Justine O'Neill would never,
forget the first time she saw him. It was a Thursday afternoon, shortly after two. She had just returned to the office after delivering a luncheon address before members of the Counseling Association of America. The balmy April air had flushed her cheeks in complement to strawberry-blond curls which, buoyed by the weather, framed her face and cascaded in thick waves to her shoulders. In the aftermath of her enthusiastic reception by the several hundred professionals gathered at the New York Hilton for their annual meeting, her eyes sparkled a bright emerald-green.
As the brass-rimmed doors of Ivy, Gates and Logan swung shut behind her, she stepped briskly toward the desk of the receptionist. Her hands laden with purse, briefcase, and a thick legal notebook, she smiled in greeting. “Any messages, Angie?”
The receptionist's responding “On your desk, Ms. O'Neill” was met with a passing nod as Justine swept onward, through the open archway and into the maze of halls and offices that comprised the inner workings of the renowned law firm. Her slender legs took her down one corridor and up the next, the rapid beat of her high-heeled pumps silenced by the fine cream-hued carpet. At the door of her own office, however, she came to an abrupt halt. Senses suddenly sharpened, she grew alert. Then, drawn by an inexplicable force, she turned her head to the far end of the corridor.
There, at the entrance to the firm's posh conference room, stood five men. She quickly recognized four of them as her colleagues and dismissed them summarily. It was the fifth man whose silent appeal reached to her, commandeering
her attention, capturing her eye and imagination to the momentary exclusion of all else.
He was a striking figure. Taller by inches than the others in the group, an air of distinction set him further apart. He was tanned and vibrant, yet deeply composed and notably relaxed in contrast to the air of keyed-up anticipation exuded by the others. His jaw was firm, his chin smooth, his cheeks leanly planed, his lips set purposefully. The face was that of a man on the near side of forty, a man in his prime enjoying life to the fullest. But, above it all and most enchanting was a crown of the thickest, most vital shock of pure silver hair that Justine had ever seen. Sterling silver. Rich and elegant. Gleaming. And, with a deliberateness that altered the beat of her heart, his dark eyes held hers.
For a brief breath of eternity, time stood still. Engulfed in a wave of sensation wholly new and fathomless, Justine was captivated, hypnotized by the intensity of the man. She felt herself probed to the core, stripped of the protective veneer she had so carefully cultivated over the years. She felt suddenly raw, open, and vulnerable. And, she felt terrified, as though she were a small animal, hunted, cornered, and defenseless.
Following the direction of their guest's attention, four other pairs of eyes turned toward Justine. In that instant the spell was broken. Mustering her badly shaken poise, she nodded politely and forced her head toward her office, intent on fleeing the presence that had so totally galvanized her.
“Justine!” It was the imposing call of Daniel Logan, senior partner and son of the firm's founder. “Justine! Perfect timing! Won't you join us for a moment?”
The question, when issued from the lips of this powerful man, was a politely intoned order. Swallowing the tension that threatened to render her speechless, Justine moved to join the gathering, willing her legs to carry her smoothly,
praying that she not trip over her feet before this audience of five. Having so recently been the sole focus of attention of so many more, it was ironic that her pulse should be thudding loudly. But then, that earlier group held no one of the magnetism of this unnamed man. If the verbal order had come from Dan Logan, the visual order was from this tall, silver-haired potentate.
“May I introduce Justine O'Neill.” She heard the senior partner take a step toward answering her own first question. “She is one of our newer partners, without a doubt our most attractive.” The overtone of sexism hardened Justine, giving her merciful strength to hold her attractive head high. “Her specialty is family law. She's built up quite a practice and a name for herself since she's been with us. Justine”âhe turned his shiny-domed countenance toward her as she held her breath expectantlyâ“I'd like you to meet our newest client, Sloane Harper.”
A large, sun-bronzed hand stretched toward hers, bringing a disconcerted grin to Justine's already flushed features. For she simply didn't have a hand free to meet his. Juggling the notebook and briefcase for a minute, she blushed more furiously. Then, with a deftness which brooked no protest Sloane removed the heavy notebook and returned her grin, finally enveloping her liberated hand in the warmth of his own.
“Ms. O'Neill â¦ .” He cocked his silver head with a refined flair.
“Justine, then. It's a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine,” she answered softly, strangely intimidated and, untypically, wondering what to say as she retrieved her tingling hand. Fortunately, Dan came to her rescue.
“Justine has been an associate with the firm for the past five years. She was made a partner in January.” Taking delight in the uncharacteristic, if unintentional, gentleness
on display across the features of his young partner, he directed himself to her. “You've just come from a speaking engagement, haven't you, Justine?”
It took every ounce of Justine's willpower to drag her eyes from Sloane's. As though all else had been blocked out by his gaze, she forced herself to face not only Dan but the others in the group. They were all partners in the senior echelon of the firm save one, Richard Logan, the senior partner's son, a new associate fresh from law school.
“That's right.” She confirmed Dan's surmise, admiring anew the man's ability to be well informed of his partners' activities in addition to handling his own busy practice. Daniel Logan was on top of everything.
In most cases Justine welcomed his interest and insight. Now, however, as she strove to recover from the effect of Sloane Harper's dark eyes as they still studied her, she could only hope that Dan's insight was limited to the legal realm. Her present vulnerability was nonlegal and all woman . . and a puzzlement, even to her.
“Which group was it today?” The query came from another partner, one Charles Stockburne, a natty, middle-aged man, whose efficiency and expertise brought in the cream of the clientele.
“Today”âshe allowed herself to be caught by his subtle note of humor, emphasizing the word as though speaking engagements were an everyday occurrenceâ“it was the Counseling Association of America. Psychologists, sociologists, counselors, social workersâall hoping that they may never have cause to resort to the likes of
,” she quipped quietly, though her cheeks dimpled at the tongue-in-cheek barb. Her light laughter was infectious; only Sloane was restrained. Sensing his skepticism and compelled by that same odd force, she ventured to explain. “There are many aspects of their workâchild abuse and neglect, for exampleâin which the law
viewed as a last resort. It's my job to show these professionals how the courts can simplify things. For years counselors have seen lawyers as the enemy, taking cases out from under their noses and disposing of them with makeshift solutions. It's finally coming to be understood that perhaps the law can pave the way for the counseling profession to make
In the silence that followed, Justine held her breath. Too easily carried away by subjects near and dear, she wondered for a fleeting moment whether she had lost the five with her ardor. It was, finally, Sloane who encouraged her. “Go on.” His soft, smooth tone was more than polite; it suggested genuine interest. She was gratified. Even though she had worked twice as hard as any man to gain entrance to this prestigious law firm and much as she respected the legal minds herein, she realized that, in the eyes of many of the partners, she was, very simply, a divorce attorney. Not so in her own eyes. Family law involved far more than the classic divorce. Willingly, she elaborated.
“There are custody issues, even property settlements, which can be resolved in a very satisfactory way by a lawyer who thinks with her heart as well as her law books.” The “her” was a slip of the tongue which she made no effort to amend. “The image of the lawyer is, too often, that of a hard-bitten regimentarian. It is our job to try to change that.”
“And can you?” Spoken so low that seemingly only she could hear, it was once again as though they were the only two in the hall.
“I hope so.” The emerald glitter of her eyes met his dark depths, pulled toward some unenvisioned reckoning. Once more the spell was broken.
“So do I,” broke in a harsher voice at her right, that of Joseph Steeleâtrue to his name, hard and dogmatic and a seasoned divorce attorney himself. There had been an
undercurrent of resentment toward her from his office since she had arrived at the firm an eager and idealistic law school graduate. At times she had worried that this one voice might stand against her partnership, when it had finally come up for a vote last December. He scoffed at her softness, her sensitivity, her proclivity toward new and untried solutions. He saw her as a rebel.
Rebel, in an establishment law firm!
she had laughed in denial at the time. But mostly he was threatened by the very definite fact that she was a woman, a woman who, in all probability, was a better lawyer than he!
It was Dan who came to her rescue again. “If Justine has her way, she'll have the outside world eating from her hand. She's become the reigning queen of the lecture circuitâorganizations, schools, businesses. I'd say she's a colorful asset to the firm!” The twinkle in his eye showed his pleasure as Justine, despite herself, blushed in blatant demonstration of his claim. Thankfully, he took pity on her. “Sloane is the president of CORE InternationalâCombined Resources International. He has just moved his headquarters to New York and has chosen us to represent him. Charlie will be handling most of the work, but others of us may be chipping in from time to time.” He glanced at his watch. “How about it, Charlie. Should we get to work? Sloane?”
Justine's gaze followed Dan's to Sloane's face, only to be caught and held in its charge for a long, final, breathtaking moment before the tall, sterling-crowned man released her to nod his agreement in the direction of the senior partner. Justine promptly took her cue.
“If you gentlemen will excuse me, then â¦” The thick fringe of blond-tipped lashes hooded her eyes as she glanced quickly up at Sloane. “Nice to have met you,” she murmured quietly. Then, awaiting no response, she turned and beat a smooth and steady retreat toward her office, congratulating herself on the grace of her exit even
as she lowered her head in self-reproach that there should have been any doubt of it. After all, wasn't she Justine O'Neill, attorney at law, newly risen star of the firm of Ivy, Gates and Logan, burning brightly in the courtrooms of New York and at podiums from Boston to Washington? Or so she had been told by patronizing colleagues, and so she indulged in the self-mockery.
Frowning at the irrelevancy of it all, she ran headlong into a figure of whom, up to that point, she had been totally unaware.
“Oh!” Her pale copper curls bobbed as her head flew up, eyes widening in surprise to confront the man lounging in her doorway. Instantly she stepped back. “John! I didn't see you!”
“That much was obvious,” he retorted with amusement, noting the momentary dart of her eye back toward the now deserted corridor. “No, he didn't see you walk into me, if that's what's worrying you. Your exit was perfectâclassy and polished. That
what you intended, wasn't it?”
Sidestepping him to enter her office, Justine ignored his barb. “Were you waiting to see me?” she asked calmly, depositing her purse behind her desk, her briefcase atop it. Suddenly relieved of their burden, her arms and legs felt strangely light and jerky.
John Doucette straightened from his lounging pose against the doorjamb and slowly approached her. “I'm always waiting for you, Justine. Dinner â¦ once â¦ that's all I ask â¦ .” His note of feigned desperation drew no sympathy.
, John. Is there a
matter you want to discuss?”
“It could get down to that, if I'm driven to do something mad for want of you. Come on, Justine. What's the problem?”
The plump leather chair behind her desk yielded gently
beneath her weight as Justine sank down into it, kicking her shoes off and tucking her legs comfortably beneath the folds of her skirt. As her eye studied the man before her, she asked herself the same question. John Doucette, her senior by several years, was good-looking in a classical way. His features were all perfect, his dress natty and immaculate. Every strand of his dark hair was combed neatly in place; every button of his dark, three-piece suit was properly buttoned. In his way he was charming and wittyâand, in her somewhat jaded eye, totally unexciting. The crux of the matter, however, lay much deeper and entirely within herself. Given her past and her future, she had neither the time nor the desire for any involvement of the type that his often-leering blue eyes suggested. Yes, her reasons were very powerfulâand very personal.