Payton laughed out loud at the very thought. “No, no,” she explained, “I was joking. I just meant that Laney is always lecturing me about saying things like that.”
“Oh. Right.” J.D. nodded as he threw some bills down for his drink. Watching him, Payton cocked her head, curious. “What are you doing here?”
J.D. eased back against the bar, having recovered from his momentary fluster.
“Well, see, Payton, you and I are here to pitch to Gibson’s, remember?” he said as if speaking to a child or deranged person. “We just finished dinner and—”
“That’s not what I meant, smart-ass.” Payton gave him a look. “I meant why are you inside with me, instead of outside smoking cigars with Jasper and the other boys?” She put mocking emphasis on the last word.
“Well, I figured Jasper and the other boys”—he emphasized the word, too—“could get along without me for a few minutes. I didn’t want you to have to be in here by yourself.”
Seeing her look of surprise, he shrugged nonchalantly. “But I can go.” He pointed across the bar to Sizzle Chest. “Maybe you’d like another minute to see if he’ll come back and ask for your number?” He and Payton watched as the Sizzle worked his near-naked navel toward another poor unsuspecting woman.
J.D. shook his head sadly. “Uh-oh, look at that . . . What a shame. You two would’ve looked so cute together.”
Payton rolled her eyes. “You know, J.D.—” She was about to say something sarcastic, probably something that included a profane word or two, when the woman on the other side of Payton leaned over.
“Excuse me—could you slide down?” The woman gestured at the open space between Payton and J.D. Payton glanced around and noticed that the traffic around the bar had picked up in the last few minutes. Having no choice, she moved closer to J.D.
“You were about to say something?” J.D. prompted her. He crossed his arms over his chest, readying himself for the expected insult.
But instead of taking the bait, Payton remembered her promise, the whole “New Payton” thing. Darn Laney and her “let’s be nice to people” scam. Did J.D. really even count as a person, anyway?
Payton decided—what the hell—to give it a shot. This way, when J.D. was a jackass to her, she could shrug, say she tried, and carry on with business as usual. Hating him.
The problem was actually coming up with something non-insulting to say to J.D. Payton felt like an idiot, just standing there, so she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“So, um, what I was about to say was . . . how was your golf game? Did you have a nice time?”
J.D. certainly hadn’t been expecting her to say that. Something so . . . innocuous. Pleasant, even.
He peered down at Payton, caught off guard by her tone. Or rather, the fact that there wasn’t one.
“It was . . . nice.” J.D. paused. “Thanks.” Then he looked her over, curious about something. “You know, I’m really surprised you’ve never learned how to play.”
“Why? Because everyone who’s anyone plays golf?” she asked sarcastically.
J.D. shook his head. “No, because I think you in particular would like it. You seem like you enjoy a challenge.”
Payton cocked her head, studying him. She appeared to be trying to decide whether he meant that as a criticism or compliment. He wasn’t so sure himself.
A look of uncertainty clouded her dark blue eyes. “Did you really mean those things you said?” she suddenly asked him. “The things you told the Gibson’s reps at dinner?”
“Did you?” J.D. fired back.
Payton shook her head at his return question, as if she had expected him to say exactly that. It was at that moment that someone joined the woman standing on the other side of Payton, crowding her even more. Making room, she moved closer to J.D., so that they now stood just a few inches apart. For some reason, it occurred to him right then that in nearly eight years, this was probably the longest conversation he and Payton had ever had without being engaged in some sort of political/social/work-related debate. And it certainly was the closest, in terms of physical proximity, that they had ever been.
She was beautiful. J.D. knew that, he had always known that—just because she was an argumentative, defensive pill didn’t mean he couldn’t objectively see that she was gorgeous. He normally didn’t like blondes, but she had the whole Jennifer Aniston-ish long, straight dark blonde hair thing going for her. She had deep blue expressive eyes that showed every emotion (apparently anger and/or annoyance ruled the day, from what he could tell) and—what J.D. had just noticed for the first time—a scattering of freckles across her nose that—had she been anyone else—he would’ve described as “cute.”
Payton peered up at him and opened her mouth as if to say something. Then she seemed to change her mind.
“Yes, I did mean it,” she said almost defiantly. “You’re a very good lawyer, J.D. I would’ve been lying if I had told Jasper and the others anything else.”
She looked at him pointedly. “Now it’s your turn to say something nice.”
J.D. tried to hide his grin. “Well, I suppose I could say that this restaurant serves the best vodka tonic in the city—”
“That’s not what I meant.”
J.D. gazed down at her in all seriousness. “You know you’re a great attorney, Payton. You don’t need me to tell you that.” There. Fine. He had said it. Now what? This was new territory for them.