FOOL ME ONCE
Damn the man!
It had been ten years.
By now, Kyle Galbraith should’ve been a minor footnote in her life, no more than a youthful indiscretion she’d forgotten long ago. Instead, his memory had stuck like an ill-conceived and very much regretted tattoo—under her skin and just as hard to remove.
Verity James shuddered at the thought. She’d give anything to put the unfaithful snake firmly in the past where he belonged, but reminders of him were everywhere. They popped up at the oddest moments, impossible to avoid. She thought of them as Malignant Moments because, like a cancerous tumor, they invaded her life, killed her peace of mind, and she had absolutely no defense.
Today’s Malignant Moment had come out-of-the-blue in the grocery store checkout line. She’d been thinking about what to make for dinner when—wham! She’d been sucker-punched right in the solar plexus. There was Kyle, plastered larger than life across every tabloid in the newsstand.
Plastered is right. In the photo, Kyle slouched against a stunningly beautiful A-list starlet, his arm thrown haphazardly around her shoulders for support. His hair was tousled, his tie askew, and his drink tilted at a precarious angle, the amber liquid on the verge of spilling. Despite this, he was still the most compelling individual she’d ever encountered.
Damn the man!
She took a deep cleansing breath, hoisted the grocery bags from the backseat of her car, and headed into the kitchen. The room’s soft light and cozy colors welcomed her home and soothed the edges Kyle had ruffled so easily. Through the bay windows, the sun had already disappeared, but an orange glow warmed the horizon. In front of those windows, her mother sat at the kitchen table laughing with her two best friends, Gwen and Leslie. The three fifty-something women greeted her as she set the grocery bags on the counter.
Her mother, Harmony James, hopped up to help. “Hey, sweetie, did you get my message about needing more margarita mix?”
“Yes, but it was already on the list. I swear you guys go through margaritas faster than we do milk.”
“Hey, they’re hard earned. Teaching has its rewards, but sometimes a good margarita is all that stands between us and insanity.”
While Gwen and Leslie laughed and agreed wholeheartedly, Harmony leaned in to hug her and whisper, “Beware, they’re talking about him.”
Verity stiffened and pulled back. Her mother shrugged. Verity briefly closed her eyes, trying to prepare for yet another Malignant Moment. Wasn’t one a day enough? She still hadn’t recovered from the last one.
As if on cue, Gwen waved a folded bit of newspaper to get her attention. It had the same picture Verity had seen at the grocery store. “Your mom clings to the belief that John Lennon is the best-looking man in history.” Gwen rolled her eyes as if that was the most ridiculous thing ever. Then she jabbed the photo with a finger. “But the truth is, this is the hottest man to ever walk the Earth. Obviously, you agree, right?”
While Leslie nodded and slapped hands with Gwen in a “hell, yeah!” high five, Verity mentally braced herself to play along. “I don’t know. Who are the tabloids tormenting this week?”
For a moment, Gwen looked like she’d swallowed a bug. “Not tormenting! Showcasing. Get your head out of the sand, girl. It’s Kyle Galbraith. He’s practically American royalty.”
Of course she recognized the scum-sucking louse. She shrugged and struggled to appear nonchalant. “Oh, him.” She waved a hand as if the man was too trivial for even a passing thought. “He’s nothing but a drunken playboy. Who’d he spill his drink on this week?” She peered at the picture as if seeing it for the first time. “She’s pretty, but you’d think the American public would be sick and tired of following his sad, shallow life. And he’s not even famous for anything other than being a member of an old and wealthy family.” She paused for a moment. “And his dead wife.”
Gwen rolled her eyes again. “Come on, girl! No one cares about all that when he’s such spectacular eye candy. And what’s wrong with being rich? I’d say it’s a bonus.”
Her mother slipped an arm around her waist in solidarity. “I agree with Verity. Can you imagine actually being his flavor of the week? So shallow.” She gave a mock shudder. “I don’t think any of them have lasted more than a week.”
Gwen shrugged. “I don’t care how short the ride is. With a man like that, it’d be worth it.”
Verity couldn’t blame Gwen for her reaction. Kyle was an incredibly handsome man, at least on the surface. His tumble of curly golden hair had—once upon a time—tempted her beyond reason. And the way his moss green eyes intensified when he focused his entire being solely and completely on her…it was like getting snagged in the gravity of a brilliant star. He’d sucked her in, spun her around, and utterly changed the course of her existence. Then, he’d ejected her into the cold and desolate vacuum of space where she’d been drifting ever since.
She shook herself. Clearly she’d been reading too much Carl Sagan with Tru. “I agree, Mom. I’m sure the Kyle Galbraith experience is highly overrated.”
Harmony squeezed her gently. She’d been there for the aftermath and knew exactly how devastating that experience had been.
Gwen glanced at her watch. “Oh! I’m going to be late for my date.”
“Another one? Aren’t you tired of all the losers that dating site’s thrown your way?” Leslie asked.
Gwen pulled her sweater off the back of the chair. “They aren’t all losers. Besides, it’s fun to flirt and have a conversation with an actual adult. It’s so different from the teenagers we deal with every day who only think they know it all.”
Leslie rose also. “I’ll walk out with you. I’ve got papers to grade.”
After they left, Harmony began pulling groceries from the bags. “You handled that well.”
“Thanks.” Verity took off her suit jacket, collapsed onto a barstool, and rubbed her temples. For the millionth time, she tried to put Kyle Galbraith firmly in the distant past where he belonged.
Her mother glanced over her shoulder as she slid a can into the cupboard. Her long graying braid swung gently across her back, the tip brushing the top of her jeans. “Tomorrow’s the big day. I can’t believe I’ve got my fingers crossed so my daughter will make partner at the largest law firm in the state.” Her brow furrowed. “When you were born, if someone told me you’d someday work for the Man, I would’ve said they were smoking something. How the times have changed.”
Verity smiled wanly. Her mother’s hippie origins ran deep. “This is my dream, Mom. Making partner is a major step for me.” She picked up the pendant that hung in the hollow of her throat and absently ran it back and forth on its chain.
“Yes, but I can’t help wondering if it’s the best thing for you.”
Verity paused, the pendant dangling from her fingers in mid-arc. “Of course it’s the right thing. It’s what I’ve been killing myself to achieve for the past ten years.”
Harmony sighed, leaned a hip against the counter, and folded her arms. She considered Verity a moment before saying, “That’s exactly my point. You’ve been killing yourself for too long. Do you realize what you’ve sacrificed in the last ten years? You’ve changed so much I sometimes don’t recognize you.”
Verity couldn’t have been more stunned if her mother had slapped her. “Mom, what are you saying?”
Harmony nodded at the necklace still dangling from her fingers—a white jade disc with a dragon carved into it and a hole through the center. “That’s a bi symbol. Your father gave it to you because it has ancient meaning and he wanted to honor his Chinese heritage by passing it on to you. Only people of the highest moral quality, those who lived honestly and with integrity, could wear it. You were young when he died, but he hoped you’d value and honor those same principles. Instead, you’ve spent the past ten years hiding everything about yourself—your personality, your heart, even your appearance. You may have thought it was necessary because of your circumstance, but it’s become a mask you hide behind, an excuse to avoid living your life fully.”
Where had this come from? Verity dropped the necklace and stood so abruptly the chair nearly fell over behind her. “You of all people know what I went through and what will happen if I’m ever recognized. The stakes are huge, and I can’t believe you’d criticize me for taking measures that aren’t just necessary, but essential, to our protection.”
Harmony stepped forward and placed her hands on Verity’s shoulders. She smiled ruefully, making all the laugh lines around her eyes scrunch gently in concern. “Daughter, I know your reasons better than anybody, but the lies are killing you. Would it be so bad if everyone knew? Why not tell the truth and live freely, without constantly looking over your shoulder?”
Verity jerked back, all the comfort evaporating. “Who would believe me after all this time? And regardless of whether they did or didn’t, it’d be a nightmare. Have you forgotten what it was like?” She spun around, a hand on her forehead, remembering the terror and humiliation. “Reporters followed me everywhere. They even camped outside the hospital.” She spun back and threw her hand out in exasperation. “And then, for weeks after, all those talking heads on TV endlessly dissected my life and passed judgment on my character regardless of any actual facts.”
Her breath hitched. She pressed a hand to her chest, struggling to put the overwhelming emotions back in the box where she could manage them. “I lost everything. I couldn’t even use my own name.” Her conviction solidified and she firmly held her mother’s gaze. “I’ll never be that vulnerable again. My actions, how I live my life, is what protects us from reliving that nightmare.”
Harmony didn’t back down. “But at what cost? You used to be lit up on the inside, so excited by your cancer research and all its possibilities. That work fed your soul. Now, there’s no joy in what you do. Worse, it’s taken over your life. When was the last time you did something with a friend? Heck—” She threw a hand in the air. “When was the last time you even had a friend?” Harmony pointed at her. “It’s not healthy. You need to face the past, deal with it, and put it behind you before you actually become the cold, reclusive woman you pretend to be.”
Her mother had clearly lost her mind. Verity struggled for calm. “Mom, if it was just me, maybe I could. But I have to consider what’s best for Tru. If we’re ever exposed, he’d be the focus of all the attention. He’d bear most of the consequences.” A fire welled within her, making her eyes and throat burn. Her gaze locked with her mother’s. “I’ll do anything—do you hear me?—anything to protect him.” She swallowed hard, but the lump in her throat didn’t budge. “And what about you? The school would probably fire you.”
Harmony held up a hand, temper sparking in her eyes. “Oh, no you don’t. I won’t be your excuse. This is Las Vegas, where almost anything goes. The high school isn’t going to fire its best chemistry teacher because of something I didn’t do—and had no control over—ten years ago. As for Tru, it’s time he knew the truth. That boy needs his father.”
She stared at her mother, utterly astounded. She couldn’t believe where this conversation had led. Whether she should tell Tru and his father about each other was a forbidden topic since shortly after Tru’s birth. Bringing it up now, after all these years, felt like a betrayal, one that blindsided her and left her speechless.
Before she could do anything more than stare at her mother incredulously, Tru stumbled into the kitchen. He was a typical nine-year-old boy, skinny and gangly. These days it seemed he was all arms and legs. As usual, he had his nose buried in a book—George’s Secret Key to the Universe by Stephen and Lucy Hawking—making him oblivious to their conversation and the tension in the air.
Without looking up from his book, he slid onto a stool at the counter and pushed his glasses up with a clumsy knuckle. She affectionately rumpled his perpetually messy hair.
He’d inherited some of her East Asian features, including his dark sable hair color, warm skin tone, and distinctive eyelid shape, but mostly he looked like his father. His messy curls, moss green eye color, and strong jaw were hallmarks on the Galbraith family tree. But the real similarity was in the details—how he walked, some of his mannerisms, even the adorable dimple that appeared at the top of his forehead whenever he concentrated on a problem. She loved her son with every flavor of quark she possessed, but those similarities haunted her and were another reason why it was impossible to forget the man who’d destroyed her life.
She straightened. As Tru’s mother, the decision was hers to make. Regardless of Harmony’s opinion, under no circumstances would she expose her sweet, brilliant child to the lying, cheating rat who fathered him. She glanced at her mother, who watched Tru fondly. As far as Verity was concerned, their discussion was over. “Hey, kiddo, how was school today?”
He carefully marked his page and closed the book before giving her his full attention. He blinked owlishly behind his glasses. “I’m going to enter the science fair.” Then he smiled and wiggled in his seat. He turned toward his grandmother. “Can I have a peanut butter sandwich, please?”
Harmony grabbed the peanut butter from the cupboard and placed a slice of bread on a plate. She put both in front of him, along with a knife. They’d given up long ago on making a sandwich to his satisfaction. He picked up the knife and meticulously applied peanut butter to the bread. When he finished, every millimeter was covered with a perfectly uniform layer. He folded the bread in half and took a bite out of the middle.
“Is Michael going to be your partner for the science fair?” Harmony asked.
He pinched his lips together and shrugged.
“That’s a good idea since you two work so well together. Why don’t you invite him to spend a night this weekend so you can talk about it?” She waited for him to jump at the chance to have his best friend over, but he remained focused on his sandwich. She mentally shrugged and changed gears. “What kind of project do you have in mind for the science fair?”
He drew his brows together, making the dimple on his forehead stand out. “Maybe a Tesla coil, but that’s not very challenging, or original. I’d rather do something important that will be useful to people.”
“Well, let me know if you want some help.”
He shrugged again and bent over his plate, taking another huge bite of his sandwich.
She caught her mother’s eye and shook her head. She warned with a look that the subject of Tru’s father was closed. Permanently. She firmly intended to never think about the man again.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Verity was in her office early. Her secretary sat ramrod straight on the edge of a chair, rapidly scribbling down the tasks Verity dictated to her.
“Finally, file the answer to the casino complaint this morning. William Barrett is opposing counsel, and he never misses a beat. Make sure everything about this case is calendared carefully. Let’s stay especially focused on this one.”
“Yes, Ms. James, I’ll see to it.”
“Good, that’ll be all.”
After her secretary left, she stood and ran a hand over her midriff to smooth the wrinkles from her suit and the nerves from her belly. Time to meet with Peter Weller, the firm’s managing partner, about her partnership.
As she walked down the long hall to Peter’s corner office, she passed secretaries busily typing away and a legal assistant rushing by on a mission. Through open office doors, her fellow attorneys were on the phone, meeting with clients, or conferring with other attorneys or support staff.
Not one person acknowledged her. No one made eye contact or asked how she was doing. No one called her into their office to discuss a case or chat about weekend plans. No one said, “Hello,” or, “Good morning,” and the legal assistant who had nearly collided with her as he rushed by didn’t offer an, “Excuse me.” In fact, no one acknowledged her passage in any way. Instead, their gazes skimmed right over her, as if she didn’t exist.
It wasn’t because they were unfriendly or cruel. They behaved that way because she’d insisted on it. To keep a professional barrier between her and everyone else, she’d always deflected personal inquiries, barely tolerated the usual pleasantries exchanged between co-workers, and had actively discouraged any interest in her on their part. It hadn’t been long before they got the message and quit trying to draw her out. Now they simply ignored her and it had become a habit firmly ingrained by years of practice.
It was a good thing. At least, that’s what she told herself. It fed her image, the persona she maintained everywhere but at home. If she kept everyone at a distance, no one could figure out her secret. Today, for the first time, she realized how invisible she’d become. It may have been the behavior she’d insisted on from her co-workers, but today it bothered her. Actually, that wasn’t entirely accurate. She’d always hated it, but today she didn’t push those feelings away.
She’d never wanted to be invisible. She used to be vivacious, easy-going, and friendly, with lots of friends and acquaintances. Of course, she’d discovered the hard way that those people hadn’t been her friends at all. Not one of them defended her during the media nightmare, or even tried to contact her and offer support. Some even grabbed their fifteen minutes of fame by telling outrageous lies about her to the reporters looking for any juicy tidbit. It had all ballooned so far out of control.
She shook off the thoughts as she approached Peter’s office. Focus on the partnership. It was the key to everything. She placed a hand over her stomach and blew out a long, silent breath. Peter sat behind his enormous desk, flipping through a sheaf of papers. When she knocked on the doorframe, he glanced up.
“Come in, I’m nearly finished.”
She sat on the edge of the chair in front of his desk, crossed her ankles demurely beneath her, and folded her hands in her lap. She pulled her professional demeanor tightly around her and hoped her nerves didn’t show. So much hung on the next few minutes.
Peter signed his name with a flourish and threw the document into his outbox. He settled back in his chair, intertwined his fingertips, and tapped them against his lips as he considered her. For the first time in a very long time, she wanted to squirm.
“Ms. James, you’ve been with the firm for seven years. It’s time we discussed your future.”
“You were quite the topic of conversation at the last partnership meeting.” He paused and her stomach dropped. Was that a good thing, or a bad thing? “Everyone agrees your work is exemplary. They’re impressed with how well you handled William Barrett in your last trial. Over the years, he’s given several of the partners a run for their money.”
She let go of the breath she’d been holding. “He’s a good attorney. While the jury found our client liable, the damages awarded were a fraction of what Barrett had demanded to settle before trial. The outcome was a fair one and fully supported by the facts.”
“That’s not what the client thought. He expected to win.”
She shifted in her chair. The client had hoped to avoid any liability, but it hadn’t been a realistic expectation. “I prepared him for the possibility in advance. He knew the risks of going to trial. The bottom line is he breached the contract. The damages awarded were fair. I’m sorry he’s disappointed.”
“Judge Thompson thought the outcome was fair as well.”
Judge Thompson? Her heart gave a hard knock. She caught herself reaching for her necklace and jerked her hand back to her lap. She carefully intertwined her fingers before meeting Peter’s eye. “You spoke to the trial judge?”
“I ran into him last week, and he told me how impressive you were during the trial. Most attorneys stretch and manipulate the facts to get the best result for their clients.” He peered at her closely. “You’re more of a straight shooter. You don’t play games. As a result, you gained the judge’s respect. Whether or not the client’s happy, that’s a feather in your cap.”
She dipped her head in acknowledgment and relief. He was hard to read, but she hoped it was a good sign for her partnership.
“You’re thorough, focused, and effective. All excellent qualities for a partner.” Peter leaned forward over the elbows he planted on the desk. “However, more than one partner has expressed concern.”
Wait… What? Her head snapped back. She opened her mouth to defend herself, but Peter waved her down.
“The partners are concerned with your demeanor,” he said.
My demeanor? She sat back, stunned. She was always the picture of professionalism. What could possibly be wrong with her demeanor?
“Personally, I consider that icy facade of yours very effective at intimidating opposing counsel and projecting confidence to the judge, but others are concerned about how you interact with clients and juries. You can come across as unlikable. Sort of…a prickly bitch.” He smiled faintly, apparently trying to soften the blow. “If you were more personable, problems like those you had with the last client might not happen.” He paused. “Did you know the staff refers to you as the Dragon Lady?”
Yes, she did know that. It was based on the dragon necklace she always wore, but it really stemmed from her standoffish manner and her demand for professionalism and excellence from everyone she worked with. At first, the name had hurt her formerly friendly soul, but she’d sucked it up and discovered it proved another useful tool to keep everyone at a distance.
Peter continued, “You have quite the reputation. You’re exacting and don’t tolerate fools or half-assed efforts. You ruthlessly pursue the truth, and you insist on nothing less from your co-workers. There are some who’ve asked me not to assign them to work with you because they can’t take the pressure.”
Well…damn. That couldn’t be good. “I take my job seriously, and I expect a lot from the people I work with because ultimate responsibility for the clients and their cases falls on me.”
Peter waved his hand again. “You won’t get an argument from me. I’m just telling you the way it is. Your reputation has spread outside the office. In fact, when I spoke to Judge Thompson, he referred to you as the Dragon Lady. Some of the partners are concerned that kind of image is wrong for the firm and doesn’t fit with the expectations of our clients.”
She was stunned, both by his words and his bluntness. All these years she’d worked so hard to perfect her professionalism, and now it stood in the way of her making partner.
Peter pulled her from her thoughts. “This is not a final decision. Give me something to work with. Make an effort to warm things up. Be friendlier, more compassionate. You’re human, show it. Experiment on your co-workers, but dazzle the clients.” He sat back and considered her a moment. “It won’t kill you to chat with people occasionally or take part in the firm’s social activities. The annual picnic is coming up.” His eyebrows shot up like he’d just had an inspired thought. “Bring your son and let the partners see you as a mom. It couldn’t hurt your cause.” When she started to protest, he held up a hand and barked, “That’s an order.”
Her head spun. Peter expected her to drop the mask and interact with people, but that was supremely dangerous. What’s more, how could she ever expose Tru or involve him in this crazy scheme? Almost no one at the firm knew he existed. She never talked about her personal life, and she kept his picture in her desk drawer. She swallowed hard and gave the only answer she could, “Yes, sir.”
Peter visibly softened and his voice became kinder. “This will be good for you, Ms. James. Actually, I’m curious what a warmer version of you looks like.” He considered her a moment and it made her nervous all over again.
Finally he said, “As managing partner, my first priority is always the firm. Since I believe you’re an asset we want to keep, I’m going to make things easier for you. A case came in this morning from a new client, one we want to cultivate and get on retainer. This is a clean slate for you, a chance to start from scratch. Dazzle him and I don’t see why you won’t be offered partnership.”
She nodded. It was a small concession, but she’d take it. “Thank you. I’ll do my best.”
“I have every confidence in you, Ms. James. That’s why I’ve been so blunt. I think you’ll make an excellent partner. Now give me what I need to convince the others and we’ll get it done.” He held up a finger. “But, I have to caution you. You’ve entered a delicate time in your career. The firm’s structure doesn’t have a permanent place for senior associates. It’s either partnership, or you’re out. Your actions over the next couple of months will be scrutinized closely by all the partners. Make it good.”
BACK IN HER OFFICE, Verity closed the door and moved to the enormous window that took up most of the wall behind her desk. She stared blindly at Sunset Mountain in the distance and marveled at how fast her life had crumbled into chaos.
She had no frigging clue how to “warm up” her personality or “dazzle” the new client, as Peter demanded. She’d spent a decade perfecting her Dragon Lady persona—it had become as familiar and comfortable as her face in the mirror. She let her head drop into her hands. Could her mother be right? Had she become the mask?
It didn’t really matter because it all had to change. But how? She couldn’t go back to the person she used to be. Not only was it too dangerous, but so much time had passed, that woman had become as alien to her as a little green man. She’d have to find another way.
Making partner was a crucial part of her plan to stay hidden and, more importantly, to protect Tru from exposure. If she were a respected partner at the largest law firm in Nevada, she’d have the prestige and credibility to withstand another press assault. She’d also have the backing of the legal establishment to protect her from the libel and slander she’d suffered so long ago. As a lowly associate in that same firm? They’d probably fire her in the face of a scandal. She must gain the safety and security that came with being a partner. There was no other option.
All she had to do was reinvent herself once again. She’d find a way to make it work, somehow. If Peter wanted her to dazzle this new client, then she didn’t care what it took. She’d be dazzling.
A FEW HOURS LATER, Verity parked like a maniac in front of Tru’s school. Her cool composure lay around her in pieces, and all thoughts of partnership had vanished. In fact, everything had faded when she picked up the phone and learned Tru had been injured. She’d rushed out of the office without a word to anyone, and she doubted they’d even noticed.
When she entered the principal’s office, she found Tru slumped in a chair, holding a tissue to his bloody nose. He looked so small and rumpled, like a baby bird fallen from its nest, and he refused to raise his gaze from the floor. She crouched in front of him and ran a hand over his head. “Hey, kiddo. Are you all right?”
When he didn’t answer, she gently lifted his chin so their eyes met briefly before his gaze darted away. In that brief moment, she read total devastation on his face and a knot formed in her chest. She squeezed his shoulder before standing to face Mrs. Ray, the principal.
Mrs. Ray glanced at Tru. “That’s what I’d like to know. A member of the cleaning crew found him trapped inside a locker after school. Tru won’t tell us what happened, who’s responsible, or how his nose got bloodied.”
She crouched in front of her son again and consciously softened her voice. “What happened? Can you tell me who did this to you?”
He stirred and sat straighter in his chair, but he still wouldn’t meet her gaze. He shrugged half-heartedly. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters. We need to know who did this so they can be punished. We don’t want it to happen again.”
He ducked his head and kept his silence.
She turned back to the principal. “What do you intend to do?”
“Unless he tells us what happened, I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do. I can’t address the situation if I don’t know who’s responsible for his injuries.”
Buzzing began in her head, and she opened her mouth to let the principal know how utterly inadequate that would be, but a single word stopped her cold.
She turned back toward Tru. He looked so pitiful and small that her heart bled for him. She wanted to cuddle him close like she used to, but lately he’d become resistant to her displays of affection.
“Can we go home?” he asked in a tiny voice.
Perhaps that was best. He should be somewhere familiar, someplace safe. “Yes, of course.” She stood and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be in touch, Mrs. Ray. Right now, I’m going to focus on my son. Don’t expect him in school tomorrow.”
She led Tru out to the car. She tried to put an arm around him to hug him close, but, as she expected, he ducked away. She longed to comfort him, but the little boy who often crawled into her lap for a snuggle was growing up. He needed something different from her now, but what that was eluded her. It killed her that her son was in pain, and she had no idea how to fix it. She sometimes felt completely inadequate as a mother.
In the car, he curled up in the front seat and stared out the window, ignoring her. He’d need to process everything before he could discuss it. There was nothing she could do until he came out of his shell. She settled for patting his leg while guilt and worry made her stomach burn.
That’s why it was a relief when he spoke a few minutes later, “Mom, have you heard of the Science Academy?”
The question surprised her. The Science Academy was a prestigious boarding school in Boston. “Yes, I’ve heard of it.”
“I want to go there.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but she had no idea what to say. He took advantage of her hesitation, and for the first time since she’d arrived at the school, he uncurled and turned toward her. He spoke with building excitement, morphing into something closer to his usual animated self. “I’ve researched it. It’s a place for kids like me, ones who love science. I’ll bet I could find a friend there.”
A lump lodged in her throat. He’d always cared more about how things work than what people thought of him. As a result, other kids often thought him strange.
“What about Michael? He’s your friend.”
He looked out the window again but didn’t say a word. His animation drained away, the thrill of talking about the Science Academy gone. She wanted to kick herself for saying the wrong thing yet again.
She worried how the bullying would affect his future efforts to make friends. His solution of attending the Science Academy was out of the question. The school was thousands of miles away, and sending Tru across the country to live without her at such a young age went against every mothering instinct she had.
But she couldn’t bring herself to end his dream, at least not yet. What would it hurt to think about it? She reached over and squeezed his knee. “We’ll see, kiddo. I won’t make any promises, but I’ll look into it. The Science Academy is hard to get into, and it’s very expensive.”
He turned back toward her, his brows puckered and his forehead dimpled. “I’ve thought about that, and I have a plan. The top prize for winning the National Science Fair is a scholarship to the Science Academy. All I have to do is win and I’ll be set.”
She squeezed the steering wheel with both hands, her heart sinking. Tru had a habit of putting enormous pressure on himself to succeed. If he failed, he sometimes didn’t handle it well. The National Science Fair was a big deal, so this situation had disaster written all over it.
Her inadequacies as a mother stabbed her again. Tru used to be such an easy kid. If he got off track, she’d read him a story, distract him with something interesting, or take him to a new museum. Those tricks didn’t work anymore. Her baby was growing up.
The issues he faced proved it. Bullying, loneliness, the pressure to succeed in a national level science fair—how could she guide him? She’d never been a nine-year-old boy. She had absolutely no experience. She often struggled with determining which direction to nudge him for his own good. It was like crossing a stream by hopping from one rock to the next. It required careful balance, planning, and one misstep would mean she was in over her head. Of course, if that happened, Tru would be the one to suffer.
She wished she had a co-parent—someone to share the enormous responsibilities and decisions that went along with raising a brilliant child. It was an overwhelming task, and at times like these, she barely held on by her fingernails.
Why couldn’t Kyle have been a decent human being? She wished he was someone reasonable, someone who understood Tru from the male perspective. He’d help Tru navigate the difficulties of being a boy, and eventually a man, and give her insight and advice along the way.
She finally understood what Harmony meant about Tru needing his father. Kyle would no doubt be a terrible father, but he was all she had to work with. Was she right to keep them apart? Her worry and guilt doubled, then tripled. “As I said, we’ll see. I’ll think about the Science Academy and we’ll talk about it again later.”
Tru nodded but seemed to know it was a long shot. He curled back into a ball, fixed his gaze out the window, and didn’t say another word the rest of the way home.
LATER THAT NIGHT, Verity soaked in a tub full of bubbles, but they didn’t provide the stress relief—or the answers—she sought. Harmony had tried to reason with Tru, but he still wouldn’t talk about what happened to him at school. He absolutely refused to name names.
Every mothering instinct she had screamed for justice. She needed to do something—anything—but she had no idea which way to jump. She wished she could wrap him in cotton batting and protect him forever. Maybe she should take him out of that school and leave all the bad memories behind, but removing him from his problems wouldn’t teach him how to solve them.
Besides, if he left school, where would he go? She’d love to homeschool him and provide lots of opportunities to explore the scientific areas that interested him most, but she couldn’t. Homeschooling required supervision, and she had to work. It just wasn’t possible.
The only realistic solution was a different school. Las Vegas had a magnet program for sciences, but it was too far away and not a feasible option. There were private schools, of course, but she’d ruled them out when Tru was younger. They were prohibitively expensive, and none of them had an accelerated science program. They were generally good academically, but after she had observed the kids in the halls, moving through their day, she knew they’d probably eat her son alive. She’d rejected those schools for the same reason she reconsidered them now—to protect Tru from bullies.
She pulled the plug to let the water drain from the tub. The bullying could be a problem no matter where he went to school. How could she encourage him to be the wonderful person he was, but still guide him back to the norm so he wouldn’t suffer for his individuality? It pissed her off that such a thing was even necessary.
Of course, Tru’s solution of the Science Academy wasn’t feasible, either. As he continued to navigate difficult social situations, ones that would become increasingly more complicated as he got older, he’d need her more and more. Now wasn’t the time to abandon him by sending him two thousand miles away.
She toweled the moisture from her body and grabbed the lotion. As she rubbed it in, she wished once again that Kyle wasn’t such a despicable human being. She pulled the nightgown over her head then slipped into bed.
No matter how much she wished otherwise, Kyle couldn’t be trusted. She punched the pillow in frustration. All the responsibility for raising Tru rested solely on her, and it always would. The burden was overwhelming, and it exhausted her to think about it.
She rolled to her side and pulled the blanket over her shoulder. She should get some sleep since tomorrow would be a big day. She had a client to dazzle.
THE NEXT MORNING, Verity paced behind her closed office door. Nerves knotted her stomach. The meeting with the new client, the one she had to dazzle, was in an hour. She’d tried to prepare for it by learning something about the case and the client, but Peter had been on the phone and he’d shooed her away. How could she dazzle a client she couldn’t research beforehand? All Peter’s secretary could say was the case had a medical component.
Based on that stingy piece of info, she’d chosen Josie McFarland as her second chair on the trial team. Josie had trial experience, but she also had a medical background that might come in handy. Even better, Verity had never worked with Josie before. She hoped it’d be easier to make the necessary changes to her demeanor with someone who didn’t have any personal experience with the Dragon Lady.
Her thoughts turned to Tru as she glanced at her watch. She’d wanted to stay home with him today, but she couldn’t miss this client meeting. Harmony had offered to play hooky and take him to the National Atomic Testing Museum. He’d loved the idea when they’d presented it to him at breakfast that morning.
She rolled her shoulders. The pressure of the upcoming meeting had all her muscles tightly wound. She decided a walk to the kitchen for a cup of coffee would do her good.
Once again, as she passed co-workers along the way, they completely ignored her. What would happen if she started hopping around like a monkey? Or what if she passed out cold? Would anyone stop to help, or would they step over her body and continue on their way? She didn’t care for being invisible at all.
Pushing open the door, she entered the kitchen. It was more of a break room with several dining tables and chairs. Josie McFarland and Kate Cardwell sat on a couch along the back wall, engrossed in conversation. Both women glanced up, but their gazes slid past her when they realized who she was. They continued their conversation as if she wasn’t there. Ouch.
She entered the small kitchen attached to the break room. She’d been the one to insist on a professional distance between herself and others. When had it become acceptable for them to ignore her completely? More importantly, how could she change it? Both Josie and Kate were about her age, good attorneys, and she respected them. She’d even worked with Kate on a trial last year and found her to be very pleasant and good at her job. In her old life, they would’ve been friends. How would she have made that happen ten years ago? Looking back, she had no idea.
Grabbing a mug, she set up the machine to brew a single cup of coffee. The wall between the break room and the kitchen had a large cutout, like a picture window with no glass. While she waited for her coffee to brew, she could easily hear Kate and Josie’s conversation.
“I can’t believe he’s here. Becky practically hyperventilated after escorting him to Peter’s office.” Verity glanced through the window opening. Kate fanned herself with a hand as she spoke, “I may be a happily married woman, but that man would cause any woman’s head to turn. He’s gorgeous!”
Verity took the cream out of the fridge and absently wondered who they were talking about. Then Josie giggled—actually giggled. The sound made Verity pause. Attorneys, especially professional female attorneys, should never giggle.
“Well, sign me up, I’m single. I can’t believe I get to work with him. Ms. James assigned me to the trial team this morning.”
Verity’s antennae went on high alert. They were talking about the new client, the client she’d tried to identify but knew nothing about. She leaned over the sink toward the open cutout in the wall and strained to hear every last detail. That’s why Josie’s next words hit her with the force of an avalanche.
“I’ve been following him in the tabloids for years, but the pictures don’t do him justice. Kyle Galbraith is so much better in the flesh.” Then she giggled again, like the idea of Kyle’s flesh was somehow naughty.
Oh, God! Her breath caught and the world suddenly closed around her. She tried to move, to inhale, but her body refused to cooperate as that metaphorical avalanche tumbled her around and around. She mentally floundered, unable to find her bearings. Dread, cold and sharp, pierced her core.
The coffee mug fell from her frozen fingers and shattered in the sink. The crash vaguely registered, like thunder from a great distance. Her eyes frosted over and her vision grayed.
Kyle’s here. She couldn’t imagine a worst Malignant Moment. Had he discovered her secret? Did he intend to take Tru away? Oh, God, Tru! Panic spiked, her vision went black, and oblivion swallowed her whole.
The next thing she knew, she lay on the kitchen floor and Josie lifted her feet to the seat of a chair she must have brought in from the other room. Tru. Adrenaline flooded her system with fresh panic. She had to protect him. They’d run again, hide someplace new, someplace where Kyle and the press couldn’t find them. She tried to jump up, but Josie put a hand on her chest and held her firmly in place.
“Oh, no you don’t. I don’t know what’s true, or why you keep saying it, but you’re staying right where you are. You were out for a couple minutes. You need more time to recover.”
She laid back and closed her eyes. Nausea rolled through her. Had she really said Tru’s name out loud? Not good.
She had to get control of herself, think clearly, and make a plan. She focused on breathing and the nausea began to fade. As her body calmed, she recognized the urge to run as pure panic and not realistic. Where would they go? What would they do? Most importantly, how would she explain everything to Tru?
Running wasn’t a realistic solution this time. She’d worked too hard and come too far. She wouldn’t let Kyle Galbraith destroy her life again. The shy, naive girl he’d once tossed to the sharks now had teeth of her own. She was armed and prepared for whatever he intended to bring.
Now that her internal turmoil had settled, her external situation began to register. She’d completely lost it, and she’d done so in front of two co-workers. It was mortifying and, more importantly, it revealed her weakness. Not good at all.
Josie laid a cool hand on her forehead. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. You’ve most likely had a vasovagal episode. Lie flat or you’ll pass out again.” She found the pulse at Verity’s wrist and went still for a moment as she consulted her watch. “Your pulse is fast and thready. You should lie still for a few more minutes.”
Kate appeared over her shoulder holding a glass of water, her eyes huge. “Is she okay? Are you sure I shouldn’t call 9-1-1 or get someone to help?”
Josie sighed and let go of her wrist. “She’s fine, and I’m sure we don’t need the paramedics.” Her gaze shifted to Verity’s and she asked, “Are you pregnant?”
That’s it. She’d had enough. She struggled to sit up and fought off Josie’s efforts to keep her down. “I’m fine, and my physical condition is none of your business.” She glared a warning at Kate. “And no one is calling 9-1-1.”
Josie sat back on her heels. “Sorry, old habits die hard. I used to be a trauma nurse.”
Verity lifted herself into the chair her feet had been on and was relieved when the world didn’t spin. Kate handed her the glass of water, and she gratefully took a sip. She lowered the glass and cleared her throat. Time for damage control. “I appreciate your help, but can we keep this between us?” It galled her to ask, but she had a reputation to protect.
Kate nodded, but Josie crossed her arms and considered her shrewdly. “On one condition.” Verity looked at her sharply then gestured for her to continue. “Promise to see your internist to rule out any major problems. People don’t have vasovagal episodes for no reason. They’re caused by something.”
Oh, this one had definitely been caused by something, only they couldn’t know what. “Agreed. Now let’s forget this happened.” The world didn’t spin when she stood, but both women regarded her with concern. “I’m fine. Really. Thank you both for your help, I just suffered a shock.” Josie’s eyebrow rose in question, but Verity hurried on before she could ask what was so shocking it caused her to faint in the kitchen, “Kate, thank you for the water, and Josie, I’ll see you in the conference room in a few minutes for the client meeting. Let’s all forget this ever happened.”
After they left, Verity sat at one of the tables to gather her composure. She tried to pull the pieces of her Dragon Lady persona back around her, but the guise was surprisingly uncomfortable. Like an outfit she hadn’t worn since high school, it felt tight, was difficult to button, and it bulged in unflattering places. She swore her insides had swollen to three times their regular size and her body struggled to hold everything in.
She rubbed her temples, trying to nip an oncoming headache in the bud. She couldn’t afford the luxury of a meltdown right now. In a few minutes, she’d face Kyle for the first time in ten years. The ultimate Malignant Moment.
Cold seeped back into her deepest places. She dreaded seeing him again, but what choice did she have? Her partnership—and the key to Tru’s safety—depended on it. This was the biggest test of her adult life, one that made the bar exam look like Tru’s weekly spelling test.
She needed to reclaim her calm and not let anything rattle her. Then she remembered meeting with Peter yesterday and everything inside her rebelled. He expected her to dazzle the new client, also known as Kyle, the man who quite literally destroyed her life. Not just a Malignant Moment, but an entire Malignant Nightmare.
She buried her face in her hands. How could she do this? To make partner, she had to impress Kyle. At the same time, for Tru’s sake, her identity had to remain a secret. It was an impossible situation. Kyle would probably enjoy ruining her life again.
Maybe he won’t recognize me. It had been ten years, and she’d changed everything about her appearance, short of plastic surgery, since he’d last seen her. Her hip-length hair now brushed the tops of her shoulder blades, and she always wore it in a tight chignon. She’d traded her contacts for glasses and the severe black frames hid her eyes and drew attention away from her other features. She’d also traded in her worn jeans, flowered peasant blouses, and lab coats for power suits with tight skirts and three-inch stilettos. The image intimidated most people, so they never thought to look beyond her icy exterior. Of course, none of that rivaled the radical personality make-over she’d ruthlessly undertaken.
She sighed deeply. The bottom line—she had no choice. She’d work with Kyle and prove to Peter and the other partners that they needed her. If Kyle recognized her…well, she’d find a way to keep him quiet. The entire thing balanced on a fine edge, but she’d figure it out somehow.
Regardless of the outcome, one thing was certain. Kyle could never find out about Tru. If he did, they’d be exposed, and that was a disaster too enormous to contemplate.
She mentally caressed the cold inside her, drawing strength from her convictions. Nothing would stop her from protecting Tru. With that thought, a steely calm settled over her and the Dragon Lady persona finally clicked into place. Let the show begin.