There was, however, somebody who would be perfect company for the evening. She picked up the phone on her desk.

“Hi,” she said when he answered. “I know it’s short notice, but I thought I’d see if you happened to be free for dinner tonight.”

AN HOUR LATER, Payton waited in the lounge at DeLaCosta restaurant. She’d managed to score a bar table along the window with a view overlooking the canal.

She smiled as the Perfect Chase walked in, looking very dashing in his light summer sweater and dark brown pants.

He returned the smile as he took the seat across from her. “Sorry—my cab got stuck in traffic.”

The waitress approached to take his drink order.

“A Tom Collins,” Chase told her. “But, please—make sure there is absolutely no cherry in it.”

Payton nearly died of embarrassment right there. Oh, my god, she was going to kill Laney.

Chase laughed at the sheepish look on Payton’s face. “It’s okay, Payton. I don’t get offended easily.” He reached across the table and took her hand in his, lightly stroking his thumb across her fingers. “I’m just glad you called.”

Payton relaxed. It was pretty much impossible not to like Chase. He was so low maintenance, being with him felt . . . comfortable.

“I’m glad you could make it,” she told him. After all, comfortable was good.

Wasn’t it?

The waitress brought Chase his cherry-less drink and asked the two of them if they’d like to order appetizers.

Payton asked for a moment. She skimmed the menu, quickly searching for things without meat. She never looked forward to this part of her first dinner date with a guy; she hated coming off as fussy.

She saw Chase peeking over at her, seemingly a bit self-conscious himself. “In light of the whole cherry debacle, I almost hate to say this, but I should let you know that I’m a vegetarian.”

Payton set her menu down on the table in disbelief. “So am I!” She laughed. Funny coincidence.

“How long for you?” Chase asked.

“Since birth. My mother’s doing.”

“Fish?”

“Nope. ‘Nothing with a face,’ as my mom used to say.”

“Nothing with a face,” Chase repeated. “I like that.”

After they decided what meatless appetizers to try, Chase signaled the waitress and placed their order. As Payton watched him, she couldn’t help but think: if she had created him à la Weird Science at build-a-date.com, had him packaged, wrapped up in a red bow, and shipped right to her front door, she couldn’t have found a guy seemingly more perfect for her than Chase Bellamy.

So why was there something nagging at her?

She was just out of sorts, she assured herself. She was feeling anxious and under pressure with the looming partnership decision. Nothing else.

She heard Chase ask her a question; he wanted to know about her trial. He said he’d love to drop by the courthouse one day to watch her.

Payton brushed aside her misgivings.

After all, it would be a silly woman indeed who disliked a man simply because he liked her.

Ten

IT ALL STARTED innocently enough.

Payton was in the second day of her trial, and things were progressing well. Her client, a Fortune 500 wireless carrier, had been sued for sexual harassment stemming from an incident that occurred at one of its sales offices. According to the plaintiff, a female sales representative, she had accepted a ride home from her male manager after the company’s annual boat cruise and after pulling into her driveway, the manager had—one might perhaps say—sexually propositioned her.

Or—one might perhaps also say—he unzipped his fly and asked whether she wanted to “test-drive his love stick.”

Whether or not the incident had occurred was not in dispute, as the plaintiff had been thoughtful enough to snap a photo of said love stick with her cell phone, which had now come to be known as “Exhibit A” of the trial.

“Fire the guy,” Payton had advised her client in no uncertain terms when the incident had first come to light a little over a year ago. “And tell him to get a better line. That’s just embarrassing.”

Firing the manager, however, had not been enough to satisfy the plaintiff, who had slapped the company with a two-million-dollar lawsuit. Because no one disputed the incident had occurred, Payton’s job at trial was to establish that the company had efficiently and appropriately responded to the incident, thus absolving it of any liability under the law.

Step one of her defense strategy started on the first day of trial, with jury selection. In light of the infamous Exhibit A (which the plaintiff’s attorneys had blown up to ridiculously gargantuan proportions and undoubtedly planned to display throughout the entire course of the trial), Payton had avoided selecting any juror she felt had what one might call “delicate sensibilities.” Someone who perhaps tended toward what one might describe as a “conservatively moralistic” viewpoint; one who could possibly be outraged by the conduct of the defendant’s ex-employee and want to ease that outrage in the form of dollars thrown in the direction of the plaintiff.

In other words, no Laneys.

Nobody who would take one look at a six-foot color photo of a half-mast penis popping out of a Dockers button-fly (hello!) and promptly ask how many zeros are in a gazillion.

From there, step two of Payton’s defense strategy was to set the right tone for the trial in her opening statement: sympathetic, but firm. Understanding and in complete agreement that managerial love sticks should be kept firmly tucked behind closed zippers, but rational and logical in guiding the jury to understand that her client, the employer, was not financially liable to the tune of two million dollars for the actions of one rogue ex-employee.


Tags: Julie James Romance
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