Elisa Gonzalez closed her eyes and wondered what karmic force she’d managed to piss off. She could think of no heinous act or ill will that would warrant the news she’d just received. Parker Jones was about to become her boss.
Parker Jones, who’d run off to New York the second she graduated. Who’d passed both the Louisiana and New York bar exams within a year and become the biggest of the big shots Tulane had put out in ages. Who’d flirted and had her way and—
“Gonzalez.” Don Peterson, Elisa’s least favorite managing partner at Blanchard & Breaux, glared at her.
From the look on his face, Elisa was pretty sure she’d just missed something really important. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“I said you’ve been selected to head up the local team. Although if you’re going to flake out, it might not be such a good idea.”
“No, no.” Pride kicked in and she squared her shoulders. “My mind wandered for a moment. Won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t. Teaming up with Kenner and Associates could open a whole new area for us. According to their managing partners, Jones is the best. Bringing her on board is a big play and we don’t want to fuck it up.”
A thought occurred to her like a punch to the gut. “Wait. Who did the selecting?”
Don’s eyes narrowed. “What selecting?”
“Me. Who selected me? Was it you?” Please let it be him.
“No, it was Jones. As lead, she got a say in the local team and she picked you as her second. You know her or something?”
Know her. Ha. That was one way of putting it. “We went to law school together.”
Don nodded slowly. Elisa said a silent prayer that he would let it go at that. “Oh. Well, that’s nice, I suppose. Make sure you’re hospitable.”
Elisa folded her arms. Don would deny his comment had anything to do with gender, but she could hardly imagine him saying it to a male associate. He probably didn’t know Parker was a lesbian. Hell, he probably didn’t know she was. Not because she was in the closet, but because he couldn’t be bothered to get to know the people in the firm who weren’t on his team. She sighed. Better than having him hit on her. “When is she coming?”
“Her flight gets in at nine tomorrow.”
It took every ounce of self-control she had not to groan. That gave her exactly no time to mentally prepare. Much less to do any background research on the case. “Let me guess. She’s coming right to the office.”
Don shrugged. “She’s not getting paid to go sightseeing.”
“Do you want me to finish what I’m working on now or dive right into this?” She knew the answer but had to ask anyway.
“Give everything on the Brookings case to Manchac. He’s got nothing better to do. It sounds like Jones wants to keep her team small and focused.”
Of course she did. “Yes, sir. Anything else?”
Don looked her up and down with a slightly disinterested leer. “I don’t know why, but Jones seems to think you’re hot shit. Let’s not disappoint her.”
Elisa nodded. Then she turned on her heel and walked to her office without looking back. She glanced at the clock on the wall. If she wasn’t teaching tonight, she’d be tempted to skip yoga in favor of trying to get up to speed, or as close to it as possible. The very fact of having that thought cross her mind made her mad. She indulged in a sigh that was part growl and clicked her laptop out of the docking station. She’d do some work at home, but she’d be damned if she let Parker get under her skin before she even showed her face.
She drove home, trying to find her Zen. She sort of wished she was simply going to yoga instead of teaching it. She could use the mindlessness that came with focusing solely on her breathing and the positions of her body. She shook her head. No, teaching would be even better. She’d have a dozen other people to focus on. That would be the best distraction of all.
She got home and changed, then walked to the yoga studio. She set up her mat and cued the low harp music she liked in the background. She greeted her regulars, introduced herself to the couple of newcomers, then started the vinyasa. Because it was a beginner class, and because she’d only been teaching for a few months, she kept things simple. In truth, she actually preferred to keep things uncomplicated—in yoga and life.
When the class ended, her friend Laura lingered. “Hey, girl. You want to grab a drink?”
Elisa sighed. “Yes, but I have to work.”
Laura raised a brow. “Now?”
Elisa had to chuckle at her suspicion. From the moment they met in torts during their first year of law school, they’d banded together against the hypercompetitive, ambitious energy that seemed to surround all lawyers. Although they’d gone into different areas—Laura into patent law and Elisa into civil litigation—both resolutely refused to be part of the rat race. “You’re not going to believe who I’m working for, starting tomorrow.”
Laura’s eyes got wide. “Who?”
“Parker Jones.” She resisted inserting “fucking” as a middle name, so that was something.
Laura blinked dramatically. “Uh, how did that happen?”
Maybe she could use that drink after all. “You know what? Let’s get a drink and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Fifteen minutes later, they sat on the patio at Cinco, margaritas in hand. Even at eight in the evening, the July air remained steamy. Elisa sipped her drink and willed her body to cool. Laura looked at her expectantly. “Tell me everything.”
It didn’t take all that long to relay the details of her day—the teacher pension case, partnering with a fancy New York firm, having their resident hotshot come in to handle discovery, Don telling her she’d been chosen for the team. And who’d be leading it.
“And it was Parker that requested you on her team? How did she even know you worked there?”
Elisa shook her head. “I’m hoping it’s a coincidence. Like, they gave her a list and she decided to go with someone she knows.”
“Is she going to be your boss?”
God. She’d been so focused on the idea of having to see Parker again, work with her, she hadn’t given any real thought to the power dynamic that would come with it. “Fuck.”
Laura made a sympathetic face. “Not really your boss. Lead counsel. That’s different.”
Elisa let out an annoyed breath. “Not that different.”
Laura caught the eye of a passing waiter and, without bothering to consult Elisa, ordered a second round. “Do you think she took the job because of you?”
“No.” Elisa’s reply was instant and emphatic, before she gave it a second of thought. But even as she turned the possibility over in her mind, she grew more certain. “No.”
Laura angled her head as she thought it through. “Are you sure?”
Parker had barely given her the time of day for most of their time in school. They were a year apart, so it wasn’t like they had a lot of classes together. And the one time they’d talked at a party—talked and talked and kissed and almost a lot more—Parker blew it off the next day like it was no big deal. “Yes. The firms landed the case as co-counsel. That’s above even her pay grade. There’s also the chance that she doesn’t remember me at all and picked my name at random.” Even though Don had said otherwise.
“That seems unlikely. She may have been a jerk, but you’re impossible to forget.”
“Thanks.” She appreciated the compliment, but it implied Parker did remember her, and that the memory made her think working together was a good idea.
“So, what are you going to do?”
Elisa squared her shoulders. “I’m going to spend tonight getting up to speed so I don’t make an ass of myself. And then I’m going to work on this case just like any other.”
“Diligently, thoroughly, but only during regular business hours?”
Elisa lifted her glass. “Exactly.”
Parker sipped a martini and studied her closet. It would be hotter than balls in New Orleans. She’d almost turned down the case based on the fact it would force her to be in Louisiana for July and August. Almost.
The truth of the matter was that she’d been angling to go back. Between her mother becoming a widow and having two nieces and a nephew under the age of five, she’d found herself wanting to be home. And no matter how many years she might live in New York, no matter how much she loved her Park Slope apartment with views of the Manhattan skyline, New Orleans was home.
The opportunity hadn’t been the first to come along. Headhunters loved lawyers admitted to the bars of multiple states and it seemed Louisiana and New York was a rare combination. And while many of those offers had been extremely lucrative, they’d been on the wrong side. She had no interest in defending financial institutions who treated clients’ retirement accounts like their personal slush funds. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to fight for the rights of petrochemical companies to continue decimating the fragile wetlands along the coast.
No, this offer was different. The Louisiana State Teachers’ Association was suing a financial management firm over undisclosed and unlawful fees on their portfolio of pension funds. Her firm and one based in Louisiana had taken the case jointly, promising the client someone with Wall Street experience and a New Orleans pedigree. And Parker was that someone.
She might have taken the job based on that alone. Or the fact that it provided a chance to go home without having to give up her position or her life in New York. She still wasn’t a hundred percent certain she wanted the move to be permanent. But what sealed the deal was Parker’s research into the firm itself. Or, perhaps more precisely, one of its associates. Seeing Elisa’s face and bio on the firm’s website had sparked a trip down memory lane. One she’d love to take in person.
It wasn’t uncommon for someone in her position to negotiate choosing her own team into the arrangement. So she did. And put Elisa at the top of the list.
This time tomorrow, she would see Elisa face-to-face for the first time since her graduation from Tulane Law. Based on the photo, the last eight years had been good to Elisa, at least physically. Parker would have expected her to be named partner by now, not still trudging along as an associate. But she remained as beautiful as ever, if not more so.
She scowled again at her closet. There really wasn’t any way to make a suit suitable for a New Orleans summer. She’d just have to live with it. She selected half a dozen that weren’t wool, along with some pants and a bunch of lightweight oxfords. She filled the remaining space in her suitcase with casual clothes and other essentials, figuring she could buy anything she forgot.
It was just after seven by the time she finished. She contemplated dinner, but decided she could squeeze in a run first. She wouldn’t have time before her flight in the morning and she hated to miss a day. She changed and headed to the gym in her building. She picked her favorite interval program on the treadmill and cranked the music. She sped up and slowed down, sweating and appreciating the mindlessness of doing what the machine told her.
The machine stopped and, as always, she was surprised an hour had passed. She headed to the elevator and started planning her first day back in the great state of Louisiana. When she landed in the morning, she’d send her things to the apartment the firm had arranged on her behalf and head straight to the office. She’d meet her team, give them an overview of her strategy and her leadership style. Then they’d get to work. She should be able to get in close to a full day before heading to her mother’s for dinner.
Back in her apartment, Parker showered and downed a protein shake. She looked around. The modern design was a far cry from the house off St. Charles where she grew up. She’d miss this, for sure, but she realized just how much she was looking forward to going home.
Parker accepted her suit jacket from the smiling flight attendant. She offered her thanks and stepped off the plane. Even on the jet bridge, the heat enveloped her. In the terminal, tourists and businesspeople of every age and race milled around. She slung her briefcase over her shoulder and tried to wind her way through the crowds of people who seemed in no hurry to get anywhere.
After getting her luggage, she found a guy who looked to be about seventy holding a small sign with her name on it. She followed him to the waiting car. Outside the heat was truly oppressive, the moist air filling her lungs and making it difficult to breathe. Was it worse than she remembered or had she simply forgotten?
Despite the man’s diminutive stature, he hefted her suitcase into the trunk of the town car and opened the back door. “Ms. Jones.”
On the ride to the office, she checked her messages, including her new Blanchard email account. She’d half expected Elisa to reach out before she arrived. Maybe she didn’t know Parker was already on the job. She tipped her driver generously and gave him the address to her apartment, then headed inside.
The cool air of the lobby welcomed her. She sighed. That was better. She took off her sunglasses and slid on her suit jacket. There was no security, so she headed to the bank of elevators.
A pair of women in pastel dresses and pearls got on with her. Even in professional settings, it seemed, some aspects of New Orleans never changed. They got off at six and she rode the rest of the way alone.
The offices of Blanchard & Breaux, LLP occupied the entire ninth floor and part of the tenth. A large oak desk dominated the reception area. The woman behind it, who reminded Parker of her Aunt Beulah, greeted her with a smile. “You’re Ms. Jones, aren’t you? We’ve been expecting you.”
“Please, call me Parker.” Parker extended a hand.
The woman blushed, but her smile didn’t falter. “Yes, ma’am.”
She couldn’t fault the woman for her manners, but Parker had to fight the urge to wince. In that single, ten-second interaction, she was reminded of why she moved to New York in the first place. “Do you know which way my office is?”
“Oh, of course.” The woman jumped up. “I’ll take you there. Then I’ll let Mr. Peterson know you’re here.”
“That would be great…” Parker trailed off, realizing she hadn’t gotten the woman’s name.
“I’m Bernice, but everyone calls me Niecy.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Niecy. Thank you for the warm welcome.”
Niecy opened a door that already had Parker’s name on it. The room was huge, with towering bookcases and wide windows. The large desk had a matching credenza behind it and a pair of matching chairs in front. Parker smiled. Although she had Manhattan experience, she’d never been on the side of big money. This office was officially the nicest one she’d ever had.
“Will it do, Ms. Jones?” Niecy sounded nervous.
“Parker.” The correction came before she could stop herself. She made a point of smiling. “And it’s perfect. Thank you.”
Parker walked into her office. She set down her bag and eyed the computer sitting on the desk. It would certainly do.
“Parker. So glad you made it in. Flight uneventful, I hope?”
Parker turned. Niecy was gone, and in her place stood Don Peterson. Although they hadn’t met, she recognized him from his online bio, as well as some of the additional research she’d done on him. “It was. Thank you.”
“Your team is on standby whenever you want them, but feel free to take some time to settle in. You’ve got all the standard-issue equipment here, but we’re happy to get you whatever else you need.”
“This looks fine.” And as much as she might like to get a feel for things, she hated to keep people waiting. “I’d love to meet the team.”
“There’s a conference room across the hall. I’ll have everyone there for you in fifteen minutes.”
“Great. Thank you.”
Parker used the few minutes to text her mother and to review the bios of the team she’d selected from the firm’s staff. She’d made her career on details, and that extended far beyond the case at hand. She spent a minute longer than she needed studying Elisa’s bio.
They’d not been especially close in law school, but Parker had liked her enough. Elisa had been a serious student, but not uptight. She’d started at Tulane because she’d followed a woman, someone in Parker’s class, to New Orleans. But from what she’d gathered, the relationship didn’t last past her first year. She’d seen Elisa around, they’d been on law review together, but not worked on any of the same articles.
And then one night, spring of her third year, they’d been at the same party. She’d had probably one too many vodka sodas, thinking it might be the last time she’d have fun before buckling down to study for the bar. They’d chatted, then gone outside to get away from the noise and the press of people. They ended up on a wide lounge chair near the pool, alone. Parker hadn’t planned on kissing her, but once she started, she didn’t want to stop.
But then one of Parker’s friends came out and called her name. Elisa waved her off, acting like it was no big deal. By the next morning, Parker’s mind was back on school and she’d not given it a second thought. No, that wasn’t fair. She’d given Elisa—the smell of her hair and the taste of her mouth and the gorgeous curves of her body—plenty of thought. But she had her priorities, and taking her eye off the prize hadn’t been one of them. And since Elisa had played it cool the next time she saw her, Parker figured the feeling was mutual.
So why was she angling to cross paths with her now? Parker hadn’t thought that part of it through. Not that she needed to. The case would keep them plenty busy. And Elisa was a perk of this job, not the reason for it. If something else came of it, well, she’d see how it played out.
In the conference room, half a dozen people sat around the big table. Elisa had taken the seat closest to the head and didn’t waste a second making eye contact. Parker liked that about her—direct, confident, and by extension, sexy as hell.
The other four members of her team looked equally attentive, if not as appealing. Don Peterson was there, too. He wouldn’t be working the case, but she imagined he wanted to see her in action. Make sure he was getting his money’s worth.
Parker opened the meeting with introductions. She wanted to set a friendly tone, but efficient. She outlined the case and the timeline she wanted to keep for filing motions and briefs. “If all goes well, we’ll be able to reach a settlement before the trial actually begins.”
Drake Shelby raised a hand. “Is that what happened when you did this in New York?”
“It is.” At the time, she’d wanted to go to court. Her idealism wanted to make a spectacle of financial managers who slid exorbitant fees into their fine print. But at the end of the day, settling meant more money back into the pension system and less on legal fees. “The goal is recouping money for our clients and creating a disincentive for having it happen again. If we do our jobs well, that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Don stood. “This is a new kind of case for our firm. We’re partnering with Kenner now, but if we can be successful, while keeping the time and expenses down, it will generate a whole new specialization area for us.”
Parker nodded. “Which is why I’m here. My goal is to create the in-house expertise moving forward. I’m here to lead and to coach, not to have you running around like a bunch of 2L interns.”
The comment earned her a chuckle. She gave out initial assignments and made a point of making eye contact with each person. Other than one guy—Kyle Babin—she got the sense that everyone respected her role and was eager to get to work. Kyle seemed more resentful than anything else. She’d have to sort out whether it was his personality or had something specific to do with her. When the meeting ended, Parker turned to Elisa. “Ms. Gonzalez, do you mind coming back to my office for a moment?”
Elisa stood. She’d been wondering if Parker would single her out. She couldn’t decide if she was annoyed or relieved to get it over with. “Of course.”
Elisa followed Parker to her office, but at the door, Parked turned and gestured for her to go first. It was the kind of butch chivalry she’d usually find charming. Usually. “After you.”
Elisa entered. It was bigger than hers, and had a better view. Not that she cared. “You don’t need to call me Ms. Gonzalez.”
Parker flashed a smile that gave Elisa a flutter in spite of herself. “Elisa, it’s good to see you.”
Elisa folded her arms, not ready to trade niceties. Even if Parker was better looking than she remembered and Elisa couldn’t seem to stop herself from being attracted to her. “Why are you here?”
Parker’s posture was relaxed. “I thought we’d just gone over that in the conference room.”
“I understand the case. What I don’t understand is why you’re here, in New Orleans, in my law firm?” Despite what she’d said to Laura, she needed to make sure it had nothing to do with her.
“My father passed away last year and I’ve been angling to come back to be closer to my mom.”
Much of Elisa’s annoyance dissolved. She’d been so focused on her own reaction to Parker’s return, she’d not given any thought to what might have motivated it. She also realized just how little she knew about Parker’s life, before or now. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
A muscle in Parker’s jaw twitched. “Don’t be. He was an asshole, and the world—my mother included—is better off without him.”
She studied Parker’s face, trying to discern whether grief undercut the ready dismissal. Either Parker was an excellent liar or she really didn’t mourn his death. If anything, it seemed like Parker was, if not glad, relieved. “Oh.”
Parker blinked a few times and focused her gaze on Elisa. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be so terse about it.”
Elisa lifted both hands. “No apologies necessary. If you’re glad, and happy to be back, then I’m glad it’s worked out for you.”
“I get the distinct impression you aren’t glad.” Parker folded her arms and leaned back against the credenza.
“About your father? I wouldn’t assume to feel one way or the other.”
“No.” Parker looked at her in a way that made her feel exposed. “Glad that I’m back. Here. Working with you.”
Shit. Elisa did not have words to describe the extent to which she didn’t want to go there. She took a deep breath. Tread lightly. “Technically, I believe I work for you. Which is fine. I have no desire to be lead counsel.”
Parker continued to study her. Her ability to be still made Elisa nervous, which, in turn, irritated her. “Why not? I’m only a year older than you and I made partner three years ago. You were just as smart as me.”
Elisa took a deep breath and willed herself to remain calm. “It’s not about being smart.”
Parker moved her hands to her hips. And, God, what glorious hips they were. Of course, her pants probably cost six hundred dollars. That didn’t help matters. “Please don’t tell me this firm is riddled with misogynist bullshit. I’m so beyond dealing with that.”
“No.” Elisa found herself feeling oddly protective of her firm, and her role in it. “I opted not to pursue the partner route. I like my work, but I like my life, too. I chose balance over ambition.”
Parker nodded slowly. She couldn’t tell if Parker agreed with her or was merely filing that fact away. “I guess I never thought of it as an either / or thing. Work hard, play hard. You know?”
Elisa shook her head. “To me, that sounds exhausting.”
“Oh, I sleep pretty hard, too. Especially after playing. It all works out.”
And there it was. That cocky demeanor that had, after a few beers, seemed so fucking sexy. The underlying arrogance that felt so crushing the next day. Good thing she’d grown up since then. She no longer found it desirable or devastating. Even if she had to remind herself she was immune. Elisa smiled, refusing to give anything away. “I’m sure it does.”
Parker looked at her in a way she couldn’t quite decipher. “I hope you aren’t sincerely upset that I’m here. I would have reconsidered the offer had I believed that to be true.”
Elisa didn’t know whether to believe her, but she supposed the statement itself counted for something. “I’m not upset.”
“Good. Because I’m very much looking forward to it.”
“Is there anything else?”
“Actually, I was hoping for a rundown of the rest of the team. I got a sense of subject matter expertise from their bios, but I’d like to get a feel for personalities—who has what strengths, who works well together. I thought you’d be the best person for that.”
“Oh.” Why did the request surprise her?
“It doesn’t have to be today. I know not everyone is on your team usually.”
“No, no. We’re a small enough firm that we know each other pretty well.”
“Perfect.” Parker picked up a legal pad and a pen. “Shoot.”
It was hard to know if Parker’s waste-no-time attitude stemmed from her personality or her years in New York. Either way, Elisa made a mental note to stay on her toes. She might not operate that way, but she’d be damned if she let Parker think she couldn’t keep up. She spent a few minutes describing the other members of the team. Parker nodded and scribbled notes.
“And what about Babin? Kyle.”
Elisa quirked a brow. Even if she wasn’t looking to ally herself with Parker, she had no loyalty to him. “He’s arrogant, sexist. Not a bad lawyer, but not good enough to warrant his ego.”
Parker tapped her pen against the pad. “I got the same feeling myself, so I’m thinking I’m going to agree with your other assessments. Thank you for taking the time.”
“Of course.” Elisa nodded. “Is that all?”
“I’d like to do team meetings each day at ten and four. They probably won’t be more than twenty minutes, but I want to make sure we all stay on the same page.”
“I’ll add it to everyone’s calendar.”
“Thanks.” Parker stood and Elisa took that as a sign she was done talking. She started to leave when Parker said, “One more thing.”
Since Elisa was now facing away from her, she indulged in a brief eye roll before turning around. “Yes?”
“If I ask you to do things, I hope you know it’s to be efficient. You know the logistics of things around here better than I do.”
Elisa tipped her head slightly. “You’re the boss.”
Parker frowned. “I don’t think of myself that way. I hope you don’t either.”
Elisa had no idea what to make of Parker’s assertion. Was it an attempt to be friendly? To cover her ass? Was Elisa supposed to take it as a compliment or an insult? It annoyed her, but she refused to ask for elaboration. She straightened her shoulders and nodded. “Sure.”
And then she fled to the relative safety of her own office.