“Oh my God!” Lauren cried, dropping back onto the bed.
Elliott raised her eyes, careful not to move her mouth from her wife’s favorite place. Actually, it was her favorite place as well. Lauren’s breasts rose with each inhale as she tried to regain her breath. The taut pink peaks sent tingles down Elliott’s back to settle between her legs—again. When Lauren relaxed her death grip on the sheet, Elliott started to move her tongue once more.
“Oh, God, Elliott. I can’t,” Lauren said, her voice barely a whisper. Elliott didn’t mind if her wife was lying. She knew otherwise. The tightening of Lauren’s thigh muscles wrapped around her neck, the quickening of Lauren’s breathing, the wetness on her mouth told Elliott a completely different story. Lauren wasn’t a one-and-done girl. Rarely was she a two- or three-timer either. Never was and never would be, as long as Elliott had any say in the matter.
Lauren could come as many times as Elliott would make her, and nothing gave Elliott more pleasure than to give it to her, the woman she planned to spend the rest of her life with. This was the way she wanted to start and end each and every day. And for the most part they had. For the last four years, she’d had Lauren like this. Some days it was in her dreams, but most were like this. In their house, in their bed, sharing their love. Elliott quickened her pace as Lauren rotated her hips. It had taken a long time for Elliott to gain Lauren’s trust in bed, but when she did, she took control of what she wanted and learned to ask for more, to demand satisfaction or to simply let go.
“God, just like that.” Elliott loved it when Lauren told her exactly what she wanted. All too soon Elliott felt Lauren’s clit harden into a tight button, and she knew, from the hundreds of times before, Lauren was about to come. Elliott slipped one finger deep into Lauren’s center, then another. Lauren tightened around her and grew hard again against her tongue, and she exploded.
Stars danced before Lauren’s eyes, and the roar of her orgasm rocketing through her was the only thing she was capable of focusing on. Elliott had the most magical tongue and hands, and they always aroused her. Drove her out of her mind was a more accurate description.
She hadn’t known what to expect from a long-term relationship with a woman. Especially if that woman was Elliott Foster. She’d heard stories about lesbian bed death after the initial thrill and hot-for-you phase wore off. But at what point did that happen? Four years? Seven? Twelve? She thought that work or stress or exhaustion or even boredom might temper their sex life, but so far none of that had materialized. As a matter of fact, their sex life had grown more adventurous and frequent. She still entertained butterflies whenever she thought of Elliott. Tingles ran up and down her spine when she heard her voice. Other parts, farther south, grew warm and wet and pulsed with need when Elliott looked at her that way. And lately, that way was any way.
Lauren was an avid reader, and as an attorney she’d been trained to use research to her advantage. She devoured volumes of material and information on the joys and sorrows of relationships, but so far none of it was true for her and Elliott. They still wanted to spend every minute they could with each other. Their urge wasn’t smothering and didn’t indicate any kind of codependency. They simply enjoyed each other’s company, whether they were sharing a pot of coffee, going to the movies, binge-watching a Netflix original series, or, like now, making love on an early Tuesday morning.
They each had their own life. Elliott was very involved in her philanthropic causes, and Lauren was in her sixth year of mentoring Tonya, an inner-city teenager who’d grown into a wonderful, responsible college sophomore. They weren’t attached at the hip unless some bumping and grinding was going on, but they spent as much time together as they could.
Lauren had never expected to find her soul mate, significant other, other half, or whatever other corny phrase was used to describe the woman she would give her life for. But when she saw Elliott in her tuxedo looking so hot and all that at a charity event, she knew it.
“Enough,” Lauren said, reluctantly pushing Elliott’s head from between her legs. “I have a meeting with a new client this morning. I can’t meet her with that thoroughly fucked look.” She shuddered as Elliott kissed her one last time on that very special spot, and for a moment she almost said to hell with it.
“Thoroughly, huh?” Elliott crawled up her body like a jungle cat with a very satisfied grin. Lauren waited until Elliott kissed her on the mouth before she pushed her onto her back and gave new definition to the phrase thoroughly fucked.
Sloan Merchant parked her BMW in her customary spot on the fourth floor. The parking garage didn’t have any reserved places, but she usually had the top floor to herself. Everyone seemed to jockey for the closest parking spot, but she preferred to use the distance and the stairs for exercise as well as to lower the risk of having a carelessly opened car door ding her blue beauty. She’d spent a fortune on her car, and it was still as perfect as it had been when she drove it off the lot a year ago.
Sloan let the song on the radio end as she waited for the top of the convertible to close and latch. It was a beautiful spring morning in San Diego, and she’d enjoyed the sun on her shoulders and the wind blowing through her short hair during her twenty-minute commute. Most days she took the train from her apartment to the offices at Foster McKenzie, but today she had a dinner date after work. She wouldn’t have time to go home, change, and meet her date, Joanna, at the ballet by curtain.
Traffic in San Diego, like in most other metropolitan cities, absolutely sucked. No way would she risk being late tonight. Joanna was charming, attractive, and looking for exactly what Sloan was—absolutely nothing more than an enjoyable time. No strings, no commitment, no drama. Sloan was married to her career, but a mistress now and then suited her just fine.
“Good morning, Ms. Sloan.” The security guard always greeted her when she stopped by the large lobby desk.
“Good morning, Stuart.” She signed her name with little more than a scrawl on the after-hours log. The building required occupants to sign in if they entered before seven a.m. and exited after seven p.m. She considered that an unnecessary step, since the swipe of her badge recorded the same. But the sixty-eight-year-old security officer was just doing his job. Occasionally she would stop and chat with him about the Padres, the win / loss record of the Chargers, or the price of a barrel of crude oil. His voice was gravelly, like that of a long-time smoker, but she never caught a whiff of tobacco. This morning, however, she needed to get to her office and review the notes in her briefcase one more time before her nine-thirty meeting.
Sloan bypassed the elevators and hustled up the twelve flights of stairs. She hated elevators, after getting stuck in one for several hours nine years ago. Ever since then, she’d suffered from a severe case of claustrophobia. When she had to ride an elevator, if the doors didn’t immediately open when the car stopped, she broke out in a sweat. If the car didn’t immediately move when the doors closed, she began to panic. She’d tried everything from immersion therapy to meditation, medication, and a rubber band on her wrist, none of which worked. So she avoided the elevators when possible and gritted her teeth when she couldn’t.
The twelfth floor of Foster McKenzie was quiet. The eco-friendly lights clicked on as Sloan passed each sensor, the final one when she entered her office. She slid her laptop out of her briefcase and into the docking station and jiggled the mouse to wake it up. She loved this time of the day. The office was quiet, and she had a beautiful view as the morning sun lit up Mission Bay.
Three hours later her phone rang, and she glanced at the display before she picked it up. “Hello, Mother.”
Julia Merchant called only during office hours, saying it was far too difficult to reach Sloan on her cell phone. That was partially true. She was rarely in a position to answer it, either driving or on the train or doing something she really enjoyed with a woman who wouldn’t appreciate the interruption, especially from her mother.
Her family wasn’t close. Sloan couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked to her brother, and she hadn’t seen her sister in more than a year. Everyone lived within easy driving distance of each other, but they had their own lives, which rarely interconnected. Sometimes it felt like her parents were the only thing holding them all together, in a rather tenuous knot at that.
They chatted for a few minutes about her siblings and their offspring and her father’s latest obsession—flying. He had recently retired from the area’s largest hospital as chief of surgery and taken up the hobby. He’d bought a plane the day he received his pilot’s license, and Sloan had yet to be a passenger. Of course, she hadn’t asked either, and her father never invited her.
While growing up she’d wondered if her parents had really wanted children. She didn’t remember ever playing a game of hide-and-seek or hearing a bedtime story from either of them. She did, however, remember how their housekeeper Robin had bandaged her skinned knee, packed her lunch, taught her how to ride a bike and use a tampon.
This was her mother’s obligatory call to her youngest child. Sloan was certain it was on her calendar as a reoccurring appointment. She hung up the phone knowing both of them had checked that duty off their bi-weekly list.
“Callie,” Adrienne called for the third time in the last five minutes. “Come on, sweetie. Mama’s gotta go.” The terrible twos had turned into the trying threes, and according to Mandy, her brother John’s wife, the fucking fours were worse. Mandy would know. She was on her third four-year-old, and in addition to handing down clothes and toys to Callie, Mandy was Adrienne’s go-to for parental advice and support.
The towheaded toddler with sparkling, mischievous blue eyes and pigtails ran out of her bedroom carrying her bunny, one of the many stuffed animals that accompanied her in the car every day. Adrienne’s heart skipped at the mirror resemblance of her daughter to her mother. Every day Adrienne missed Brenna as much as the day before, and every day was one day less that Callie would know her mother.
“Go, Mommy, go,” Callie demanded, as if she’d been waiting on Adrienne. Five minutes later they were in the car, Callie singing to her bunny in the backseat.
Adrienne reviewed the schedule for the day in her mind. She and Robert Douglas, CEO of Auburn Pharmaceuticals, were meeting with Elliott Foster and the attorney from Foster McKenzie today, hoping to secure $400 million in venture capital. Auburn was a family-owned small pharmaceutical with a blockbuster drug in development. All indications were that SV 90 would be a major player in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Auburn needed the money to continue with this research and take the drug to trial. Foster McKenzie was their first and hopefully only stop for the cash they desperately needed.
Adrienne had taken care with her appearance this morning, choosing her best don’t-fuck-with-me suit and pulling out the serious jewelry. She didn’t spend money on clothes, preferring the casual, comfortable look, but she had invested in a classic Vera Wang dress, two Ralph Lauren suits, and a pair of ghastly expensive black pumps. Her diamond hoops were in her ears, her three-carat-diamond pendant securely around her neck, and her wedding ring where it had been for the past five years.
This wasn’t any ordinary meeting, even if it was with Foster McKenzie, one of the largest venture-capitalist firms in the country. This was more than Adrienne doing her job representing one of her clients. This was more than a major milestone in a company’s progression to the next level. This was personal, and Adrienne had never been more nervous.
She pulled into her mother’s driveway, turned off the key, and grabbed what she called Callie’s toddler-crap bag from the floor of the front seat. She unbuckled Callie, who scampered out of her car seat and ran around the front of the car and up to her parents’ front door. Adrienne’s heels clicked on the driveway, and she could barely remember the last time she’d worn them. This meeting was more than a financial courtship, and she needed every advantage to get through it.
“Adrienne, you look lovely today,” her mother said, scooping her granddaughter up and planting a sloppy, wet kiss on the toddler’s cheek. “Today’s the big day?”
“Yes, Mom. Gotta run.” She handed the bag to her mother and kissed Callie on the cheek. “You be good for Grandma today. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay, Mommy. Bye.” Callie was squirming out of her grandmother’s arms, eager to get inside and play with her cousins.
Adrienne didn’t know what she would do without her parents, and other family members, for that matter. They had pitched in and helped in more ways than she could say or that she could thank them for. She was the fourth of six children, the older of two girls. That in and of itself had made her childhood challenging and her dating next to impossible. Four brothers were a gauntlet for anyone to get through in order to take her out on a date.
But that didn’t deter Brenna, who had won over her family the first time Adrienne had brought her to dinner. Adrienne shut those thoughts out of her mind as she got back in her car and traversed the surface streets to get to her office. She needed a clear head today, and thinking of Brenna wouldn’t help in any way.
When Adrienne walked into her office, her paralegal Michelle was typing furiously, fingers flying over the keyboard, earbuds stuffed in her ears, bright-pink bubblegum popping bubbles. Adrienne had hired Michelle fresh out of paralegal school and hadn’t regretted giving the woman a chance. Admittedly, Michelle’s spiked hair, which this week was purple, and the tattoos on her forearms, especially the one of a spaceship on the left side of her neck, had concerned Adrienne at first. She had no idea how Michelle typed so fast and accurately with her long nails, today painted neon green. However, when she’d started talking with her, she realized Michelle was very, very smart and would be a significant asset to Adrienne’s growing firm. That had been six years ago and three times as many boyfriends later, none of which had affected Michelle’s work product in the slightest.
“Hey, Boss.” Michelle disconnected the earbuds from her ears. “Mr. Douglas called to remind you that he’ll meet you in the lobby of Foster McKenzie. You ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. Thanks.” She dropped her briefcase onto her desk and pulled out a thick stack of papers bound together by a bright-green binder clip. Michelle, who ordered the office supplies, would never order the traditional basic black.
While Adrienne waited for her computer to fire up, she filled her coffee cup from the pot in the corner and opened the file for one last look. Her hands were shaking as she held the summary sheet in her hands. She was more nervous than she’d ever been, except for the day she’d asked Brenna to marry her.
They’d been twenty-six years old, in love, and thought they were invincible. They had planned a life together, things they would do, places they would see, and children they would have. But that dream died twelve weeks and three days after Callie was born.
“For God’s sake, Adrienne,” she said, shaking her hands as if trying to shake off her shredded nerves. “Focus, concentrate, buckle down, and get your shit together. Auburn needs this and you need this. You can do it. It’s just another meeting.” Forty-five minutes later she repeated those same words as she stepped into the lobby of Foster McKenzie.
“Mr. Douglas and Ms. Stewart are in the conference room,” Sloan’s administrative assistant, Beth, informed her. Sloan glanced at the Tiffany clock on her desk. Ten minutes until the meeting. Her paralegal Jeff was right behind Beth. Sloan thanked her, then motioned Jeff to the chair across from her. He looked at his watch.
“Elliott will be here in a few minutes. Tell me again what you found out about Ms. Stewart.” Jeff searched through his stack of folders and pulled out a red one. He opened it and started to read.
“Adrienne Stewart, age thirty-four, is the sole proprietor of Stewart Law. She graduated from San Diego State Law School and spent the next five years in the public defender’s office, then opened her own practice. No complaints to the bar, exemplary record. Small business is her primary focus, with some pro bono for wills and estates. Auburn Pharmaceuticals has been her client for seven years.” Jeff rattled off a few more details that were of no consequence to Sloan, and he stopped when Elliott walked in.
Sloan noticed a faint glow on her boss’s face and knew her wife Lauren had more than likely put it there. Probably just a few hours ago, she thought jealously. Sloan never had morning sex because her evening sex rarely turned into overnight sex, and she was always home in her own bed by the time the sun rose.
“All set,” she said. She followed Elliott to the conference room, again thrilled to have this opportunity. She had met Elliott several years earlier at a conference in Phoenix. Elliott was the keynote speaker, and when she had opened the floor for questions, Sloan had been the first to the microphone. After the session, Elliott had sought her out and asked her to lunch. Five weeks, seven interviews, and one big signing bonus later, she was chief counsel for Foster McKenzie.
Elliott entered the conference room first, followed by Sloan. She extended her hand. “Mr. Douglas, Elliott Foster. Pleased to meet you.”
“Yes, Ms. Foster, thank you for seeing us. Please call me Robert.”
Robert Douglas was no more than five feet tall and reminded her of a younger Mick Jagger without all the wrinkles. He turned to the woman beside him.
“This is my attorney, Adrienne Stewart.”
The attorney’s back was to Sloan during the introduction, but she noticed something familiar about her. Sloan wracked her brain trying to place her. Elliott turned her way.
“This is Sloan Merchant, our corporate counsel.”
Sloan greeted Robert, but her heart stopped when she shifted her attention and looked into familiar deep-green eyes. Very familiar, very knowing eyes.
Sound refused to penetrate her brain, and their voices sounded as if her hands were over her ears. The world was spinning, and she leaned against the table to steady herself. She was having a hard time breathing, and the last thing she wanted was to faint in front of Elliott. Elliott, hell. The last thing she wanted to do was faint in front of Adrienne Stewart.
“Ms. Merchant,” Adrienne said, extending her hand.
Sloan knew it would be impolite to rebuff the greeting but wasn’t sure if she wanted to touch Adrienne again. Years ago, a simple touch could instantly ignite her, which often led to other heated things. The recognition in Adrienne’s eyes said she remembered the same thing. Sloan looked at the hand outstretched in front of her. Adrienne’s nails were polished and her pinkie was still crooked, the result of a pickup game of basketball in college. She remembered those fingers floating over her skin like a soft breeze one minute, demanding a response in another.
“Ms. Stewart?” Sloan said, a question in her voice when she said her last name. When did that change? Jeff is definitely going to have a new asshole by the end of the day.
“Yes,” Adrienne replied.
Their hands touched, and a jolt of electricity shot up her hand and landed right between her legs. The expression on Adrienne’s face gave no indication she felt the same, or anything else for that matter. When Elliott cleared her throat, Sloan realized she was still holding Adrienne’s hand.
“Shall we sit?” Elliott asked.
Yes, please, before I fall down. What in the hell is Adrienne doing here? It had been twelve years and four months since she’d last seen her, and Sloan hadn’t realized she’d been counting.
Sloan concentrated on her breathing—in, out, in, out—and tried to focus on something other than her former lover. But it was next to impossible. Adrienne took her breath away today, as she had all those years ago.
The years had been good to her. She had gone from a twenty-two-year-old college girl to a mature, beautiful woman. Her hair was a little lighter than the fiery red it had been and at least ten inches shorter. It still looked as thick and luxurious as she remembered, and her fingers involuntarily twitched to touch it again. Her eyes were crystal clear and still as green as freshly cut bluegrass. She had a smattering of freckles across her nose that Sloan always found endearing. The beautiful suit she wore was stylish and fashionable, her silk blouse a lighter shade of green with a thin pinstripe pattern. Sloan had glimpsed a pair of legs and killer high heels when she first came into the room. Adrienne was thinner, almost too thin, with a sadness about her that Sloan had never seen before.
Elliott’s voice got her attention, and she blinked a few times to settle herself. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” Sloan hated to ask, but she had no idea what the subject was or who had said what to whom. Elliott frowned. Such a lapse was so unlike her. She was always entirely focused on her work.
“I asked if you’d like some coffee.”
“No, thanks.” The last thing she needed was to be even more jittery than she already was.
“Ms. Stewart…” Elliott said.
“Please call me Adrienne.”
Sloan watched Adrienne’s mouth move as she talked. She remembered when that mouth—
“Sloan, do you have the report from the advisory bank?”
Sloan jerked. “What? Oh, yes.” She handed the one-inch-thick spiral-bound report to Elliott. She rubbed the pads of her fingers with her thumb, then just as suddenly stopped. Her nervous gesture was a dead giveaway when she was stressed.
Far from over her shock at seeing Adrienne again, Sloan forced herself to pay attention during the rest of the meeting. Elliott, Robert, and Adrienne discussed various aspects of the preliminary report. Adrienne’s voice was strong and confident as she provided a brief overview of Auburn Pharma. She had a rhythmic way of talking that wasn’t so fast you couldn’t keep up nor so slow that it lulled you to sleep. She definitely knew what she was talking about.
Adrienne waved her hand to make a point, and the diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand caught the light. That was why she didn’t know Auburn’s attorney was Adrienne, Sloan thought. That, and Jeff pronounced her name Adrian, not Adrienne. He also failed to mention she had graduated from Howard College but simply identified the pertinent law school. Even if he had, she wasn’t sure she would have put two and two together.
The last she knew, Adrienne had been on her way to art school in Italy after graduation. Sloan had no idea Adrienne was even interested in law. How did she end up as a public defender and sitting across from her now? And she was married? Adrienne never gave any indication she was anything other than pure, one hundred percent lesbian. Sloan never thought Adrienne would take the conventional route in anything she did. Obviously, Sloan didn’t know her as well as she thought she had, except in the biblical sense.
“Sloan, do you have any questions?” Elliott asked.
Sloan looked from Elliott to Adrienne and saw apprehension in her eyes for just a moment before she blinked and it disappeared. Maybe she’d imagined it. Maybe Adrienne was just as affected by their meeting as she was. No. That couldn’t be right. She hadn’t changed her name or her career choice. Adrienne had to have Googled her before this meeting. She knew exactly who she was meeting with this morning, and that advantage angered Sloan.
“Not right now, no,” Sloan replied, some of her anger slipping out. Elliott saw it and frowned at her, again. Knowing Elliott, she’d ask her about it later.
“Thank you for coming in, Robert, Adrienne,” Elliott said, shaking their hand. “You’ll hear from us within the week. Jeff.” Elliott turned to the young paralegal. “Would you walk our guests out?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeff said, jumping to his feet.
Adrienne hesitated in front of Sloan on her way out. Sloan wondered if she would say anything else to her. Should she? But what the hell would it be? “Quite a change in twelve years?” Sloan simply extended her hand. “We’ll talk soon.” She watched Adrienne walk out of the room, her hand tingling.
“You want to tell me what that was all about?” Elliott asked, her eyes piercing. Her words were firm, but her tone was light. Sloan had learned much about her boss in the last four years. Elliott was tough but fair. She was always prepared and expected everyone around her to be as well. And she did not tolerate fuck-ups.
Elliott was not a typical CEO. She didn’t play golf or hobnob with other bigwigs. She worked hard, knew every aspect of her business, and was involved in every deal. She knew the companies Foster McKenzie invested in and could recite their profit and loss at any meeting. She was completely dedicated to two things: Foster McKenzie and her wife Lauren Collier.
Sloan realized Elliott was waiting for an answer. She could lie and say nothing, or come clean and tell Elliott that she knew Adrienne Stewart when she was Adrienne Phillips, a nineteen-year-old with an infectious laugh, a kind word for everybody, a brilliant mind, and an insatiable appetite for her.
“What do you mean?” Sloan asked, to give herself some time to determine how to answer the question.
“You looked like you’d seen a ghost, and you hardly said anything. That isn’t like you, Sloan,” Elliott said sternly.
“It’s nothing. Just a little under the weather this morning. I didn’t need to ask anything. You were doing it all. I knew you were paying attention when we talked about this the last few weeks,” she added jokingly to get Elliott’s mind off her. “Besides, she’ll be back next week, and I’ll have plenty of time to talk with her and Robert.”
Sloan looked at her watch. “I have to run down the hall. Then I’ll be right in for our other meeting.” Sloan was lying for the second time in less than five minutes. She also realized she’d lied to herself all those years when she’d thought she was over Adrienne.
Sloan was everything Adrienne had thought she would be. She was stunning in a dark-blue suit with a plum-colored blouse. Her brown hair was longer than when they were in college but still shorter than most men’s. It must be a concession to a corporate job. She owned her space and oozed confidence and sensuality. Her skin was tanned, her eyes sharp and didn’t miss a thing, including what had passed between them when they shook hands.
Adrienne didn’t even try to hide her reaction; it wouldn’t have been possible. She knew she would react to Sloan and had made it a point to accept that fact and move on. Sloan, on the other hand, obviously had no idea she would be there. Her reaction had lasted several seconds, and then it was gone.
Adrienne had to force herself to concentrate and not look at Sloan unless she was speaking. Fortunately, that hadn’t been very often. Sloan kept rubbing her fingers with her thumb, and Adrienne remembered she did that when she was nervous. She’d felt Sloan’s eyes on her more than once, and it was all she could do to not return the attention. She had to keep this professional. Hell, it was professional. It couldn’t be anything else. What they’d had was a lifetime ago.
“Their attorney was pretty quiet,” Robert commented. “I expected her to grill us. She has a reputation as a tough negotiator.”
They were in the elevator headed down toward the lobby, and Adrienne didn’t know if her stomach was quivering due to the quick descent or the aftereffects of seeing Sloan.
“Adrienne, are you all right?” he asked. He had given her a chance early on in her professional career and stayed with her faithfully.
“Yes, of course, Robert. Just unwinding from the meeting.” And trying not to remember every minute she’d been with Sloan. Every laugh, every touch, every quiver of desire, every whisper in the dark.
They exited the building, the bright spring morning air crisp and cool. Adrienne had ltaken an Uber to the meeting, and while she waited for a new driver to take her back to her office, she raised her head and counted the floors of the building they had just left. No way could she know which window was the conference room, but she tried anyway. A movement on the floor above where she was looking caught her eye. Her heart raced. Was it Sloan? Was she trying to catch a glimpse of her one more time?
The Uber driver pulled up, and Adrienne scoffed at her ridiculous thoughts. She got in, buckled her seat belt, and looked up one more time.
“Sloan, are you coming?” Elliott asked from behind her. Sloan watched the gray car pull away from the curb and around the corner before answering. “Yes. I’ll be right there,” she replied, dragging her eyes from where she’d seen Adrienne getting into the car.
She was still reeling from the shock of seeing Adrienne again. She was the last person Sloan expected to meet with today, or any day, for that matter. Adrienne had caught her off guard, and she was pissed. She was pissed that Auburn Pharmaceuticals had the advantage because of it. Well, now that she knew who she was dealing with, it would not happen again.
“Do you know Adrienne?” Elliott asked a few minutes later in her office. Her tone signaled to Sloan that she might already know the answer.
“Why do you ask?” Sloan asked guiltily. Responding to an uncomfortable question with a question like that was a clear indication of evasion.
“I don’t know. You just seemed a little surprised when we walked in.”
“I guess I was,” Sloan said, grabbing the opening. “I expected some stodgy old attorney.”
“Ms. Stewart is very sharp,” Elliott commented.
Sloan’s chest filled with pride at the compliment, but she quickly realized she had nothing to do with Adrienne’s competence.
“She’s also quite attractive,” Elliott added.
Sloan felt a tinge of jealousy, then chided herself. Adrienne was not hers to be jealous of, and Elliott was totally devoted to Lauren. Her comment was only an observation.
“Yes, on both counts,” Sloan replied. She had to say something. She couldn’t very well say, Well, considering she wanted to be an artist and now she’s in front of us negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal, and yes, she’s more than attractive. She’s breathtaking.
Teresa brought in lunch, and she, Elliott, and several others worked through the numbers for the rest of the afternoon. Images of Adrienne danced in her mind, and several times she lost track of the conversation. Mercifully the meeting was finally over and Sloan could escape to her office.
“Thank God for Google,” Sloan said to her screen as she typed in a few key words to narrow her search. “There you are.” The image and bio of Adrienne popped up on the screen. Sloan read the information, and it said exactly what Jeff had told her earlier, with no mention of why her name was Stewart. It didn’t matter. That, and the three carats on her ring finger, told her everything she needed to know.
Sloan jumped when her phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number. Adrienne? She cleared her throat and picked up the handset. “Sloan Merchant.”
Her heart dropped when a male voice started talking. Twenty minutes later she was finally able to hang up, not exactly sure what the conversation had been about. Her mind kept drifting to Adrienne, and she laughed at herself. Did she really think she could get any work done today? Of course she would. She had buried herself in her job before to get over Adrienne. She could do it again.
“Mama,” Callie screamed, scampering off the couch and stumbling across the room. No matter what kind of day Adrienne had, how tired she was, or how much her heart was hurting, one look at her little girl and everything was right in the world. Adrienne scooped up Callie and was rewarded with a tight hug around her neck. She smelled like cookies and little girl, and Adrienne kissed the top of her head. She sat down on the couch, Callie scampering off her lap. Callie was babbling about something when Adrienne’s mother came into the room.
Maria Phillips had gone back to school and earned her teaching certificate after her youngest child started first grade. She’d taught for seventeen years before she’d had an important conversation with Adrienne one day.
“It’s time Callie stays with me.”
“What?” Adrienne asked, more focused on wiping baby barf off her pants than what her mother was saying.
“Callie. She needs to be here with me. You have more important things to do than chase a baby around all day. I was going to watch her anyway when Brenna went back to work. I understand why you want her with you, but it’s time.”
“Mom, there’s nothing more important than my child,” Adrienne said defensively.
Maria sat down beside her and pulled her into a hug the way only a mother could. She smelled like lilac. The scent had always reminded her of her mother. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. You need to focus on your practice in order to provide for her. She’s old enough to stay with me during the day.”
“But you have your job, your students.”
“I’m ready to do this, Adrienne. I want to do this. Your father and I talked about it. It’s more important for Callie to be in a loving home when she’s not with you. Besides, I want to spoil my granddaughter, not try to teach a bunch of spoiled teenagers the mysteries of English literature.”
Adrienne thought about her mother’s offer for several days. After Adrienne had been left alone to care for Callie, she’d remodeled her office, transforming a small file room into a nursery. Between Michelle and her admin assistant Ruth, it was tag-team childcare. They even taught their summer intern Josiah how to change a poopie diaper without gagging. Callie came to work with Adrienne every day until it was more than they could handle and still get their work done. Maria stepped in after that, which was a godsend. The last thing Adrienne needed was to worry about the care her child was receiving at some mega-chain day-care center.
“How’d it go today?” Maria had helped Adrienne strategize on how to approach Foster McKenzie for the money Auburn Pharmaceuticals desperately needed. Adrienne hadn’t told her mother about her history with Sloan. That was old news better to not be remembered.
“Better than expected. Elliott Foster was, hmmm, how can I describe her?” Adrienne searched for the right words. “I guess I’d say she was sharp, quick, with kind, dark eyes, and very, very smart. She’s a runner, so she has that lean, graceful body I wish I had.”
“Nonsense,” her mother said. But Adrienne knew her mother thought she was too thin. She’d lost almost thirty pounds after Brenna died, and her appetite had never really returned. Some days she had to remind herself to eat.
They chatted for a few more minutes while Callie played with Max, her mother’s new beagle puppy.
Adrienne looked at her watch. “Time to get ready to leave, Callie. We’re going home in five minutes.” Adrienne had learned it was less disruptive if she gave her daughter a few minutes’ notice about what was going to happen next. Especially if she was happily playing with something. With her frazzled nerves, the last thing she needed was a temper tantrum to try her patience.
Adrienne stood and put both hands behind her, just above her waist. She arched her back, the tense muscles protesting. The combined stress of the meeting and her nervousness over seeing Sloan again had taken its toll. She hadn’t slept much. A bedtime story for Callie, a soak in a hot bath, and a glass of wine would right her world. It had always worked before.
Callie must have sensed Adrienne’s anxious mood because it took longer than normal for her to go down. Adrienne wandered through the house looking at and touching all the photos of Brenna. She smiled, and a familiar warmth coursed through her as she gazed at the two crumpled tickets in the frame on the side table and the memory they evoked.
On a balmy evening in May eight years earlier, Adrienne rounded a corner and ran right into another passenger. She and her BFF Char had boarded a dinner cruise an hour earlier, and she was hurrying to get back from the bar to their table before dinner was served.
“Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry,” Adrienne said, her heart racing from the shock.
“Shit,” the woman replied, looking down at Adrienne’s margarita soaking the front of her tank top.
Adrienne followed her gaze, and more than the drink was showing. The liquid was quickly penetrating the thin material, clearly outlining a perfect pair of breasts. She felt her mouth gaping open and closed like a fish trying to breathe as she struggled to do the same. Somehow remembering her manners, she finally dragged her eyes away from the breasts and up into the face of the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.
Between finals and studying for the bar exam, Adrienne hadn’t been out of her apartment much in the past few months. Without the real threat that Char would drag her out by her hair, she wouldn’t even be here. And she wouldn’t have run into this woman.
Adrienne hadn’t dated much in law school, preferring to concentrate on her studies, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a date. She even had trouble remembering the last time she had sex. It had to have been since Sloan left, but it didn’t matter.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again. “I…I…” She stammered. She didn’t know what to do. Suddenly she realized she could do something. She tugged off her just-in-case-I-get-cold sweater from around her neck. “Here. You can have this.” She offered it to the woman, who looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “Really, it’s the least I can do. It’ll be at least two hours before we get back to shore, and you can’t wear that the rest of the evening.” With her outstretched hand and the sweater, she indicated the woman’s now-almost see-through top.
“Shit,” the woman said, pulling her top away from her body.
Adrienne had no idea if she would put the sweater on or take it and throw it back at her. Finally, the woman looked at her, and Adrienne’s world tilted more than a little.
Her hair was jet black, but her eyes were an unusual shade of blue, the combination striking. She was a few inches shorter than Adrienne and solidly built. She looked at Adrienne, sizing her up. She reached for the sweater.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
She had a slight accent, and Adrienne suspected she was British. “I’m Adrienne Phillips,” she said for lack of anything wittier to say. She didn’t want the woman to just walk away.
The woman paused again before saying, “I’d say nice to meet you but…” The woman looked at her shirt and scowled. “Brenna Stewart.” Brenna extended her hand in greeting.
The following week was their first date, four dates later the first time they made love, eight months after that their first apartment, another five months before they were married, and four years later on a warm Friday evening sitting by the pool enjoying the beautiful sunset, Brenna said, “I think we should have a baby.”
Adrienne choked on her swallow of beer, half of it spewing out of her mouth and the other down her windpipe. A minute or two later she was finally able to speak, but her throat was sore from coughing. “A baby?”
“Yes, a baby.”
“You think we should have a baby?” Adrienne knew she sounded ridiculous, and for an attorney who could argue whether it was Tuesday or the day after Monday, she was having a hard time finding any words.
Brenna, on the other hand, was perfectly calm. “Yes, a baby.”
“And how exactly would we do that?”
Brenna looked at her like she’d lost her mind.
“Okay. I have a good idea how we would do it,” Adrienne said. She took a breath, not knowing if she wanted to know the answer to the next question. “Why do you think we should have a baby?” Adrienne guessed that if she repeated it enough times it would sink in.
“Because I think it would enhance our life together.”
“Do you feel we’re missing something?” Adrienne asked cautiously.
“No. I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Adrienne knew she wanted to say more. She prompted Brenna. “But?”
“But I want us to raise children together. You would be a fabulous mother. You’re kind and smart, and she might look just like you.”
Adrienne sat up in her chair. “You want me to be pregnant?” That idea was scarier than the idea of being responsible for another human being.
Brenna laughed and came over and sat beside her. She put her arm around Adrienne’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. “No, silly. I’ll carry our baby.”
“Then how will it look like me?” Adrienne didn’t know why she asked the question. She knew they could pick a donor from the sperm bank that had her characteristics.
“We’d use your egg.”
“You’ve obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this.” Adrienne didn’t know if she should be angry or upset.
“Yes, I have.”
“Why didn’t you discuss it with me?”
“I am discussing it with you.
The idea of having a baby was not abhorrent to Adrienne. It was just something she’d never thought about. She didn’t have a ticking clock on her eggs, and she’d been so busy getting through school, then working, then starting her own practice that she just never considered something so domestic.
“Is it that bad an idea?” Brenna asked softly.
“No,” Adrienne said quickly, surprised the word came out of her mouth. She must be warming to the idea. “You just surprised me. It kind of came out of nowhere.”
“I know, but I had to bring it up sometime. Obviously, you need to think about it. Take your time. This isn’t something we should jump into.”
“So, if we were to have a baby, what would happen? I mean, who would watch it, Catholic or Lutheran, public or private school, that sort of thing?” Adrienne liked to consider all the facts before she decided anything. Brenna laughed, and Adrienne felt herself relax.
“It’s a bit soon to worry about schools, honey, but as for the other, I would take off the twelve weeks I get from work, and I thought your mom could watch her during the day.”
“She?” The idea of a little girl that looked just like Brenna was suddenly appealing.
“Figure of speech,” Brenna said, this time kissing the top of her head.
“My mom would love that,” Adrienne replied, knowing that was an understatement.
“Just think about it. We can talk more, but I know how you need a lot of information. My thoughts are daycare for socialization when she’s three or four, private school, we start going to church, I like Callie Elizabeth or Spencer Albert—but I’m flexible on that, and maybe a brother or sister later on.”
“Brother or sister?” Adrienne managed to squeal out. She was just getting used to the idea of one, and now Brenna was talking about more than that? She’d been around a lot of children and nieces and nephews, so kids didn’t scare her, but it was something different when it was your own.
Setting the frame back on the table, Adrienne double-checked the locks on the front and back doors before heading upstairs. After peeking in at Callie, she set the baby monitor on the nightstand, sat on the bed, and picked up her favorite picture frame.
The photo had been taken the minute Brenna realized Adrienne was proposing. Adrienne had enlisted the help of her BFF, and she and Char had worked out a plan. Having Adrienne down on one knee provided the perfect angle for Char to take the picture. Adrienne remembered the day, and she fought back the tears. Some days they were just behind the surface.
“I loved you so much, Brenna. I really did.” Adrienne ran her fingers over the image of her wife, her voice soft and full of emotion. “You were everything to me. We had such plans. I never loved anyone the way I loved you, and I never will. You will always be in my heart.” Adrienne stopped fighting the emotion she felt when thinking about Brenna. Time does not heal wounds, she thought. It just lessens the impact a bit.
Adrienne locked her bedroom door and lay back down on the bed. One time she hadn’t locked her door, and she didn’t hear Callie get out of bed and come into her room. It wasn’t until Callie was standing beside her bed, looking at her peculiarly that Adrienne realized she’d caught her in the act. Callie was only two and had no idea what her mother was doing to herself under the covers, but Adrienne had been mortified nonetheless.
Adrienne propped the picture of Brenna on the empty pillow beside her. She’d gotten pretty good at masturbating while looking at the picture. When she closed her eyes, she imagined Brenna’s hands on her, tweaking a nipple, rubbing her stomach, her hand drifting lower with each stroke. She imagined Brenna’s voice telling her how much she loved her and how good she felt. She imagined Brenna’s fingers between her legs, stroking and teasing until she was ready to explode. Brenna was thrusting inside and then slowly drawing out in a perfect rhythm. Brenna was there when Adrienne begged her to go faster, to fuck her harder, and she imagined Brenna’s eyes when she climaxed.
But this time when she closed her eyes, she saw Sloan, who took her to the place where she had taken her hundreds of times before.
Guilt overcame Adrienne. It had been three years since Brenna’s death, and she hadn’t once looked at or even thought about another woman. She had accepted that no one would ever take Brenna’s place in her life. She would never love anyone like she loved Brenna. No one would be Callie’s mother like Brenna would have been. She would raise Callie alone. She had the help of her friends and family to protect both her and Callie from the painful reminder that Brenna was gone. She rolled away from Brenna’s picture and sobbed. Brenna was slipping away.