A Single Kiss

Book 1 in the Sweetest Kisses series

New attorney Hannah Stark agrees to spend six months helping out in the family law department, though an upbringing as a foster child has left her determined never to set foot in a domestic relations courtroom.

Trenton Knightley, the law firm’s family law expert, is equally determined that business and pleasure can’t mix. Hannah finds herself working with Trent on one tough case after another, and grows less and less pleased with her vocation. Trent, however, is increasingly impressed with Hannah–and not simply for her courtroom skills.

Grace is thrilled to bring to readers her first Contemporary Romances, lovingly set in Scotland,

A Single Kiss:

Sourcebooks

Series: Sweetest Kisses

ISBN: 978-1402278907

Jan 6, 2015

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Grace's Genres: Contemporary
Chapter One

“She had that twitchy, nothing-gets-by-her quality.” MacKenzie Knightley flipped a fountain pen through his fingers in a slow, thoughtful rhythm. “I liked her.”

Trenton Knightley left off doodling Celtic knots on his legal pad to peer at his older brother. “You liked her? You liked this woman? You don’t like anybody, particularly females.”

“I respected her,” Mac said, “which, because you were once upon a time a husband, you ought to know is more important to the ladies than whether I like them.”

“Has judge written all over him,” James, their younger brother, muttered. “The criminals in this town would howl to lose their best defense counsel, though. I liked the lady’s resume, and I respected it too.”

Gail Russo, the law firm’s head of human resources, thwacked a file onto the conference table.

“Don’t start, gentlemen. Mac has a great idea. Hannah Stark interviewed very well, better than any other candidate we’ve considered in the past six months. She’s temped with all the big boys in Baltimore, has sterling academic credentials, and—are you listening?—is available.”

“The best kind,” James murmured.

Trent used Gail’s folder to smack James on the shoulder, though James talked a better game of tomcat than he strutted.

“You weren’t even here to interview her, James, and she’s under consideration for your department.”

“The press of business…” James waved a languid hand. “My time isn’t always my own.”

“You were pressing business all afternoon?” Mac asked from beyond retaliatory smacking range.

“The client needed attention. Alas for poor, hardworking me, she likes a hands-on approach. Was this Hannah Stark young, pretty, and single, and can she bill sixty hours a week?”

“We have a decision to make,” Gail said. “Do we dragoon Hannah Stark into six months in domestic relations then let her have the corporate law slot, or do we hire her for corporate when the need is greater in family law? Or do we start all over and this time advertise for a domestic relations associate?”

Domestic law was Trent’s bailiwick, but because certain Child In Need of Assistance attorneys could not keep their closing arguments to less than twenty minutes per case, Trent hadn’t interviewed the Stark woman either.

“Mac, you really liked her?” Trent asked.

“She won’t tolerate loose ends,” Mac said. “She’ll work her ass off before she goes to court. The judges and opposing counsel will respect that, and anybody who can’t get along with you for their boss for six months doesn’t deserve to be in the profession.”

“I agree with Mac.” James dropped his chair forward, so the front legs hit the carpet. “I’m shorthanded, true, but not that shorthanded. Let’s ask her to pitch in for six months in domestic, then let her have the first shot at corporate if we’re still swamped in the spring.”

“Do it, Trent,” Mac said, rising. “Nobody had a bad thing to say about her, and you’ll be a better mentor for her first six months in practice than Lance Romance would be. And speaking of domestic relations, shouldn’t you be getting home?”

Grace Stark bounded into the house ahead of her mother, while Hannah brought up the rear with two grocery bags and a shoulder-bag-cum-purse. Whenever possible, for the sake of the domestic tranquility and the budget, Hannah did her shopping without her daughter’s company.

Hannah’s little log house sat on the shoulder of a rolling western Maryland valley, snug between the cultivated fields and the wooded mountains. She took a minute to stand beside the car and appreciate the sight of her own house—hers and the bank’s—and to draw in a fortifying breath of chipper air scented with wood smoke.

The Appalachians rose up around the house like benevolent geological dowagers, surrounding Hannah’s home with maternal protectiveness. Farther out across the valley, subdivisions encroached on the family farms, but up here much of the land wouldn’t perc, and the roads were little more than widened logging trails.

The property was quiet, unless the farm dogs across the lane took exception to the roosters, and the roosters on the next farm over took exception to the barking dogs, and so on.

Still, it was a good spot to raise a daughter who enjoyed a busy imagination and an appreciation for nature. Damson Valley had a reputation as a peaceful, friendly community, a good place to set down roots. Hannah’s little house wasn’t that far from the Y, the park, and the craft shops that called to her restricted budget like so many sirens.

The shoulder bag dropped down to Hannah’s elbow as she wrestled the door open while juggling grocery bags.

“Hey, Mom. Would you make cheese shells again? I promise I’ll eat most of mine.”

“Most?” Hannah asked as she put the milk in the fridge. The amount she’d spent was appalling, considering how tight money was. Thank heavens Grace thought pasta and cheese sauce was a delicacy.

“A few might fall on the floor,” Grace said, petting a sleek tuxedo cat taking its bath in the old-fashioned dry sink.

“How would they get on the floor?”

“They might fall off my plate.” Grace cuddled the cat, who bore up begrudgingly for about three seconds, then vaulted to the floor. Grace took a piece of purple yarn from a drawer, trailing an end around the cat’s ears.

“Cats have to eat too, you know,” Grace said. “They love cheese. It says so on TV, and Henry says his mom lets him feed cheese to Ginger.”

“Ginger is a dog. She’d eat kittens if she got hungry enough.” The groceries put away, Hannah set out placemats and cutlery for two on the kitchen table. “You wouldn’t eat kittens just because Henry let Ginger eat kittens, would you?”

Did all parents make that same dumb argument?

And did all parents put just a few cheesy pieces of pasta in the cat dish? Did all parents try to assuage guilt by buying fancy 100 percent beef wieners instead of hot dogs?

“Time to wash your hands, Grace,” Hannah said twenty minutes later. “Hot dogs are ready, so is your cat food.”

“But, Mom,” Grace said, looping the string around the drawer pull on the dry sink, “all I did was pet Geeves, and she’s just taken a whole bath. Why do I always have to wash my hands?”

“Because Geeves used the same tongue to wash her butt as she did to wash her paws, and because I’m telling you to.”

Grace tried to frown mightily at her mother but burst out giggling. “You said butt, and you’re supposed to ask.”

“Butt, butt, butt,” Hannah chorused. “Grace, would you please wash your hands before Geeves and I gobble up all your cheesy shells?”

They sat down to their mac and cheese, hot dogs, and salad, a time Hannah treasured—she treasured any time with her daughter—and dreaded. Grace could be stubborn when tired or when her day had gone badly.

“Grace, please don’t wipe your hands on your shirt. Ketchup stains, and you like that shirt.”

“When you were a kid, did you wipe your hands on your shirt?” Grace asked while chewing a bite of hot dog.

“Of course, and I got reminded not to, unless I was wearing a ketchup-colored shirt, in which case I could sneak a small smear.”

Grace started to laugh with her mouth full, and Hannah was trying to concoct a request that would encourage the child to desist, when her cell phone rang. This far into the country, the expense of a land line was necessary because cell reception was spotty, though tonight the signal was apparently strong enough.

“Hello, Stark’s.”

“Hi, this is Gail Russo from Hartman and Whitney. Is this Hannah?”

The three bites of cheesy shells Hannah had snitched while preparing dinner went on a tumbling run in her tummy. “This is Hannah.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting your dinner, Hannah, but most people like to hear something as soon as possible after an interview. I have good news, I think.”

“I’m listening.”

Grace used her fork to draw a cat in her ketchup.

“You interviewed with two department heads and a partner,” Gail said, “which is our in-house rule before a new hire, and they all liked you.”

Hannah had liked the two department heads. The partner, Mr. MacKenzie Knightley, had been charm-free, to put it charitably. Still, he’d been civil, and when he’d asked if she had any questions, Hannah had the sense he’d answer with absolute honesty.

The guy had been good looking, in a six-foot-four, dark-haired, blue-eyed way that did not matter in the least.

“I’m glad they were favorably impressed,” Hannah said as Grace finished her mac and cheese.

“Unfortunately for you, we also had a little excitement in the office today. The chief associate in our domestic relations department came down with persistent light-headedness. She went to her obstetrician just to make sure all was well with her pregnancy and was summarily sent home and put on complete bed rest.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Not domestic relations. If there were a merciful God, Hannah would never again set foot in the same courtroom with a family law case. Never.

“She’s seven months along, so we’re looking at another two months without her, then she’ll be out on maternity leave. It changed the complexion of the offer we’d like to make you.”

“An offer is good.” An offer would become an absolute necessity in about one-and-a-half house payments.

Grace was disappearing her hot dog with as much dispatch as she’d scarfed up her mac and cheese.

“We’d like you to start as soon as possible, but put you in the domestic relations department until Janelle can come back in the spring. We’ll hire somebody for domestic in addition to her, but you’re qualified, and the need, as they say, is now.”

“Domestic relations?” Prisoners sentenced to life-plus-thirty probably used that same tone of voice.

“Family law. Our domestic partner is another Knightley brother, but he’s willing to take any help he can get. He was in court today when Janelle packed up and went home, otherwise you might have interviewed with him.”

“I see.”

What Hannah saw was Grace, helping herself to her mother’s unfinished pasta.

“You’d be in domestic for only a few months, Hannah, and Trent Knightley is the nicest guy you’d ever want to work for. He takes care of his people, and you might find you don’t want to leave domestic in the spring, though James Knightley is also a great boss.”

Gail went on to list benefits that included a signing bonus. Not a big one, but by Hannah’s standards, it would clear off all the bills, allow for a few extravagances, and maybe even the start of a savings account.

God in heaven, a savings account.

“Mom, can I have another hot dog?” Grace stage-whispered her request, clearly trying to be good.

Except there wasn’t another hot dog. Hannah had toted up her grocery bill as she’d filled her cart, and there wasn’t another damned hot dog.

Thank God my child is safe for another day… But how safe was Grace in a household where even hot dogs were carefully rationed?

Hannah covered the phone. “You may have mine, Grace.”

“Thanks!”

“Hannah? Are you there?”

A beat of silence, while Hannah weighed her daughter’s need for a second hot dog against six months of practicing law in a specialty Hannah loathed, dreaded, and despised.

“I accept the job, Gail, though be warned I will transfer to corporate law as soon as I can.”

“You haven’t met Trent. You’re going to love him.”

No, Hannah would not.

Gail went on to explain details—starting day, parking sticker, county bar identification badge—and all the while, Hannah watched her hot dog disappear and knew she was making a terrible mistake.

“Trent Knightley is a fine man, and his people love him,” Gail said, passing Hannah’s signing bonus check across the desk. “The only folks who don’t like to see him coming are opposing counsel, and even they respect him.”

“He sounds like an ideal first boss.”

What kind of fine man wanted to spend his days breaking up families and needed the head of HR singing his praises at every turn?

The entire first morning was spent with Gail, filling out forms—and leaving some spaces on those forms blank. Gail took Hannah to lunch, calling it de rigueur for a new hire.

“In fact,” Gail said between bites of a chicken Caesar, “you will likely be taken out to lunch by each of the three partners, though Mac tends to be less social than his brothers. You ordering dessert?”

People who could afford gym memberships ordered dessert.

“I’d like to get back to work if you don’t mind, Gail. I have yet to meet the elusive Trent Knightley, and if he should appear in the office this afternoon, I don’t want to be accused of stretching lunch on my first day.”

Not on any day. If Hannah had learned anything temping for the Baltimore firms, it was that law firms were OCD about timesheets and billable hours.

“Hannah, you are not bagging groceries. No one, and I mean no one will watch your time as long as your work is getting done, your time sheet is accurate, and most of your clients aren’t complaining. Get over the convenience-store galley slave mentality.”

Gail paid the bill with a corporate card, and no doubt the cost of lunch would have bought many packages of fancy 100 percent beef wieners.

“Don’t sweat the occasional long lunch,” Gail said as she drove back to the office. “Trent takes as many as anyone else, and the way he eats, he’d better.”

Gail’s comment had Hannah picturing Mr. Wonderful Boss, Esquire, as a pudgy middle-aged fellow who put nervous clients at ease and probably used a cart and a caddy when he played golf with the judges.

Hannah finished arranging the fresh flowers that had just been delivered to her office, her sole extravagance as the proud recipient of a signing bonus. The florist had recommended the purple glads, and for good reason, for they were splendid specimens. Hannah pulled out one long, magenta-lavender blossom to share with Grace.

Gino, the beefy Italian facility manager, had delivered a banker’s box piled high with every imaginable office supply and promised Hannah he’d have her computer installed by tomorrow morning. Her office was a tidy, impersonal space but for the flower arrangement, and she liked it that way—even when temping, a lawyer learned that clients got nosy. She wrapped the gladiolus in a wet paper towel, then spotted a volume of Maryland Family Law on her credenza.

A poo-poo brown book for a poo-poo brown subject, Grace would say.

Still, it was a reference book that belonged in the boss’s shelves. Hannah had taken a moment to assess Trenton Knightley’s private office, and found it cozy, like a den or study, more baronial than palatial. The Oriental rug and upholstered furniture went with her well-fed, middle-aged, avuncular image of him. Then too, if he kept the firm’s family law library in printed book form, maybe he was a bit of a cyberphobe.

Some of the older attorneys were.

Hannah approached the door to the boss’s office, book in one hand, flower in the other. A man’s voice coming from within stopped her before she would have barged through the slightly open door.

“So what are you doing tonight?” the guy asked, voice pitched intimately, the inflection lazy and personal. A beautiful, sexy voice completely inappropriate for a law office during business hours.

“Do you think he could stand to part with you for an hour?” the man asked.

Hannah told herself to put the damned book back another time, but curiosity held her in place.

“I’m in the mood for a ride.” A ride? How crude was that? “I was stuck all day on a nasty case, and I need to change gears. The best way I know to do that is spend some time with my favorite girl.”

Oh, for cryin’ in a bucket. Hannah turned to go, but some flicker of light or shadow must have given her away. The door swung open.

“I’ll be there in less than an hour,” he said into a cell phone. “Go ahead and eat something—you’ll need your energy.” He slipped the phone into his pocket and smiled at Hannah. His jacket was off, his shirt sleeves cuffed back, and his tie—a stylized image of a white horse galloping out of a crashing blue surf—was loosened.

The informality of the guy’s attire only emphasized that fact that he was drop-dead-of-an-estrogen-coronary gorgeous. Tall, dark, and handsome, three for three. His sable hair was a tad long, his facial architecture a touch dramatic. Even white teeth arranged in a shark-smile, and blue, blue eyes finished off a walking assault to a woman’s composure.

Hannah stood in the doorway, Family Law in one hand, a perfectly phallic flower in the other.

Her mouth snapped shut.

“Hello,” he said, still exuding the air of happy anticipation he’d had on the phone. “Is that flower for me?”

“You got some nerve, buddy.” Hannah plowed past him. “If you must arrange your assignations on company time, then at least do it someplace other than the boss’s office, and no, this flower is not for you.”

Those bachelor-button blue eyes began to dance. “Perhaps we’d best introduce ourselves before we’re handing out citations for unprofessional conduct. Trent Knightley, director, Domestic Relations. And you would be?”

Unemployed. Again.

“Toast,” Hannah muttered, setting the book on the pale oak coffee table and seeing her new, improved grocery budget evaporate before her eyes. “I would be utter toast.”

“You’re my new hire,” he said, the smile dipping into a frown. “Heather? Helen? No…”

Was it a good thing that he couldn’t recall the name of the associate he probably intended to work to death?

She dutifully extended a hand. “Hannah Stark.”

“Hannah,” he said, taking her hand in his and not shaking it, but holding it as he studied her. “Have a seat. I am remiss for not greeting you in person, but depositions wait for no man or lady. How was your first day?”

Lawyers could be remiss; other people dropped the ball or screwed up.

The mischief in his gaze was gone, which was a relief. Everybody had said he was nice; nobody had said he was a gorgeous, womanizing, flirting—

She took a seat while he folded his length into a wingchair, stretched out long legs, and crossed them at the ankle.

“My assignation isn’t for an hour,” he reminded her. “Spare me five minutes and tell me about your day.”

Cross-examination, of course.

“Busy,” Hannah said, “but unremarkable. My forms are executed for HR, my office is outfitted, I did lunch with Gail. I spent some time this afternoon trying to track down a case for another associate—I forget the gentleman’s name.”

“Viking blond? Toothpaste-commercial smile?”

“He has the child support docket.” Hannah had seen no toothpaste-commercial smiles outside present company. “Matthew?”

“Gerald Matthews.”

“Right. Gerald. His client can prove he had a vasectomy prior to the child’s birth—the client, not Gerald—and the procedure hasn’t reversed itself since. Gerald thinks there’s some relevant case law.”

“If the case is coming up Friday and Gerald hasn’t started his research, then perhaps you’d like to handle it?”

A silence spread, with Hannah eyeing her flower, while her boss eyed her. This was the price of fancy 100 percent beef wieners. She didn’t want to touch the child support docket, neither did she want to admit her reluctance to Mr. Divorces-Are-Us.

“How about not quite yet?” Hannah hedged.

“Fair enough. Why the flower, Hannah Stark?”

Damned lawyer. He’d dropped back into that sexy, conspiring, you-can-trust-me tone he’d used on the phone.

“They’re pretty.”

“You sent them to yourself?”

She fingered the last blossom, feeling foolish and angry, because a good lawyer could do this. Lead the witness down one path of inquiry, then ambush them from an entirely different direction.

“I like flowers.”

She liked signing bonuses, too, and making her mortgage payments on time.

“How about you plan to observe Gerald on Happy Pappy day?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We hear all child support matters on Friday in Damson County. It’s payday for a lot of people, so it maximizes the chance of some money coming in against arrearages. A Friday docket also gives the folks who are locked up for nonsupport the weekend to come up with the money so they don’t miss as much work getting processed out.”

The science of lives coming unraveled was part of the reason Hannah loathed family law. “You want me to handle child support cases?”

“Gerald has the docket well in hand, but yes, I’ll want you trained for it, because we should all be able to back each other up. You and I did not get a chance to interview each other, Hannah. My philosophy with the people working for me is to give them what they need to do a good job, then leave them alone to do it. With you, I’ll have to be more hands on.”

Not a hint of an innuendo of a possibility of flirtation underlay the words hands on.

“Because?”

“Because you have no courtroom experience, and family law is litigation intensive.”

She’d been in courtrooms since she’d turned three years old. “You and the other three associates can’t do the courtroom cases?”

He rose and took the flower from her, poured a glass of water from a pitcher on the windowsill, and balanced the gladiolus in its makeshift vase. The long stem leaned precariously against a thriving rhododendron, but was at least spared death-by-wilting before Hannah even got it home.

“Most new associates are chomping at the bit to get on their white chargers and be God’s gift to the courtroom,” he said. “I gather you’re not.”

The problem was not litigation—Hannah was as willing to go to court as the next attorney—the problem was family law.

“I will be honest,” Hannah said, because honesty was expedient in this case, and because he’d looked after Grace’s flower. “I want to pull my share of the load until I can safely slide over to corporate services. In a divorcing family, the children can’t be in two different households at the same time. It’s a zero-sum game that isn’t a game at all.”

“Gail warned me you were reluctant. Not too reluctant, I trust?”

“No, sir,” Hannah said, getting to her feet.

“No, Trent.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Hannah, before you let my little brother work your fanny off this spring, you and I will be eating cold pepperoni with black olives out of the same pizza box. We’ll get into yelling matches about litigation strategy. We’ll drive to and from the courthouse together at least once a week. I might pick up your dry cleaning. You might share your worst professional fears with me or pass off to me the client who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Call. Me. Trent.”

What to say? Yes, sir? “Yes, Trent, but I draw the line at anchovies and pineapple.”

“Sit down for one more minute, and let me explain something to you.” He did not make it a question. Grace would have told him so.

Hannah dropped into her seat, though the clock on the wall said if she didn’t want to be late to pick up Grace—with all the misery that would cause—then she couldn’t afford any protracted lectures.

“Mac handles criminal law, but he’s never committed a crime. James does corporate and property, though he’s never owned a business except for this one, and he owns exactly one piece of ground. I, however, practice family law and was raised in a family. So were you—good, bad, indifferent, or wonderful, every family law attorney has family, and baggage as a result.”

After nearly two decades with the most overworked therapists the taxpayer could inflict on foster children, Hannah still had to get the baggage lecture from her new boss.

“What’s your point?”

“You’ll get your buttons pushed in this business, Hannah Stark, by the cases, the clients, opposing counsel, the judges. We aren’t like the social workers and counselors who have a built-in chain of command to support them when they’re losing their emotional balance, but we do have common sense. When you’re in over your head, you come to me, and we’ll address it. When I have a tough case, we staff it and get the benefit of everybody’s wisdom. The point is you will not be in the deep end alone with the sharks. I’ll be there with you, if I’m doing my job.”

Family law was the deep end, and she was already in it and late to pick up her kid.

“This is what Gail meant when she said you were good to work for, isn’t it?”

“She said that?”

“Said everybody loves to work for you.”

“Probably because I’m off at court so much.” He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. This curving of his lips was more charming than his “Hi, I’m your new boss” version. “I’ll tell Gerald to expect you to shadow him this week, but for tomorrow, why not watch my deposition?”

“May I take the case file home with me tonight?” And leave in the next six minutes?

“You may not,” he said, his smile broadening. “You’re already doing research for Gerald he ought to do himself. If he’s swamped, he also has a paralegal to help him, or he could have come to me. Pace yourself for the long haul, Hannah. Enough cases go home with you whether you want them to or not. Now get your things, and I’ll walk you to your car. I’m scheduled to freeze my backside off trail riding under the full moon tonight.”

That kind of ride? Well, then, maybe it was OK to like the guy, even if he was down-to-earth, good-looking, and willing to brave the full moon on a weeknight.

“No need to walk me to my car, thank you,” Hannah said, getting to her feet. Her answer might have been different if he’d made it a question.

“Suit yourself,” he said, rising as well. “Deposition starts at nine. We’ll leave here around eight thirty, and Hannah?”

“Sir?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Trent?”

“Welcome aboard.” He shook her hand again, then let her go.

Because he had to freeze his backside off under the full moon, while Hannah had to pick up her daughter.

“I cannot for the life of me figure out why you let me have Hannah Stark,” Trent said, leaning on the jamb of James’s office door.

“You needed somebody.” James had his feet up on the corner of his desk, a book on merger law open in his lap. “Mac liked her. Besides, curvaceous, twitchy redheads in sensible shoes aren’t my type.”

Any female in need of a shoulder to cry on was James’s type. “You have plans tonight?”

“I always have plans. Think Hannah will be a keeper?”

Hannah was a mystery. “Mac called it right: She’s the sort who will never, ever let her hair down. She won’t be caught unprepared, won’t color outside the lines, won’t pop off at opposing counsel, won’t neglect a matter in her care.”

James was the family golden boy, long-limbed and broad-shouldered like a swimmer. He had the right smile for a corporate attorney, confident and competent without being calculating, but he was also—according to Merle—better than Trent or Mac at making popcorn and watching princess movies.

“Do I hear a ‘but’ after praise like that?” James asked.

“But good lawyers get sued all the time because they’re short on warm-and-fuzzy charm.” Or because they worked themselves to a frazzle and screwed their brains out in the mistaken belief that qualified as fun.

“Your warm and fuzzies are not short,” James said. “Which is why you have to turn away business. If you can talk Miss Hannah into it, go ahead and keep her on the domestic law team. I’ll just bill more hours.”

James never fudged on a timesheet—nobody at Hartman and Whitney did—but he surely didn’t get enough sleep either. Trent had decided long ago that being a brother trumped being a law partner, and he suspected James and Mac had come to the same conclusion.

“How will you keep up with your social calendar if you’re billing seventy hours a week?”

“Neither the socializing nor the law particularly challenges me anymore. I can do both with my eyes closed.”

“I do worry about you,” Trent said, not even half in jest. James was reading a fifty-year-old case, for mercy’s sake. “I did want to thank you for Hannah. She’ll be a workhorse.”

“Don’t work her so hard she quits and goes to massage school.”

Massage school, feng shui, medical coding: the temptations wooing good lawyers from the courtroom were treacherous and myriad.

“You sure you have plans tonight?”

“Shoo.” James gave his characteristic hand wave. “Genius thrives in solitude.”

“I’m leaving, but I have a question for you as the familial authority on the fairer sex.”

James crossed his arms, his expression curious.

“Is it now rude to offer to escort a female employee to her car?”

James glanced out the window, as if Peahen v. Piracy Unlimited—corporate cases had the dumbest captions—was so fascinating, he hadn’t realized darkness had fallen.

“Walking a woman to her car is gallant, particularly after dark on her first day. My rule of thumb is to figure how I would want somebody treating Merle when she grows up, and that’s how I behave. Mostly.”

“Good rule. Don’t work too late.”

“Said the pot to the kettle.”

Trent let James have the last word, though with all the hours James had billed lately, James’s legendary velocity with the ladies had to be suffering—or taking a breather. Mac’s light was still on too, but Trent left his older brother undisturbed. Thanks to Mac’s peculiar insights regarding Hannah, Trent’s department had a prayer of making it through until spring.

Though Trent wished somebody—a devoted brother, perhaps?—had warned him his new hire was stunningly pretty. Dark auburn hair swept up on a coiled bun gave her a classic appeal, accentuating a lovely profile, big brown eyes, and a full, mobile mouth.

A kissable mouth, if Trent were honest.

She wasn’t attractive, though. Hannah Stark had No Trespassing signs posted at every property line, which was puzzling.

Trent got into his late-model Beemer, tucked a disc of Vera Winston playing Scarlatti into the CD player, and let his day’s quotient of tension and drama drift away on strains of baroque beauty. As he reached his own property line, though, a question plagued him:

For whom had Hannah Stark taken home that single, lonely, lovely flower?

Some nights, good enough had to be good enough, even for the most devoted single mom.

In that spirit, Hannah used eight of her ten spare minutes on the way home to hit the fast-food drive-through and pick up a kiddie meal and a tuna salad. When she got to Eliza’s, she took the gladiolus from among the flotsam in the backseat and headed for Eliza’s kitchen door.

“Mom! You were almost late, but not quite, Eliza said. That’s a pretty flower, is it for me?” Grace slammed into Hannah, throwing her arms around her mother in a seven-year-old’s version of a bear hug.

Thank God my child is safe for another day.

“It is for you. It’s called a gladiolus, from the Latin word for sword, like a gladiator might use. This flower wants to bloom in a little girl’s bedroom, so she can wake up and see something as wonderful as she is.”

Abruptly shy, Grace mashed her nose against her mother’s waist. “Thanks, Mom.”

“There’s a kiddy meal for you in the car, Grace. Please don’t open the ketchup.” Not quite a request, but a polite command.

“No fair,” Eliza’s oldest, Henry, moaned from the kitchen sink, where he washed his hands. “We never get kiddie meals.”

“You have a dog, Henry,” Grace said, shoving her arms into the sleeves of her coat. “Ginger is better than a kiddie meal.” She galloped out the door, holding up her flower like an Olympic torch. “C’mon, Bronco!”

“First day go OK?” Eliza asked, passing Henry a tea towel.

Hannah ran a finger down little Adam’s cheek. He gurgled happily against his mother’s shoulder and beamed a perfect baby smile at Hannah.

“Everyone was very nice, Eliza.” Which had been unnerving as hell.

“That’s how first days are supposed to go. Get home, have a glass of white wine, and congratulate yourself.”

“Except now they’ll expect me to be nice right back, and sooner or later, I’ll screw that up. I didn’t get the gene for corporate pleasantries.”

For any pleasantries.

At the sink, Henry ran the taps full out and started the garbage disposal.

“Henry Aaron Moser, you stop that or you’ll go without supper,” Eliza snapped. Henry shut off the taps and the disposal, grinned an all-boy grin, and scampered out of the kitchen. “I could argue about those genes, Hannah, but I know better than to argue with a lawyer. Do you suppose the car is covered with ketchup yet?”

“’Bye, Eliza.”

The goddess of commuting families had smiled, though, and Grace was sitting serenely in the passenger’s seat, consuming her fries one at a time.

“Mom, do you think I’m little?”

What on earth was this about?

“Compared to what? Compared to me you are little now, but you’ll likely be taller than I am before you’re all grown up. You will never be as big, say, as Pedro.” He’d been a source of fascination ever since he’d moved in across the lane.

“Pedro is a Brahma bull. I know I won’t ever be as big as he is, but do you think I’m small?”

“I guess so, for now, for a human.”

A pause ensued, lasting two whole fries. “Do you think I’m teensy?”

Hannah looked over at her daughter, searching for a clue, finding none. “I do not think you are teensy. You were not even teensy as a newborn, but you were absolutely adorable.”

Also scary as hell.

“I don’t want to be teensy.”

“Why not?”

Another pause, one fry in duration.

“We learned about the teensy fly in school today. It can kill you, and it’s teensy. The flies in our house are really small, don’t you think? Are you laughing at me?” A fry poised in the air punctuated the question.

“I am not laughing at you. Your teacher made a silly mistake, that’s all.” Hannah tried to explain the “mistake” to Grace, of confusing tsetse with teensy, but second-grade spelling made the translation slow. Once Grace got the joke, though, she howled.

“Mrs. Corner forgot tsetse sounds like teensy, like teensy weensy. Gee, Mom, even I know that.”

Grace bounced out of the car in great good spirits, which set the tone for a pleasant evening, so pleasant in fact, the child was in bed twenty minutes early.

The extra few minutes should have been a treat, a chance to have that glass of wine Eliza mentioned fairly frequently.

Except Hannah would never risk it.

What if she had to drive Grace to the emergency room?

What if she had to call 911 when Grace complained of a sudden severe bellyache, and the EMTs arrived to find, “the mother had been drinking?”

What if the relaxation alcohol afforded became too seductive?

What if somebody made a referral to Child Protective Services, and the state’s eyes and ears popped by unannounced at the end of some difficult week to find the wine bottle was the only thing in the fridge?

“That won’t happen,” Hannah said, putting the teakettle on. Even child protective services needed a referral before they came knocking on doors in the dead of night—though that was pretty much all they needed before popping a child into foster care.

Hannah brewed up a cup of chamomile tea, dosed it with honey, and put in an old Richard Gere-Julia Roberts movie, a romance. The tale had once been one of her favorites, but in the past year the Pygmalion story line had seemed pathetic.

Sometimes, a lady got too empty to dream. Those times were scary, but Hannah had survived them. She might lack the nice-nice gene, but she had a blazingly good memory, an eye for detail, and an excellent grasp of the law. That was enough to sustain a dream of a good job in the field of corporate law.

And hopefully, enough to sustain her for a short, uneventful detour through the legal dungeon known as family law.

Trent lay back on an old quilt under the full moon. A few yards away, horses munched deep fall grass, and one lonely cricket sang a slow aria to the crisp night air. The nip in the air, the pitch and tempo of that cricket’s song, confirmed that this would be the last such outing for months.

“Daddy?” came a small voice from the other side of the blanket.

“Sweetie?”

“Is there really such a thing as a teensy fly, and can it really kill you? Do they live around here?”

 

 

Chapter Two

Hannah dropped a smiling, bouncy Grace off at school by 7:20 a.m., and spent the commute through the western Maryland hills fretting.

What if she said something inappropriate at today’s deposition? What if she failed to say something appropriate? What >was appropriate? And that paternity law she was researching—was Trent Knightley unhappy she’d taken it on without his say so? Or was he unhappy with Gerald?

By the time Hannah reached the office, a tidy little headache at the base of her skull was threatening to go rogue and climb up the left side of her neck. She got out of her Prius, put on the bolero jacket that went with her A-line dress, and bent to gather up her shoulder bag, briefcase, umbrella, and thermos from the back of the car.

“Good morning, Hannah! May I carry something in for you?”

Trent Knightley’s voice so startled Hannah she bumped her head hard on the car’s roof.

“That sounded like a pretty ferocious conk on the noggin.” He reached toward her face, as if to brush her hair back and inspect the damage, and Hannah flinched away, her forearm coming up to block him.

Which knocked Trent’s hand against the car door.

Which bumped the car door into Hannah’s elbow hard.

Which sent her belongings flying in all directions.

And dumped the contents of her purse on the blacktop at her feet.

“Oliver Wendell Holmes on a pogo stick, Stark.” Trent tucked his hand under his opposite arm, much as a kid might have done at a sandlot ball game. “Ouch.”

“I’m…sorry. I wasn’t… I thought… You startled me.”

She tried to get her breath and failed.

Knightley’s eyes narrowed. “Down you go.” His hands were on her shoulders, pushing her to sit sideways in her own driver’s seat. “Head down, take little breaths, like the air is too cold to breathe easily.”

She popped back up. “I’m not about to…”

Her ears started to roar, from standing too quickly, from rapping her head, from being surprised, from…him, standing too close, and handling her.

“Spare me your motion to dismiss.” His tone was grouchy as his arms came around her and eased her back down onto her car seat. “You’re pale as a blank page, and this qualifies as a workplace injury.”

Did not.

Hannah couldn’t correct him, because she was not quite steady on her pins and his voice sounded far away. As she struggled for breath, she caught a strong whiff of sandalwood and spices—from him, from the wonderfully soft wool of his jacket.

That scent, that softness, calmed her.

“I’m fine,” she said, meaning to sound authoritative and failing spectacularly.

“You’re stubborn as hell,” he retorted, worry in his voice blending with exasperation. “How about you please don’t squander your breath arguing with me?”

“You made it a question.” The car prevented her from scooting any farther away, and he—damn him to the lawyers’ special reserved section of hell—did not step back. He hung over her in the open car door, his expression disgruntled.

“Did you skip breakfast? That’s two questions.”

She did not admit she’d skipped breakfast and had eaten only a few bites of last night’s tuna salad. Yesterday had been all smiles and new job protocol; today the lawyering began.

“Your color’s better,” Trent said, still hovering like a mother cat. “Catch your breath, and I’ll retrieve”—he went down on one knee and reached under Hannah’s car—“your worldly goods.”

Hannah watched in sheer mortification as he stashed her birth control pills, tampon holder, moisturizer, headache prescription, wallet, lavender lip balm, and brush back into her purse, then set the thing in her lap.

“You carry this. I will carry the rest of your plunder, and you will allow me to escort you to your office without a peep of protest.”

“But—” When was the last time anybody had fussed at her this way, part scold, part concern, and more than a little dear?

“That meets the legal definition of a peep. No peeps, Hannah Stark. I need to recover from my ordeal.” He braced himself with one hand on the roof of the car, while Hannah tried not to laugh.

“Your ordeal?”

“Bruised knuckles, bruised ego. Did you really think I was about to wallop my only chance of covering my caseload for the next six months?”

Whose idea was it to turn this guy loose with the questions? “I startle easily, and badly.”

“You do.” He eyed his hand, then extended it down to her. “Let’s get you out of this cold before Gail pulls up and accuses me of committing actionable torts in the parking lot.”

A nanosecond of awkwardness blossomed. Hannah was supposed to put her hand in his. The term “poorly socialized,” jumped from Hannah’s past into her present. She gave Trent her hand, because poorly socialized did not mean entirely clueless.

Trent’s grasp was wonderfully warm, at variance with his expression. He drew her to her feet and treated her to an even closer perusal. “You all right, Stark?”

“I’m fine. Mortified, but fine.” Mortification should be an actionable tort, the scent of his aftershave and the warmth of his hand the required restitution.

“Mortified is part of the profession,” he said, lifting the strap of her purse from her elbow to her shoulder. “No land-speed records if you please.”

“In deference to the trauma you’ve experienced?”

“You catch on, Stark. You startle easily, but you do catch on. You also smell good.”

After that peculiar complaint—for he was griping about lily of the valley-scented moisturizer, clearly—he walked her to her office in blessed silence. Hannah’s headache still crouched at the base of her skull, but something in this bumpy start to her day was nice.

Nice was not always bad, though it was seldom long term, and yet, Hannah liked that her boss could cluck and fuss—and pout.

“Stay right here,” he said when they reached her office. “No, don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’m your boss, not your playground buddy, and occasionally when I give an order, I’m entitled to be humored.”

He disappeared after depositing Hannah’s personal effects on her desk. She’d just changed from sneakers to pumps—what would Trenton Knightley know about playground buddies?—when he came back.

“I can send Gino out for something more substantial.” He put a folded napkin down before her and a steaming cup of tea. “Strike that. I will send Gino out for something more substantial if you don’t eat every cookie.”

He was a little too attached to that peremptory tone, but she brought the teacup to her nose. More spices, cinnamon, clove, citrus, scents of comfort.

“Thank you.”

“I keep the shortbread in my credenza, right side. It’s a communal stash, from The Sweetest Things down on Frederick Douglas Drive. The tea is in the kitchen.”

“Decaf?” The taste was too good to be decaf.

“Decaf, though I debated. You get migraines?”

She hadn’t had a true migraine since finishing law school. “What makes you ask?”

“You have the same prescription James does.”

“James?”

He settled a hip on the corner of her desk. “My brother James, the guy you’re supposed to go work for when you desert me like a low-down, faithless traitor this spring.”

He was teasing, or maybe still pouting. “The tea is quite good.”

And like a slow, happy sunrise, he smiled. The smile started with his lips, a gentle, sweet curving of humor, then spread to the grooves on either side of his mouth, and up to his eyes, to finish out with crow’s-feet.

“Atta girl, Stark. The tea is very good. Mac picks it out, and he doesn’t let me push him around either. I’m on to you tea-drinking types.”

Still teasing. Hannah longed to return his smile. She took another sip of warm, spicy heaven. “When do we leave for the deposition?”

“When you’ve eaten your breakfast and I’ve had a few minutes to glance over my notes from yesterday’s festivities. We’ll take my car.”

She munched a cookie in silence—a rich, buttery cookie such as would earn a bossy-boss a modicum more tolerance for his tendency to use the imperative voice.

“I won’t fit in that glorified lawnmower you drive,” he said, heading for her door, “and I like my heated seats, Stark. We can take separate cars, if you’d rather, but that’s bad for your carbon footprint, and there is no explaining how to find a parking space within two blocks of the courthouse, not even if you’re admitted to practice before the Sue-preme Court.”

He was gone with a wiggle of his dark eyebrows and a piratical smile, and all Hannah could think about—despite the fact that he’d seen her female unmentionables—was his smile, his scent, and his warm hands.

Trent made his way to the Human Resources suite while trying to recall the last time he’d been intimate with a woman.

After some corporate Fourth of July picnic two…no, three…maybe four years ago, though the name of his patriotic moment escaped him, not that he could recall fireworks of any variety accompanying it either.

He pushed the memory aside and attributed the flare of interest he’d felt in Hannah Stark to protracted deprivation. As a younger man, he’d expected inconvenient and harmless commentary from his mating urges with cheerful frequency. Somewhere between passing his thirtieth birthday, enduring a divorce, and acquiring sole legal and physical custody of a child, those comments had slowed to a trickle, then gone silent.

Until this morning.

Until he’d had a lithe, fragrant female momentarily warm and pliant in his arms.

Until Hannah’s hair had tickled his nose, and her blush had warmed his soul.

He hadn’t known women still blushed over something as simple as feminine hygiene products.

Mercy.

He sat at Gail Russo’s desk and found Hannah’s file sitting on the right-hand corner, a file he was obligated to review as her immediate superior. The file was like the lady: it raised more questions than it answered. Her age was right where he’d estimated it, twenty-eight, and yet the form had blanks in peculiar places—like marital status.

Who left that blank? Under Maryland law, nobody could compel that information on a job application, but why conceal it? Her insurance forms listed benefits for self plus dependents, but the person to notify in case of emergency was Eliza Moser .

A married sister, perhaps?

And the life insurance beneficiary was L. Grace Stark. The relation given was “relative.” Very funny.

A mother? An unmarried sister? He had six months to find out. Between his own cross-examination skills, the magic of shared pizza, and private investigators kept on retainer, Trent would unearth those answers sooner or later.

Though the more interesting inquiry was why he’d want to.

Hannah’s law school curriculum had missed a few classes, like Chit-Chat 101, though Hannah probably would have flunked that one. Her boss wanted to gently grill her, and all she wanted was to let his magic heated car seat soothe away her headache.

Where did she go to law school? A patently stupid question when he would have read her application line by line.

How about undergraduate?

Did she follow the Ravens or the Orioles, or—“Say it ain’t so, Stark,”—the Pirates?

Did she have any team at all?

And then, blast him, he slipped in a CD and turned the volume down low. He’d chosen the Brahms clarinet sonatas, as lush, lyrical, and gorgeous a pair of works as Hannah had ever fallen asleep to time after time in college.

“Hope you don’t mind a dash of something classical,” he said, turning the volume down even further. “Helps me change gears on the way home, usually.”

His expression was a study in handsome innocence—if there were such a thing—but Hannah had the sense it was a test.

“I don’t think Brahms wrote anything ugly, ever,” she said. “He is proof of romance in the German soul,”

“As if Bach and Beethoven weren’t?”

“Bach was more of a passionate mathematician…” Hannah caught herself. “What should I expect from this morning’s deposition?”

“Uncomfortable chairs,” Trent said, adopting ominous tones. “Terrible coffee. Elvin Gregory is old school, which means this is all very serious business. He doesn’t break role, and he’s always got one eye on the clock.”

“He’s in a hurry?”

“If it’s billable work, he’s never in a hurry. How’s your head?”

“The tea and cookies helped, thank you for asking.” Nice try, Boss. “What are the issues?”

He glanced over at her, his expression amused. Nice try, Stark?

“One child, so custody is the big issue, and where there is a custody battle, there will also be tussling over use and possession of the family home, and child support. If you need a chocolate energy bar, they’re in my briefcase.”

Points for chocolate energy bars—and tenacity. “Alimony?”

“Now that is a fine line. Mister wants to prove Missus is right next door to an incompetent parent, but somehow, she’s completely capable of supporting herself.”

“Is she?”

“She hasn’t during the marriage, but she held some jobs out of college.”

“College doesn’t go as far as it used to. How does Mister expect to prove she’s a bad parent?”

“She has bipolar disorder. Had to go off the meds to get pregnant, and has some inpatient history.”

“Yikes.”

“You’re familiar with the condition?” Trent was driving now, no longer chatting up the help, thank God.

“Bipolar disorder can mean a family history of suicides and addiction, because it wasn’t a well-understood malady years ago. That diagnosis is no cakewalk.”

“Still isn’t, according to Mrs. Loomis, but she seems together enough to me.”

Hannah asked the only question that would ever matter to her. “What does the kid want?”

“He loves both parents, but wants to live with mom.”

Because she was with her boss, who expected to have her lawyer-head in the game that was never a game, Hannah asked the next question:

“What do we want?”

“We want our client to win,” Trent said, smiling as he turned the car into a cobbled alley near the courthouse. “We always want our client to win.”

Hannah kept further questions to herself, such as how the kid was supposed to cope if mom’s condition didn’t respond to treatment, and why custody was an either-or question in this case.

Hannah followed Trent into a handsome old brick row house converted to office space. The hallways were narrow, the ceilings high, and the hardwood floors uneven, creaky, and springy.

Old money for Damson County, such as it was.

Trent introduced Hannah as his associate, sitting second chair on the case. Mr. Elvin Gregory, counsel for Husband, did not shake Hannah’s hand and did not appear pleased. But then, his saturnine features looked like smiling was a biennial event, coinciding with the near occasion of intestinal regularity.

The morning was interesting. Trent’s style was less like an interrogator and more like an investigator soliciting assistance from the opposing spouse. Several times, Gregory interrupted and tried to amend what his client had answered, and each time, Trent let Gregory ramble at length.

Mrs. Loomis, however, became increasingly agitated as the morning wore on, trying to correct her spouse’s answers or answer for him.

Trent asked the court stenographer to go off the record, then turned to his client.

“I have only a few more questions for Mr. Loomis, but we’ve been at this for nearly three hours. If you’d like, Hannah can take you down to the courthouse café and get you a cup of coffee.”

He was up to something.

“I did park at the courthouse garage,” Mrs. Loomis said, “and it has been a long morning.” She shot a gratuitously cranky look at her spouse, whose great offenses had been to sit in his chair and answer questions Trent had put to him.

Trent glanced at Hannah, a passing nothing of a glance. “If you’d be so kind?”

She was being dismissed, and more particularly, the client was being dismissed into her keeping.

“I’m happy to stretch my legs,” she said. “Mr. Loomis, Mr. Gregory, my thanks for allowing me to observe.”

She was happy to stretch her legs, happy to escape the cramped pretentiousness of Gregory’s law offices, happy to breathe the cold autumn air.

“So tell me, dear,” Mrs. Loomis said as she trundled along beside Hannah. “What ever made you want to practice family law?”

An hour later, Hannah was on her third cup of weak decaf tea and wondering when in the name of God Almighty her boss would rescue her from the client’s clutches.

“And this is Dubbie when he was just two.” Mrs. Loomis pushed another color print across the table. “I made that costume myself. I have an old Touch and Sew that was my mother’s—she made all my clothes growing up. Did your mother sew? No? So few women do anymore, though we have the best fabric shop out by the high school, right next to the bakery. Where do you suppose Mr. Knightley has got off to?”

Answering the petite brunette wasn’t necessary. She babbled along like a human white-noise generator, her speech gaining momentum when it should have been winding down.

“Hello, ladies.” Trent sauntered into the courthouse café—The Lunch Bar—and sat at their table. “My apologies if I kept you waiting. I think the depositions went well.”

“Do you?” Mrs. Loomis paused for two nanoseconds. “I’m not sure I agree, Mr. Knightley. That man has a way of twisting his words to hide the truth, and it just makes me so mad. He never raises his voice, but he can have me shouting in no time, he’s so annoying.”

Trent jumped in smoothly. “He’d better not twist his words. All those answers this morning were under oath. If he doesn’t give me the same responses when he’s on the witness stand, he’ll look like a liar.”

“Which he is, he definitely is, and if he thinks he’s a fit influence to have the exclusive raising of my son—

“Now, we talked about that.” Trent patted her hand and rose. “He’s the boy’s father, and he loves his son, and we’re not out to ruin his relationship with Dubbie.”

“He’ll do that all on his own, if he hasn’t already,” Mrs. Loomis muttered, getting to her feet as well. Trent held her chair, then held her coat for her, and the whole time, the woman chattered on.

Hannah wanted to sprint for the door, but Mrs. Loomis would not be hurried, and neither, it seemed, would Trent Knightley.

“Mrs. Loomis, I’ll call you as soon as we have the transcripts,” Trent said as they reached the sidewalk. “It may take a few weeks, but that will give us all time to recover from depositions.”

“Recover, yes, well. I’ll wait to hear from you, Mr. Knightley. Ms. Stark, you have a nice day, and maybe I’ll see you at the fabric store.”

Maybe not. She bustled off, muttering about that man, the poor boy, the shortcomings of the American legal system today, and a preholiday sale on velvet.

“Not one word,” Trent said, turning Hannah by the arm to head in the opposite direction. “Let’s savor the quiet.”

Hannah Stark was not a people person, which Trent considered a strength in a family law practitioner. He, however, was a people person, and it made his job at once harder and easier.

“Do you think she’s cycling up?” Hannah asked.

“Beg pardon?” He would have been happy to saunter along in the crisp air, Hannah at his side, but after three hours of watching him and Elvin go at it, Hannah was entitled to ask questions.

“Do you think Mrs. Loomis was starting a manic episode?”

Well, crap. He stopped walking and eyed her balefully. “Why do you say that?”

“The pressured speech, the hyperbolic thinking, the lack of continuity in her conversation, the perhaps grandiose idea that she’s the only competent parent Dubbie will ever have?”

Hannah was cataloging the behaviors that had caused Trent to figuratively toss his client from the room. He treated himself to a few more muttered curses—no seven-year-old lurked in the hedges to be the Cussing Police—and then flipped open his briefcase on the hood of a parked car.

“Here.” He passed Hannah the first folder of the Loomis file. “You have your cell phone with you?”

“In my purse,” she said as they resumed their progress up the uneven sidewalk.

“Somewhere in that file is her primary care doctor’s information. She insisted we have it in case Gregory wanted to depose the man or call him as a witness.”

“You want me to call him?”

“Either that, or you back my Beemer out of the alley it’s parked in.”

She considered it. He could see that by the way she frowned and knit her brow, the way her full lips pursed. This was not a woman who dodged a challenge—any challenge.

“Heaven forefend your Beemer should come to harm on my watch. What am I supposed to say to this doctor?”

“Exactly what you said to me, what you observed.”

“What’s the real reason I’m the one calling?” She stepped back while Trent unlocked and opened the car door for her. It was a courtesy he enjoyed performing, and to hell with tricky little keyless entry systems that were contributing to the death of chivalry.

He slid into his side of the car.

“If I call, and Mrs. Loomis goes on some spectacular spree this afternoon,” he said, “I could be put in the position of having to testify against my client, which would really make me look bad and force Mrs. Loomis to find another lawyer. That’s an unneeded expense and a delay for her.”

He also simply did not want to have to tattle on his client.

Assistant counsel leafed through the file. “And a misery for you. You honestly want to win this case for her.”

“Why shouldn’t I? She’s saddled with a mental illness, that kid means the world to her, and if she loses him, she might very well lose her grip entirely.”

“It isn’t a six-year-old’s job to be the guardian of his mother’s mental health, or her sobriety, or her moral fitness.”

Hannah made that pronouncement, fastened her seat belt, then buried her nose—a good, determined nose—back in the file.

“I expect that sort of harassment from my brothers,” Trent said two blocks later. “Mrs. Loomis is decent people, and I will tell you the rest of it over lunch.”

He fell silent as Hannah dialed on her cell. He resented mightily that unlike with his brothers, he couldn’t shift the argument with Hannah to some tussling on the rug until the third brother declared the match over and a draw.

Of course, his brothers didn’t smell half so good, and they probably would not have zeroed in on the client’s symptoms, either.

“Doctor Simmons, please.”

Trent was tempted to tell Hannah what to say, what not to say. He shut up and drove instead—talking on a hand held while driving was against the law, after all.

“Hello, Dr. Simmons, my name is Hannah Stark. I’m an attorney with the firm of Hartman and Whitney. One of our clients is your patient, Mrs. Sandra Loomis. I do not expect you to verify you’re treating her, but I want to report some behaviors I observed this morning.”

She recited what she’d seen, her voice neither hurried nor confiding. The doc was listening, apparently finding a dispassionate accounting more credible than any drama.

“I understand confidentiality, of course. No, she wasn’t talking about traveling anywhere in particular, and yes, Dubbie should be in school all day. Thank you. Of course.” She gave him the office number, repeated her name, and closed her phone.

“You handled that well.” Better than Trent could have.

“With an untreated bipolar disorder in the neighborhood, everybody’s sense of drama usually goes up,” Hannah said. “The mental health folks get numb to it, though they call it having boundaries.”

As Hannah sounded numb.

“You’ve been around somebody with this diagnosis?”

She looked out the window so he couldn’t assess what she was hiding.

“Roommate,” she said. “A long time ago, but the disease doesn’t change. She’d get to feeling a little better, either because the meds were working or because they weren’t, and then she’d think she didn’t need them, and the wild rumpus would begin again.”

Wild rumpus was a term from a children’s classic. Coming from Hannah it might have been funny, except her tone was flat, weary, and clearly signaled a need for a change in topic.

“I’m exercising my prerogative as your boss and taking you out to lunch.”

She swung her gaze to his, her expression unflatteringly disgruntled.

“You must practice making your imperial decrees into questions,” she said. “It’s really a very useful skill.”

His daughter had told him more or less the same thing, not two days ago.

Lunch was a good idea, just not lunch with the boss. Hannah was hungry as a penguin in springtime, and Trent would no doubt want to chitchat, socialize, and otherwise invade her privacy.

He helped her off with her coat, when she’d been dressing and undressing herself since the age of three.

He held her chair.

He offered to order for her.

No matter that coming from him, these old-fashioned courtesies were oddly appealing, Hannah was determined to set the man straight.

“This isn’t a date. Why would you order for me? Even if it were a date, how would you feel if I offered to order for you?”

“If you knew the menu better than I did, if you were particularly enthusiastic about one of the entrées, would you order for me?” His question was both genuinely curious and challenging.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t been in a position… That is, nobody has ever… I don’t date.” Or make small talk, or practice family law.

Oops. He was smiling again, that warm, flirty, I-know-what-you’re-thinking smile. “You were about to say nobody has offered.”

“A sit-down meal hasn’t been included in the offers,” she admitted. “Not on any of the three outings I can honestly call dates, though farm-team baseball games and paintball competitions probably don’t give a guy a chance to show off his manners.”

Trent pretended to study his menu. Hannah suspected he wanted to laugh—out loud, at length, while she endured a pang of protectiveness toward her younger, lonelier self.

“You must have been a very serious student,” he observed.

Safer territory. “Phi Beta Kappa, Mensa, the usual.” Motherhood, motherhood, and motherhood had also played role. “Nobody will invest in my future but me, hence the focus.”

“Then why did you go in-state undergrad? You probably had the credentials to go anywhere.”

This too was a legacy from foster care, the gentle probing that never ended, and often became outright rudeness. Who are your parents? Where are you from? Why did you switch schools? Why do you wear the same clothes all the time? Did your mother teach you to sew?

Except from Trent, Hannah sensed she was safe from the worst questions. She had only to tell him to mind his own business, and he would, at least temporarily.

“Scholarships were more plentiful in-state.” That was the truth—a truth. Their salads arrived, artful little concoctions appropriate to a place with linen tablecloths and leather-bound menus.

A nice place, when Trent could have swung past some drive-through. Nice—again. He used his fork to move purple circles of onion to his bread plate.

“Why not send it back? You ordered it without onions. I heard you.”

“Probably a new sous-chef. You want them?”

“No, thank you.” She’d chosen her salad for its lack of onions.

“How is it?” He gestured with his fork.

“Interesting. Crunchy, not as sweet as I was afraid it would be.”

Hannah could see him making a list: Does not share onions, thinks paintball qualifies as a date, doesn’t get out much.

“Ask me a question, Hannah Stark.”

Was that trail ride a serious date? “About?”

“About the depositions, about my last date, about my salad. I’ll answer honestly, but not too honestly.”

Are you married? He could be—he was nice enough.“Why did you go stag at this morning’s depositions? You said you were almost done, and Mrs. Loomis might have resented being excused.”

He arranged his discarded onions in the shape of the interlocking Olympic circles, something Grace might do. “Did you resent being asked to leave?”

“By the third cup of tea and umpteenth picture of the prodigy, yes. I signed up to practice law, not provide hospice care to dying marriages.”

“You’re articulate, Hannah Stark, and you have my thanks for taking your cues graciously this morning. Had you said you wanted to stay, Mrs. Loomis could have found her own way back to her car.”

“But you wanted boys only.”

“I did. Most people gravitate toward lawyers with whom they get along. Sometimes, the cream puff will hire a shark, but for the most part, when that happens, the client is a wolf in cream-puff clothing, and that costume comes off in litigation. A wolf doesn’t hire a cream puff, though, or if he does, he quickly fires him or her, gets his entire retainer back no matter how hard the attorney has worked, and moves on to more aggressive counsel.”

Trent’s observations jived with Hannah’s experience, though she’d never connected the dots.

“You’re not a cream puff or a wolf.” Though he seemed capable of impersonating either. “Your theory suggests if Elvin Gregory is an old-fashioned chauvinist, then his client has the same tendencies?”

“Got it in one.” He set his empty salad plate aside. “As it turns out, I was right. When the missus left, mister began to unload on me. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’ and so forth.”

As missus had unloaded on Hannah. “Is that ethical? To encourage confidences that way?”

“His lawyer was sitting right beside him the whole time, and the very best material came at the end of the morning.”

“Best material?” Whatever it was, the best material would signal misery for someone. Such were the pleasures of family law.

“I asked how Mrs. Loomis was as a disciplinarian, and Dad waxed eloquent about sparing the belt and spoiling the child. Said all he had to do was ask Dubbie to hand Dad his belt, and Dubbie would straighten right up.”

In her heart, Hannah hadn’t ducked fast enough. This was why she loathed family law—her emotional reflexes were just too damn slow, the synapses exhausted from too many years in foster care.

“Trent, that boy is six years old.”

“He would have been five when he last lived with his father.”

“You’re pleased with this?”

“I’m pleased Dad will learn some parenting skills in a hurry if he doesn’t want to be visiting his kid in the blue room at the Department of Social Services.”

Hannah knew the blue rooms, with their tired toys, sagging vinyl sofas, easily disinfected surfaces, and—most common characteristic of all—their one-way mirrors. Anybody’s kid could end up there with a single phone call, though most people lived in blissful ignorance of this aspect of the state’s power.

She gave up on her salad despite the many benefits of fiber and phytonutrients.

“What did the doc say about Sandra’s condition?” Trent asked.

This was a more cheerful topic? “He said privacy laws required that he not even confirm he was treating her, but patients with this diagnosis often have family on alert, blah, blah. He’ll call her sister, which is her agreed upon safety net when she’s symptomatic. She has a tendency to skip meds to save money, though I didn’t hear the doctor say that.”

Trent’s eyebrows came down. The kid getting smacked with a belt hadn’t provoked a scowl like that.

“What?”

“I’ll talk to her about a payment plan, that’s what.”

Hannah had ordered a steak in a misguided attempt to do battle with creeping, tight-budget anemia, but the cut that arrived was both the shape and nearly the size of Madagascar.

“You can get a doggy bag. Unless you want some help with that?”

Trent was offering to eat food off Hannah’s plate. A perfectly functional and even clean fridge waited back at the office, so Hannah could save every leftover morsel if she chose to. She passed him her plate and watched as he moved his knife over a very generous cut of sirloin.

“There.” She stopped him when he’d sectioned the steak into unequal halves. Geeves would thank her.

“You’re about to tell me I’ve ruined your appetite with my legal strategizing,” Trent said, as he transferred about a third of the meat onto his plate. “Would you like some of my ravioli?”

Pasta was comfort food, and seeing it on his plate delicately drizzled with a fragrant marinara made Hannah’s mouth water. “Just a little.”

Hannah wasn’t having lunch with her boss. She was sharing lunch with him. To take her mind off that novelty, she fished mentally for a question.

Did you freeze your butt off under the full moon? “What else did you find out from the depositions?”

Trent paused with a bite of steak halfway to his mouth, tines down, Continental fashion. “I learned it was emphatically Mr. Loomis’s idea that they have a child, and Missus made no effort to hide her mental health history, or the effect going untreated for months might have.”

“You didn’t believe her when she told you that?”

“I am ethically obligated to believe my client. I’d be a damned fool not to verify her version of events when I’m procedurally able to do so. Were there any questions you wanted to ask?”

Hannah paused in the consumption of a very good cut of steak.

“After Mister had trashed the daylights out of her ability to discipline the child, I would have asked him if he respected anything about her as a parent or a spouse.”

“Good strategy. Would you like some more ravioli?”

To go with her compromised life plan? “Two bites.”

He forked them across the table onto her plate.

“I purposely did not ask about the Loomis’s intimate relations,” he said, and Hannah about choked on her pasta.

“Why on earth would you ask such a thing?”

He sprinkled more cheese over his pasta, something else Grace would do. “To rattle him, to see if the parental carping and carrying on is a proxy for sexual frustration, or worse.”

Five months and twenty-nine days to go in family law, no matter how much Hannah liked her lunch companion. “What’s worse?”

“He can’t satisfy her, that’s worse for a guy—or it damned well should be—and yet things go wrong for most couples in the bedroom long before anybody sees a lawyer.”

Trenton Knightley was undeniably a guy. “I don’t want to hear this.”

He munched on his steak. “Nobody wants to hear it. If we were told in law school what domestic practice is really like, nobody would do family law. This isn’t even a case involving overt claims of adultery.”

“May we change the subject?”

“You’re blushing, Stark.”

“That doesn’t qualify as changing the subject.”

He regarded her over a very good meal, and Hannah wanted to slide under the table, though Geeves would never forgive her for abandoning her steak.

“Your blush is endearing, Stark. Because you blush, I will order dessert for you, and we will share it.”

He hadn’t made that a question either, but Hannah didn’t chide him for it. Dessert was a change of subject. She’d take what she could get.

 

 

Chapter Three

Instead of herb tea, Trent ordered a hot chocolate for Hannah—unspiked—and a chocolate mousse “for the table.” The hot chocolate came first, a frothy, creamy concoction with cinnamon sticks for garnish and multicolored sugar swirled over a fat dollop of whipped cream.

“My goodness.”

For Hannah that was probably tantamount to swearing with glee.

Very serious, Miss Hannah Stark. Serious and careful, but capable of blushing when teased—an interesting combination.

When the mousse came, Trent slid it across the table to Hannah, sensing she’d want first crack. If this were a date, he’d sit beside her, they’d eat off each other’s plates, and they’d attack the mousse at the same time.

This was not a date.

Something was wrong with the male population of the University of Maryland if they thought paintball and farm-team baseball were adequate dates for Hannah Stark. If Trent had been in her poli sci 101 class, he’d have taken her to the symphony when the program included Brahms or Rachmaninoff.

Lush, passionate music for prim Hannah Stark.

“Works better if you eat it,” he said.

She peered at her hot chocolate, though it sported a perfectly obvious long-handled gold spoon in addition to the cinnamon sticks.

“I hate to disturb a work of art.”

“The colored sugar is a nice touch.” He appropriated a cinnamon stick, licking off the whipped cream. Merle would have scolded him for that.

“Larceny at high noon,” she said with a ghost of a smile. She took the other cinnamon stick and licked the whipped cream off as Trent had, but more delicately.

Did James order hot chocolate for his dates? He damned well should.

“Delicious,” Hannah murmured. “Real whipped cream, and not too sweet.”

“We believe in our dairy out here in the country. You going to try to the mousse?”

“I ought to try it.” Her expression was almost comical, so covetous was her regard for her hot chocolate.

“I will not steal your drink, Hannah. I’m having coffee.” He lifted his cup to remind her, and she pulled the mousse closer.

“This looks very good.”

She looked good. The hot food had put a touch of color in her cheeks, and as the meal had progressed, she’d relaxed. Trent had the completely inappropriate thought that Hannah Stark with a couple of glasses of wine under her belt would be adorable.

And in bed—

He took another sip of strong black coffee.

“There,” she said, putting down her spoon a few moments later. “That’s all I can eat.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire.” He appropriated the mousse and set about doing justice to it. “What do you have planned for the afternoon?”

Stupid question. Trent wanted to kick himself. Back to business, and he was just getting a peek beneath the professional veneer at the real Hannah.

“I want to dig into the child support files. Gerald said the docket moves quickly, and if you don’t know the cases well, they can all run together.”

“A hazard of the profession. Whatever you do, don’t let Gerald intimidate you. Six months ago, he was right where you are. He’d never set foot in a courtroom, never interviewed a client, never negotiated an outcome with opposing counsel. Don’t rush that hot chocolate. We’re not in a hurry.”

He’d lied, of course. Phone messages were probably piling up hip deep on his desk.

“You might not be. You could do child support cases in your sleep.”

“You’ll be able to too, sooner than you think.”

She pushed the hot chocolate away, the drink only half-finished. Why had he turned the discussion back to work?

“Hey there, Trent Knightley!” A pretty brunette hailed him from several feet away.

“Darla, always a pleasure.” He got to his feet and kissed her cheek, accepting the hand she held out to him. “How is my favorite five-year-old?”

“Tommy is loving kindergarten, thank God. He asks about you from time to time.”

“Bring him by the office, and we’ll make paper airplanes again.”

“How ’bout not,” she said, smiling a mom’s smile, the sight of which did a divorce attorney’s heart good. Darla had gone for months without a smile, once upon a time.

“Hannah, let me introduce you to Darla Carstairs. Darla, Hannah is a new associate in the family law department.”

“Hannah.” Darla stuck out a hand, which Hannah shook. “Don’t let Trent work you too hard, and don’t let Trent work too hard.” She gave him a pointed look and, with a kiss to his cheek, went on her way.

“Stark, why are you looking at me like that?”

“Do you kiss everybody?”

She seemed genuinely puzzled, and some devil urged him to befuddle her just a little bit more. He leaned over, close enough to get a hint of lily of the valley and shampoo, and whispered in her ear.

“No, I do not kiss everybody.”

Though, if she’d shown the least hint of receptivity, he might very well have kissed her.

“I’m not sure why we’re having this conversation. Hannah’s your employee.” James tapped a golf ball into a practice cup. The door to his office was closed or he’d never have indulged, though in Trent’s experience, when the putter came out, James was working through some maze of subrogation or indemnity language.

“We’re having this conversation because I very nearly kissed an employee. You’re pulling to the left.”

James nodded, ever serious about his play. “Because I’m the office Lothario, you’re coming to me for what? Pointers? Absolution? Both?”

“How about moral support?”

He missed again, by a whisker. “Is this serious?”

“I don’t know.” Trent sat back in James’s ergonomically ingenious chair and propped his feet on the corner of the desk. “It’s something.”

“You’ve known the woman two days, and you’re hitting on her? Mac won’t approve.”

“Mac doesn’t approve of anything except thin mints in moderation and regularly annihilating the state’s attorney’s case.”

“He’s getting worse.” James moved back a couple of feet and squinted down the handle of his putter. “Needs to get his wick trimmed.”

“Your answer to everything.”

“When has a good old-fashioned bout of sweaty sex ever hurt a guy’s outlook on life?”

“It ain’t world peace, James.”

“A little not-quite kiss on the cheek in public is hardly World War III. Did she slap you?”

“She’s the quiet type.”

“Did she quietly ask you to desist? Threaten legal action?” He wiggled swooping golden brows.

“She did not.” Not yet.

“What did she do?”

This was what Trent had sought from his brother, analysis and reflection rather than interrogation. “She blushed.”

James straightened, expression puzzled. “A grown women admitted to the bar in the great State of Maryland, practitioner of family law, wearer of sensible shoes—all you did was not kiss her on the cheek and she blushed? Blushed?”

“Very becomingly, and gave me a Mona Lisa smile.”

“Are we going to be uncles again?”

“I’ve known her two days, James.”

“My record is about twenty minutes. Names are optional when the sap rises.”

“A brain is optional with you. A pulse and an orifice will do.”

James took a few practices swings, smooth, controlled, even graceful. “I’m loyal to my team too, you mustn’t forget that.”

“Mac swears you went through an awkward phase in college.”

“Mac means I tried monogamous dating and about blew a gasket.”

“I worry about you, James.”

“Well, I don’t worry about you. It’s time you shuffled off your monk’s robes and rejoined the living. There’s more to life than handing hankies to jilted housewives and cheating dentists—and raising my niece.”

“Yeah,” Trent said, opening a drawer and finding every single paper clip and pen neatly arranged. “Like being so bored with your job you’re working on your short game—your real short game—at three in the afternoon in the dead of winter.”

“It’s not the dead of winter.”

Not yet, but outside, flurries were thickening into a squall. Trent rose, took the putter from his brother, and tapped the ball down the length of the carpet into the waiting cup.

Some people should wear signs—scarlet letters—saying, “Likes to touch and be touched.”        Hannah would have worn a sign, “Do not touch.” She made exceptions of course—she was affectionate with her daughter, and could be with Eliza and Eliza’s boys too. The cats strutted under her radar, and Ginger the dog had a few privileges.

But now Hannah worked for a hands-on man. Driving back to the office to the soft strains of Vivaldi, Trent had remained quiet. The deposition had been both interesting and tedious.

Lunch had been interesting and not tedious. Also delicious. Maybe even—the word hardly felt like part of Hannah’s vocabulary—fun.

They’d been stopped on the way to the restaurant’s door by two of the wait staff, both of whom were on hugging, cheek-kissing terms with Trent. At the table, he’d acted as if his hand brushing Hannah’s passing the plates was of no moment, and when Hannah had reached for her winter coat, he’d taken it from her, held it, and then given her shoulders a pat. He held the car door for her and took her elbow when she stepped up on the curb.

Sadly judgmental of her, but she did not associate consideration like that with such a good-looking, successful man.

With any man of her acquaintance.

She shouldn’t find his old-fashioned manners appealing, shouldn’t have found that whisper in her ear charming, but she did, which made no sense whatsoever. Lunch distracted her for the balance of the afternoon and made drafting the memo to the Loomis file more time-consuming than it should have been.

No time to lose. Her homeward itinerary called for a stop at the bank before picking Grace up from Eliza’s by six. Hannah had just laced up her running shoes when a handsome blond head presented itself around her partially closed office door.

What was his name? Matthew? Micah? Something biblical.

“You weren’t leaving already, were you, Hannah? We should spend some time going over the child support case files. If you’re not doing anything this evening, we could grab a bite, maybe take a few of the files with us. I know some decent places to eat around here.”

And then go to your place and work on the finer points of litigation strategy?

She didn’t need to recall his name—Gerald Matthews, that was it—to know this guy and a hundred others like him. She’d met them in pre-law; they’d gotten worse in law school. Once in practice, they were an occupational hazard at the larger firms. They made all the really decent guy lawyers stand out in higher relief.

“How about if I look the files over first, Gerald, and only bother you with questions about the ones I don’t understand? I get in early and can make a good start on them tomorrow.”

He sidled into her office, smiling at her suggestion with more teeth than graciousness.

“You’re supposed to observe court on Friday. You’ll have questions after court, so dinner together would be a good idea.”

“I have plans, but lunch on Friday might be an option.” Particularly if she was stuck at the courthouse between morning and afternoon dockets.

“Fine, then, lunch on Friday.” He settled into one of her guest chairs and crossed an ankle over his knee.

“I’ll look forward to having the intricacies of the case law explained to me,” she said, shrugging into her coat. As she passed him, Matthews remained sitting right where he was.

“In child support law, we refer to the ins and outs, not the intricacies, if you get my drift, Hannah.”

“Inappropriate humor in a professional environment, Gerald.” She kept her tone light, while Matthews’s smile turned bratty. “Good night, and I’ll be done with the files by midmorning.”

Trent Knightley could take her arm, hold her coat, and whisper in her ear, and she liked it a lot more than she should.

Gerald Matthews smiled at her, and she felt dirty.

“You want half my PBJ?” Merle made the offer hesitantly. Sharing food was against the rules, but the lunch aide was yelling at Larry Smithson for spilling his milk again.

“I have a PBJ too!” Grace said, holding up half a sandwich with a bite taken out of the soft middle. They shared a smile, delighting in yet another aspect of life they had in common. The differences were cool too, though.

“Mine’s cut longways, yours is on the diagonal,” Merle said, holding her half sandwich up next to Grace’s. “They’re both on whole wheat, though.”

“Bronco likes whole wheat better than the other stuff,” Grace said, which made sense. Horses loved grain. Wheat was a grain, and unicorns were related to horses. “Do you ever have cream cheese and raspberry jam?”

Blech. Merle was too new to having a friend to be that honest. “Sounds grown-up. What about fluffernut and peanut butter?”

Grace took another bite. She ate from the middle out, leaving the crust last. Merle ate the crust first, like doing chores before having fun.

“What’s fluggernut?”

Merle laughed with her mouth full—and did not choke, neener-neener—and then Grace was laughing, and at the next table over, Estella Popper tried to give them the dork-repellant look, but she ended up smiling too, until Henry Moser tried to steal something from her tray.

“Fluf-fer-nut, like fluffy clouds,” Merle clarified, taking a sip of her milk. “It’s like marshmallows but spreadable, or almost spreadable. Have you ever toasted marshmallows?”

“The first time my mom lit the fire in the woodstove,” Grace said, getting a smear of jam on her cheek. “She had a hard time getting the fire to catch, then we figured out about the things you turn at the front of the stove that let in air. We made s’mores, but I cheated and had two marshmallows without the s’more.”

“S’mores are the best. My uncle James makes really good s’mores. Dad says they’re messy.”

“Most of the good stuff is. Does your dad make brownies?”

Eventually, all of their conversations got around to the fascinating business of comparing a mom with a dad. Merle had a mom. Uncle Mac had shown her on the globe where Australia was, because Merle hadn’t wanted to ask Dad. Grace probably had a dad too.

“I don’t think Dad knows how to make brownies,” Merle said, “but we sometimes get a brownie from The Sweetest Things and split it.” Nothing like a warm brownie and a cold glass of milk.

“So what if your dad doesn’t make brownies? You have horses,” Grace said, because Grace was the nicest person Merle had met, nicer even than the uncles. Horses made up for a lot, and Grace didn’t have any.

“I’ll ask Dad if you can come over to play. Pasha’s all white because he’s so old.” Merle lowered her voice. “We could paint spots on his butt so he’d look more like Bronco.”

Oh, the utter glee of giggling at lunch, of galloping around the playground, of saying “butt” out loud and having somebody to enjoy it with.

“You almost done?” Grace asked, folding her napkin up in a perfect square. Merle did likewise, though she’d never be as naturally tidy as Grace.

“Pasture time,” Merle said, closing her lunch box. “I’ll ask Dad to pack me some carrot sticks tomorrow so we can share them with the unicorns at recess.”

Grace passed over a carrot stick. “Mom says carrots are good for your eyes. Looks like Larry’s staying in again.”

Larry stayed in a lot, which was a heck of a way to avoid the fifth graders who loved to pick on the dumb kid. Larry had suffered the worst fate possible in elementary school: he’d been held back. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was already big to begin with.

“Larry needs a unicorn,” Merle said. They trooped out to the hallway, retrieved coats and hats and scarves from their assigned hooks, and went galloping out across the chilly playground.

Merle followed Grace, skipping because that was the closest they could come to a canter. Unicorns were wonderful, a friend was even wonderful-er, but Merle knew Grace thought about the same thing Merle did: How wonderful would it be to have both a dad and a mom?

“Hey, Mommy, I have a new friend at school. You said I would too, make some friends in second grade I didn’t have in first or kindergarten. Those kindergarteners looks so shrimpy. I like to watch them on the playground. Was I ever that small?”

Thank God my child has come safely—and even happily—through another day.

Grace rummaged in the taco meal bag as she chattered away beside Hannah. Two fast food raids in the space of a week used up the entire month’s quota, but Hannah had become absorbed in the child support cases and lost track of time.

“You may have one,” Hannah said as they tooled toward home.

“Thanks, Mom.” Grace set about comparing every nacho in the bag to ensure the one she ate was the largest.

“Who’s your new friend?”

“She’s real, not a unicorn. Unicorns are real, but this friend is a person. She has a unicorn too, and she knew what I meant when I told her Bronco was a uniloosa, not an apicorn—she knew what an Appaloosa horse was, and said she wished she’d thought of having a spotted unicorn with wings. Should I tell you her real name, or her Unicorn Club name?”

A friend, indeed. “Either or both, if the Club rules allow it.”

“You’re allowed to know the Club names, Mom, as long as you don’t tell anybody. My friend’s name is Falcon, her unicorn is Trailclimber.”

A rabbit dodged out of the headlights and into the undergrowth along the lane. “How does Bronco get along with Trailclimber?”

“We let them meet by touching noses over the fence in the Cloud Pasture. They like each another fine, and me and Falcon do too.”

“Each other, honey. They like each other fine—and it’s Falcon and I. First grade was a little lonely, wasn’t it?”

Hannah held her breath for the reply. Grace did not express feelings often in response to a prompt. They came out, if at all, in casual asides, behaviors, or projections onto the ever-faithful Bronco.

“Mom, don’t be silly. I’m never lonely when Bronco is with me.” Grace held up two nachos side by side that appeared to be the exact same dimensions. “Can I have both?”

“May I. Not until we get home.” Hannah’s mind was not on nachos.

Was Grace a loner because her mother was so lacking in social skills? Was Grace a normally social if shy kid with a great imagination? Something in between?

Hannah’s upbringing was the last yardstick she could use to get her bearings as Grace’s mother. Children in foster care were either loners, hell-raisers, or pleasers. They clung to approval or shunned it, depending on the circumstances and individual chemistry. Hannah was essentially a loner, though she gave herself points for being a fairly functional one.

But loneliness wasn’t what she wanted for Grace. Safety, yes. Above all, Grace had to be kept safe from the people and events in Hannah’s past that might cause harm to Grace, but did that mean Grace wasn’t to have joy as well?

When Hannah pulled into her driveway, Grace exploded from the car with a happy yelp.

“C’mon, Bronco! I’ll let you have two nachos if you wash your hooves before I ask you to.” She held the door for her imaginary friend, then let it slam shut.

Hannah, moving more slowly, gathered her plunder—Trent Knightley’s word—and followed her daughter into the house.

“We live in a door-slam house,” Hannah softly quoted her daughter. The house was very old, and the doors didn’t latch unless they were closed quite soundly.

Thanks to whatever deity oversaw weeknights in the households of single parents, the take-home folder in Grace’s backpack was empty. The early, easy night might have contributed to Grace’s gracious mood the next morning, or perhaps she looked forward to finding her new friend at the beginning of the school day.

As Hannah pulled into the office parking lot, she was pleased to see she’d beaten the estimable Mr. Trenton Knightley to work and felt some relief—not disappointment—to have avoided him first thing in the day. When she’d brewed herself a cup of Earl Grey and heated a cheese danish in the office microwave, she sat down with the child support files.

The tea was lovely, the danish was scrumptious, the child-support files were miserable.

Hartman and Whitney represented both moms and dads, because either could be the noncustodial parent. The State of Maryland took on responsibility for the case, as if it were a criminal matter. The custodial parents might be witnesses for the State, but they weren’t parties, and neither were the children on whose behalf the money was collected.

“Great system,” Hannah muttered around a mouthful of danish. “Criminalize one parent, marginalize the other, and ignore the children.”

She put her distaste for the whole business aside and plowed through the files, soon forgetting her tea and danish. One case in particular had already caught her attention: Rory Cavanaugh could document that he’d had a vasectomy prior to the child’s conception, and had further proof that the procedure hadn’t reversed itself since. He’d begun paying child support eight years ago, after he and the mom had split, because he’d felt sorry for the lady and for the baby. The State sought an increase after a routine review of the case by the Support Enforcement office, with the mom’s hearty endorsement.

A note in the file indicated Cavanaugh had rescheduled his appointment because he couldn’t miss chemotherapy again.

Ah, geez.

Trent Knightley stood in Hannah’s office doorway for a good five minutes, watching her nibble her lip, mutter, and jot down notes. She was lost to the world, utterly absorbed in her files, and that pleased him. Detachment had a place in the practice of law; so did passion.

“Good morning?” He rapped his knuckles on her door, but in deference to his daughter’s patient tutelage, made his greeting a question. “You look fierce, Hannah Stark. What has you going nineteen to the dozen so early in the day?”

She sat back and blinked at him.

Earth to Stark.

“Why does the State of Maryland value money over truth?”

“Give me the facts of the case.” Where any legal brief was supposed to start. While Hannah marshaled those facts, Trent noted that her tea was no longer steaming, and five stems of lavender gladiolus enjoyed pride of place on her credenza.

Because he’d collected her effects from the pavement yesterday morning, he knew she used lavender lip balm. Would her kisses taste like lavender?

“Rory Cavanaugh has medical proof he cannot be the child’s father,” she recited, “but because he felt sorry for the mom, he started paying when the kid was born. He’s been paying for eight years, but now that he’s out of remission the State is seeking an increase.”

“This does not sit well with you?” Trent settled into a chair and prepared to have a lawyer’s version of fun.

“Since when did paternity mean the obligation to pay for children you’re not related to? You’re a guy, doesn’t that bother you?”

“Since when did being a kid mean you had no need for food, clothing, and shelter?”

She slammed the file shut, the way a pissed-off judge might whack a gavel to bring the courtroom to order.

“The State can and does provide necessities for children in need, regularly,” she said. “In this case, the State has abdicated its responsibility to the child in favor of having old Rory foot the bills.”

“So all this righteous indignation is for your new best friend Rory?” Trent kept his tone goading, because this was the first sign of a legal vocation he’d seen in Hannah Stark.

“Don’t be an ass.” She rose and put her hands on her hips. “My indignation is for the child. What good does tapping Rory out financially do the child when she needs to know her medical history, and half her family tree is a lie or unavailable to her because of the State’s moral complaisance? What good will Rory’s money be when she needs a bone marrow or kidney transplant and half her probable donors are a mystery, because the State never had a long talk with Mom about who the real dad is?”

She was pacing now, tearing into a fine Court of Appeals closing argument.

“And what does it signal to the child that half of her identity, half of who she is, doesn’t matter to the society she’s raised in? How would you like to be told the identity of your father means nothing, and shouldn’t mean anything to you? How do you think every kid feels whose fate was sealed by a private adoption? She waits eighteen years to look on the adoption registries—now that we finally have adoption registries—and of all the children in all the families in all the world, she’s the one without a dad.”

“But illegitimacy is stigmatizing…” Trent began, only to be cut off with a slice of Hannah’s hand—no nail polish, and she didn’t bite her nails either.

“Mom wasn’t married to Rory. Even if the State were clinging to the old-fashioned doctrine that it can protect a fiction of legitimacy at the cost of truth, that fig leaf wouldn’t fit here.”

“So what will you do, counselor? Your client has been wronged, the law needs to be changed or enforced differently, and you feel strongly about the outcome. And yet, you also know that the child’s father could be a mother’s worst nightmare—a criminal, a child abuser, a disgrace to his gender, a threat to the child. Will you decide the girl needs to make his acquaintance in the name of your almighty truth?”

At Trent’s rhetorical question, Hannah collapsed into the other guest chair like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Something skipped across her features. Chagrin, maybe, or bewilderment.

This argument was personal to her, or to somebody close to her. Family law was like that. Hypotheticals had a way of ending up sitting next to your daughter in art class or dating your brother.

“Every case is different,” Hannah said wearily, “though your point about a father who’s a danger to the child is valid. I’ll discuss the matter—I would discuss the matter—thoroughly with my client, if he were my client, and then craft a litigation strategy consistent with his goal.”

“You’ll hate it if he tells you to accept what the State offers.”

She turned big brown eyes on him, troubled eyes. “I will hate it to smithereens. If he loves that kid, he ought to try to establish the truth for her, provided the real dad’s not a horror.”

Trent agreed, and nearly told her so.

“That truth could come at the cost of the kid’s material needs, if it creates bad feeling between Rory and Mom. Insisting on the truth could mean Rory never gets to see the kid again, when she could be enjoying Rory’s last years and building happy memories of him.”

Hannah peered into her cup of cold tea. The mug was plain, white, sturdy, and out of place somehow in her office.

“This isn’t a game to me, Trent. I can’t enjoy it as a game.”

Trent. He liked that part. “You’re not supposed to.” And because she looked so dejected and bewildered, he patted her shoulder. The last of the fight went out of her posture at the contact, and she didn’t draw away.

“You get the brass ring, Hannah. You advocate zealously for your client within the bounds of the law. Repeat that mantra, and you’ll keep your balance.”

“I’ll keep my balance,” she said, gaze going to the stack of pink-and-blue child support files, “but I might lose my mind.” She ran a hand over her hair, patting the tidy bun at the back, where literally, not a hair was out of place. “I left you a draft of the Loomis memo to the file.”

As changes of subject went, it wasn’t smooth, but Trent understood the need for breathing room.

“You write well, Stark, as well as most lawyers wish they could.”

“But?”

“But nothing. That was a compliment. Com-pli-ment. C-o-m-p—”

“I understand the term. Thank you.”

Her thank-yous bore an interesting hint of that No Trespassing quality. “Have you considered a career as a writer?”

Her eyebrows went up, and Trent was pleased to think he’d distracted her from her frustration with Rory Cavanaugh’s situation, the State of Maryland, and the law.

And possibly, her frustration with her boss.

“Not seriously, though writing has always been easy for me and even enjoyable—any writing. Too bad there’s the small matter of needing to eat regularly.”

“Hmm.” He resisted the urge to lawyer her, or tried to.

“What, hmm?” She tidied the stack of files. “Just say it.”

“You and the State of Maryland would both seem to a place a certain emphasis on the importance of meeting basic needs, on the bottom line, so to speak, even at the cost of higher values.”

Her jaw dropped then snapped shut. She pointed at the door.

“Out,” she said, getting to her feet. “You, out of this office right now, before I do something a lady would regret but a lawyer would find tremendously gratifying.”

He got to his feet s-l-o-w-l-y, put his hands in his pockets, and sauntered out.

End of Excerpt

A Single Kiss is available in the following formats:

Sourcebooks

January 6, 2015

Connected Books

A Single Kiss is Book 1 in the Sweetest Kisses series. The full series reading order is as follows:

Book 1: A Single Kiss Book 2: The First Kiss Book 3: Kiss Me Hello Novella: A Kiss for Luck