Authors: Mary Jo Putney
"You're offering a chance, and that's more than Daniel had before." And in return, Kendra would be the best damned legal assistant and office manager in Baltimore.
Val got to her feet. "It's time to resign my partnership. I found a great potential office today--a remodeled former church out Old Harford Road, not far from where you live. A good omen if I get it, don't you think?"
Kendra smiled a little as the other woman left the office. A remodeled church? Maybe God was listening after all,
and this was a sign. With God, Val, and Kendra working together, they might beat death row after all.
∗ ∗ ∗
Step firm, Val walked down to the corner suite occupied by Donald Crouse, senior partner of Crouse, Resnick. Strange how the decision she had wrestled with was now blindingly obvious. It was time to take her career in a new direction. To do good, not just well.
She murmured a greeting to Carl Brown, the firm's biggest rainmaker, as he brushed past her with a brusque nod. Dear Carl, charming as always. The only one of the senior partners she disliked, he was hyper-competitive and had made no secret of the fact that he didn't think the firm should have female partners. Val wouldn't miss him.
As Carl turned into his office, his assistant looked up, phone to her ear. "Mr. Brown, your daughter Jenny is on the line. Can you take the call?"
"I haven't got time," he said curtly. "If she needs money, tell her to e-mail me."
Val winced, seeing herself in the absent Jenny, who was a child of Carl's first or second marriage, not the current one. Law firms were full of people too busy to talk to their own children. Her father was like that, though at least he wasn't as bad-tempered as Carl. Yes, leaving was the right decision.
Breezing into Donald Crouse's reception area, she asked, "Is The Man free?"
"Go on in," his assistant said. "What did you do to your hair?"
Ignoring the question, Val entered the inner sanctum. Donald glanced up from the document he was reading. Tall and saturnine with a dry sense of humor, he was Val's personal favorite of the senior members of the firm. He'd been her mentor and her champion even before he became her friend.
"Donald, I'm leaving Crouse, Resnick," Val said bluntly. "I've finally lost the battle to be respectable, and it's time to go off on my own."
He leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "I can't say that I'm surprised. You've always been a triangle in a round hole."
Her mouth quirked up. "Not even a square peg?"
"They're a dime a dozen. Triangles are rare." He peered over the top of his glasses. "I always wondered what you'd look like if you let your hair down. Remarkable."
She smiled and settled into a chair. "I'm rather sorry to prove to the other partners that they were right, and I'm just not their kind, but there it is. I'll start organizing my work for others to take over."
He steepled his fingers thoughtfully. "If you're opening an office here in Baltimore, would you be interested in a continuing relationship with us? We often contract some of the smaller cases out, plus there will be occasions when we'll have larger cases that would benefit from your unique touch."
The prospect of self-employment gave Val a sudden, keen interest in cash flow. "Call away. It's generous of you to be willing to maintain a relationship."
"Generous, hell," he said dryly. "You're the best litigator in the city, Val. I'd rather have you on my side than in opposition."
"I'll miss you, Donald," she said honestly. "But not the daily grind here."
"It takes courage to walk away. There were times when I was tempted, but..." He gestured toward the family portraits on his shining mahogany desk. "Too many responsibilities, and too used to living well."
His admission surprised her. She had thought him perfectly suited to the career he had chosen. But how much did one ever know about someone else's inner life?
After she and Donald discussed timing, finances, and other exit details, she returned to her office, making mental lists of all that must be done. The phone was ringing as she passed Kendra's door. "If that's my father, I'll take it in my office."
Kendra picked up the phone and greeted the caller, raising her brows in a how-did-you-know-that expression.
Wryly Val closed the door and sat at her desk to take the call. This prediction had been easy. If her father was available, he would call as soon as his old friend Donald let him know that Val was quitting.
Not bothering with a greeting, Bradford Westerfield III barked, "For God's sake, Val, what's this nonsense I hear about you leaving Crouse, Resnick?"
"Not nonsense, Brad," she said calmly. "I've had enough of life in a big law firm, and I'm ready to go."
"You're insane to throw away all you've achieved so far. And just after you made partner! That's more than insane, that's...that's
As he proceeded in that vein, Val half tuned him out. Ironic that he was talking about her professional successes only when she was leaving. She supposed that he loved her in his fashion, but nonetheless, she was an embarrassment--the illegitimate daughter he'd sired during his one youthful dabble in rebellion. She would never be tall, slim, blond, or legitimate.
He sighed with exasperation. "You're not listening to a word I'm saying."
"I could quote your last few sentences, but if what you mean is that nothing you say will change my mind, you're right. The decision is made." She smiled wickedly. "What if I say that I can make more money on my own? Would that make a difference?"
His voice changed. "Are you going to handle class-action suits like the ones over asbestos and tobacco? There's huge amounts of money to be made there, and you'd be good at it."
"No class-action suits, at least not yet. I've just taken on my first new case--to try to get a convicted cop killer off death row. I won't make a penny off this even if I'm successful--which I probably won't be."
He snorted, recognizing that he was being baited. "You're your mother's daughter, Val."
The statement was not meant as a compliment. Val's mother, Callie Covington, was an aging hippie who lived her principles and disdained practicality. Occasionally she made Val nuts, but she was real and admirable, and she, at least, would approve that her only daughter was kicking over the traces of the establishment. "Callie will probably buy me a bottle of cheap California champagne to celebrate."
Her father unexpectedly laughed. "She would. Very well, if you're bound and determined to practice do-gooder law, I'm sure you'll do it well. But when you decide you want to return to a real firm, come to New York and work for me."
"Brad, that's probably the nicest thing you've ever said to me." She sent greetings to her stepmother and half sisters, then hung up.
When she was younger, she had wondered what it would be like to have parents she could call Mom and Dad. The commune where she had spent her early years considered anything but first names to be hierarchal and bourgeois.
The Mount Hope Peace Commune. Among her longtime friends, it was generally agreed that Val had the weirdest upbringing, though Rainey was a close second.
Callie had been a gorgeous auburn-haired earth mother, while Brad was a tall blond WASP entranced by the world outside his privileged childhood. The couple was a classic example of opposites attracting--then being unable to get along. They had lived together in the North Carolina commune until Brad tired of rebellion and returned to his real life, which meant Harvard Law School and a career in a top New York law firm.
Callie had stayed at Mount Hope practicing art, gardening, and free love until Val reached school age. Then she moved to Baltimore and set up a studio. Though she was a gifted fabric artist, she had no business sense and didn't earn regular money until she began teaching art in a small progressive school. The salary wasn't much, but at least it was regular and she enjoyed the work.
Since Brad was the responsible sort who paid child support regularly even though he hadn't known Callie was pregnant when he left, they got by. Val attended the local Quaker private school on her father's dime, then made it through college and law school on scholarships and student loans.
Though Val was proud of having managed on her own, unlike her mother she had never wanted to rebel against the middle class. She had wanted to join it, and she had.
Speaking of Callie...Val reached for the phone. Time to invite her mother to dinner and tell her the news.
After Callie accepted the invitation, Val had one last call to make before settling down to her brief. The phone rang three times before it was answered. "Rob here."
Hearing traffic in the background, Val guessed it was a cell phone. "Hi, Rob? This is Val Covington. I've changed my mind about the suitability of putting a law office in a church. Do you have time now to discuss the details?"
"For sure." There was a smile in his voice. "I'm glad you changed your mind."
"So am I." She could hardly wait to begin her new life. And apparently it would include Rob Smith, which would be...interesting.
∗ ∗ ∗
Callie was already waiting in a booth when Val entered the Kandahar restaurant's cool, dim interior. Taller than Val and dressed in flowing artsy garments of her own design, Callie would fit right into a Wagnerian opera. She rose to administer a hug. "What's the occasion? You never leave that dreary office early enough for dinner."
"Often I don't, but you're right, this is an occasion. I'm buying dinner, and I expect you to spring for some cheap California champagne."
Callie raised her voice dramatically. "I'm becoming a grandmother! You may even get married, neo-conservative that you are, though I'll settle for the grandchild. No champagne for you if you're pregnant, though."
Val grinned. "Sorry to disappoint your dynastic ambitions, but I'm sure you'll be happy to hear that I'm leaving Crouse, Resnick to open my own office, and I intend to do a lot of do-gooder law."
my girl!" Callie beamed. "Tell me more."
Val repeated her new spiel about wanting to offer quality representation to those who needed it but didn't have the money. In another couple of days, she would have the concept reduced to a sound bite.
After mentioning the death row case she was taking on, she added, "You'll like the office I intend to rent--a remodeled church in Hamilton. I'm going to commission you to do a huge fabric wall hanging for the entry area. The high ceilings need something big and splashy."
The wall hanging was pure impulse, but a good one. Not only would the office get a striking piece of art, but some money would be transferred to Callie. Apart from allowing Val to put a down payment on a house, Callie always refused her daughter's financial help.
A twinkle in her eyes showing that she'd deduced Val's intent, Callie said blandly, "I'd love to do a wall hanging, but it will be my gift for your office warming."
"I'll be the envy of the Baltimore legal community." Val accepted graciously since it was obvious her mother wouldn't accept payment. Callie had never cared much about money. As compensation, she had the artist's ability to make her home comfortable and attractive while spending less than most people put into a sofa. Though Val's childhood had been chaotic in some ways, it hadn't lacked color and imagination.
Callie frowned. "If you're looking for worthy clients, I have one for you. The music teacher at my school, Mia Kolski, is being harassed legally by her ex-husband, a slimeball who keeps dragging her back to court. She's a single mother and can't afford the legal fees, so she's terrified of losing custody of her kids. Her husband doesn't really want them, he just wants to punish her for being smart enough to leave him."
It was a common story, but it still made Val's blood boil. "Have her call me at home to set up an appointment. Maybe I can help her."
"That's my girl," her mother said again. "You've spent
so many years with those corporate bandits that I was beginning to think you had gone over to the dark side."
Val grinned. "You're such an unrepentant old lefty."
"Watch that word
Callie's expression turned serious. "I'm really, truly glad you're doing this, Val. Though I wasn't a very good Quaker, the principles still speak to me, which is why I took you to meetings and sent you to Friends school. I wanted you to grow up better and wiser than me. It seemed to be working, until you hit adolescence."
The waiter arrived to take their orders, giving Val time to think about her mother's words. For years the two of them had attended the Stony Run Meeting which was directly adjacent to Friends School.
At the school she discovered friendship and the joys of learning. At the meeting, her idealistic young heart responded to the spiritual purity of Quaker silence and belief. Later she had fallen away from faith, while her mother moved to the Unitarians when she acquired a Jewish significant other who wasn't comfortable in a Christian church.
As the waiter left, Val said lightly, "It's hard to be a good Quaker and an adolescent, and becoming a corporate litigator is even worse. Harvard won't grant a law degree unless you swear a blood oath to deliver your soul over to the dark gods of materialism."
Callie grinned. "I almost believe that. I don't blame you for wanting to live a comfortable life. Even when you were an adorable infant with carrot-colored curls, it was clear that you weren't cut out to be an artist and live in a garret. You used to line all your toys up in neat little rows, and you always qualified your opinions, just like your father. I guess you were born to a be a lawyer, but it really makes me happy that you're going to be using your abilities to help people who need help. Now tell me more."
Val was happy to oblige. It was interesting that having given up trying to win her father's approval, she had her mother's instead.
And it felt darned good.