Thankfully, no other questions arose during dinner that required any sort of knowledge of anything personal related to J.D. When their entrees arrived, Payton began to talk about the firm and the strengths of its litigation group. J.D. joined in, highlighting some of the group’s recent legal victories, when Jasper cut him off with an impatient wave of his glass of bourbon.

“I know all about your firm’s achievements, Jameson. That’s why Ripley and Davis is one of the three firms we’re considering. Your firm’s successes are what got me here to this table tonight. But my understandin’ is that you two”—he pointed to J.D. and Payton—“will be the leaders of this trial team, should your firm be chosen to handle the case. So I want to know more about you.”

“Of course, Jasper. I’d be happy to tell you about my—”

Jasper cut him off. “Not from you, Jameson. I’m sure you and Payton both have pretty little prepared speeches you can rattle off about yourselves. But that’s not how I like to do things.” He turned to Payton, commanding. “Ms. Kendall, why don’t you tell me—what’s so special about J.D.?”

Payton nearly choked on the wine she was sipping. Clearly, she needed to buy a moment before answering.

“Well, Jasper . . .” She cleared her throat. Ahem. Ahem. “Wow—there are just so many things I could say about J.D. Well . . . where should I start?”

She was stalling. And as she did, Payton could see across the table to where J.D. sat. When she hesitated, he looked down and fiddled uncomfortably with his silver-ware.

Feeling four sets of eyes on her as the Gibson’s people waited, Payton quickly forced herself to think: What would an objective person say about J.D.?

“See, Jasper, the thing about J.D. is . . .” Payton tried to buy another moment. What was “the thing” about J.D.? She had worked with him for eight years, and in many ways she knew him better than anyone. And in many ways she didn’t know him at all.

Be objective, she told herself. The thing about J.D. was . . .

He was good. Really good.

Don’t get her wrong, he was still a jerk. But he was a jerk who was driven. As Payton knew full well, J.D. was in his office every morning by 7:00 a.m., and—as much as she might not want to admit it—his hard work had paid off. Over the past eight years he had accomplished a tremendous amount for an attorney his age. Laney was right—he was smart and talented. He was a threat. And if she was being honest with herself, that was one of the main reasons she didn’t like him.

Payton turned to Jasper. “The thing about J.D. is that he is one of the most successful class action attorneys in this city, probably even in the country. He’s won every opposition to class certification he’s filed—not once has a class been certified in a case he handled. He’s been the lead attorney in multimillion-dollar cases for Fortune 500 corporations since his sixth year. He knows the strategies involved in class action practice better than attorneys twice his age. He’s brilliant at what he does.”

Payton leaned forward in her chair. “And here’s the thing, Jasper: your company is being sued in the largest discrimination class action ever filed. No attorney has ever handled a case of this type and magnitude—so while experience definitely should play a role in your decision, that’s not the only thing that matters. You need someone with raw natural talent. Someone with the right legal instincts, someone who will be your best shot at attacking this case on class grounds. I can tell you this on no uncertain terms—that person is J.D.”

Payton sat back in her chair when she was finished. She saw Jasper grin. He swirled his glass and tilted his head as if carefully taking in everything she’d just said. Then, slightly self-conscious for having been so forthright in her praise, she stole a glance over at J.D. to catch his reaction.

He looked speechless.

Even from across the table she could see the expression of shock on J.D.’s face. She saw something pass through his eyes and his expression changed as he held her gaze.

His look made Payton pause. Because she remembered that look—she had seen it once before, a long time ago.

Jasper’s voice felt like an interruption.

“All right, Payton,” he said. “I like what I’ve heard so far. Although, I suspect I’m gonna hear similar pitches from the other firms we’re interviewing.” He grinned. “But admittedly, yours was quite good.”

Payton pried her gaze away from J.D. and smiled at Jasper. “Why don’t you just tell me the other firms you’re considering, and I’ll save you the time. I can tell you exactly what they’ll say. Better yet, let me guess.” She paused, thinking of the other two firms they were likely interviewing.

“Baker and Lewis,” she guessed.

Jasper looked over at his general counsel, needing confirmation. Trevor nodded.

“And Sayer, Gray, and Jones.”

Trevor nodded again. “You know your competition well.”

“Those are good firms,” J.D. interjected. “But they’re not right for your case.”

“Why? What does your firm have that they don’t?” Jasper asked.

“Other than higher rates,” Robert joked. Everyone at the table laughed. Except for J.D., who remained serious.

“They don’t have Payton.”

Jasper got comfortable in his chair. “All right, Jameson—it’s your turn. Tell me about Ms. Kendall here.”

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