“Danice Carter, Esquire. Just the woman I wanted to see.”
“Well, take a good, long look then, because you’ve got about twenty-seven seconds before I pull open a window and fling myself out.”
Stocking feet slapped across the chilly marble in front of the sixteenth-floor elevators, then onto plush tweed carpet as Danice stalked toward her office. She hadn’t had a particularly pleasant afternoon.
Ignoring the danger signs, Celia turned to follow.
“How did things go with Wilkinson’s team?”
Danice shoved open her office door and launched her soft-sided briefcase toward the back wall with the approximate force of an anti-aircraft missile. “Peachy. Their client has decided that in addition to causing the collapse of his business, Henry Hollister and Grissom Holdings are also responsible for the boom in the Chinese economy, the global recession, the greenhouse effect, and unrest in the Middle East.”
“They’ve adjusted their demands for the settlement accordingly. I believe the offer they presented me contained language about me giving lap dances in the hall of Satan while they drink the blood of all of Grissom’s senior corporate officers from a golden chalice.” She used one of the shoes in her hand to gesture toward her briefcase. “The papers are in there. Feel free to go over them and tell me if I’m wrong.”
“I’ll get right on that.” Celia pursed her lips and took a seat in front of Danice’s desk while the other woman flung herself inelegantly into the leather executive’s chair behind it. “Do you want me to call around and see if I can find you pasties and a G-string?”
Danice glared at her. “You giving up your career as a paralegal for a future in stand-up comedy?”
“Maybe. I like to keep my options open.” Celia tilted her head and widened her eyes ingenuously. “Did you offer up your sense of humor as a sacrifice to pacify the Wilkinson camp?”
“No, I dropped it on the corner of Lexington and Fifty-first, along with my afternoon latte and the heel of my three-hundred-dollar Kate Spade pump.” Scowling, Danice wound up like a starting pitcher and threw her shoe toward the front wall, savoring the satisfying thunk of leather on drywall. If only she’d stuck with softball as a teenager, maybe she could have had the satisfaction of leaving a dent. “If only that had been Wilkinson’s fat head.”
“Mm, I hear clients don’t appreciate being assaulted by legal representation. They might even file suit.”
“Damn, girl, you need to lighten up.”
Danice sighed and dropped her head to the back of her chair. “I’ll put that on my list. Right after world peace and saving the whales.” She shifted her gaze to Celia. “What was the straw you had for me?”
“When I came off the elevator, you said you’d been looking for me. I assume you have a straw for my back?”
Celia grinned and took in her boss’s sleek, camel-colored sheath dress. “The color’s right, but there’s something about the face that doesn’t fit the picture.”
“Thank God for that, at least. I don’t have time for a nose job.” Bracing her hands on the arms of her chair, Danice pushed herself upright and leaned her elbows on her desk. “You’ve got something for me?”
Celia offered up a slim brown folder. “This.”
Danice flipped open the cover and frowned down at a short stack of papers that, at first glance, didn’t ring any bells with her. “Any clue what it’s about?”
“No, but it came down from on high. Ms. Eberhart brought it to me herself just after lunch.”
“Really?” That actually made Danice take notice. Her brows lifted, and she looked down at the papers with renewed interest. “If it came via Patrice Eberhart, I’m assuming the responsible heavenly throne belongs to Mr. Yorke?”
“You opened the folder.” Celia shrugged. “At this point, you now officially know more than I do. I was told to see that you got the folder as soon as you got back to the office. My work here is done.”
“You wish, Tonto. What did Ms. Eberhart tell you when she gave this to you?”
“Exactly what I just told you. To make sure you got that as soon as you got in. And to buzz her so she’d know you were back.”
Danice rolled her eyes and reached for her telephone. “See, that last part was what I really wanted to know. I’ll buzz her myself.”
“I was getting to it. You’re always rushing me,” Celia teased as she rose. “You have notes for me from this Wilkinson meeting?”
Danice nodded toward the window. “In my briefcase.”
“Okay. Thanks, boss.”
Slim, creamed-coffee fingers punched in an internal dialing code then tapped restlessly on the desk while Danice waited for an answer.
“Mr. Yorke’s office. How may I help you?”
“Ms. Eberhart, this is Danice Carter. I’ve just returned from an outside meeting, and my paralegal gave me a message that you might need something from me.”
The crisp, schoolmistress voice responded promptly. “Ms. Carter. I assume that you have received the file I left with Ms. Alta.”
“Yes, Celia did give me a file, though I haven’t reviewed it yet. As I said, I’m just back to the office.”
“Yes. I shouldn’t worry. Mr. Yorke has asked me to invite you up so that he can provide you with the background for this particular assignment. I’m certain your review of the provided materials will be more productive after you’ve talked with Mr. Yorke.”
Danice felt her eyebrows shoot up and decided it was a good thing that her Big Boss’s assistant couldn’t see her face at the moment. It might not instill the right kind of confidence if it were known she’d nearly passed out at the news that one of the firm’s senior partners had requested a meeting with her.
Matthew Yorke IV wasn’t a senior partner; he was the senior partner, and the namesake of one of the prestigious old firm’s founders. The closest she’d ever come to speaking with him during her five years working for him had been when she’d excused herself as she walked in front of him at last year’s company holiday party.
“Of course,” she said, carefully keeping the shock out of her voice. “I’d be happy to make time for Mr. Yorke. When would he like to set up a meeting?”
“Actually, Mr. Yorke would like for you to come up now.” There was a short, significant pause. “If you’re available.”
Danice stifled the urge to laugh. Not because the comment was funny, but because it was ridiculous. What did the woman expect her to say? That she’d check her calendar and get back to her? “Of course. I’ll be right up.”
Hanging up, Danice flipped the folder in front of her closed and pushed to her feet. Then she swore.
A minute later, the paralegal’s head appeared in the door. “You rang?”
Danice nodded and dropped back in her chair. She opened her bottom desk drawer to pull out the makeup bag and mirror she kept there for emergencies. “I need shoes.”
“Yes, shoes. I told you, I broke mine on the way back here from the Wilkinson meeting, and I can’t go up to Mr. York’s office in my bare-assed feet. I need shoes.”
Celia blinked and drew back in shock. “Mr. Yorke? You’re going to Mr. Yorke’s office? Now?”
Danice swiped a powder pad over her cheekbones and nodded. “That’s what I just said, isn’t it? He wants to see me about that file Ms. Eberhart brought down.”
“In person? Mr. Yorke wants to meet with you in person?”
“Yes,” she insisted impatiently, reaching for a mascara wand. “And I can’t go up there in bare feet. So where can I get me a pair of shoes in the next five minutes?”
Celia kicked off her heeled loafers and stepped onto the carpet beside them. “You can take mine. But seriously, Mr. Yorke asked to meet with you in person to go over that file? What on earth could be so important that Matthew Yorke the Fourth, lord of all he surveys and potential secret ruler of the universe, would want to meet with an assistant associate whose name he probably can’t remember unless his personal secretary is whispering it in his ear?”
“Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence.” Danice grimaced and twisted the bottom of a tube of lipstick. “What size shoe do you wear?”
“Seven. I’m totally confident in you. I just didn’t think Mr. Yorke was.”
“I have no idea if he is or not, but I intend to make sure he becomes just as confident as I can make him.” She rubbed her lips together and tossed the lipstick back into the makeup bag. “Shit, I wear a seven and a half. On my good days. Your shoes will be too small.”
“Grin and bear it. Because it’s either wear my shoes, or wear the sneakers you have me keep for you for the days you decide to walk home, and I don’t think they’ll go with that dress.”
“Then I guess they’ll have to do, won’t they?”
She sighed as she gave herself a final check in the mirror. She appeared exactly the way she strived to appear—a reasonably attractive, twenty-eight-year-old professional woman of indeterminate heritage. Her skin glowed the rich golden color of café au lait, her brown eyes tilted up at the outer corners from within a round and slightly shallow profile, and her thick black hair fell straight and heavy to just above her shoulders.
As a child, some people had thought she was black, others Asian, or Latina, or Native American, or Polynesian. Danice had defensively referred to herself as 100 percent American. She hadn’t wanted to be judged by the color of her skin or the shape of her face or the texture of her hair or even by the ethnicities of her parents. She had wanted to be judged for herself.
Until she started applying to colleges and discovered that in order to get the education she wanted at a price she could afford, she would have to make a few compromises with her dignity.
Those compromises had led her to Fordham University and then Columbia Law School without bankrupting her grandchildren. They had also gotten her foot in the door at Parish, Hampton, Uxbridge, and Yorke, one of Manhattan’s most prestigious law firms. That was as far as Danice was willing to compromise her principles. She’d let her skin tone open gates for her, but she’d seize control of the castle based on skill, talent, and sheer force of will.
“All right. I guess I’m ready to go.” Snagging the file from her desk and slipping it into a slim leather notebook, Danice stepped out from behind the wooden barrier and into Celia’s shoes, wincing only a little at the pinching fit. “How do I look?”
“Like a junior partner in the making, my friend.” The paralegal gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “Knock ’em dead.”
“Don’t say things like that. The man’s eighty-four years old. With my luck, that’s just what would happen.”
Celia’s laughter followed Danice out into the corridor as she strode toward the elevators. Honestly, Danice wasn’t quite certain what her co-worker was laughing about. She hadn’t been joking. At eighty-four, the man could go at any moment, and wouldn’t it just cap off her day if he did it in her presence?
Twenty seconds on the elevator deposited her on the Parish Building’s sacrosanct twentieth floor, the exclusive domain of the Senior Partners. There were four of them, one for each of the four original founders of the firm. Each had an office larger than Danice’s entire apartment, guarded by one of the four fiercest personal assistants in Midtown Manhattan. And just opposite the elevator, a shared receptionist staffed a U-shaped desk the approximate size of Paraguay.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman, her pale silver hair a slightly warmer shade than her voice. She looked to be about sixty, but based on the warmth of her manner, freezing could account for having preserved her well past her hundredth birthday.
“I’m Ms. Carter,” Danice returned smoothly, her posture unconsciously straightening and her own normally warm, husky voice icing over. “Mr. Yorke is expecting me.”
“Is he.” The receptionist’s skepticism would have been insulting if it hadn’t been so obviously . . . insulting. As things stood, it made Danice want to snort. “I’ll just ring Ms. Eberhart and alert her to your presence.”
No one got that good at insulting people obliquely without years of practice, Danice decided as she waited for the older woman to make her phone call. Maybe the gatekeeper had been here even longer than a hundred years. Maybe she was left over from the founding of the firm in 1859. Somehow, Danice wouldn’t have been surprised.
A moment later, Patrice Eberhart emerged from a corridor behind the reception desk and nodded to Danice. “Ms. Carter. If you’ll follow me, please.”
Resisting the urge to check herself for goose bumps, Danice turned and did as instructed. She hadn’t noticed the temperature on this floor being cooler than the rest of the building, but the greetings definitely were. Either everyone here needed to be kept in a meat locker to keep from decomposing, or being or associating with a senior partner required the surgical removal of one’s personality.
Pausing before a paneled door of dark wood, Ms. Eberhart rapped softly, then performed an impressive move involving opening the door no more than three inches and somehow squeezing through the crack and closing it firmly behind her. For a second, Danice thought she might have turned into a mist to manage it.
Like a vampire.
The stray thought wiped the burgeoning smile from Danice’s face. According to her dear friend Reggie, vampires didn’t turn into mist. That, apparently, was all Hollywood mythology. And Reggie ought to know, since she’d recently married a vampire and become one herself.
Damn, Danice thought, shaking her head. Somehow she didn’t think she’d ever get used to thinking things like that, especially not here within the safe and utterly normal confines of an unrelentingly respectable law firm. And definitely not without someone jumping out from behind a door and telling her she’d been punked.
The door opened again, this time wide enough for an actual human being—or an actual vampire, she supposed—to pass through, and Ms. Eberhart stepped aside to wave her in.
“Mr. Yorke will see you now.”
The older woman managed to make it sound as if an audience with Matthew Yorke IV was slightly harder to get than one with Elizabeth II, and significantly more important. Danice had to stifle the urge to curtsy.
Instead, she nodded with a touch of arrogance of her own and strode forward toward the thin, stooped figure behind the huge, antique desk. As she extended her hand, she heard the click of the door closing behind her.
“Mr. Yorke.” She smiled, shaking the old man’s hand firmly but carefully. It would hardly help her career if she were to unintentionally break something. “It’s certainly a pleasure to see you again, sir.”
“Ms. Carter, please have a seat,” he replied in a surprisingly robust voice. He gestured toward the elegant and uncomfortable Queen Anne armchairs facing his desk, and Danice sat.