“I dare you to call Gerri Wilder.”
Lara Black cringed at the challenge. She looked frantically around the crowded Starbucks near her law firm to see if anyone from Buckley and Hartley were sneaking a break. Some people were looking at their phones, others at their watches, and still others at the menu, but she didn’t recognize any of the faces in line.
But that didn’t mean anything. Buckley and Hartley was a huge firm.
And Mr. Hartley had spies.
Lots of spies.
She leaned forward over the small table, gripping her pumpkin spice latte. “Shhh, Cora, I can’t. You know I can’t.”
Cora laughed, her gray eyes full of mischief. She flicked her long curly dark hair behind her shoulder and then she took a sip of her regular coffee. “You know you want to. Admit it.”
Lara would love to have a shifter lover, but it wasn’t in the cards for her.
Not if she wanted to make partner.
A woman with her haired pulled up into a bun kept glancing over at them at a nearby table.
Gray suit. No lipstick. Low pumps.
Lara’s heart quickened. Crap, was she a spy?
Lara pushed on her glasses. She lowered her voice to barely a whisper. “We can’t talk about this here.”
“Why? You’re afraid your Mr. Hartley will find out?” Cora’s loud voice was full of hurt, and she glanced down at her paper cup.
People sitting around them stopped talking and looked at them curiously while spy woman immediately typed something into her phone.
A guilty glistening of sweat broke out across Lara’s forehead. Shit, this was bad. She wanted to rip the phone out of spy woman’s hand to see who and what she was texting.
But she focused on Cora who was about ready to have an Italian meltdown. Ever since she’d become a tiger shifter, she’d had a hair-trigger temper.
“Yes, damn it.” Lara clutched her stiff hand. “You know I love you and Seth, but if Mr. Hartley found out…”
Her cheeks turned purple. “That your best friend was a shifter…”
Lara dropped her hand. “Mr. Hartley’s old school. He just has these rules…” Only about eight hundred of them.
“Rules that humans are better than shifters. That we deserve to be locked up in cages?”
“A bigot.” Cora gave her a hard stare that made Lara want to hide underneath the table.
Spy woman immediately typed something in her phone.
“Look, Cora.” She scooted around to an empty chair that was closer to Cora and farther away from spy woman. “I don’t believe what he thinks. When I look at you and Seth…” Her soft voice faded.
“You see animals?”
“No.” Lara lowered her head. Her brown lipstick had stained the white coffee lid. Her throat tightened. “I see something that I’ll never have.” Her voice was so low she wasn’t sure Cora heard her.
“You mean you’d never sink yourself as low as I have.”
Lara jerked her head up. “Will you stop? That’s not what I meant. You and Seth have a love that I could never have.”
Cora’s face lost its hard lines of war, as if Lara had let out the bullets in her gun. “Why do you say that?”
“Guys–human or shifter–never look at me. I’m the dandelion that people trample over.”
“Lara, that’s not true. Seth thinks you’re really hot, and you’re a tiger in the court room.”
“Being a dandelion has its privileges. When I’m in court, I change into a rose with thorns. The other side never sees it coming.” This time, her voice was loud enough for spy woman to hear. She hoped the traitorous bitch texted that to Mr. Hartley.
But she didn’t.
“You can use that same attitude with men.”
Lara’s smile faded back into her nervous twitch. “That’s not the same thing.”
“Come on, Lara. There’s a tigress underneath that drab gray suit.”
Lara sat straighter in her chair and pulled on the cuff of her new suit. “This suit isn’t drab.”
“Ah…yes it is. There’s not a spot of color. White shirt and straight gray suit. No power colors at all.”
“Mr. Hartley doesn’t….”
“Like color. I know.” She rolled her eyes. “Why do you let him decide your life?”
“Because he’s deciding the next person to be made a partner. I’ve worked my butt off to get that promotion.”
“Lara, you told me to take a chance on Seth.”
“I know, but this is different.” Lara glanced nervously at the woman who was now openly staring at them. She tilted her head toward the woman and silently mouthed she’s listening.
Cora followed her gaze.
The woman got out of her chair and left.
Lara put her shaking hand on her forehead. “Shit.”
Cora frowned. “What?”
“I’d better get back.” She jumped up, nearly knocking her chair over.
“Hey, Lara. Watch out.”
Lara turned around. Seth Reese, Cora’s new mate, was standing right behind her. She hadn’t even heard him approach. His blond hair was pulled back into a tail, and with his shadow of a beard, he looked rugged in his leather jacket and jeans.
“Seth.” Cora stood up and kissed him on the cheek. She actually purred. “What are you doing here?”
“I actually came to see Lara.”
Lara put her hand on her chest. “Me?”
Cora rubbed his back. “Why, honey?”
He looked around the coffee shop, then rubbed the back of his neck. “I got…I got a phone call.”
Lara glanced at her watch, her promotion slowly ticking away. “A phone call? A phone call from who?”
Seth gestured toward the table. “Can we sit?”
Lara edged away from them. “I should get going.”
“Please.” Seth pulled out a chair. “It’s important.”
Cora cast her a pleading look. “Lara. He never asks for help. Please.”
Seth glared, but didn’t argue. Cora held on to his hand.
“I can give you five more minutes.” Lara sat in the chair Seth had pulled out for her. “So, who called?”
“My brother, Griff.” He hung his head and his voice was low.
He raised his head and gave her a hard stare. “He’s up for parole, and he needs an attorney.”
“I don’t practice criminal law. Your brother can get a public defender.”
“He went that route.” Seth scooted back and crossed his arms across his chest. “And he ended up getting five years.”
“Seth, I’m not sure I can do it. I’m an intellectual property attorney.”
He glared. “You went to law school, didn’t you?”
Her cheeks heated. “Yes, but––”
“This has to do with Mr. Hartley, doesn’t it?” Cora’s cold voice was a slap across the face.
Seth looked between them. “Who’s Mr. Hartley?”
“He’s her boss. And he doesn’t like shifters.”
Seth gave Cora a look that froze her heart. “So, now you’re a shifter-hater?”
Just the opposite. She loved them, but thought they were out of her league. “No. I’m not. I swear.”
“Then prove it. Represent my brother. You’re his only hope.”
Mr. Hartley’s hard face flashed in her mind. “I can’t.”
Cora put her arms around Seth. “No, you mean you won’t. Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll find someone else. We wouldn’t want to trouble you.”
Lara winced. Cora had been her best friend for years and had stood up for her when the mean chicks joked about her weight. Not something she could forget.
She held up her hand. “Wait. When is the parole hearing?”
She frowned. “Next Friday? That doesn’t give me much time to prepare. Or any attorney for that manner.”
Seth sighed and then kissed Cora’s hand. “That’s because my brother’s a stubborn ass. I just found out this morning. The idiot was going to represent himself. He’s not the trusting type.”
“Why do you think he’ll trust me?”
He ran his hand through his hair and turned his head.
“Seth. He doesn’t know.” Lara’s scolding voice was soft like her mother’s.
“Hey, he’s an ass. What can I say? He needs help whether he likes it or not.” His bullhorn voice made Lara sink back into her chair.
“Seth, honey.” Cora looked around nervously.
He returned to his chair. “I’m sorry. I’m desperate.” He rested his head in his hands. “I don’t want him to spend the rest of his life in jail.”
“All right. I’ll meet with him.”
Seth lifted his head. “You will?”
“Yes, but if he doesn’t want me to represent him, I can’t force him. Do you understand?” Lara looked up at the clock. “I’ve got to go. Do you have any records on the case?”
He released her hand. “I can bring them over to your house tonight.”
“I probably won’t be home until after seven. Can you come by then?”
“Yes, of course.” Seth clasped her hand. “Thank you.”
His hand shook. Not something she’d expected. She smiled. “You’re welcome. See you tonight.”
She hurried out the door and headed straight to Buckley and Hartley, cursing herself for giving in to Seth. But how could she say no?
Buckley and Hartley was located on the Sixteenth Street Mall. The mall was a pedestrian promenade mall crowded with all kinds of people, including the business people, college students, and the homeless. Police officers walked the mall and rode their bikes to keep crime under control.
The thirteen-floor high rise was all glass and Buckley and Hartley took up at least five floors. Lara always felt like she worked in a tall fish bowl.
She flashed her keyless fob over the security pad. The glass doors slid open and she hurried inside, clutching her purse tightly. The elevator door immediately closed. She punched the button for the ninth floor.
Her phone dinged. A text message popped up.
Her heart soared faster than the elevator.
Mr. Hartley would like to see you.
Shit, that woman. She’d reported every word back to Mr. Hartley.
Lara pushed the thirteenth button with her shaking finger.
The doors slid open to the most luxurious floor of the firm. Mr. Hartley hadn’t spared any expense. Thick carpet. Expensive antiques. Leather chairs and sofas imported from Italy.
Linda Swan, the receptionist, looked up from her desk. “Ms. Black, Mr. Hartley is waiting for you in the conference room.”
“Thank you.” Lara broke out in sweltering sweat and wiped her clammy palms on her skirt, but at least her voice came out strong.
She walked down the long hallway. Paintings of Tuscany hung on the wall and expensive Etruscans vases and bowls sat on mahogany console tables. The round conference door loomed in front of her like a draw bridge. Her shoes sank into the carpet. Each time she took a step, her chest constricted tighter and tighter, cutting off her breath, as if she were wearing a corset.
She took a deep breath and tapped on the door.
“Come in,” a deep, gruff voice said.
Lara straightened her back and opened the door. Her betrayer, the woman in the gray suit, sat next to Mr. Hartley at the end of the long conference table. He had on the same suit he wore everyday––gray pin stripe, white shirt, gray tie. No color whatsoever.
His dark bushy eyebrows, that matched his perfectly combed black hair, were in a deep frown. “Ms. Black.” His curt voice reminded her of a stern principal.
“Mr. Hartley, you wanted to see me?”
“Yes. Have a seat at the end of the table.”
Mr Hartley was anything but warm and cuddly. Only people he deemed worthy were allowed to sit close to him, let alone shake his hand.
“This is one of my assistants, Alice Livingston.” He crossed his large hands, the light glittering off his diamond rings, and rested them on the table. “She provided me with some disturbing information.”
Lara refused to admit to anything and played confused. “Such as?”
“Were you or were you not associating with shifters at Starbucks at precisely 8:17 AM today?”
Why, the little bitch. “Yes, my best friend is a shifter.”
“According to Ms. Livingston, you were considering contacting a Ms. Gerri Wilder, a known shifter that runs the Paranormal Dating Agency?”
“I told my friend that I wasn’t interested.”
“No, that’s not what you said.” Ms. Livingston pushed her black framed glasses onto her nose. “You said you can’t, but you were interested.”
“I didn’t say––”
“Ms. Black, I completely trust Ms. Livingston, and she’s of pure blood.”
“Meaning no shifter blood.”
“Precisely.” He shook his finger as if she were a little girl. “If you want to be considered as a partner in this firm, you will stay away from your friends and refrain from dating any shifters. If I find out that you are dating one of these shifters, you’ll immediately be terminated. Do I make myself clear?”
She sat straighter in her chair and gripped the armrest tightly. “Yes, sir.”
He waved his hand. “You’re dismissed.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” She stood, nearly knocking her chair over, and fumbled to sit it straight.
Ms. Livingston flashed her a sugar sweet smile that Lara wanted to wipe off her pinched face. Lara exited as fast as she could and shut the door. She leaned against the door, panting furiously. Now, what the hell was she going to do?
If she didn’t help Cora and Seth, she’d lose the best friend she ever had. If she did help Cora, she’d lose the position of her dreams.
But Lara knew what she was going to do as she walked the long narrow hallway back to the elevator. She just hoped to God she didn’t get caught.