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Authors: Magdalen Braden

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BOOK: The Cost of Happiness: A Contemporary Romance
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At the base of the stairs, they turned left and headed for Dan’s office. Halfway there, Meghan turned left again, heading away from the lawyers’ offices, which all had windows, and into a short hallway that led to the supply room for their floor. She opened a door on the right and showed him her office. White, tidy, windowless, and devoid of anything to tell him more about her.

She set down her files and waited. Dan sat in the extra chair so she’d have to sit down as well. He could tell from her body language that she didn’t want to have this conversation.

Tough.

“What happened? Ted Dorchay said you were on track for a Supreme Court clerkship, and now you’re a paralegal? Don’t get me wrong, I feel like I won the lottery having you on the team, but weren’t you supposed to be a summer associate?”

“I resigned my associateship. The rest is personal.”

“I’m not asking as a matter of casual gossip. I’m your boss now.” All true, as far as it went. She didn’t need to know his feelings went beyond their working relationship. Right now, he just needed to know why she wasn’t a carefree summer associate.

“And I don’t see how my situation affects our professional relationship. The law firm is satisfied that it’s appropriate to have me work here as a paralegal. Do you need to second-guess them?”

Dan sucked in a breath. Her neck and shoulders were taut. She looked ready to bite his head off if he didn’t back down. And yet he couldn’t back down.

He did, however, soften his tone of voice. “You know I’ll hear the gory details from the other lawyers. I’d prefer not to hear gossip about a member of my group. It’ll be easier to shut down the stories if you tell me what I need to know. That way I won’t have to ask them—or you—for details.”

She squared her shoulders, tilted her chin, and relaxed her hands. She looked like she was about to say, “May it please the court,” and begin her oral argument.

Instead, she took a deep breath. “I had some legal problems. I resolved them, but for financial reasons I can’t go back to law school. I’ve notified Assistant Dean Dorchay that I need to take some time off. I was already working here, so it made sense to stay.” She looked around her stark, impersonal office. “This is where I ended up.”

Dan stared at the floor as he thought about this. Clearly there was more to the story. It sounded like she’d messed up her financial aid as a result of these mysterious legal problems and needed a year to recoup. “No shame in that, I guess.”

Those wonderful woodsy eyes, deep-set and long-lashed, held his for a long moment. She didn’t appear even to blink. Then she turned her body away from him. “No. No shame at all.” She grabbed a file off her desk. “I wanted to ask you about discovery in Garver. In-house counsel hasn’t responded to my calls. You may want one of the lawyers to take over.”

Dan watched her face while she explained the situation. She might not be happy, but he was. In fact, he wanted to laugh from the sheer joy of this situation. And he wasn’t sure why.

Chapter Four

 

Meghan left the office and headed north toward Logan Circle and the library. She loved that the Free Library was open late on weekdays. Nothing cheered her up quite as much as a new book. She was reading her way through Dorothy Sayers—
Gaudy Night
was next on the list.

Waiting for the light to change, she looked up at the sky, a dark gray shade that suggested it might rain. She had an umbrella in her backpack. No raincoat, though—and her trousers had to last through the week before they went to the cleaners.

Meghan sighed. Her life was divided into “free” and “budgeted.” Every penny not accounted for went into savings for emergencies. Unbudgeted dry cleaning did not qualify as an emergency. Did she risk it raining while she was at the library?

“Hey, Meghan.”

She turned. Crap. Dan Howard was trotting up to her.

“Do you live in the Museum District too?” He came to stand next to her, his attention on the pedestrian crossing signal.

“I was going to the library.” She looked up again. “Now I’m thinking I should get home before it starts to rain.”

The light changed and they started to cross. Why didn’t she turn around and head home? She could wait another day before getting a new novel. Before she could change direction, though, Dan had started talking.

“I used to rent in Olde City. I finally decided to buy—just a condo. It has a great view of the Art Museum. How about you?”

He was looking at her. She didn’t want to make eye contact so she kept her attention on the sidewalk. “Me what?”

“Where do you live?”

“West Philly. I’m in the same place I rented for law school.”

She caught his nod in her peripheral vision. “Inertia. Me too.”

Meghan wasn’t sure her situation was inertia but maybe it was. Like how she was still walking with her boss when she would do better heading for home.

“I really should get—” Just as the “going” part of her speech was on her lips, the rain started. Meghan jumped underneath one of the trees across from the cathedral and shrugged off her backpack to fumble for her umbrella.

Dan Howard joined her. “Smart woman. I never think to bring an umbrella.” He grinned at the pint-sized collapsible umbrella. “Not that it would do me much good.”

She looked up at him. He was taller than her image of him from moot court. Maybe because she didn’t allow herself to think about that day, or any of the days before she signed her law career away. Tall and far too good-looking. He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen in a person.

She fiddled with her umbrella’s handle.

“Hold on.” He ran out from under the tree and waved down a taxi. “Here,” he called, holding open the back door.

Shit. Meghan dashed for the cab and scrambled into the back seat. She slid over to sit behind the driver, leaving room for Dan to get in.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“Forty-third and Spruce.” After he’d told the driver, Meghan protested. “You don’t have to take me home.”

There was that grin again. “My pleasure. I didn’t bring an umbrella, remember? And we weren’t both going to fit under that thing.”

“Thank you.” Meghan felt awkward. He was her boss, responsible for virtually all her assignments, evaluations, the works. If he didn’t want her on his team, she’d lose her job. She watched as the rain intensified.

He stretched his legs toward the hump between the front seats. “Are you from Philly originally?”

“Iowa.”

“Really? I’ve never been there. I picture lots of farmland and no hills.”

“I’m from Keokuk, which is in the southeast corner, along the Mississippi.”

“That must be beautiful.”

Meghan smoothed her hands down her thighs. “It is. Particularly in summer.”

“I’m from Maine. My mother works for state government and my dad’s a surgeon.”

The exchange of family stories. It reminded her of having to talk to Kassie. “I’m pretty much the only one left.” The only sane one, at least.

“I’m sorry.”

She glanced over at him. From the look in his eyes, it seemed he really was sorry for her. Even his tone evoked the divide between them. He had family he loved, a pristine résumé as an Assistant US Attorney, a great job. By contrast, she was fortunate not to be on trial, prosecuted by his counterpart in Chicago.

She thought about scrambling out of the cab the next time it stopped at a light. The rain, now a downpour, dissuaded her.

“How did you come to be in Philly?” she asked.

“I was working at a Wall Street firm when I realized I wanted to prosecute the bad guys. I applied to the Justice Department and ended up here.”

“Do you miss New York?”

“Not at all.” He laughed. “Philadelphia suits me. I found New York far too frenetic.”

“I’ve never been to New York.” Wow. Where had that come from? She didn’t share things like that, and on the heels of admitting she was basically an orphan… Not cool.

“You should go. I have favorite bits. Central Park, of course. Ellis Island. Battery City. The brownstones on the Upper West Side. The Brooklyn Bridge. I just don’t miss living there.”

“Where did you live when you were in New York?”

“We had an apartment in Brooklyn.”

Meghan took a deep breath to ease the tension in her chest. It was a relief—no, really, it was—to hear that he was married. She looked at his hand. Even if he didn’t wear a ring. And had flirted with her after the moot court competition.

Shit. She had no business checking out his ring finger.

“I’m not in that relationship anymore, or dating anyone,” he offered.

Still flirting. Not good. He must be like this with every woman. Meghan had seen how Vicky had been sniffing around him. Chances were they’d be seen in the coffee shop giggling over their macchiatos by next week.

That image—of Dan Howard and the unpleasant Vicky—made Meghan’s stomach turn over.

Nonetheless, he needed to be reminded of her situation. She angled her torso toward him. “Mr. Howard.”

“Dan.”

“Right. Dan. Here’s the thing. You’re my boss and I need this job.” She slanted him a look of reproach. Inside, she could feel her loneliness and longing press at her from deep down. She squashed it ruthlessly. These days she couldn’t afford to want anything.

He pulled back until he was pressing against the cab’s door. “Of course. I just—I mean, I didn’t want you to think…” He pushed his hands over the top of his head. “I don’t know. I’m sorry if I was inappropriate.”

“No, really. It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. I just need to be clear why I’m not looking to be friends.”

“Yeah, sure. Of course. I’m so sorry I put you in that position.” He looked straight ahead, clearly unhappy.

Meghan swallowed and closed her eyes for a moment. Could she have fucked this up any worse? Nope, pretty sure she’d done her worst. Short of jumping him as soon as the taxi headed west she’d done about all she could. Luckily the cab was already at 30th Street Station so they were pretty close to her place.

“I’m reading—well, rereading actually—the Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries,” she volunteered.

“I think I read those in the summers during high school.” His voice registered relief that she’d pulled the conversation back.

“Me too. They hold up, don’t they? Admittedly, there are some distressingly antiquated stereotypes mixed in with the stiff upper lips, but that doesn’t worry me too much. She was a product of a different time and place.”

The rest of the cab ride was spent discussing cultural anachronisms in books.

 

 

The envelope sat on Meghan’s kitchen table, taunting her.
Okay, let’s not anthropomorphize the damned thing. It’s just some paper inside an envelope
. She’d gotten the same thing last month. It should be easy by now. Rip it open, write the check, detach the stub and mail it after payday.

Oddly, having her paycheck garnished to pay the restitution was easy by comparison. That was a debt of honor, one she could respect. And anyway, it came out of her paycheck automatically. It was harder to miss money she never actually saw in her bank balance.

This envelope—her law school loans—stood for everything that had gone wrong in the past five years. It was supposed to have been a great accomplishment, getting into Franklin Law. It was a top-ten law school and she was a kid from Iowa.

A law degree represented a chance to do good work and have a stable life. She had been determined to go, even though there was no way she could pay the tuition through hard work, as she had with college. Everyone said, “Just take out loans,” so she had. She’d gotten some scholarship money, true, and that helped. A little. Most of the cost was paid by loans. Nearly $60,000 for those two years. As soon as she dropped out, the loans came due.

If she could have stayed in school, she’d have graduated near the top of her class. The clerkship she’d been offered wouldn’t pay a lot right out of law school. But after that she’d be making good money as a lawyer. Roughly four times what she made as a paralegal. She wouldn’t have noticed the garnishment then—paying her mother’s restitution would have been easy with that much money coming in.

She stopped staring at the envelope, sighed and got her checkbook. This was part of the monthly ritual. She’d cried the first time she’d written the loan repayment check. Not this month. It was just money. She’d worked all through college and taken the extra time to complete her degree debt-free. Well, she’d get back to law school eventually. No need to cry about a delay.

Meghan deliberately straightened her posture. Time to count her blessings—another part of the monthly ritual. She liked her one-bedroom apartment, and it was a blessing that she could afford to stay in it. She walked to work. It was only about thirty blocks and she actually enjoyed the exercise most days. Saved her the cost of a SEPTA bus pass, not to mention an expensive gym membership. And the costs associated with a car, she reminded herself wryly. Better for the environment, as well.

There. See? Nothing to get worked up about. When she went to read her novel, though, she remembered the aborted trip to the library, which brought Dan Howard into her mind, golden-brown hair and flame-blue eyes. That sly smile. He might as well have walked into the apartment with her, his presence was so vivid.

BOOK: The Cost of Happiness: A Contemporary Romance
5.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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