Without ever saying a word, however, she and J.D. had implicitly agreed to keep their mutual dislike to themselves. Both wanting more than anything to be successful at work, they understood that law firms were like kindergarten: it wasn’t good to get a “needs improvement” in “plays well with others.”

Luckily, it had been relatively easy to maintain their charade. Even though they were in the same group, it had been years since they had worked together on a case. There were a few reasons for this: First, as a general rule, cases in the litigation group were staffed with one partner, one senior associate, and one or two junior associates. As members of the same class, there was little reason for both Payton and J.D. to work on the same matter.

Second, and perhaps more important, the two of them had developed specialties in very different areas of the law. J.D. was a class action lawyer. He handled large multi-plaintiff, multi-district cases. Payton, on the other hand, specialized in employment law, particularly single-plaintiff race and gender discrimination lawsuits. Her cases were typically smaller in terms of damages at stake but higher profile in terms of the publicity they garnered.

Thus far—whether by fluke chance or luck—there had been very little overlap in the niche practice areas she and J.D. had carved out for themselves.

Apparently until now, that is.

Payton remained silent as Ben continued his pitch, trying to refrain from displaying the growing apprehension she felt. She snuck a quick peak at J.D. and saw him shift edgily in his chair. From what she could tell, he appeared just as displeased as she by this development.

“Combined, your skills are perfect for this case,” Ben was saying. “Jasper sounded very excited to meet you both.”

“This is wonderful news, Ben,” Payton said, trying not to choke on her words.

“Yes . . . wonderful.” J.D. looked as though he had just swallowed a bug. “What is it you need us to do?”

“Jasper and Gibson’s general counsel, and a few of their in-house attorneys, will all be coming to Chicago on Thursday,” Ben said. “I want you two to work together and I want you to bring them in,” he emphasized, tapping his finger on his desk. “Think you’re up to it?”

Payton and J.D. eyed each other carefully, both thinking the same thing. Could they really do this?

Knowing what was at stake, in mutual understanding of how the game was played, they turned to Ben.

“Absolutely,” they said in unison.

Ben smiled at them, the future of his firm. He leaned back in his chair, getting sentimental. Undoubtedly at the thought of the big bucks they would bring in.

“Ah . . . eight years,” he said affectionately. “For eight years I have watched you two grow up at this firm, into the great lawyers you are. I’m excited by this chance to see you work together—you’ll make quite a team. And it’s perfect timing, too, because soon you’ll both be p—”

He abruptly stopped speaking.

J.D. and Payton sat on the edge of their seats, nearly falling off their chairs as they hung on to Ben’s last word.

Apparently realizing he had said too much, Ben waved this off with a coy grin. “Well, one thing at a time. Right now, you guys have a pitch to prepare for.”

Seeing that Ben was finished discussing business, Payton stood to leave. But instead of following her, J.D. remained seated. Payton paused awkwardly.

“Is there something else we need to talk about, Ben?” she asked.

Ben shook his head. “No, that’ll be all, Payton. I have something else I want to discuss with J.D., something that doesn’t concern you.” He gave her a curt nod of dismissal. There it was—he’d been friendly enough just moments ago, but now he was back to being all business.

With a nod of her own, Payton left Ben’s office. As she turned into the hallway, she overheard him talking to J.D.

“So, Jameson,” she heard Ben say jovially, “the rumor is that you were playing at Butler this weekend. What are you shooting these days, anyway?”

As Payton walked back to her office, she tried not to let it bother her, the fact that J.D. always had an easier time connecting with their boss on a personal level. To date, her attempts to establish a similar relationship with Ben had been largely unsuccessful. Movies? He didn’t watch ’em. Television? He had once asked her if Seinfeld was “that chubby paralegal always hanging around the vending machines.” When Payton had laughed at this, thinking he was joking, she’d been greeted with a blank stare and had immediately fallen silent. From that point, she had vowed that until she could wax poetic on whether trading So-and-So for What’s-His-Face was a smart move by Team Who-the-Hell-Cares, it was probably best to keep the nonlegal chitchat with Ben to a minimum.

Team Jameson scores another point, Payton thought as she entered her office. He had an automatic advantage over her: she could just picture him and Ben right now, all buddy-buddy in Ben’s office and chuckling their hearty man-laughs while trading tips on the best garage to have one’s Porsche/Mercedes/Rolls-Royce/Some Other Fancy Car serviced at.

Not that it was a competition between them. Not at all.

That J.D. had, like Payton, seemingly devoted the last eight years of his life to the firm (perhaps the only thing they had in common) was wholly irrelevant in her mind to the question of whether she personally deserved to make partner. While it might have been something she had worried about back when she first started, her concern over being compared to J.D. had subsided as the years passed.

Tags: Julie James Romance
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