Payton held her breath, hoping that J.D. intended to play as fair as she had. He certainly appeared very confident as he began.

“Payton was being very modest a moment ago, in describing your need for an experienced class action attorney. While that certainly is true, what is just as important—if not more so—is that you hire an expert in the field of employment discrimination. That’s where she comes in.

“I’m sure you saw the article about Payton in the Chicago Lawyer,” J.D. continued, “so I don’t need to repeat everything you already know about her significant accomplishments. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, despite the fact that she’s only thirty-two years old, Payton has tried over forty employment discrimination cases. That’s more trials than many lawyers have during their entire careers. And do you know how many of those trials she’s won? Every single one.”

J.D. picked up his glass. “Now I’m sure Payton would be modest about these facts; she’d probably tell you that she’s been lucky to get cases that are winners. But the truth is, she’s a natural in the courtroom. She has incredible instincts as a trial lawyer, and that’s exactly what your company needs—someone who can guide your company through the litigation process from start to finish.” He paused. “Plus, she’s a woman.”

Jasper raised an eyebrow, as if unsure how to react to that. “Does that make a difference?”

J.D. looked across the table to Payton, who had been busy trying to appear as though she heard him say things like that about her every day. “Payton?” he said, indicating she should take it from there.

She knew exactly where he was going. “J.D. is right, Jasper. Your company is being sued for gender discrimination. One-point-eight million women claim that your company doesn’t give a damn about treating them fairly. The press is going to have a field day. And if you stand in front of a jury with a trial team of men, you will lose this case.”

As she spoke, Payton tapped her finger on the table, underscoring her seriousness. “You need a woman to be the face of your company. You gain instant credibility if you have a woman arguing that you don’t discriminate.”

“And trust me, Jasper,” J.D. jumped in, “I’ve seen Payton when she argues. She’s a force to be reckoned with.”

As Jasper chuckled good-naturedly, Trevor jumped in. “I have a question.” He pointed between J.D. and Payton, as if to say he wasn’t fooled. “How many times have you two done this routine of yours? It’s quite good.”

J.D. shook his head. “There’s no routine here. With Payton and I, what you see is what you get.”

“No fancy legalese and no beatin’ around the bush,” Jasper agreed. “Now that I like.” With a grin, he raised his glass in toast. “To the best pitch I’ve heard so far. No bullshit.”

As the group laughed along with Jasper, clinking their glasses in toast, Payton’s eyes caught J.D.’s across the table. With a subtle grin, he tipped his glass to her. She nodded back in acknowledgment. In that one moment at least, they shared the same thought.

Victory.

If only the evening had ended there.

Six

AFTER DINNER, JASPER suggested that the group head downstairs, to the restaurant’s outdoor lounge that overlooked the Chicago River.

“I’m not signing any papers just yet, but I think a celebratory cigar might be in order,” he declared.

Payton told the group she’d meet them outside and headed to the ladies’ room. She didn’t smoke cigars and didn’t figure now was a good time to try it out. She stalled for a few minutes in the bathroom, then stopped at the bar, thinking she could kill a little more time by ordering a drink.

“I’ll have a glass of the Silver Oak cabernet,” she told the bartender. She’d already had a drink at dinner and anything stronger might make her tipsy. While she waited—feeling more than a tad conspicuous standing there, by herself, a lone woman at the bar—she accidentally caught the eye of a man wearing a silk shirt unbuttoned nearly to his navel.

Oh, shit—she immediately looked away, but her split-second glance apparently was all the encouragement Mr. Sizzle Chest needed. He made a beeline straight for her.

Payton had no choice. With a feigned reluctant look, she shook her head. “Sorry,” she told him. “Lesbian.”

Sizzle Chest raised an interested eyebrow, liking the sound of that.

Again, Payton shook her head. “Not that kind.”

Disappointed, Sizzle Chest moved on to more promising conquests. Payton took a sip of the wine the bartender set down before her. She heard a familiar voice behind her, amused.

“Lesbian?”

Payton turned around and saw J.D. standing there.

Maybe it was the wine. Maybe she was basking in the glow of their successful pitch to Gibson’s. Maybe it was her promise to Laney to be the “New Payton,” or maybe it was a combination of all those things. But Payton actually found herself smiling at J.D.

“It’s just an excuse, the lesbian thing,” she said.

J.D. joined her at the bar. He gestured for a drink as Payton shrugged mock-innocently. “Unless you count that one time in college.”

J.D. knocked over a nearby stack of shot glasses.

Payton giggled at his reaction. “Sorry—Laney would kill me if she knew I just said that.”

J.D. did an about-face. “It was with Laney?”


Tags: Julie James Romance
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