THE SOUND of his phone as it rattled to life… somewhere… jolted Clayton awake. He rolled over, silk sheets cold as they tangled around his legs, and stretched the full length of himself in his bed. A glance at the clock showed the minute hand just shy of five o’clock.
“Hell,” he muttered. No one ever called about anything good at five in the morning.
He kicked the sheets off his legs and scrambled out of bed. His phone was still in his jeans where he’d dropped them the night before. It buzzed resentfully as he fished it out and thumbed Accept on the call.
“Yeah?” he said.
When he turned back to the bed, he saw last night starfished over the mattress in the sleep of the… well, not innocent, but responsibility-free. Last night snored gently into the pillow. Clayton grimaced and padded quietly to the bedroom door as Maureen’s rasp sighed in his ear.
“It’s too early,” she acknowledged. It wasn’t easy to tell if she meant that as an apology or a judgment.
“I’m up,” Clayton said. He tucked the phone under his ear as he headed into the kitchen. “If this is about Jane’s case, I told her going in that we’d have to commit for the long haul. On paper—”
“Not Jane,” Maureen said. He heard the suck and exhale as she drew on a cigarette. “New case.”
Clayton pulled the fridge open. The backdraft of cold that flowed out of the white box made his balls squeeze up tight to his body and chased the last dregs of sleep out of his head. He shivered and grabbed the carafe of cold-brew coffee so he could bump the door shut again.
“I already told you I can’t take on any more pro bono cases,” he said. “I’m sorry, but they don’t pay—literally.”
She snorted harshly. “I’ve seen your car, Clayton. It’s not like you’re hurting.”
“No, I’m not.” Clayton poured out a mug of coffee and took a swig. It was strong enough to make him grimace. He carried it over to the long glass windows that dominated one wall of the apartment and looked down at the traffic that flowed like water in the street below. “I don’t intend to start either. No more cases.”
Clayton frowned. His reflection mugged the expression back at him, all sharp bones and carved hollows. “I’m not haggling.”
“She’s got a busted arm, a five-year-old, and no place to go,” Maureen rhymed off. For a woman with a forty-a-day habit and an asthma inhaler, she could talk quickly enough when she wanted to. “If we don’t give her something she can use, I don’t know what she’s going to do. So one more case.”
Just say no. You have billable hours to make. With the topic at hand, Clayton wasn’t sure if he should call the voice on his shoulder an angel or a demon. It definitely had the pointed tones of the firm’s senior partner and Clayton’s mentor, Daniel Baker.
“She asked for you,” Maureen said, as though she could hear his internal debate.
“By name,” Maureen said. “Clayton, she thinks you can help her.”
“One meeting,” Clayton conceded. He always made billable hours. Real estate ebbed and flowed, crime stats rose and fell, but love always died. “I’ll give her advice, get her a plan, and you get her a lawyer who has time for her case.”
Maureen made a noise that could, optimistically, pass for agreement and hung up before he could hedge any more. It was hard to hold it against her. After nearly twenty years at the head of a battered women’s shelter, she made the most of what she got.
The day’s schedule ran through Clayton’s head as he drained the cold coffee and headed back into the bedroom. His afternoon meetings were set in stone, but the morning was more modular. Skip lunch, push back a meeting with a junior associate, relocate his coffee with Baker to the office instead of the ridiculously pretentious tearoom that Baker liked, and his day should fall back into place without a wrinkle.
If he skipped the gym that night, he might even be able to have a life.
The self-pity dropped into his mind just as he opened the bedroom door and got an eyeful of last night’s bare ass and long legs. He snorted at himself as his cock decided it had warmed up enough to twitch with interest.
No time for that.
“I’ve been called in to work.” He gave last night’s ass a slap on the way past the bed to make the man groan and stretch and scratch. “So you need to shift.”
Last night—God, he had to have had a name, but Clayton realized it was gone from his head—rolled over and rubbed his hands over his pillow-creased face. “What time is it?”
“There’s coffee in the kitchen.” Clayton hooked a mesh shirt from the back of a chair and tossed it at the bed. Last night batted it clumsily out of the air and tangled it around his fingers. “Sorry. Duty calls.”
He left the guy to get dressed while he went into the bathroom and let the shower’s heavy jets pummel the night before out of him. Glitter, sweat, and the stickiness of come washed down the drain, and the hot water sucked the tiredness out of his muscles and shoulders.
By the time he got out of the shower and got dressed, the rangy young man who’d been a shot of seduction in tight leather pants had turned into a chatty art student from Wisconsin in gym clothes. He’d helped himself to coffee and toast.
“I had a good time last night,” he said through a mouthful of bread and marmalade. He grinned cockily and pointed at a bit of paper on the table. A string of numbers was scrawled across the back of a Chinese menu. “I figured if you wanted to do it again some time, you could call me?”
“I might just do that.”
He wouldn’t. He never did. It wouldn’t be a one-night stand if they met again. But that seemed a bit harsh to point out before the sun was up. So he stuck the menu on the fridge instead. “I’ve got to deal with work first, though.”
There was something about the way last night looked at him that suggested he had a good idea of what Clayton wasn’t saying. But he didn’t push it. It wasn’t as though Clayton had made any promises he hadn’t kept.
Instead he just brushed a goodbye kiss over Clayton’s mouth and let himself out. Clayton licked the taste of orange and second thoughts off his lips as he listened for the click of the front door. Then he checked his watch and made a face at the time. If he wanted to pull this off, he needed to get going.
NADINE GRAHAM was a short, not-quite-young woman who came with lots of boobs, blonde hair, and blue denim. Her clothes were expensive, with painted-on jeans and cut-down-to-there T-shirts, and her jewelry was all clunky pretty plastic and cheap metal—except her wedding ring, a white-gold band with diamonds that didn’t need a fancy cut to make them look bigger or a magnifying glass to see. Something to make it clear she was taken.
There was a tight look around her eyes that hinted Clayton wasn’t the only one who had second thoughts about his morning’s choices.
Sure enough she gave him a quick, uncomfortable smile as he folded his long body into a chair meant for someone smaller and set his briefcase down next to him.
“I… I think I made a mistake,” Nadine said. Her eyes flickered around the room, at the chipped walls and “This is Consent” posters. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“No one should be here,” Clayton said. He glanced at the plastered arm she held balanced awkwardly in her lap as though she weren’t quite used to the bulk of it. The cast had a bit of wear to it, so it wasn’t new, but no one had written on it yet. Clayton filed that away. Most people had at least a few friends with Sharpies who’d insist on scrawling something—a heart, a “Get Well Soon,” or, if you were a guy, a cock and balls. “Sometimes it’s just the safest place they have.”
Nadine folded her arms as though she could hide the cast and picked at it absently with her candy-pink nails. “I’m not… I’m sure it is,” she said. “It’s just not… you wouldn’t understand.”
Clayton shifted back in the too-small, understuffed chair. It still felt odd to consult with a client while wearing jeans and his old college sweater, but a suit and tie just made people at the shelter uncomfortable.
“I’m not the police, and I’m not Child Services,” he said. “I’m just a lawyer. If you don’t want to do something, I can’t make you do it. All I’m here to do today is give you information on your options. If you want me to.”
She gave him a sharp look out of ridiculously blue eyes. The flicker of shrewdness belonged to a woman who looked less worn down. “And then?”
“Up to you.”
She folded her lip between her teeth and finally she nodded.
Clayton ran through a quick and dirty short list for her—the top ten things to do if you’re leaving an abusive husband. He also outlined her legal recourse under the law regarding her marital status and custody arrangements. Laid out bare, no padding to cushion the blow, it sounded brutally unencouraging. But it was still better than a lie.
Nadine listened in silence until he got to the end, and then she choked out a wholly unconvincing laugh.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, one hand cupped over her mouth. “I didn’t mean to… this just isn’t me. It isn’t us. We’re not, we’re not like people like that. He’s not a monster. I’m not a victim.”
It wasn’t Clayton’s job to push her into anything. God knew, it wouldn’t work. He still had to fill the silence.
“I’m a divorce lawyer, Mrs. Graham,” he said finally. “I deal with a lot of broken marriages. Mostly they aren’t monsters or victims, just people who can’t do it anymore.”
Through her fingers, he caught the edges of a bitter smile. “How many of them are in a—Jesus Christ—women’s shelter?”
Nadine looked away from him and gnawed her lower lip until the lipstick came off and he could see the puffy bruise underneath. Her eyes kept flicking around the space as though the doors were locked and she needed a way out.
“You think I should leave him, right?” she said. “I don’t blame you. I think I should leave him. Except, what if I can’t do that? What would I do? He’s… he takes care of me and Harry. I’m useless on my own, always have been.”
She said that as though it were a fact, rhymed it off like a date learned in history.
A pointedly loud voice interrupted the conversation as, from the other side of the door, Maureen rambled on about the many good, imaginary qualities of one of her dogs. The one she had with her fought nightmares, apparently, ate them like cotton candy.
“Dogs don’t like cotton candy.” The voice was young and dubious but intrigued.
“Bacon cotton candy,” Maureen countered promptly. “Dogs love it.”
Nadine unfolded herself—Clayton hadn’t realized how much she had hunched in on herself until then—and quickly flicked the damp from her fake lashes with her fingertips. She was ready with a smile as Maureen, demon-eating dog tucked under her arm, scooted a stocky little boy into the room.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Maureen said in her raspy voice. She sounded like a big woman, the sort Clayton remembered from his childhood who all had tits like shelves and flat feet in worn flip-flops. They were unimpressed women who he’d thought were the source of the phrase “keep your feet on the ground.” And although he had never seen her impressed by anyone, she was a small, gently-worn, half-Korean force of nature. “Harry just wondered where you were.”
Nadine’s smile was genuine for the first time as she held her hand out and wriggled her bubble-gum pink fingers at her son. “Right here,” she said. “Did you miss me?”
“No,” he said with offended little-boy pride. When Nadine mock-pouted at him, he relented. “Maybe. Are you okay, Mom?”
“Of course,” Nadine said.
It wasn’t a bad lie, but Harry didn’t look like he bought it. He gave Clayton a suspicious look and put himself in front of his mom. His face was round and freckled, wholesome as a kid on an old adventure novel, but he had the jaded, tired eyes of a disappointed middle-aged man.
Clayton had seen those eyes before.
“Who are you?” Harry demanded. “Were you mean to my mom?”
“No, he was not,” Nadine blurted out, clearly embarrassed. She caught Harry’s arm and tugged him back to her side. “That was rude, Harry. Mr. Reynolds is a friend of Mrs. Park, and we’re talking. Okay?”
She waited. Harry twisted around to frown at Clayton, who sat back and tried to look as harmless as possible.
“Daddy said men and ladies can’t be friends,” Harry said.
The answer creased Nadine’s face with a slap of misery, and she had to struggle to keep her voice from cracking as she went on. “That’s enough, Harry. Your daddy says lots of silly things. Okay?”
Harry shuffled his feet on the ground and scowled. “Okay,” he finally muttered.
Nadine wiped her face again, so he saw a smile when he looked back at her. “Why don’t you go with Mrs. Park and play with the puppy. Okay?”
“He doesn’t just eat bad dreams,” Maureen coaxed. “He does tricks too.”
Harry was obviously torn as he glanced over at the magical, bad-dream-eating fluff ball that wriggled in Maureen’s arms. He squirmed in place.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked.
Nadine rolled her eyes and gave him a gentle shove toward the door.
“I’m so fine,” she said. “Go on.”
With a last glare in Clayton’s direction, Harry slouched away toward Maureen, who crouched down and leaned in to ask, “Would you like to carry him?”
Harry’s unhappily slouched back straightened as he blurted out, “Yes, please.” She suppressed a smile and passed the fluff ball to him, and the dog promptly licked his face in the hope of stickiness. Maureen nodded reassurance to Nadine and then led them out of the room.
“He… James and I had an argument, and I hurt myself,” she said. “He didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital, and when I insisted, he locked me out. Harry snuck down and let me back in after it got dark. I mean, James didn’t think I’d stay there all night, but Harry was….”
She took a deep breath and pressed, her fingertips against her eyelids as she tried to hold the tears back.
“He isn’t like this. It’s not his fault,” she said. “He’s just… he’s trying to change things—for us—and that’s… it’s a lot of stress. People put a lot of stress on him. It’s not like he hit me.”
Clayton pulled a tissue out of his pocket and leaned forward to offer it to her. “I can help if you want me to,” he said. “Now. Later. It doesn’t matter.”
She took the tissue and twisted it between her hands instead of using it.
“I can’t leave him,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself, never mind Harry. I haven’t worked in five years, and when I did, I was a waitress—a… topless waitress. That’s going to impress the judge, isn’t it?”
“It’s my job to get you what you’re due. Both of you.”
Nadine popped her jaw sharply and pugnaciously to the side and snorted. She pushed a sweep of pale hair behind her ear. “No one gets what they’re due from James,” she said. “He doesn’t like to lose. What if I leave him and I don’t get custody of Harry? James loves him. I know he does. But he’s not… patient. I can’t risk that, can I?”
Clayton wanted to tell her. It wouldn’t do any good; it had to be her decision. But he still wanted to.
“With divorce there’s always a risk that you won’t get the outcome you want, that I’d like,” he said. “Sometimes nobody’s happy at the end.”
She took a deep breath and twisted the tissue between her fingers until it tore. “Can I think about it?”
“Of course,” he said. “You have to be sure.”
Nadine nodded and got gingerly to her feet. The habit of courtesy made Clayton’s muscles twitch to offer her a hand, but like his suit, that just made people here feel uncomfortable sometimes. He waited until she was on her feet and then followed suit.
“Before you go,” he said. She paused and looked at him warily. “Maureen said you asked for me by name. I don’t think we’ve met before, so I wondered how you’d heard of me?”
“From James,” Nadine said. A quick smile twitched over her face when Clayton raised his eyebrows. “Sort of. This guy Davy, someone he worked with, was gloating at a party that he had this shit-hot divorce lawyer and all his wife had was this pro-bono schmuck Reynolds from a shelter. Her name was Mia? Mia Avagyon?”
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but not enough to pull up a face and a marital history from Clayton’s memory. That didn’t mean anything. Clayton had been a lawyer long enough that only the very rich and the very terrible cases stood out to him without the prompt of a case file. but he nodded as though he remembered Mia.
“James laughed at him, right in the middle of the party. He said that Mia wasn’t just going to get the girls, she’d get Davy’s ball sac too. That you worked for this fancy firm that kept the best private investigators in the state on retainer, and they’d find out if Davy had ever even cursed at a kid before. These days Davy can’t see his children unsupervised anymore. So last night, after I left, I called Mia and she told me to come here. I thought she’d ask questions, but she didn’t.”
It was the first time that an abusive husband had ever referred anyone to Clayton. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, but that was hardly Nadine’s fault.
“If you decide to go ahead with this, Nadine,” he said, “I will do my best for you and Harry.”
She nodded and didn’t move, as though her feet were glued to the floor.
“The thing is, I do love him,” Nadine said, her voice hopeless. She glanced around at the room again, at the walls in need of paint and the duct tape patches on the carpet hidden under carefully placed chairs and cheap rugs. Her throat worked as she swallowed. “I suppose you hear that all the time.”
Clayton thought about those dark, old-man eyes in a wary kid’s face—not Harry’s, a skinnier face and dirtier, usually, but the eyes were the same.
“Every day of my life,” he said.
“YOU’RE LATE,” Heather, his assistant, chided him as he jogged past her and into his office. Her wig was black today, a severe bob around her peaches-and-cream pretty, round face. “You have a meeting with Mr. Baker in five minutes.”
Clayton snorted and set his briefcase on top of the desk. The oxblood leather of the briefcase was almost exactly the same color as the dark walnut wood it sat on.
“It’s coffee,” he said as he pulled the sweatshirt over his head. “Spare suit?”
She tutted at him and then clicked off to fetch the dry-cleaned Richard Bennett suit he kept in the office. One cup of piss thrown at you as you left court and you learned to be prepared. Clayton toed his sneakers off and then shoved them and the sweatshirt into a drawer.
“Here.” Heather passed the suit bag backward into the office through the door without looking. “And do you know what would happen if I turned around and saw you in your boxers?”
“I would wonder when I started wearing boxers.” Clayton took the bag off her and unzipped it. “Or underwear.”
Heather snorted and closed the door behind her, and Clayton skinned his jeans off down long legs and stepped into the suit pants. The gunmetal-gray fabric and narrow leg struck the careful balance between severe and stylish, although the gray shirt probably veered more to severe.
“Heather, I need you to run a request for a background check down to the PIs.” He shrugged the shirt on and let it hang unbuttoned as he reached to pop his briefcase open. It wasn’t hard to find Nadine’s file mixed in with the Redwelds the firm used for paying clients. “As a favor.”
Heather came back into the office to pluck the file out of his hands. She eyed it unhappily. “Any chance she’s just a ‘down on her luck’ lady who needs help to find her husband and hit him with divorce papers?”
“They never are,” she sighed. “All right. I’ll get in touch with Larry and see what they can do.”
She turned to go and nearly walked face-first into Daniel Baker, as the senior partner of Talley, Baker, and Jenks let himself into the office.
“Sir,” she squeaked as she tucked the folder behind her back. “Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
Baker raised a sandy eyebrow at her. “That’s because the door was closed, Ms. Finnegan.”
With her back to him, Clayton couldn’t see her face, but on past performance, he knew her complexion had gone strawberry. Heather was unflappable 90 percent of the time—an ex-cop and weekend punk, two years part-time education away from a master’s degree—but 10 percent of the time there was Daniel.
That was pretty much how she described her sexuality too—90 percent pretty ladies and 10 percent inexplicable crushes.
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir,” she squeaked out. “Let me get out of your way.”
She edged around him, back into the main office. Daniel let her get halfway back to her desk, and then he cleared his throat. “Oh, and Ms. Finnegan?”
“Don’t think I didn’t see that.” He held his hand out and waited. When nothing immediately happened, he sighed. “Ms. Finnegan, hand it over.”
Clayton buttoned his cuffs and sighed. “That’s fine, Heather. I’ll talk to the investigators later.”
The file dropped into Daniel’s hands, and he gave it back to Clayton. “No, you won’t,” he said. “You’ve billed your full quota of pro bono hours this year. If you want to volunteer more, that’s up to you, but no using company resources. Agreed?”
It was hard to argue with the man you owed 40 percent of your career to. Clayton nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I just wanted to chase up background details.”
Daniel sat down and flicked a bit of lint off his immaculately tailored knee. He’d been the one who told Clayton to spend his first paycheck on a good suit. “If you wear a $30 suit, your client will assume that’s what you’ll get them.” Of course he eschewed severe and just went with expensively stylish, from the dachshund-print lining to the cameo cufflinks.
“Make partner when it comes up,” he said. “Then you can do what you want.”
“Maybe I don’t want to.” Clayton caught Heather’s eye—she’d just cooled back down to flustered pink—and mouthed “Tea” at her. He straightened his collar and stepped behind the desk to sit down. “I have enough of a reputation now. I could start my own firm.”
Daniel looked amused but didn’t challenge the assertion. He just laced his fingers together and, as Heather put the order in with the coffee shop downstairs, changed the subject back to business.
“Justin Harris is getting married.”
“Again. I’m already working harder than I care for, so I want you to handle his prenuptial agreement. It’s straightforward. Same as the others.”
At the end of the meeting, one-third of Clayton’s month was blocked off, he’d agreed to a dinner party with Daniel and his latest protégé, and he’d dodged an attempt to set him up with someone Daniel’s ex had dated. He finished his second cup of tea and got up to show Daniel out.
They paused at the door as Daniel picked an imaginary crumb from his tie.
“Of course,” Daniel said. “I can hardly stop you asking someone a favor.”
It took a second for Clayton to realize what Daniel was referring to. The pro bono case had been filed away in his brain for later, and it took a second to unearth it.
“I don’t think Larry Jenkins likes me enough to do me favors.”
Daniel chuckled. “No, she does not,” he said. “However, Kelly would, and Larry mentioned her partner has finally taken a leave of absence and is driving everyone mad by not actually absenting. So.”
“He’s an idiot,” Clayton protested.
Daniel rolled his eyes. He always seemed to enjoy Kelly, disasters and all. “He’s a romantic.”
“Same thing.” They both knew that. Clayton had just learned it earlier than Daniel.
“He’s at loose ends, is the point,” Daniel said. “Call him or not. It’s up to you.”
Not, then, Clayton thought pettily.
IT WAS seven o’clock in the evening before Clayton’s conscience wore his irritation down.
Kelly—he presumably had another name, but no one would admit to knowing it—was the bane of Clayton’s existence. The fact that he was completely unaware of that and would think it was a joke if he found out only made him more annoying. The man was always in a good mood, believed wholeheartedly in love—despite the fact he was about as good at picking a partner as Clayton’s mother—and genuinely believed that “things can only get better.” He was probably a perfectly fine idiot, but as December bore down on him, everything about Kelly made Clayton feel like the Grinch.
He was also, whatever mess he regularly made out of his personal life, good at his job, otherwise he wouldn’t be the firm’s go-to investigator. Under the circumstances he was Clayton’s best option, but he had taken some time off.
By the time Clayton came to that realization, it was too late to get Kelly’s personal number. All he had was the invitation to a housewarming party that he hadn’t attended earlier in the year. He preferred his socializing drunk, in the dark, and preferably debauched, but he’d accept polite, work-based, and shallow. A midsummer barbecue where the world’s most wholesome man held court with his newest ex-to-be was his idea of hell.
The house was an hour’s drive from the office, out in Santa Monica, where the housewives and children ran free.
Clayton parked his bike behind an old, beat-up Chevy and tugged his helmet off. He didn’t need to check the house numbers. The invitation claimed “you can’t miss it,” and the only house that fit that description was the old sunshine-yellow Victorian-style townhouse. It had a garden and a baseball hoop mounted over the garage.
Across the street, a door creaked open and an old woman peered out suspiciously. She probably kept an eye on Kelly’s place for him, probably made him cookies and tried to set him up with her nephew. Kelly was the sort of man people did that for.
Bile bubbled nicely in Clayton’s stomach as he stalked up to the sky-blue front door and pressed the doorbell. When no one answered, he clenched his jaw and pressed it again. He could hear the bing-bong of it echo through the house, and a cat howled.
Fine. He had a cat instead of a dog. Close enough.
Clayton was just about to press the bell again when Kelly finally jerked the door open. He was bare-chested and half-asleep, with a baby cradled against one broad, tattooed shoulder as it cat-wailed and fussed.
Lust caught in the back of Clayton’s throat and dried his mouth out. But then, that was the thing that irritated Clayton most about Kelly. He wasn’t Clayton’s type—too short, too muscular, too cheerful, and currently too holding a baby—but he was still the hottest fucking man Clayton had ever seen. It was as though he did it on purpose. He wasn’t even that short, just close enough to average to make his self-deprecating short jokes funny instead of self-hating.
“I need a favor,” Clayton said through the sticky hunger on his tongue.
There was a pause as Kelly distractedly bounced the grizzling baby on his shoulder and looked baffled. If Kelly had turned up on Clayton’s doorstep at that time of night, Clayton would have told him to fuck off. So of course Kelly scratched his head, shrugged, and stepped back to wave Clayton into the hall.
“Sure,” he said as he patted the baby’s back. “Come in. Sorry about the mess.”