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Excerpt from Chapter One
The question, phrased more like a long-suffering supplication to a supreme being, was accompanied by a copy of this morning’s Orange County Register being tossed onto my small, cluttered desk like an under-thrown Frisbee.
When it slid to a stop, just short of smacking my almost-full coffee mug, I saw that the paper was open to the front page of the local news section and folded in such a way as to show off a photo of me—yes, moi, Odelia Patience Grey. The caption above the photo blazed: Food Fight Erupts at Local Market.
A resigned sigh escaped my lips. I had hoped that no one would recognize me. After all, in the caption under the grainy photo, I was merely referred to as an unidentified woman.
The question had come from Mike Steele, my boss. He stood in front of me, waiting for an answer to what I felt was not a question deserving of a response. In my opinion, it had sounded purely rhetorical in nature. I continued to stare down at the fuzzy photo in the paper, my lips tighter than a pair of size 6 shoes on size 9 feet.
Michael Steele is a partner at Wallace, Boer, Brown and Yates, the law firm in Orange County, California, at which I am employed as a paralegal. I’ve been with Woobie (the nickname given the firm by its employees) for about eighteen years, and I would be look-ing forward to the next eighteen years, if it were not for the man standing in front of me.
I didn’t need to raise my face to know that Steele would be immaculately groomed from his GQ-handsome, close-shaven face right down to his fingertips, which would be professionally buffed and shining like dew in the morning sun. And I didn’t need to glance in his direction to know that he was wearing an expensive and beautifully tailored suit. It was also unnecessary to look up to know that he was peeved at me. The sarcasm in his voice hung in the air, waiting to be admired, round and bright, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
A few years ago, when my old boss, Wendell Wallace, retired, I somehow fell within Steele’s grasp. Steele had requested that I be assigned to him, and the firm agreed. They had even sweetened the pot for me with a nice raise and a private office.
They assigned me to him with an apology, claiming they trusted me to keep Steele and his law practice in line. In other words, I became his professional keeper so the firm’s founding partners could sleep at night.
Now, don’t get me wrong—Mike Steele is an incredible lawyer. He’s brilliant, focused, and ethical, which in this day and age is an accomplishment all on its own. He brings in a ton of new business and is the firm’s top attorney in generating billable hours. He’s Midas with a law degree.
It’s just that sometimes he needs to be beaten about the head with the people-skills bat.
Without raising my face to look at Steele, I gave in and broke my silence. I pushed the newspaper back in his direction. “Not exactly my best side, is it?”
Steele cleared his throat. Peeking up through the hair that slightly hid my face, I saw him cross his arms in front of his chest. He wanted an explanation and would wait all day for one, if necessary. I didn’t owe him any details, and I could be just as stubborn. However, today I decided to go for bonus points with shock value.
Lifting my chin in his direction, I shook my head and tossed my almost-shoulder-length medium brown hair away from my face.
“Jesus, Grey!” In a flash, Steele’s arms uncrossed and he was leaning toward me, both hands flat on my desk. He angled his head to get a better view. “What the hell happened to you?”
“I was slugged by a leg of lamb,” I explained, trying to be non-chalant about it, pretending that assaults by butchered meat hap-pened every day.
At that moment, Kelsey Cavendish, the firm’s librarian, strolled into my small office. With three people, it now reached capacity under the local fire code.
“Hey, Odelia, any plans for lun—” She stopped mid-sentence, then exclaimed in a folksy accent, “Damn, that’s one helluva shiner!”
Kelsey immediately pointed an accusatory finger at Steele. “Did he give you that?”
“What?” Steele half-shouted, turning an indignant, flushed face her way.
“Well, Greg certainly didn’t give it to her,” Kelsey shot back.
“Actually,” I said, interrupting, “I believe my assailant came from New Zealand.”
“Cavendish,” Steele snarled in Kelsey’s direction, “you don’t really believe that I’d strike Grey, do you?” He glanced at me. “No matter how tempting.”
Kelsey coolly looked him up and down. She was one of the few people at Woobie who didn’t shrink in his presence. My guess is that if I ever left the firm, she’d be next in line for the keeper position.
“Nah, Steele, I don’t.”
A woman in her mid-thirties, Kelsey Cavendish was tall, slim, and angular, with a plain, friendly face. She was Olive Oyl in the flesh, but with a bigger clothing budget. She gave Steele a wide grin, slipped past him, and plopped herself down in the small chair across from my desk.
“Though I’ll bet you lunch at Morton’s that Odelia’s thought about clobbering you a few times.”
I couldn’t help myself. Like a rude belch, a short, loud guffaw escaped my lips. Kelsey was right, I had thought about clobbering him, and on more than just a few occasions. In fact, I know dozens of people who would like to gather in the parking lot and beat the living crap out of him, starting with his last twenty secretaries.
Michael Steele went through secretaries like I buzzed through Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. Our office manager, Tina Swanson, had given up on keeping the secretarial bay outside his office filled and now the placement job fell to yours truly. Lucky me. Currently, we were trying out a very talented temp named
Rachel Keyo. She had just completed her third week with us and so far, so good.
At least she didn’t show signs of bolting—yet. And even though Rachel was a drop-dead gorgeous woman with long, sculpted legs and the face of a Nubian princess, Steele didn’t show signs of seducing her—yet. Of course, Rachel was also in a very advanced state of pregnancy. This latter situation seemed to have a good, yet strange, effect on Steele. Instead of his usual behavior toward sec-retaries, which could swing between charming, sexual scamp and overbearing, demanding ass, Steele treated Rachel with uncharacteristic tenderness, even reverence. Kelsey, who never misses a trick, referred to it as his Madonna fixation. Personally, I don’t care what it’s called, as long as he keeps treating Rachel with respect and the work keeps flowing out the door.
Jolene McHugh, another attorney at Woobie who shares secretarial services with Steele and me, loves working with Rachel, and no wonder. Rachel’s legal skills extend far beyond typing and dictation. Her last job had been in the legal department of a large corpo-ration, but several months ago she was laid off when that company downsized. She came to us on a trial basis through a friend of one of the attorneys, and if everything continues smoothly, Jolene and I will recommend that Tina hire the woman permanently after her maternity leave, providing, of course, Rachel was equally excited about the idea. But Jolene had already expressed her concern to me that somehow Steele would screw things up for everyone.
Kelsey looked down at the newspaper still on my desk, and her smile grew wider. “Is that really you?”
I nodded slowly, suddenly wishing I had called in sick.
Kelsey leaned in closer. “So, just how did you get that shiner?”
Steele, who was now leaning against the doorjamb, also moved in closer. You would have thought no one had work to do.
With a deep sigh that swelled my hefty bosom like a rolling wave, I began the saga of the leg of lamb, only to be interrupted by my phone ringing. A look at the display told me that the caller was Zenobia Washington, my best friend. No doubt she had also seen the morning newspaper. I ignored the phone. I would call Zee back later. I returned my attention to Kelsey and Steele and sighed again.
“It’s nothing, really,” I continued. “I was simply in the market last night—just popped in to pick up some food for Seamus and dinner for myself—when these two women started arguing next to me at the meat counter. Rose, the older one, who turned out to be the younger one’s aunt, began chiding her niece about her weight. In fact, she was being kind of mean about it.”
“Oh, no,” Steele groaned, shaking his head. “Odelia Grey, champion of chubbettes, to the rescue.”
Steele was sarcastically referring to Reality Check, a local support group started several years ago by my late friend Sophie London. Now I lead it, together with Zee. Originally, Reality Check was formed to help large people emotionally cope in a weight-obsessed society. Now it included others facing similar bigotry over other issues, such as physical disabilities.
I curled my lip at Steele before continuing.“Anyway, the niece— her name’s Manuela, Manuela Collado, I believe—started crying and snapping at Rose, and pretty soon the scene escalated into a full-blown family feud.”
“And you couldn’t keep your freckled nose out of it, could you, Grey?” Steele gave another shake of his perfect head. “You couldn’t just walk away? Maybe head to the frozen section and grab a car-ton of Ben and Jerry’s?”
“Steele!” Kelsey snapped. Turning to me, she said, “Go ahead, Odelia, clobber him. I won’t tell.”
“You want to hear this or not?” I asked with annoyance. “If not, I have work to do.”
“Sure, Grey,” Steele said, supporting himself once more against the doorjamb, hands casually shoved into his pockets. “Sing us a stanza of ‘Odelia Had a Little Lamb.’”
Rolling my eyes, I continued.“By the time I tried to break Manuela and Rose apart, it had turned quite nasty and a crowd had gathered, including, I later found out, a photographer from the Register who just happened to be in the store and had his camera bag with him.” I stopped to take a drink of lukewarm coffee from the mug on my desk.
“Anyway, Manuela was calling her aunt some pretty colorful names, and Rose was getting in some good, sound slaps. I had almost succeeded in pulling them apart when, out of nowhere, Manuela picked up that darn leg of lamb and swung it like Babe Ruth, hitting a homer with my left eye.” I looked from Kelsey to Steele.
Kelsey looked at me, then at Steele, then back to me. “Did you at least get to keep the leg of lamb?” Both of them cracked up with laughter.
“Just for that,” I said to Kelsey, “you’re buying lunch.”
It was then we noticed Fran Evans, a senior associate, standing just outside my door. She was tall and willowy, with a long mane of thick, blond hair and a very attractive face that would be down-right stunning if she smiled more. As usual, she was all business and wore an air of disdain like a heavy fragrance. Around the firm, she was getting the reputation of being the female counterpart of Mike Steele. Once she had our attention, Fran indicated she needed to speak with Steele.
Steele told her he’d be with her shortly, then continued our conversation. Fran, her jaw set tight, glared at him. When Steele didn’t make a move to acknowledge her further, Fran tossed her hair in a little fit and took her leave. Once she was gone, he pulled his hands out of his pockets, stood straight, and looked me in the eye.
“I repeat myself, Grey. Why am I not surprised?” He shook his head yet again.
“You’re the only person I know for whom it seems perfectly natural to go into a market for cat food and end up being KO’d by a roast.” He laughed. “Only you, Grey.”
“Too bad about the shiner, Odelia,” Kelsey told me, ignoring him, “especially with your big reunion this weekend. But maybe it won’t be that bad; it might change from plum purple to puke yel-low by then—much easier to cover with makeup.”
Crap, I thought, something else for him to bug me about. He’ll probably come up with a weekend full of work just to spite me.
“Odelia’s thirtieth high-school reunion is this Saturday,” Kelsey cheerfully informed Steele.
“Damn, Grey, didn’t know you were that old.” Steele appeared to be calculating something. He finally said, “I was … what … about eight years old then.” He paused for what I’m sure he thought was dramatic effect. “Were you an actual flower child? Did you trip the light fantastic to Joplin and Morrison? Do any streakin’? Heh, heh, heh.”
My future with Woobie was looking more like being sentenced to death row.
When he didn’t get a rise out of me, due to an amazing amount of self-control on my part, Steele gave a humph and started to leave. Partway out the door, he stopped and turned back around.
“Don’t forget, Grey, I’ll be out of town the beginning of next week.”
“Where ya goin’?” Kelsey asked eagerly. “And how long can we count on you being gone?”
Steele gave her a chilly smile. “If you’re a good girl, Cavendish, maybe I won’t come back.” Then he strode down the hall to join Fran.
“Why,” I asked Kelsey, as I retrieved my purse from a file drawer in preparation for lunch, “do men always make promises they never intend to keep?”