leader had been given.

“We have one concern,” Richard told her. “We need our team leaders to be in top form. The job comes with a lot of stress—you already know that. But being partner is going to double, triple that stress. You understand?”

“Of course.”

“You’re not much for working out, I take it.”

Sarah tried not to feel insulted. She thought she looked pretty good: same slim body she had maintained since high school, always turned out in professional-looking clothes and hairstyle.

“Our insurance premiums go down if all the key employees have gym memberships,” Richard told her. “So that’s included in your package. We have a list of different ones you can go to—you can find one close to the office or close to your house. But we’d like to see you meeting with a personal trainer at least twice a week.”

“I’d rather work,” Sarah said, assuming that was the right answer.

Richard shook his head. “You need to stay focused. Even-keeled. We’ve heard a few complaints that you’re sometimes too hard on people. Hard is good—don’t get me wrong,” he said before she could defend herself. “We wouldn’t put you in charge if you couldn’t lead. But it’s good for everybody if those of us in power take a little time to sweat off some of the pressure, you understand?”

Sarah had no desire to waste time at some gym when she could be billing, but she wasn’t going to argue. If the firm thought it would make her a better leader, so be it. She would put in the minimum time with a trainer in case anyone checked up on her, then she’d work extra hours to make up for it.

Because nothing was going to interfere with this promotion. It had come much sooner than she ever could have hoped: right before her twenty-ninth birthday.

Sarah loved responsibility—always had. Not so much bossing people around, but instead being the problem-solver in any group. Figuring things out. Some people worked for praise, she noticed over the years, but she took much more value out of being proud of herself. She liked knowing she was the most reliable person she knew—except for her parents, who had given her that training in the first place. But as far as any other lawyer she’d ever met—and before that, any other student she met—Sarah felt comfortable believing she worked harder and smarter than any of them.

Her five months as partner in the firm she had been working for since law school was one of the favorite periods of her life. She would wake up sometimes at three-thirty in the morning because she was so excited to get to work. It meant she often passed out dead tired by nine o’clock at night, but she loved knowing she was up before anyone else, working long before dawn.

On April 6, she arrived at seven AM and began working on a Motion to Dismiss. She had already checked the status reports from her team members before she even came in, and knew she would have a few hours to herself now to work on her own cases.

The agents swarmed the building. One minute the only people she noticed outside the glass wall of her office were the attorneys and staff she saw every day, and the next there were navy blue uniformed men and women everywhere, seizing papers and files, emptying cabinets, and ordering people away from the shredders that stood conveniently beside every desk.

Sarah rose slowly, her legs unsteady. She was tempted at first to stay in her office, hidden behind the wooden door, but she realized that wasn’t her way. No matter how horrible things would be once she confronted what was happening, she was a partner, she was a team leader, she was Sarah Henley. And Sarah Henley stepped up.

She could see now the bright yellow lettering on the agents’ uniforms: FBI.

As one of the female agents moved toward Sarah’s office, sweeping the contents of one of the secretaries’ desks into a sturdy cardboard box, Sarah asked, “Would you please tell me what’s going on?”

“Who are you?” the agent asked.

Sarah gave her name and position.

The agent pulled a list from her pants pocket and quickly scanned it. “Henley, you’re to go to the fourth floor.”

“What’s on the fourth floor?” Sarah asked, fighting hard to sound calm.

“Command post,” the agent answered. “We have to interview you before we can release you.”

“Interview me about what? What is all this?”

“Ma’am, if you’ll just proceed to the fourth floor—”

“Please,” Sarah said, her voice finally betraying her fear. “Just tell me what’s going on. Why are you here?”

The agent studied her for a moment, then answered, “Allegations of securities fraud, tax fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering.”

“Money laun . . . oh my God.” Sarah’s legs started to fail her. She braced herself against the edge of her desk. “Wh-who?”

“They’ll give you more information downstairs, Miss Henley. Now I’m going to have to ask you to vacate this office,” the agent said, already angling past Sarah.

“Can I—” Sarah cleared her throat. She saw one of the young lawyers on her team staring at her wide-eyed from beyond the door, her face as white as Sarah’s.

Sarah forced herself to remain calm. “What can I bring with me?”

“Just your personal effects, ma’am,” the agent answered. She was already disconnecting Sarah’s computer.

Sarah wanted to throw up. A group of her litigators and staff now stood clustered in her doorway, watching.

The agent pointed to Sarah’s purse. “Anything related to this firm’s cases in there?”

Sarah shook her head.

“How about in there?” the agent asked, pointing to Sarah’s laptop case.

This time Sarah nodded.

“You’ll have to leave those,” the agent said. “Let’s go through them.”

Sarah’s hands shook as she pulled out the files she had been working on the night before. The notes she’d made about the Motion to Dismiss she was going to work on all morning. Time sheets she had printed out for the past week to check her team members’ progress.

“Thank you, ma’am,” the agent said. “I’ll have to ask you to leave now.”

Sarah slung her purse over her shoulder, and picked up her laptop case.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave the laptop,” the agent said.

“But . . . it has my personal information on it, too,” Sarah said. “Personal e-mails, financial records—”

“That’s fine,” the agent said. “We’ll return it to you when we’ve retrieved the information we need.”

Sarah’s face felt slick with sweat. She walked on wobbly legs to the door of her office.

“Sarah?” one of her team members said. “What are we going to do?”

Sarah shook her head. “It’s over,” she said, more to herself than to the other lawyer. Isn’t that what all this meant? she wondered. Wasn’t the entire career she worked so hard to build now suddenly and irrevocably over?

“Good luck,” she told the cluster of people watching her. She swallowed and forced herself to look each of them in the eyes. “I really mean that—good luck to all of you.”

The interview at the “command post” lasted approximately twenty minutes. The agent in charge asked whether Sarah had worked with a particular collection of lawyers at the firm, and whether she ever worked for a particular list of clients.

The only name she said yes to was the attorney who promoted her: Richard.

“Did you ever work directly with him for any of these clients?”

Sarah shook her head. She knew the client names, but they were too big and important for her to have been trusted with their files yet. Thank God.

The agent let her go, warning her they might need to be in touch again in the future.

Sarah nodded blankly. From what she counted as the agent read off the attorney names, there seemed to be twenty-two members of her firm involved. Almost all of them at the very top of the heap. Thank goodness no one from her own team had made it onto that list.

Sarah left the fourth floor, rode the elevator down to the garage, and then walked away from the life she had meticulously built from her first interview during her second year of law school.

No, she corrected herself as she shuffled toward her car—a car that would be confiscated within a week as the feds seized more of the firm’s assets—Sarah had just lost everything she’d worked for since she was a teenager. Since the night she helped her mom clean the insurance agency office, and saw the ad for a secretarial position the owners were planning to place the next morning. Sarah called as soon as they opened the next day and pretended she just happened to be looking for a job. She never told anyone at the agency that her mother was their cleaning woman, or that Sarah had been her helper since she was a little girl.

And now look at her, she thought that day: the little girl in her grown-up suit, turning the ignition on her grown-up car, holding back the flood of tears that she promised herself she could drown in as soon as she made it safely back to the sanctuary of her pretty little grown-up apartment.

Sarah’s heart had been broken twice in her life: first by Joe Burke, second by her job.

But maybe this chance she’d been given would help knit together the wounds from both. Get her back on her feet, earning money, building a fresh résumé once again.

And finally helping her erase whatever last vestiges of Joe Burke might still lay hiding in her heart. She’d thought there were none until she saw him that morning. Now she had to admit there were still splinters of him everywhere. She would find each one and pull it out. And in the end, even if it took all five months, she would walk away feeling whole and new again.

Finally free of the first and only man she ever loved.