I offer many thanks to Barb who spends a lot of her precious and dwindling spare time correcting my atrocious grammar and spelling. Thanks, too, for the suggestions and input, Barb.
The elaborate furnishings were probably all part of the plan to intimidate Josh Lowry's business associates. The sofa was Italian leather, as were the club chairs surrounding it. The largest salt-water aquarium Sam had ever seen boasted exotic fish of brilliant colors; shades of vibrant yellow and blue undulating constantly against a backdrop of textured lava rock.
The receptionist was stationed at a sleek desk of burled walnut, the finest example she had ever seen. That was saying something, since Samantha Hilliard had been searching out and collecting beautiful old furniture all of her life. Plush carpets and gilded oriental wallpaper screamed the richness of the office décor.
"May I help you?" The chilly tone in the receptionist's voice garnered the sought after effect. Thoroughly intimidated, Sam wrapped her arms around herself in a subconscious effort to protect her person. She had not been able to understand why her deposition was to be given here, in the offices of the man she was suing. Her attorney had explained that it was simply a matter of convenience, but it seemed to the young real estate broker that it only served to put her at a disadvantage.
"I'm here to give a deposition. My name is?."
"Miss Hilliard, it's nice to meet you." It was suddenly as if the aging but well maintained receptionist had come upon a celebrity. "The conference room is set up for your group. If you'll just follow me, please, I'll show you the way." The smile was not overly warm, but it held sincerity. Sam was amazed at the turn around in attitude from moments before.
While she followed the woman at a rapid pace down several hallways, she declined the offer of coffee, learned the location of the ladies room and studied closely the expensive outfit the woman was wearing. 'He obviously pays his receptionist well. I saw that jacket at Phipps Plaza and it was over three hundred dollars as I recall. You'd think he would just write me a check for the damages to the office and be done with this whole fiasco.'
They arrived at a non-descript door which did indeed open into a conference room. It was less pretentious than the reception area, but still richly appointed. The conference table was teak and could seat twenty comfortably. Sam selected a chair that allowed her to identify the occupants of the room as they entered. She had assumed her lawyer would arrive first and be available to greet her. Thus far, there was no sign of him. The door opened and a man in a starched shirt and expensive tie came hurriedly through it. There was a woman behind him, Sam's age, who was dressed in a severe business suit and hanging on every word the young man said.
Engrossed in his own dialogue, several seconds passed before he suddenly became aware of Sam's presence. "I'm Mike Epson and this is Jenny our stenographer. She'll record the session today. Can I get you anything Miss Hilliard?" He gave the young woman a long look. Samantha had a disarming quality about her that put him immediately at ease until he realized that this was the woman suing his client.
Samantha didn't always do well with strangers. Outgoing as a general rule when Sam found herself in certain circumstances she became amazingly bashful. This was one of those times.
"Is your attorney here?" The young man waited for her reply. Sam assumed that the attorneys had worked this out amongst themselves, only notifying her of their decisions at the last possible moment.
"I thought you might answer the same question for me? I just got a message to be here, today at ten-thirty. I assume Mr. Long will be here shortly if he isn't already," she offered. He smiled brightly at her as if she had just solved a world crisis. The young woman he had introduced as the stenographer began to untangle a series of wires and plugs, all protruding from a flat, notebook shaped device of beige plastic. She sat a single microphone on the table, held erect by its own plastic easel. The push of a button brought a red light to life on top of the recording device. Looking up, she discovered Sam watching her and offered a reserved smile before announcing her intent to seek out coffee.
Sam found herself alone at the long table once again. 'This must be how Alice felt, down the rabbit hole. I'm completely dwarfed by this table but I bet that's the whole idea. ' Her nerves were kicking into high gear and she picked up one of the pens from the table in front of her and began tapping it absently on the table surface. 'It might be a good time to review my notes, ' she thought and placed the sheets on the table before her.
The door swept open again and assuming it would be the stenographer returning, she didn't look up. In fact, the deep, rich timbre of an unknown voice startled her from her task. Sam's eyes swept up and up and still slowly up the extraordinary countenance of a tall, dark-featured woman dressed impeccably in a creamy silk skirt and jacket that subtly flattered the sleek form beneath them. Mahogany hair cascaded to a line well below wide shoulders. The dark tresses obscured most of a filmy blouse that was the color of the heavens on a cloudless day in the fall of the year. Sam raised her gaze yet again to see eyes that matched its color looking back at her. Uncertain of whom she was staring at and amazed at the overall effect; the young Realtor drew in a steadying breath.
Sam thought she must have been witnessing an apparition. The woman before her possessed the beauty and assurance of a goddess. The graceful movement of her tall frame as she walked toward Samantha and offered her hand in greeting mesmerized the woman seated at the table. Sam took it, amazed at the warmth and gentleness of the woman's touch. Flesh on flesh was brief but enough to disprove the possibility of a hallucination. This was the real thing.
"Ms. Hilliard, I assume?" The richness of her voice resonated across the short space between them. Sam nodded, unsure of her own voice at the moment.
"I'm Sterling Hayes. I represent Josh Lowry. I'll be handling the deposition today." Her eyebrow crept up at the look of confusion on the younger woman's face.
"I thought Mr. Epson was doing that."
"He's a trainee. Officially, we refer to him as my assistant on this particular case." She leaned closer and amended her statement in a conspiratorial tone. "The primary purpose of that title is to salvage his ego, though. I'm in charge. You may rely on that." Surprisingly, her smile held no warmth and it made Samantha uncomfortable.
Jenny, the recorder, returned now with a steaming Styrofoam cup and offered a pinched greeting to the tall attorney. There was apparently no love lost between the two. Sam thought there was probably an interesting story there.
Sterling took the seat directly across from Samantha, with her back to the door. She sorted through the documents in her briefcase and removed the ones she would be needing. Meanwhile, Sam ran her fingers nervously through her thick blonde hair and wished a myriad of things.
'I should have stopped in the powder room to freshen up. My hair must be a mess the way the wind is blowing out there. Why did I wear this outfit today, it makes me look fat? God, this woman looks like she could eat us all for brunch.'
Even though Sam might not have thought that she looked her best, only Sterling's extraordinary poker face had saved her from visibly reacting to the attractive woman now seated across from her. The young woman's face held all innocence above a body created for sinful purpose. Her wholesome features wore an open smile and an awareness that made Sterling uncomfortable. She felt that her character was being examined and the lawyer could ill afford scrutiny in that area.
They studied each other discreetly, the two main characters in the little drama playing out in Lowry's conference room. Samantha acknowledged the wild and snarling creature that lived just beneath the polished surface of Sterling Hayes. That was it. The two women contrasted so completely that the young blonde could see herself reflected clearly as the antithesis of this enigmatic woman. The rich differences between the brooding darkness of the magnetic lawyer and the earnest openness of the charming young Realtor created a magnetic pull. Light was meeting darkness for the first time. Self-damnation was courting forgiveness. Fear of feeling ran headlong into love at first glance.
The attorney, who had been accepting Sam's money in exchange for representation, came through the door winded and disheveled. Thank goodness he had sent her a video the previous week explaining the workings of a deposition, as apparently he had made no time allotment for counseling her now. The brief film had cautioned her against losing her temper, or giving answers before she took the time to carefully consider a question. Sam had also learned that she could be asked for a lot of personal information that would seem unrelated to the case. By law, she was obliged to answer any and all questions put before her.
"If everybody is ready now, I think we can get started. Are you ready Jenny?" A frigid blue gaze defied all present to deny her authority. Getting a general nod in response, the intense barrister began. "This is a deposition in the case of Hilliard versus Lowry, taken in the offices of Mr. Joshua Lowry on the tenth of May, nineteen hundred ninety-nine. Present are Samantha Hilliard, her attorney Ron Long, Mike Epson and Sterling Hayes of Hayes, Stern and Hayes. Ms. Hilliard, will you kindly state your full name and permanent address for the record."
Sam answered the first half dozen questions easily, giving her a chance to overcome her nervousness somewhat.
"Are you married?" Sam looked up into the ice blue eyes of her interrogator and answered evenly.
"No, I am not."
"Have you ever been married?" Once again Sam looked at Ms. Hayes to see if she was being asked a serious question. She couldn't imagine what her marital status had to do with the case.
"No, I haven't." Clearly perturbed, she settled back into her chair.
"Do you live alone Ms. Hilliard?" Now Sam looked to her attorney to see if he could do anything about this invasion of her privacy. He waved the back of his hand toward the dark haired attorney sitting opposite them, letting Sam know that she not only needed to furnish the requested information, but he expected her to do it as quickly as possible.
"Yes, I live alone." Exasperation was evident in her tone.
Sterling looked positively mischievous as she posed the next question. "For how long?" She was betting that the comely young blonde had a short temper and that prying into her personal life would trigger it.
Samantha blew out a breath in irritation. The attorney studied her briefly, issuing a self-congratulatory pat on the back.
"Almost two years I believe," Sam offered.
"Do you enjoy an active social life?"
Now, obviously offended and befuddled by the current line of questioning Samantha threw a look of disbelief at all of the faces around the table. None granted her sympathy, save that of the mousy court reporter who could appreciate the embarrassing nature of airing the details of one's social life or lack thereof.
In a grand gesture, Sterling, posturing as if she was bestowing a gift, withdrew her question and moved on. The sleek attorney was amused. Now that she had met Samantha in person, her instincts told her that the information she had procured about her from an investigative firm was accurate. The attorney would take all bets that the young woman staring daggers at her from across the table preferred the company of women, as did she.
Sterling's amusement was short-lived however when her questioning turned to less personal questioning. Twenty-nine 4 x 6 glossy photographs were produced from Sam's briefcase upon request. She leaned forward and handed them across the table for Sterling's perusal.
The top picture showed the charming reception area of Sam's realty office. It was decorated with beautifully restored antique furniture. The sofa with matching arm chairs, carved Larken desk, and glass-front bookcase would have made a nice magazine ad in the Antique Monthly, except for the pool of coffee colored water that the grouping stood in. Every damning photo included three inches of muddy water or the scummy deposits it had left in its aftermath when it receded.
All nine offices had been flooded. Every inch of carpeting had been underwater. The furnace, located in a storage area, had been partially submerged, as had the hot water heater.
Sterling studied the pictures trying not to visibly react but she couldn't help but wonder what her client had been thinking. Lowry had advertised for fill dirt on his land, which adjoined Sam's without bothering to get the proper permits. By raising the ground level, he had created the potential for a flood in her offices. Samantha had contacted the county and they had cited him for the violation but he made no attempt to rectify the situation. As the realtor had predicted, the first big rain flooded her office building and she was suing Lowry to recover the cost of damages.
'This is a no-brainer. Lowry should have just written the poor woman a check. Hell, he's lucky she didn't go after punitive damages or throw a class action suit at him and the county for not following up on the citation.' For the third time in as many days, Sterling Hayes found herself wishing desperately that she had started dumping her shadier clients long ago.
The charismatic lawyer had been forewarned about the pitfalls of letting this particular petitioner testify in a courtroom before jurors. The tip had been on target, too. Samantha Hilliard had the angelic countenance of a child and the regal demeanor of a seasoned monarch. This deadly combination would be lethal in a courtroom.
Sterling studied the blonde as she spoke in detail about the process that had been required to clean up the muddy mess. The barrister was particularly intrigued by the contrast of intense green eyes against the young woman's alabaster skin. 'Natural blonde for sure. Probably burns after ten minutes in the sun. Wouldn't she look great wearing nothing but a tan line?' Her lascivious thoughts were cut short by a question directed her way, which Sterling had to ask Ron Long to repeat.
Sam left the deposition two hours later feeling slightly drunk from all the tension. The questions had been deliberately posed in such a way as to trip her up or make her say something untrue. Several times she had found her temper building and the blonde had spent the better part of the meeting scowling at Ms. Hayes.
The inept lawyer who represented Sam caught up to her as she exited the building and suddenly wanted to talk. He had sat quietly through the entire deposition, obviously awestruck by the imposing figure of Sterling Hayes. The young Realtor dismissed the man with a wave of her hand and continued walking toward her car.
Fishing her cell phone from her purse, Sam pushed AutoDial to get Peter. The blast of heat when she opened her car door prompted her to crank the engine, set the air-conditioning on high and stand outside while the car's interior cooled off.
"It was a lot like a trip to the principal's office, Peter. Everything I said made me feel like I was sinking deeper and deeper."
He related several messages but the Realtor didn't consider any of them to be an emergency. As she was giving instructions about a project she needed Peter's help with, Sam noticed a tall figure approaching in her periphery. Closer inspection identified none other than 'Sterling Hayes of the ice blue eyes'.
"I'll be in by two Peter. I need to grab some lunch and drop off these contracts in Tucker. See you then."
Sterling was definitely coming in her direction and the younger woman automatically stiffened when she heard her name pronounced.
"Miss Hilliard." The attorney wasn't sure at first that she had Sam's attention, but when she was close enough to see Sam's face she knew that hers was not a welcome interruption.
"I just wanted to talk to you for a moment off the record." A brilliant smile was her peace offering, but it didn't make a dent in the stone face watching her.
"I'm going to recommend a settlement to my client. If I had known about the existence of those photographs, this thing would have never gotten this far." She smiled again, feeling magnanimous in her attempt at fairness.
Samantha's face clouded up even more. "I suppose you think I should be grateful. It would have been nice if you had done this a year ago or even six months ago. It might have been a welcomed development if you had counseled your client to settle because it was the right thing to do from the very beginning." She took a deep breath and the lawyer thought she might get a word in, but was wrong. As it was, while Samantha continued her diatribe, the attorney could not tear her eyes from the young woman's lips. Sterling imagined how it might feel to draw the firebrand into her arms and kiss her senseless.
"I've paid that jackass," she pointed to her attorney's departing car, "over two thousand dollars to extract justice from you and your client." The Realtor's tide of anger started to subside and her breathing slowed a little until she realized that Sterling was standing within inches of her. Sam began to back away and lost her balance as a hand shot out to steady her. There was no mistaking the jolt of fire that ran across the connection of the attorney's fingers to Sam's arm. It startled them both, but only Sam, frightened by the effect this stranger was having on her, reacted by lashing out.
"My attorney is as effective as a hat in a hurricane against a high priced looter like you." The words hung in the air between them.
It was a verbal slap and Sterling felt it. The blood began to rise up the slender column of her neck, an emotional thermometer. The barrister's eyes, no longer the color of a cloudless sky, began to storm in earnest. She spoke up while there was a momentary break in Samantha's condemnation.
"Perhaps it would be best if we continued this conversation at another time." Sterling's smile was full of acid, now. Unaccustomed to having her defense skills desert her, the attorney instinctively responded with a retreat. "I'll call your lawyer in a few days."
"Don't bother! He won't be my lawyer any longer once I get to my office and get him on the phone. I'm not about to keep paying that ineffectual idiot to do nothing more than be intimidated by and drool over you." Sam ducked her head and slid behind the wheel of her car. The arc of the slamming door barely missed a surprised Sterling. Squealing tires followed Sam's car the short distance out of the parking lot.
Sterling stared after her, clenching and unclenching her fists in anger for a full minute before calm began to settle over her. The lawyer had always been able to find the truth, even in the sea of trash that had made up her client list over the years. Sam was right about Lowry. There were many innocent bystanders just like Samantha Hilliard that were harmed daily by wealthy bastards. Sterling had made a lucrative living representing them whether they were right or wrong, but all concerned were aware that most often, they were wrong. The lawyer's life had been reduced to choosing lesser evils, both professionally and personally.
Samantha Hilliard had no way of knowing it but she the stunning attorney had already decided that she didn't want to practice this kind of law anymore. Sterling had sacrificed two of her largest retainers in an effort to see what it felt like to practice on the right side of the law. She would have liked to defend her position to the alluring young woman who had just squealed out of the parking lot. For some unnamed reason, it mattered what Samantha Hilliard thought of her. Shaking her head at the verbal beating she had just taken, survival instincts long buried began to surface. The beautiful barrister was soon surprised to find a smile creeping onto her face. 'It's never over till it's over.'
It was bitterly cold. The wind cut through the thin jacket she wore. Sterling had chosen it over a heavier one hanging in her closet because it looked tough and that took precedence over practicality. 'Of all days for the son of a bitch to be running late. My teeth are chattering for Christ's sake but what am I gonna do, just walk away? He knows I can't do that. Everybody within five miles of where I'm standing knows I can't do that that.'
It was true. Sterling was waiting for a drop. At almost seventeen, she was the senior pick-up person for her area, which meant that she had been doing her job the longest without screwing up or overdosing. Her job entailed standing at a pre-appointed place, usually on a busy street corner and waiting for a punk named Slick to come by and exchange brown paper bags with her. Money for drugs.
As long as she reliably gave Slick the bag of money and turned the bag she received over to the dealer on her block, there was no trouble. Once she had been plagued by curiosity and had looked inside the 'money' sack. Rolled up wads of twenty dollar bills stared up at her. The temptation had only lasted a minute. Sterling had a good memory and she kept getting an image of her predecessor slumped against a brick wall down an alley. He had been covered with blood, unconscious and his right arm had been at too odd an angle not to be severely broken. No, she couldn't afford to get greedy and stir up the wrath of the powers that be.
At seventeen Sterling Hayes walked down the street and men stopped to stare at her. Even wearing her standard uniform of torn and faded blue jeans under cast off men's dress shirts from the thrift store, she could not hide her striking good looks. Sarah Hayes had insisted on keeping her daughter's hair long. As a little girl, often wild and always in need of bathing, Sterling had complained about the sessions of brushing and patient untangling that she'd had to endure. Now, with her mother long dead, Sterling maintained the thick, dark tresses hanging down around her shoulders as a reminder of her mother's patience and gentleness. It was the only gentleness she had ever experienced in her world.
Unsure of her family background, Sterling had no clue as to the source of her dark good looks but didn't feel out of place in a neighborhood where fully half the population descended from Italian ancestry. She moved with a feline grace and maintained a proud posture bordering on arrogance. The fact that she seemed totally unapproachable was no accident. She had cultivated that demeanor most of her life as a defense.
Dressing in clothing chosen from the racks at the Salvation Army had never bothered the young tough. She had a good eye and knew instinctively what worked on her tall frame and what did not. Her years in High School had taught her that having a lot of money didn't necessitate good taste. Many rich girls came to school in outfits that she considered laughable and many more watched Sterling closely so they could imitate her style.
Everyone had a different way of trying to describe the startling quality of Sterling's eyes. She remembered her mother telling her that her eyes held the promise and color of the summer sky.
The door was standing part way open when she got home. 'We've been robbed!' Panic flooded her until the thought sunk in, then she laughed aloud at the possibility. 'What have we got that anybody would possibly want? Roach Motels and Empty Liquor Bottles? The lanky teenager tried to push the door open, but there was something heavy behind it, something that groaned.
'Great! He missed work again.' Sterling knew her father might have been on his way out. Sometimes he did that when she wasn't around to run to the liquor store on the corner for him. Just as likely though, he had been on the way in when he passed out, because Sterling had not seen him the previous evening. She thought that a shame, too since she had dreaded his arrival in their apartment all evening. At midnight, she closed her bedroom door and went to bed fully clothed.
This peculiar habit had become a nightly ritual since her father had started drinking again. Sterling had seen too much and refused to be his punching bag. Five foot ten inches tall and solidly built, she didn't have to be. The young woman knew that she could easily defend herself against the pathetic shell that had once been her father. She had signed up for a self-defense course at the "Y" and liked it so much that she had been attending martial arts classes ever since. Her fear was that she would not be able to stop herself from killing him if she ever got started in a physical scuffle. It was just easier to go into the night and find someplace to hang out until sunrise.
A young cop patrolled the beat that held most of her hiding places. She called him by his last name, Samson. He had helped her once, when she was new to the neighborhood and just turned twelve years old. He had come upon her, probably about to be beaten and possibly raped by three thugs in an alley. The policeman had no trouble convincing them to back off, his reputation for impatience with teenage mob brutality preceded him. Sterling nodded uncomfortably while he explained to her that she should avoid the alleyways in the area at all costs.
"Are you sure that you're OK?" he asked, but remarkably Sterling had shed no tears. She had raised her face then, to whisper her thanks, and the eyes that held too much to be so young, captivated him. Completely taken with her, Samson watched over her from a discreet distance after that but Sterling made herself a promise that night and didn't need his intervention again for many years.
Harry Hayes hadn't always been a drunk and he certainly had not always been abusive. In fact, at one time in his life, he was a loving father, husband, and successful businessman. Then his wife had gotten sick and he became afraid. Falling into a liquor bottle helped when she was in terrible pain. He could not watch, he simply could not see her hurting and himself helpless. The accounting firm in which he had been made a partner could not use the services of a man who often came to work still half-drunk or hung over. His partner had a long talk with him and Harry straightened up for a while.
Twice, during her long battle with lung cancer Sara Hayes rallied and seemed to be on the road to recovery. At those times, Harry was a different person. He cleaned up his act, took care of their modest house in the suburbs and worked hard at his job. Then Sterling would come home from fifth grade and find her mother in bed and her Aunt Audrey busying about the kitchen, fixing dinner. Harry would fall to pieces then. Losing her mother had broken Sterling's heart, too, but Harry had always acted as if it was his loss alone.
Disgusted, she threw her shoulder against the door and pushed him out of the way enough for her to enter. He moaned again but didn't even look up at her. It was practically an everyday occurrence for him to regain consciousness in a strange place. The teenager went into the kitchen to discover unidentifiable spills and an overflowing ashtray. She carefully collected the shards of broken glass in the sink where her father had dropped a glass. Filling the percolator, she lit a burner on the stove and started coffee. "I ought to just let him lay there and die." She shook her head in disgust. How many times had she picked him up? How many pots of coffee had she put on? How many mornings after had she witnessed and how many more could he survive?
As it happened, Harry Hayes was experiencing his very last hangover. Later in that same day, he stepped, unsteadily off the curb while taking a pull from a bottle in the brown bag he carried. The bus driver couldn't stop in time to avoid hitting him and Sterling arrived home from her evening drop, an orphan.
While other teenagers were concerned with getting a date for the prom, Sterling had managed to keep the rent paid on their shabby apartment in the projects. Harry had lost the house soon after his wife's death. Sterling learned quickly what it took to survive in her new neighborhood. Assuming she would be better off the teenager slowly built trust between her self and the local drug franchise. That was how she'd gotten the job that paid enough to cover rent, food and other expenses. She had even paid for her father's booze for a while.
It had now been four months since her father's death and Sterling had a real problem. She borrowed money to bury him and it would soon be time to repay it. In addition, her landlord was suspicious about Harry's whereabouts. She never notified him of her father's death, fearing that the lease would be suspended. Sterling was a very old seventeen, but seventeen just the same and not of legal age to sign a lease.
Slick, the dealer she worked with, had spoken to the higher ups on her behalf and secured the loan for the funeral expenses. Now she owed her soul to the franchise and everybody involved knew it. A proposition had been presented to her the previous day and her deadline for answering it was looming a short two hours away.
There was to be a party at the country estate of Gino Bertilini, the most powerful crime boss in the city, on Saturday. He was hosting dignitaries whose identities it was dangerous to even know. Mr. Bertilini's son Alex was in charge of entertainment and having a hard time finding an acceptable group of young women to attend. The usual fare was too rough for this particular group of guests, according to his father. Alex had to admit he was pretty tired of some of them himself. He needed new faces and put the word out through the family network. Slick made some inquiries and found out that Sterling could pay her entire debt to the family by attending. He thought the news would make him a hero, but the look in her eyes told him otherwise.
"I'm a lot of things you prick, but 'whore' is not one of them!" She spat the words at the young man sitting on the sofa. He had tried every trick her knew to get this girl to give him a tumble. He had offered a free supply of drugs, but she had strict rules about staying a non-user. At twenty-four to her seventeen, he supposed it would be a simple accomplishment to bed her, but for the past year she had fought him on every front. The loan arrangement had been a nice gesture, but not enough to get him there. They had been talking all week about possibilities for repaying the debt. Nothing either of them could come up with would yield Sterling twenty-five hundred dollars in time.
"I never said you was a whore, but you need the money and this is an opportunity to get it." Slick hung his head, sincerely hurt by her attitude.
"I know you're just trying to help me man, but selling my body ? well that's pretty low down. Besides, I can't pull this off. I don't have the clothes for this shit. Even if I did, I'd be clueless how to act and stuff. This is crazy!" She paced the carpet directly in front of him. Her tight young ass was just at eye level for him and he couldn't help taking a look each time she turned away from him. It was getting harder for him to concentrate. He licked his lips and made a suggestion.
"Maybe I can get Joey to have one of the other girls talk to you and tell you what all goes on." Joey was the boss' youngest son. He was, in fact, one of several extra sons in line for the ascendancy of power and felt better about himself when he surrounded himself with underlings like Slick. " You're smarter than all those broads that hang out at his club are. I know you could pull it off if somebody could give you a little help. The clothes thing ain't no problem. All of that is provided. No way Alex would trust some of them girls he hires to dress themselves. They'd all look like sluts and floozies if he did."
No matter how long they talked about it and how hard the dark beauty fought against the inevitability, in the end it was the only salvation offered her and she took it.
'RITZ' proclaimed the pink neon reflecting up at Sterling from the puddled sidewalk. She had walked by the front of the club four times so far and couldn't make herself go in. 'It's not that I'm better than anybody, God knows I work for them already, sort of. I just don't want to have more than a passing acquaintance with any of these guys. Slick can try to sell me that line of shit all day long but I know better. I'll be expected to screw these old goats. She closed her eyes and clenched her jaw. 'I just need to get past that. The who and the how often are what I have to find out.'
Sterling had learned not to have expectations. She also understood that she had a debt to pay and she had no money. That meant that she would have to sell the only thing of value she had remaining. Resigning herself to her fate, the young woman took a deep breath and reached for the brass door pull, entering the cool interior of the sleazy joint with the classy name.
A large man with a face like a caricature came over to her immediately. "Sterling Hayes, here to see Alex Bertilini about a job next weekend? I may be a little late, sorry."
He grunted and motioned for her to follow him through a door into a brightly-lit office. It was tastefully furnished and so drastically different from the sordid interior of the club she'd just walked through, Sterling began to wonder if she was dreaming. An overly made up brunette with huge breasts that were spilling out of a scoop necked tee shirt greeted her. The woman's voice was so high and squeaky; it was all Sterling could do not to laugh.
"Come on with me and I'll tell you the drill. If the interview goes OK I'll send you over for the clothes you'll need."
There were four women all together, riding in the back of the black sedan toward the estate in Newport. Sterling had never met any of them, but they had at least a passing acquaintance of each other. After two or three attempts at drawing her into their conversation, they just left her alone to stew. The other women were only slightly offended by her rebuke.
Sterling began to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation between them. When she put together the facts and realized that one of them was actually a several months younger than she, it made her slightly nauseous. Apparently this was a business that aged women quickly.
'What have I gotten myself into?' Sterling had long since been divested of her virginity, but by her choice. Outside the realm of her sexuality, the irresponsibility and cowardice of her father had sacrificed her worldly innocence. Now she dreaded her first experience as part of the sex for hire team being whisked to a Mob chieftain's social affair. 'If it's possible to go lower than this, I would like to know how.' She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the cool glass of the car window. As the primitive coastal landscape sped by, the young tough allowed herself a moment of self-pity, but only one. Any more than that would have proved disastrous. If she had any options, Sterling wouldn't be on this road, in this predicament.
The car that transported them was a late model stretch Lincoln. Valuable to Gino for his sharp mind, Alex had decided that it would look like he was offering his father's guests cheap goods if he had the women delivered in anything else. Every detail had been seen to, and the first guests had arrived a few hours ago. The boss' son seemed to be in complete control but his palms were sweating and his stomach was on fire. Early that morning, Joey had beaten the hell out of a housemaid he'd been banging for the past few days. Gino detested low class scenes and it had been all Alex could do to clean up the details before his father found out. He was dog-tired of sweeping up after his little brother.
Gino Bertilini had come from nothing to become the head of the largest drug syndicate in Boston. It was no accident that he was a man accustomed to adaptation. Gino had exposed himself to all kinds of humanity on his way up the ladder and had learned a great deal about the motivations and weaknesses of men. He prided himself on his rise above his humble upbringing and insisted on surrounding himself with things of beauty and rarity.
Alex would catch particular hell if his old man found the party girls he had chosen to be low class. "The girls are here, boss," announced a heavyset man a distinct bulge under his jacket where his shoulder holstered weapon resided. Alex gave instructions for them to be shown upstairs immediately. His father and their guests were poolside. The four women would be given a chance to unpack their personal belongings. The clothes selected for them arrived that morning in the van that also brought the expansive liquor supply.
A trip poolside was not mandatory, but Sterling's three protégés hurried to get into swimsuits and join their host and his guests. Each was afraid that the others would latch onto the best catch. Sterling, meanwhile, used the time to study her surroundings. She had been cautioned about wandering the grounds without an escort, but nobody had established any restrictions about the interior of the house.
She changed into a deep burgundy silk lounging suit. The feel of the fabric against her skin was seductive. Although the outfit looked like a pair of men's pajamas to her, the cut of it was very flattering to her muscled, lean form. She brushed her long hair for several minutes before the repetitive motion brought memories of her mother. Knowing how ashamed Sarah Hayes would be to see her daughter in this current predicament, Sterling put the brush away and tried to empty her head of all thoughts.
The young woman barely recognized her own reflection as she passed a mirror in the upstairs hall. Alex had stationed men at strategic locations throughout the house for security reasons. Their presence was necessary, but it was important to The Boss that it be as discreet as possible. Sterling figured that if she ventured anywhere she wasn't supposed to be, they would let her know.
She walked slowly through the downstairs hallway, studying the paintings on the walls. They were undoubtedly expensive, but she had seen priceless paintings before in the museums of Boston. Samson had even accompanied her once, amazed at the focus of the young woman on something so far removed from the ugliness of her everyday existence. As he watched her he was quietly reminded of a child, nose pressed against a toy store window, dreaming of things unobtainable. Gino's collection was exquisite. It was a representation of timeless beauty and drew her magically from one canvas to the next.
The door to the study stood open and Sterling followed her eyes to a still life by Stinsky. She could almost smell the aroma of the apples that she knew to be a favorite subject of his. Hands clasped behind her back, the tall beauty lingered before the canvas, paying tribute to the painter with her eyes.
A silent alarm began clanging inside Sterling's head. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she realized that she was being watched. Scanning the room, she quickly spotted a distinguished man seated behind a desk near the center of the vast space.
"Sorry. I had no idea anyone was using this room." Sterling spoke quietly, and turned to beat a hasty retreat.
"No harm. I am impressed with your appreciation of fine paintings." His smile was sincere, but his overall countenance was that of a predator. Sterling sensed danger. He stood and moved to greet his guest, extending his hand for her to shake.
"Gino Bertilini, your host for the weekend. I am enchanted." He bowed over her hand and kissed it. Sterling had to remind herself that this was an infamous mobster and evil drug lord even though he was doing one heck of a Cary Grant impersonation.
"I'm pleased to meet you Mr. Bertilini?"
"No, no, no. You must call me Gino, otherwise I will feel like the antiquity that I am." His dark eyes crinkled into a charming smile and Sterling felt herself begin to relax a bit. "I don't know how my son happens to know a beautiful young woman like you, but I am grateful that he has invited you here this weekend. Normally, his female friends aren't particularly interested in art or beauty beyond their link to monetary value."
Sterling studied the barrel-chested Italian. He was disarmingly handsome at fifty. Barely as tall as she, he carried himself in such a way that he seemed like a giant standing before her. Gino had dark eyes and hair, beginning to show a hint of gray at the temples. Dressed impeccably in steel gray slacks and a black silk shirt that mirrored his every move, he might have been any businessman. His body was muscular, broad shoulders funneling into a trim waistline. The thin white line of a scar running up the curve of his right jaw was the only visible reminder of the dues he must have paid to get to his current station in life.
Sterling was immobilized by her reaction to his presence. His eyes were penetrating and showed her his power, revealing the feral beast within him. Gino still had hold of her hand and showed no signs of releasing it. "I have some special paintings in my private study that I would like to show you. Perhaps after dinner?" Sterling nodded her assent, too captivated by her sophisticated host to realize his real intentions.
"Shall we join the others by the pool? We can sit on the veranda in the shade if you like and at least seem sociable." He smiled at her, released her hand and pointed the way.
"What are we going to do Jake?" Pregnant in her senior year of high school, Samantha was in serious trouble and pleaded for Jake's attention as his eyes scanned the other students loitering in the gym.
"Look Sam, it's not such a big deal. I know someone who can give us a name." He looked at her now. "You don't want to have this baby do you? I'm too young to be a father."
'Apparently not,' she thought to herself but she didn't need to remind him or herself that they had been foolish having unprotected sex. Sam was maddest at herself, because she had not been blinded by love or anything. It was just a spur of the moment decision to try sex with Jake, mostly out of curiosity and she was going to have to live with the consequences.
Making sure she had his attention, Samantha made a request. "See what you can find out and how much it costs by this weekend. I don't really know how much time we have, but I think the sooner we take care of it the better off we'll all be."
Jake assured her that he would call her that night and give her all the information.
He didn't call that night of course or the next night either. Samantha knew that he had started dating a cheerleader, which was why he was looking around the whole time she was with him in the gym that day. He couldn't afford to make his new girl mad by being seen publicly with her. 'God, I am so stupid.' She let go a huge sigh just as her mother turned through the doorway and invaded the privacy of Sam's bedroom.
"Have you made any decision about the Prom?"
Sam just shook her head and tried not to laugh in her mother's face. 'Maybe I could meet this 'doctor' at the hotel where the prom is being held. I could have the abortion and then just go on downstairs to the dance.' She was really out there with her thoughts these days. A dozen scenarios had been invented, all involving a masked and gloved doctor. They accomplished the abortion on a roller coaster, in an elevator, in a parked car at the mall and now at the prom. The young woman needed to talk to somebody because she was losing it.
"Aunt Jane, it's Samantha. Do you have a minute?" Her father's sister was the only one in the family she could trust with this information. Fortunately Jane was willing to listen and didn't start hurling judgements right away, like her own mother would have. Jane needed some time to let all of it sink in, before sitting down with her favorite niece. They made plans for Sam to spend the weekend. Jane would come up with the appropriate lies to tell Sam's mother, Mattie.
It was a good plan, all in all. Unfortunately the abdominal pains that started while Sam was at the mall Friday night, rendered that plan useless and necessitated another, more urgent one.
"Mrs. Rogers, I need you to fill out these forms for me, front and back. As soon as the doctor has examined her, I'll come out and get you." The emergency room nurse's smile seemed genuine enough, but it was wasted on Jane. Her brother and sister-in-law were at Calloway Gardens for a golfing weekend and she was in the emergency room at Northside Hospital helping her niece have a miscarriage. The staff hadn't questioned her maternity. She had the same deep green eyes as her niece, and the same abundance of dirty blonde hair. She thanked God over and over that she had been at home when Sam called her.
The young woman propped up in the hospital bed looked tired and unfamiliar. Her eyes fluttered open for a moment and she recognized her aunt standing beside the bed, holding her hand. Samantha had wanted to be rid of her pregnancy, but she could not help but shed some tears now that she was. Jane cried with her for a while, then pulled up a chair and propped her feet on the lower rails of the hospital bed to watch Sam sleep.
Christmas vacation was only a week away. Mattie Hilliard had been on one for over a month, trying to get her daughter to commit to a dance and two parties over the holidays. Samantha had dodged the bullet so far, but her mother had stepped up her campaign. "Phone Sam! I think it's your Mom!"
"God! Will she never give it up? I don't know what it will take."
"Sure you do. You know exactly what it's gonna take, but I don't recommend that you go through with it." Sally Farrell was Sam's best friend. They had started their freshman year together at Auburn University and were still roommates in their junior year. The coeds had helped each other through shattered romances. Each had held the other's head over the commode on more than one drunken occasion. They had suffered their academic agonies together as well. Sally had met Sam's mother on only two occasions but knew from all the late night talks she'd had with her roommate that Mattie Hilliard was not going to take the news well.
"I want to tell her Sally. I'm really tired of this charade and she won't stop cramming me down the throat of every available man in Metro Atlanta. What is the worst thing that can happen?"
"She'd never speak to you again. HMMMMmmm. There's no loss there, though is there?" Sally laughed.
"I better go grab the phone. She's on hold long distance and besides costing her money, it's giving her time to polish up her arguments for the Christmas Dance." Sam rolled her eyes heavenward and started down the hall.
"Merry Christmas Daddy! I'm so glad to see you!" Sam threw her arms around her father in a heartfelt hug, which he gratefully returned. The young woman turned to her mother who briefly wiped her lips against Sam's hair in lieu of a real greeting.
"You're late Samantha and we have so many things to do tonight," Mrs. Hilliard scolded. "Sam, get her luggage upstairs will you?" He saluted sarcastically and turned to his appointed duty. Samantha loved it when her dad fought back, even if he only did it with humor. "Sam!" Samantha and Mr. Hilliard both responded.
"What?" They looked at each other and laughed. "It's your own fault," Samantha nudged him in the ribs. "You shouldn't have named me after yourself." It hadn't been a problem until she went away to school and encouraged everyone on campus to call her just 'Sam'. Now she was used to answering to the shortened version of her name and it drove her mother crazy when she was at home.
"I wasn't speaking to you SAMANTHA." She deliberately exaggerated the pronunciation. Mrs. Hilliard rattled off her instructions to her husband. "Come on in the kitchen Samantha while I check on dinner. We need to talk about the party tomorrow night."
'We sure do,' Sam thought. She had made a big decision; one she knew was not going to go over well. In fact, she feared that it might cause a serious rift between herself and her parents. After a great deal of soul searching and self-examination, Samantha Hilliard had discovered that she loved women and one woman in particular. Hating confrontation, Sam had spent the last three months getting up her nerve to announce this fact to her folks. She didn't want to ruin the holidays for her family, but her Mother wouldn't take no for an answer and Sam had no intention of being pawed by some country club gigolo at the Christmas dance just to please her mother. Besides, it was hard enough spending so much time away from Sharon. Sam wasn't about to tell the love of her life that she'd spent several evenings over Christmas being hit on by local studs. Sharon would break somebody's arm.
Sharon had, in fact, wanted to spend Christmas with Sam so badly that she asked to come home to Atlanta with her lover. In a panic, that involved several late night strategy sessions with her friend Sally, Sam came up with several reasons she could give Sharon why it was a bad idea. In reality, she could just see how her mother would react to Sharon's masculine mannerisms and her butch appearance. It would be hard enough to confess her sexual preference in concept. Meeting the object of her daughter's affection would finish Mattie Hilliard off. The second time a goodbye kiss with Sharon had resulted in passionate lovemaking, Sam knew this trip home would be hard to handle for everyone.
"This is the last of it." Depositing the last dinner plate in the sink, Sam Hilliard came up behind his wife and put his arms around her waist. He nuzzled her neck, causing her to stiffen and pull away from him. He shrugged his shoulders and moved into a chair at the kitchen table, beside his daughter.
"I'm glad you're here Dad. There's something I've been trying to tell Mom for a while and she doesn't seem to get it. I've tried to say this in so many ways?" she stared at the floor hoping for some miraculous message to reveal itself there. He nodded, encouraging her to go on. The love he felt for his daughter was obvious and it gave her the strength to speak.
"Mom, Dad, I'm in love with a woman." Samantha waited, expecting the ceiling to fall in at minimum. She searched her father's face and detected no change from the previous minute, which relieved her. Her mother's face however was changing shades, light to darker red, then almost purple. Her mouth opened and closed, just like the goldfish that Sharon had in a bowl at her apartment.
"We'll need to send you somewhere so that you can get help" were the first words out of Mrs. Hilliard's mouth.
"I'm not ill Mother, I've just made a choice about how I want to live my life and it wasn't an easy one either." Sam looked from her mother to her father, waiting.
"Ridiculous! I have never heard anything so disgusting in my life!" That was the expected reaction and Mattie did not disappoint her daughter.
"I know you don't understand Mother and I'm sorry if it hurts you." Trying to remember some of the things she had rehearsed with Sally she grasped for something to say. "It has nothing to do with the way you and daddy raised me."
"I should say not! We did everything for you, gave you everything?" Mrs. Hilliard could only sputter. Her vocabulary seemed to be lost somewhere.
"Now Mattie, she's our daughter first and anything else comes after that." Sam loved her father at this moment more than ever before and that was considerable.
"Don't try to appease me Sam. It's an abomination! Our only child is a queer! That's going to be fine news for her grandparents now isn't it?"
It was the first of many low blows. Samantha hadn't seen it coming though and tears popped into her eyes as if she had been slapped. Mattie was concerned with what the people at the club would think. Suddenly she thought about the parents of the young men she had matched Samantha up with for various holiday festivities. What could she tell them? If the word got out, she would be mortified! She struck out at her daughter, wanting to deal her the kind of earth shattering blow she had been dealt. She sagged against the countertop, her back to the rest of her family.
"You're upset Mother and this is startling news for you. Why don't I just go upstairs to bed and we can talk about this some more when we've all had some rest and a little time to adjust?"
Her mother spun on her. "I have a better idea 'Missy'. Why don't you just get your luggage and get out of this house?!" The demonic look in Mattie's eyes shocked both her husband and her daughter.
"Mattie, you don't mean that and you know it!" Sam Hilliard protested, but his fear was realized when she delivered her ultimatum.
"You go, or I go. Do you understand me? It's as simple as that." Mattie Hilliard was five foot eight to her daughter's five foot five and had to lean down to do it, but these damning words were delivered eye to eye. Sam stared at her, letting the full flush of anger rise into her cheeks while words formed in her mind.
"I will not let you make me feel ashamed of who I am Mother. I realize that you're upset, but if you would let me tell you how happy I am now that I've found out?"
Mrs. Hilliard waved both of her hands in Samantha's face to stop her. "No! I don't want to know any of it. You can keep your perverted little stories to yourself." She exited the kitchen and swept up the stairs, slamming the door to the master bedroom.
Samantha and her father looked forlornly at each other. When the tears started streaming down his daughter's face, Sam Hilliard opened his arms and took her into his embrace. They held on to each other, trying to think, to understand what had just transpired. He would fight his wife over his daughter's happiness if that was what Sam needed from him. "I'll speak to her." He started after his wife, but his daughter caught hold of his arm and stopped him.
"No dad. There's gonna be enough hell for you to pay around here as it is. Don't do that to yourself, too." She hung her head and a single teardrop fell onto the toe of her trendy workboot. "I think I'll call Aunt Jane and see if she'll take me in for a few days. I want to believe that some part of Christmas can be salvaged. Maybe if I give her a little time and some space, she can come to terms with it." Sam smiled for her father, because she knew that he knew that both of their hearts were breaking. Her smile was the only gift she could give him at the moment.
"So, how's my favorite niece? You sounded terrible on the phone. What are you and Mattie fighting about now? She trying to put you in a prom dress again?" Jane's laughter died out when she saw the tears start trailing down Sam's face. "Whoa there. Why don't you come into the kitchen and tell me what this is about?" She steered Samantha by the arm and yelled to her husband as they went by the den. "Sam and I are gonna have a little girl talk in the kitchen, Al." They had been married long enough for him to realize that meant the kitchen was off limits and he wasn't expected to help entertain his wife's niece. He turned the volume for the football game up a notch.
"OK, talk to me girl." Jane moved around the kitchen, putting the kettle on for tea and setting out cups and saucers. Sam smiled; thinking that offering her a soothing cup of tea was a very 'Aunt Jane' thing to do in a dilemma.
"After the way my mother reacted, I'm not sure I want to share this information with you. If you go off the deep end too I won't have any family left."
Jane squeezed her shoulder and gave her a warm smile. "Honey, nothing you could ever tell me would change the way I love you. P.S. Never, ever, compare me with your mom or expect parallel reactions. She is your mother and my brother's wife and as much as I love her, we are two very different people." ?and don't like each other most of the time.'
Samantha was feeling braver and ready to spill it when the teakettle started to whistle. With her back to her niece Jane went about pouring the water into mugs and dunking the tea bags. She encouraged Sam to continue. "I'm listening. Go ahead."
She would have and could have, but it was a help that Sam didn't have to watch her Aunt's reaction. Sam readied herself, but still found herself in total shock when she realized that Jane was laughing.
"Is that all you're worried about? My gosh Sam, I figured that out long ago. The fact that your mother hasn't tells me how hard she works at not seeing reality."
"You knew? But you never said anything, or let on at all." Sam was stunned.
"It's no big thing. In fact Sam and I talked about it once, briefly." The young woman was truly agog now. "He said that he has always considered it a part of his role as you father to protect your innocence. Your dad told me that it would be easier for him to accept in some ways if you chose to give yourself to another woman. I understand that and I told him so."
The shock on her face was beginning to fade, but the young woman's emotions were adrift in a serious storm. "I want to believe that he isn't disappointed in me." Sam listened as Jane gave her the reassurance that they both realized she needed.
"Honey, your daddy loves you to no end! I don't have to tell you that. Anyway your mama will come around. Let me tell you something." She set the cups in their saucers before them and began stirring sugar into her own tea. "Your mother was a very beautiful woman once, like you are now. She was always kind of spoiled by it. See, in those days, a beautiful woman wasn't expected to be anything else. The world has changed, but she won't and it bothers her to see anybody playing by a different set of rules. Oh, she loves my brother and make no mistake, he has been crazy about her since he laid eyes on her twenty-nine years ago, but he accepts her without condition. Of course, in this case, he's gonna have to choose between her and what is right. That will be hard for Sam, but he'll manage it. Don't give up on your daddy."
Samantha listened and grew calmer as her Aunt talked on. Jane told Sam about the days when her parents had been younger and so obviously in love. She might have been trying to convince Sam that her mother had been a real human being at one time. She couldn't explain when asked how Mattie Hilliard had evolved from that person to her present day self. Finally as midnight approached, Jane led her niece up the stairs to the guestroom.
They found an extra blanket for the bed and Jane encouraged her to call her friend if she needed to. It was the most touching of a large group of kindnesses and Sam could hardly contain her emotions. As Jane was pulling the door closed so that Samantha would have some privacy for her call, she stopped. "If I had ever been blessed with a daughter Sam, I would have wished with my whole heart to have one like you. I mean that, honey." The door closed and she was gone.
Six years went by before Samantha and her mother had a real reconciliation. Even then, there was often an iciness between mother and daughter that made things difficult. Sharon had long gone from Samantha's life and she had moved on. The Bachelors degree in English that she carried away from Auburn with her was a far cry from a meal ticket. Having focused on graduation day for the first twenty-one years of her life, Samantha studied the rolled parchment in her hand and wondered what on earth she was supposed to do next.
A number of false starts and side trips had led her into the real estate business. Sam, least of all, would have ever believed she could be good at something that involved so much confrontation and negotiation. Unshakable integrity, a low-key approach and her meticulous attention to details made her a trusted realtor in the re-emerging Atlanta neighborhood where she had chosen to specialize.
"Of course I'm disappointed that you can't come down this weekend, but I can look forward to your abuse next month instead. Give me a call when the smoke settles Sally." Samantha's college roommate came to visit her often in Atlanta. Wife and mother of two small boys, Sally welcomed any opportunity to escape her home for a few days of Southern hospitality. The current trip had been planned for months, but at the last minute one of the boys had come home with measles. His brother was sure to follow suit and Sally didn't have the heart to "leave the little monsters" with their dad.
Samantha pictured the tow headed brothers, who might have been twins to look at them, tearing through the house armed with imaginary guns and raising a ruckus. A picture of Sally and her family hung on the wall of Sam's office in a place where she could easily glance up and see it. Through most of the last ten years, it represented the only family she had known, except her Aunt Jane and of course Janet.
"Line one, boss." Peter studied her closely, which was nothing new. Sam wondered if she was guilty of a fashion faux pas. He was always quick to let her know if anything about her appearance was either good or bad. "One of the advantages of working with a queen," he told her.
"What? You're looking me over like a prize heifer."
"I noticed your lights on late last night. I was just trying to determine if you got any. Finally."
She pitched a pencil at him, which he caught handily before pivoting gracefully and leaving her office. Sam loved Peter although he could be very nosy and overprotective of her. It had been three years since she had sold him a house across the street from her own. They had grown very close almost immediately, and the vibrant young man took an interest in everything Sam did. When he lost his secretarial job in Midtown, she had hired him. While he sometimes got on her nerves, Peter was tremendously efficient and had been a real find where business was concerned.
"Hello. Oh, hi Steve. I've got some great news for you guys. Your offer has been accepted." She went on to give her client the details of the contract she had negotiated for him and his partner. Sam had shown them over twenty houses before they found the one that they couldn't live without. Not all of her deals had as happy an ending as this one promised to have, but she would be glad to welcome these young professionals to the neighborhood.
As soon as she hung up her phone, Peter re-appeared in the doorway of her office. "Don't forget, Rob is doing your hair in a half hour. He can be a real bitch if you're late." Samantha made a face. She couldn't recall why she had promised Peter that she would subject herself to this, although in fleeting moments, she admitted that a new look might be nice.
"Why don't you go with me and divert some of the criticism? I hate it when he starts in about my split ends and un-tweezed eyebrows." Trying to look pitiful sometimes had the desired effect where her secretary was concerned.
"OK, but I'm not coming back here after that. You can straighten out your own voice mails tomorrow morning. Deal?"
Forty minutes later she sat, caped and ready for the stylist's scissors to do their magic. Unfortunately Rob and Peter had been arguing for ten minutes about what the appropriate cut should be. They compromised by deciding on something short for Rob, and something blonder to please Peter.
"I guess nobody is interested in my opinion, right?" The two men never even acknowledged her remark, but were busily selecting a shade of blonde. Two hours later, Rob spun the chair around and Sam saw her image in the huge mirror for the first time. The change was fairly drastic, but very flattering. She touched her neck where her shoulder length tresses had hung earlier that day, in an effort to get used to the bareness of it. The color change was subtler, leaving her undeniably blonde instead of her natural borderline shade.
Peter and Rob waited, getting more nervous as the silent seconds ticked by. Only now did either of them entertain the possibility that they had made a mistake in their judgement.
"Wow!" Sam's face lit up. "I suppose you'll start with the blonde jokes now, huh?" She studied first one profile and then the other before giving both of the men a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks, guys." Samantha glanced at her watch and realized that she was going to be late meeting Janet for dinner. "Gotta go, but thanks, really."
Sam caught her own reflection in the glass front of a shop in Virginia Highlands as she made her way down the sidewalk to the TapRoom. It was one of her favorite places to eat in the whole city, and her ex-lover Janet had grudgingly agreed to join her. Janet loved Sam's company but always groused about eating in nice places. She really had no appreciation for good food and said they were wasted on her.
'Janet's going to be surprised when she sees the new hairdo. I can't wait to see what she says. Apparently I needed a change and didn't know it, because I like it a lot!' The vivacious young woman smoothed her skirt and went into the restaurant.
As soon as Sam entered the crowded bar she recognized Janet's back at a high top table in the corner and automatically smiled in response. Her course dark hair was cut short and she was dressed, as always, in a sedate blazer over dress slacks. Sam knew that she had dozens of outfits, all basically the same in her closet. There was an unused glass sitting on the table next to a half empty bottle of beer. "I see you still prefer to drink straight from the bottle. I never could teach you any manners, could I?" Sam's ex looked at her for a few seconds before recognition lit up her countenance.
"Well hello! My gosh, what have you done to yourself?" Janet stood and accepted a warm hug from her friend. "You look fantastic! Now I'll REALLY never stop kicking myself for giving you up."
"It's always nice to hear you speak the truth. Thanks for the compliment, do you really like it?" She reached up and fluffed the back of her hair.
"You're fishing now. I'll never understand why you're insecure about how gorgeous you are." Sam's friend took her seat again, explaining that there was a short wait to get a table for dinner.
The truth Sam spoke of had to do with the fact that Janet had never gotten over their break up and probably never would. Even though it had been her fault, she realized when it was too late just how much she felt for Samantha. The hurt between them was deep by then and the damage irreparable. When enough time had gone by for Sam's hurt to start healing, she realized that they were simply destined to hang on to their seven years as friends and let go of their four years as a couple. She loved Janet too much to simply let her go altogether.
They caught up on the happenings of the past few weeks. Both of them had been swamped with work. In fact, Janet had been in Washington representing the software-marketing firm she worked for all week. When they finally got to a short lull in the conversation, the young computer executive interjected, "I heard through the grapevine that you're seeing somebody?"
"The grapevine extends all the way to Washington, huh?" Sam countered, but blushed slightly as well. It was impossible for her to hide anything from this woman who had shared so much of her life. "I've been out a couple of times, yes."
"Who are you seeing? Spill it, Sam." The dark haired woman smiled, inviting her friend's confidence, until Sam finally caved in.
"The people in this town need to find something more interesting to gossip about than my social life. I go out occasionally. I have dated a couple of women more than once, but I'm not interested in anything serious."
Janet sighed deeply and took a long pull on the bottle in front of her.
Sam knew her too well and couldn't let her friend's reaction pass without comment. "You gave up the right to be relieved by that news a long time ago, you know." Janet tried to look as if she didn't know what her friend was talking about. "You needn't worry on any account because I've about reconciled myself to living alone. I'm getting too old to tolerate anyone else's bad habits or to compromise by giving up any of mine." They were approached by the hostess, letting them know that their table was ready. The two friends went in to dinner.
Gino Bertilini had developed a real appreciation for art in his life. In fact, the years of increasing his vast power and wealth had become a boring proposition until he realized that he could use both to surround himself with objects of beauty. Sterling soaked up the benefits of Gino's wealth as if they were rays of sunshine. After that weekend in Newport, she never went back to the pitiful apartment in the projects. He gloried in her transition from street punk to sophisticated young woman and reveled in the opportunity to share what he revered with so appreciative an audience.
The lessons she learned were lasting. Another individual might have been afraid of the power that allowed Gino to order the death of a man as casually as he might order dinner in a restaurant, but it was what drew Sterling to him.
A sexual novice compared to a man of Gino's experience, the young woman had a patient teacher in her fifty-year-old lover. Gino had been amazed at the seductive allure of such a tantalizing female. He could only wonder what her youth had been like and congratulated himself on finding her for himself.
The two lovers were well suited. He was the stable older man she had always needed in her life. Sterling was his midlife brush with mortality. She was spirited enough to challenge him and he taught her everything about the good life. They traveled and dined out at restaurants mostly belonging to his friends. They even occasionally went dancing which was something she had ever done before. Sterling was surprised to find that she not only enjoyed the latter, she was good at it.
The ringing phone seemed more urgent than usual. She debated whether to abandon the stair stepper and answer it or not. Sterling hated for her exercise routine to be interrupted but instinctively felt that she should answer the phone. "Hello!" Left breathless by the sprint it took to get there before the machine picked it up, all she could do was smile at the voice that greeted her.
"Hang on a second." She carried the phone on her shoulder as she grabbed a towel from her bathroom and moved into the den. Sterling half-sat on the corner of the priceless Empire desk that had been her most recent birthday present. "Now, I can talk. What's up with you today Gino?" As he spoke, she realized where she was sitting in her sweaty work out clothes and jumped up, chastising herself.
It had been three and a half years now since that day he had spotted her in the hallway outside his office in Newport. Sterling was his equal now, capable of feeling comfortable in practically any social situation. She was sleek and sophisticated in every way. Both of them were capable of being bright and witty or stoic and intense. Fortunately, they rarely occupied the same end of the spectrum. It was a good match.
"I've been orchestrating the takeover of a dry cleaning chain in New Jersey all day. Pretty boring stuff, compared to your Asian history exam. How did you do?"
It always amazed Sterling that he could head a business that employed hundreds, run a family that included a sick wife, six sons, a daughter plus three grandchildren and still keep accurate track of what was happening in her day to day life.
"I probably should have done better, but I hate essay questions and this guy just insists on having us write volumes. You'd think he'd be tired of our bullshit by now."
Gino cleared his throat. A real study in contradiction, the crime boss had made a project of policing his young mistress' language and this was his way of exhibiting his displeasure with her choice of words. "Sorry. It just slipped out. Sometimes you just have to call them like you see them though, Gino." He laughed.
Sterling ceaselessly amused and amazed him. Over time, the physical relationship that had been their beginning changed into something closer. He had been in love with the young beauty from the first moment he had laid eyes on her. It was his most carefully guarded secret. He could never tell her or anyone else for that matter. A man like Gino Bertilini could not afford to love anything.
"You feel like going out to dinner tonight? I'm kind of restless and I hear there's a great new place over near the track."
She laughed at him. The man had so much class and polish that he could hold his own with foreign dignitaries, yet his love for gambling made him by his own admission, just another thug. The excitement he displayed while watching his horse cross the finish line in first place was rivaled only by the passion he displayed when he was with her.
Law school had been his idea and a good one. Gino could have given her money and did, but education was a gift that she could keep even when he was gone. At fifty-three to her twenty-one, it was an inevitability that she would outlive him.
She surprised everyone, especially herself, with her academic abilities. Often commended by her professors for hard work, she was frequently snubbed by her classmates for the same reason. No matter, a bright mind and tenacious will had been turned loose.
Upon graduation, Sterling asked for and received a job in the offices of Gino's attorney. Stanley Reed's firm had represented the Families' interest for Gino's entire career. Reed had, in fact, ridden the mobsters' coattails for thirty-five years. The two men had mutual trust, a rarity in their respective businesses. Stan understood his boss' attraction to the dark beauty of his new law associate. He would have liked to pursue Sterling for himself, but it would cost him his practice and probably his life. No woman was worth that in his estimation, was she?
"Come in." Stan was hanging up the phone when he heard the tap on his door. "Sterling, hello. I have something I need to speak with you about." The head of the firm was the complete antithesis of Gino. Overweight and pasty complected; even the twelve hundred-dollar suits he wore couldn't make him look presentable. Reed's piggy eyes ran over her in a way that made the young woman feel dirty. He had made his career out of accurate character judgement and he knew that the flawless beauty before him was way outside of his grasp. Reed silently acknowledged the fact and shook his head in regret before getting down to business.
"I'm assigning you to the Sartori case. I think it would be good experience for you and at the same time it will show me what you're made of."
The young attorney stared wide-eyed at the man behind the desk. The Sartori trial would have very high visibility and any mistakes would happen in front of the media opening the firm up to attack from the opposition. Offering this assignment showed a lot of trust in the novice attorney. "I don't know what to say Mr. Reed."
"No need to thank me. You'll be cursing me before it's over. There's a lot of grunt work in this one and you'll be doing most of it. I don't want to hear it from Gino either. Maybe you should talk to him before?"
"I don't need permission Mr. Reed. I realize I got this job because of him, but I intend to earn my keep and then some. All I expect is a chance to prove myself." As soon as Stan Reed recognized this as the beginning of a potentially long speech, he raised his hands to quiet her.
"Ok, OK. I meant no offense. Report to Jeffries and see where you're needed the most." As she left his office, Stan Reed reflected on the reaction of his fellow lawyers to his generosity in giving Sterling such a plum assignment. He knew for sure that some of them would assume she was screwing him behind Gino's back. The thought had a certain appeal. Having people believe it was almost as good as if it were true.
O'Hara was scum. He was the kind of man who could not keep his hands off the teenaged girls he busted on his beat. It was well known among the kids in the neighborhood that when he nabbed one for possession of drugs he would accept sexual favors as payment for letting her go free. His perversion drove him to patrol the neighborhood steadily looking for offenders.
Samson had graduated from being a beat cop years ago, but he still had connections in the neighborhoods where O'Hara patrolled. The detective started to hear rumors and made it a point to talk to some of the old contacts from the projects to see if there was any truth in them. When the detective walked through the door into the sour smelling apartment to meet the young girl for the first time, he was shocked. Her eyes were hazel, not blue like Sterling's, but there was a definite resemblance, a haunting one. Samson had set up an interview with what might have been a beautiful fourteen-year-old, if she didn't have the drug habit. Now, she also carried the demons of submitting to forced sex with a pig. One nightmare was feeding the other in this miserable young woman's life.
It might have been Sterling. It could have been her fate, to spiral downward one day at a time. Much as Samson disagreed with the path she had chosen, at least she hadn't been subjected to this. Had he not been the officer patrolling the projects, willing to look the other way while she supported her drunken father and herself, this burned out fourteen-year-old staring coldly into his eyes could be Sterling. It helped him make up his mind. It gave Samson the added incentive he needed to go after that dirty bastard O'Hara. He couldn't do much about the wave of crime and corruption that was sweeping across the city that he had once loved, but by God, he could sweep up the city's own trash by taking O'Hara off the street.
Several underage girls came forward once the investigation began. The department tried to keep the matter quiet and let internal affairs handle it, but it was too good a story for the local reporters. O'Hara was in deep shit. He was going to jail for a long time. His wife was leaving him, his career was over and he was guaranteed a prison stay. The rotten cop had heard the stories for years about what inmates do to child molesters.
Gino had been funneling money to O'Hara for years to keep his eyes closed and his mouth shut. It was standard practice and certainly not limited to one beat officer, but things were getting hot for the cop and the Bertilinis were watching the situation closely. There were no surprises when one of the mobsters' trusted sources sent word that O'Hara had offered to cooperate with the district attorney in exchange for ratting out the Bertilinis. He had decided that the only chance he had was the promised help of a distant physiological clinic and a new beginning in the witness protection program. O'Hara knew better, that the mob's justice would not be so easily avoided, but the pressure got to him and he accepted what was offered.
The business meetings in Miami were important. Gino had decided that he had to attend, leaving Alex, his oldest in charge. Every few hours, a telephone would be handed to the powerful man and he would nod and speak in abbreviated sentences. The messages were becoming urgent, but Gino warned his sons to stay calm and wait the situation out. He hoped that O'Hara would keep his mouth shut at least until he concluded his business in Miami.
Joseph Bertilini was reminded daily that he was the youngest son. He grew into an angry adolescent very early and though he aged, Joey never became anything else. At twenty-four, he remained an angry adolescent. He resented Alex and his handling of the situation with O'Hara. He thought the family should take him out right away to control the amount of damage that the dirty cop could do. The majority of his brothers agreed with his sentiments but none would go along with his plan to hire an assassin. Gino was very much in charge, and would not like interference.
That is why Joey made the mistake of hiring an unknown gunman. No one else would take the job, unless the offer came from Gino himself.
Al Sartori flew into town to commit a murder. A killer for hire for the past three years, Al Sartori was determined to make a name for himself with this hit. Unfortunately, when he reached the Boston airport, his was the suitcase x-rayed and opened to reveal his forty-five automatic. Custom made, it bore no manufacturer's markings, which raised enough suspicion to practically start a riot among the airport security guards. They waited anxiously in the baggage claim area to see who would come forward to claim the cheap battered suitcase containing a weapon worth several thousand of dollars.
Sartori would have been insulted by their conservative estimate. The killer was intercepted by a Bertilini employee who informed him of the development in the baggage claim area and spirited him away from the uniformed army waiting there.
Although grateful that he had been ticketed under an assumed identity, the gunman was just sick about the loss of his lucky automatic. Angelo, his driver told him "there's something in the trunk that will take care of your headache." Angelo pulled over on the corner of a street lined with abandoned warehouses, handed Sartori the keys and stepped out of the car. Just then a silver sedan pulled up. The heavyset man got in and was gone.
Angelo would not have been Gino's choice to handle an important mission. He just wasn't very smart. Joey on the other hand, had his complete loyalty for the same reason. Angelo hadn't asked where the gun in the trunk had come from; he just assumed it to be another of the typical, untraceable variety that were abundant among the various offices and automobiles that the Bertilinis worked out of. He only knew that it was there in the first place because he'd had to change a flat tire the previous month and it had fallen out of the case that held the jack assembly. The gun had in fact been a present to Joey's spirited new wife, who surprised him by refusing to have it in the house. The forty caliber Glock, a legal, registered purchase, had been residing in the boot of a company car ever since.
Al Sartori found a discreet hotel within walking distance from the jail where O'Hara was being held. Within twenty-four hours O'Hara was mysteriously murdered as he was being transported to a facility for mental evaluation. No one was surprised that the high powered security promised O'Hara had failed. No one much cared that he was dead, except the DA. He was devastated at losing his key source of evidence against Gino Bertilini. Imagine the pleasure he took in the news that O'Hara's murderer had been identified to subway security by two witnesses and brought in for immediate questioning. Imagine his further delight at discovering that the murder weapon had been dropped at the scene. Even that was nothing compared to the ecstasy he experienced when he found out that the murder weapon was a gun registered to none other than Joey Bertilini.
All hell broke loose. The media went on full alert, Gino flew home in a fury at the fumbling and bumbling that had gone on under the noses of his older sons. Business was never discussed in the presence of Gino's family, but when he arrived home, frustrated, angry and stung by his wife's accusations concerning their youngest son sitting in jail, he exploded. Alex the oldest, had been left in charge as always and suffered his father's wrath. He was sporting an angry cut at the corner of his mouth within minutes of Gino's arrival. Gino had lost it and hit him in front of the entire family, including Alex's wife. It was not the first time Alex was being blamed for the stupidity and inadequacies of his younger brother. It didn't help matters that Joey, who had been questioned and released, had walked in at precisely that moment; smiling and cocksure that he would come out of the whole situation unscathed.
The beep had sounded and Gino was supposed to be leaving a message for her, but he always felt so damned stupid doing that. This was the third time in as many days that he had tried to contact Sterling and make plans. Stan hadn't been kidding when he'd said that Sterling would be very busy on the case. It was beginning to be a source of irritation for the powerful man, not to mention the eternal bickering from his wife whenever his mistress' photo was published in the papers. Gino was discreet with his affair and shared an unspoken agreement with his wife that as long as he kept it under wraps, she would be tolerant. It only became a sore spot between them when Sterling became involved in defending Joey.
He frowned as he broke the connection on his cell phone, picturing her pouring over law books at the library. Gino had never known anyone with such ambition and drive. She reminded him very much of himself as a younger man.
Stan Reed's defense team needed to get Sartori off. His guilt would provide the link between Joey and O'Hara's death, a plausible scenario of hired murder to defend the family honor. If they could prove his innocence and get the trial out of the papers, a strong alibi and Joey's story of an unreported gun theft might fly in conjunction with enough well placed bribes.
The key was in exposing O'Hara as a greater evil than the crime being tried. The defense team needed all of the dirt on the slain policeman that they could find. Young Sterling had donned ragged blue jeans and a tee shirt, an outfit reminiscent of her days living in the projects, and gone in search of testimony that her team could use to assassinate the character of the dirty cop. People were glad to slam O'Hara. Having to live on trash littered streets that teemed with dope dealers and in project apartments infested with rats was bad enough without having to deal with the likes of him.
It had been too easy, almost. Sterling had a series of tapes that had been made during interviews with various people in the neighborhoods where the scummy cop worked. Many hours had gone into the project. Some of the doors she knocked on opened to screaming babies and the stench of garbage. Her past came flooding back with each siren that screamed by the stoops that she sat on, asking questions.
Samson got wind of her questioning and followed her at a discreet distance. Only once had he felt his hand tighten around the grip on his 45 automatic.
"What's in it for me mama? You gonna give me some of that pretty pussy if I tell you what you want to know?" As soon as the street punk opened his mouth Sterling realized that he was high as a kite. That made him useless to her and dangerous at the same time. Backing away she felt the accustomed tension of her younger years on the street flood into her body. Sterling put her mouth on automatic.
"Sorry, ain't got no time right now. I gotta see a man about a party." She smiled and turned to go, leaving her back unprotected. The punk reached in his pocket and Samson, undetected from his hidden vantagepoint, brought his gun smoothly out of its shoulder holster. The punk threw a scrap of paper onto the sidewalk and folded a piece of chewing gum into his mouth. Samson's hands shook. 'I almost killed that kid over a stick of gum. Christ! I am losing it!'
The young attorney's tenacity paid off and she ended up with hours of tape that held many corroborated accounts of O'Hara's lawbreaking. For once in her life, Sterling was honestly pleased with herself so naturally she was devastated when she returned home late one evening from the office to find her apartment ransacked and the tapes missing.
Mad as she was, Gino was angrier. Someone had the nerve to invade the inner sanctum of his world. Knowing that it was possible infuriated him.
"I'll just have to begin again. It's not the end of the world." Sterling was delivering her progress report to the defense team the Monday morning after the burglary. She could only hope she could, in fact, duplicate the evidence that had been lost. "Its not as if the facts have changed now is it?" She was studying the faces of the people around the table as she spoke. Why were they so unconcerned about losing an important body of evidence?. The young woman's instincts were screaming that somebody in the group before her was responsible for the theft.
"The facts are the same, but one of your witnesses, a store owner, has died." Jerry Wilson reported this. Studying the paper in his hand, he read the name of the man in question from a copy of the police report he had obtained through his usual contacts. "Rahid Patel is the man's name. He was the victim of a freak accident day before yesterday. Says here that the brakes went out on a beer truck. It jumped the curb and crashed through the glass storefront. He died at the scene, before he was able to give the cops much information."
Sterling was upset that she was hearing this news second hand. She would have to speak with Samson and decided to visit him in person.
"Hello gorgeous." It was his standard greeting. Sterling had always been a rare beauty against the backdrop of the neighborhood she grew up in. Standing in the grimy station house, surrounded by tired office furniture and stale cigarette smoke, she was breathtaking. She had dressed with purpose in wide belted, tailored slacks and a filmy blouse, knowing full well her effect on Samson.
"Hey yourself, ugly." It was also a standard greeting and it made them both smile. "I'm hearing things from other people that I should be hearing from you." Samson wasn't the least bit interested in helping the cause of the local drug franchise but often, by helping Sterling, he did just that.
"I haven't had a chance to fill you in yet, is all. Besides, you shouldn't take this kind of thing personally, Sterling." He was hedging and they both knew it. Samson was never thrilled with the prosecution of a fellow police officer. Even if he was dirty, everybody knew that Sterling's boss was dirtier. The detective met her gaze and transmitted an unspoken plea. He had been trying for some time to make her understand that she needed to get out of Gino Bertilini's life before she wound up dead.
"I have put a lot of hours into this case Samson and I DO take it personally when witnesses that I've located and interviewed show up at the local undertaker." She was pissed at the situation and at the detective's attitude. "I liked you much better when you were a beat cop."
"Yeah, well, I liked you much better before you became the mob's whore." The words were in the air between them before he could censor them. His face showed alarm, hers showed hurt, something Samson had never seen there before. Seconds ticked past and he began to stumble over his words, trying to take back that which could not be taken back. "Listen, I didn't..."
"Sure you did," Sterling commented bitterly. "I see you've gotten into the judgement business, too. Well, go to hell then! I've taken enough shit for having a cop as a friend anyway, not to mention a loser." She turned quickly to leave, afraid that she could not control the angry tears that threatened to fall. Samson had to stop her and grabbed her arm as she crossed the cubicle in front of him.
Sterling jerked away from the detective and gave him a venomous look. "If you ever put your hands on me again, you'll lose them." Her eyes flashed cold fire. Samson had been in love with her for a while and she had used his feeling for her to extract information on more than one occasion. Part of his judgement now stemmed from jealousy she was sure.
"Sterling, you know I didn't really mean that. Come on! Let's start this conversation over again." He was speaking to the back of her departing head. "Damn! Damn! Double Damn! I have screwed up now."
It was counterproductive for the Bertilinis to kill witnesses who could strengthen the case against O'Hara and yet one was dead and another had lost his nerve and left town. It didn't fit and on top of everything else, now Sterling was pissed at him. A ringing phone on his desk demanded his attention.
It was true of course. Sterling could kid herself all she wanted, but she was in fact, Gino's mistress. 'Whore' was also an accurate word since he had put her through law school, paid for her apartment, living expenses and automobile. A throw of the dice had put her together with the powerful man and she wasn't about to trade her life now with what she'd had when she met him.
The couple spent many evening hours discussing the details of her career. Gino wanted her to remain with Stan Reed's law firm. Sterling wanted no part of that. The man gave her the creeps. She assumed that Gino could send enough business her way to establish her in the legal profession easily. He wasn't so sure, and didn't know how many of his business associates would hire a freshly graduated female lawyer who looked like a goddess. He, himself, sometimes had trouble remembering just how bright Sterling really was.
He stroked her hand in a fashion that generally constituted foreplay. Sterling began to dread the impending sexual encounter. "Stan gets it done. He has always acted in my best interest and I believe in rewarding that kind of loyalty." Gino turned her hand over and kissed her pulse.
"Something is not right with the whole set up and I'll prove it to you one day." He laughed appreciatively at her determination as he led her by the hand to her bedroom.
By the time the Sartori trial actually began, Sterling Hayes had been pushed to the forefront many times. Confident in her research and painstaking preparation, the young attorney found herself presenting many of the early motions for the defense team. After the first dozen were denied, she began to question, Jasper Wells. He was a full partner in the firm, but in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease. Once brilliant, his only purpose now was to provide an experienced front man for the young woman's court appearances.
Stan Reed seemed the logical one to answer her questions. "What the hell is going on here? That old codger you keep sending into court with me tells me that all of these motions are crap, invented to stall for time. Why do we need more time?" Her eyes blazed, her question clearly an accusation.
"If we hold things up as long as possible, facts are forgotten, evidence gets watered down and people change sides."
"All those things will hurt us, not help us."
Reed dismissed her logic. "Look Sterling, I know you are used to running on the inside track, but?"
She cut him off in mid sentence. "If you are insinuating that I don't carry my share of the work load around here, you are mistaken. If you are saying that I don't know what I'm talking about it's obvious that you are misinformed." Sterling took a deep breath and tried to steady her shaking hands by leaning onto the edge of Reed's desk.
"It's my ass in the library at midnight when they run me out to lock up. It's my throbbing head sleeping on my desk blotter three times a week when your staff arrives for work. My witness interviews are a large part of this defense. Nobody handed them to me, I went out and squeezed every word out of those people with no help from anyone in this office. I don't appreciate being kept in the dark about crucial tactics."
"Now, now. I didn't intend to question your dedication to the case." His tone was patronizing, but his desire was barely contained. Stan Reed enjoyed displays of force, especially from women.
"No, you just pointed out in your typical underhanded way that you think I'm here due to my abilities between Gino's sheets, which is total bullshit!"
The debate was halted by Reed's sudden grab for Sterling. She had anticipated everything but this. In the moment that it took her to react, Reed pulled her to him by her shoulders and started spouting nonsense about how much he could do for her if she would only consider accepting his help. His meaning would have been crystal clear, except that Sterling wasn't listening. Instead, she dropped into a horse stance and slammed her fist into his mid section. Her target should have been lower, but Stan Reed was two inches shorter than she was. Her second punch got the reaction she had hoped for and doubled him up, his face immediately turning red.
"Why the hell did you do that, you bitch?" He was gasping for air and holding solidly onto his injured privates.
"I just saved your life and this is the thanks I get." She glowered down into his eyes. "If you had laid a hand on me, Gino would have your guts for garters. What were you thinking?" Her gaze was cold and her question superfluous. She knew exactly what the slime had been thinking and it made her stomach lurch. "Mind your business and stop bullshitting me. Otherwise I'll go to Gino with a full report on this little incident." His eyes widened.
The trial had been hard on the young barrister. Sitting at the defense table without allowing herself to react visibly to some of her colleague's foibles took all of the self-discipline Sterling possessed. Each day, at the end of the court session, she would close her briefcase and trail the other members of the defense team to the cars that waited at the base of the courthouse steps. The more the events of the trial escalated, the harder the media tried to get the defense team to answer questions.
Sterling was shocked one Friday afternoon at the end of the third week when Reed's lead attorney revealed crucial evidence during an interview. The defense's tactics included several motions to suppress the very evidence that was being discussed on the five o'clock news! She looked around her, to see if the faces of the other members of the firm were equally affected. They all maintained their posture, not reacting at all. That's when she knew the leak had been deliberate.
Gino had not wanted to believe her. Sterling held all along that something was wrong within the circle of the defense effort. He had been on the phone in her den when she arrived home that day. The veins on his neck stood out like earthworms and his voice was loud enough to permeate every corner of her apartment. Fortunately, the young lawyer didn't speak or understand Italian. Otherwise, she would have been getting an earful of serious threats peppered liberally with profanity. He had seen the broadcast of the news minutes before and had reacted much as she had.
He slammed the phone into the cradle and took a minute to compose himself before turning to face her. "Reed swears that he didn't know anything about this." He didn't have to explain what 'this' was.
Sterling walked to the sofa and situated herself. "Do you believe him?" She waited, knowing a man's life hung in the balance.
Gino looked at her for a long time, seeking the truth in the depths of her startling blue eyes. He stood and walked toward her. His face suddenly lost all of its tension. His eyes went cold. "No, I don't believe him." His deep voice was suddenly unfamiliar. The young woman might have understood another reaction, but he looked totally menacing as he approached her.
Sterling had seen enough in her youth to temper her character against the existence of fear, but what was in Gino's eyes at that moment caused her mouth to go dry. He jerked her to her feet and crushed her body against his. His embrace felt like an act of desperation at first but it quickly metamorphosed into an assault.
Sterling was astonished at the viciousness of his need. He tore at her clothing and tangled his fingers in her long hair, jerking on it to force her to look directly at him. Their coupling happened so fast that she barely realized what was happening before it was all over. Certainly there had been no concern for her desire or lack thereof.
Dazed and confused, the young woman might have been angry had she had the time to fully consider Gino's actions before he returned his focus to business. That and the cryptic statement that Gino made to her when his breathing finally returned to normal.
"You are never to reveal your suspicions to anyone and I mean anyone. Do you understand?" Gino had hitched up his expensive trousers and stood buckling his belt. Sterling still lay supine on the carpet where he had brutally taken her. She nodded her understanding as she sat up, wide-eyed and began collecting her clothing. Unsteadied by the events of the last few minutes, she waited for Gino to explain, but instead he picked up the phone and dialed a number. His fingers tapped impatiently on the library table he stood beside until his call was apparently answered and he barked an order into the receiver in Italian.
Mind racing with planning and calculating he spoke to her in an offhanded manner. "I want you to continue with business as usual. Leave the rest to me. Carry all your case notes home with you each night and anything else having to do with the trial. I don't want any trouble for you when the smoke settles." Gino turned to her and his face softened now. She looked so vulnerable, standing in the center of the room, naked. The bundle of her clothing was clutched in front of her, but she made no attempt to hide her perfectly proportioned body behind it.
A knock on the door drew Gino's attention. He opened it a few inches and accepted the pistol that was passed through the crack. Turning to her he commanded. "Here, take this. Never go anywhere without it. You remember how to shoot one don't you?" He handed over the automatic pistol and she nodded as it was added to the items she was already juggling. The torn lapel of her silk blouse now hung down under the gleaming gun barrel, threads straggling almost to the carpet.
Suddenly Gino's expression changed. It was if he had just rejoined reality. He looked sadly at his beloved, knowing that he had startled and possibly hurt her. "I believe I owe you a new blouse." He was trying to apologize, something they both knew he was incapable of.
"I have plenty of others." Sterling accepted his attempt. Her confusion and concern were evident in her expression. Gino suddenly went to her and embraced her tenderly, taking the clothes from her and dropping them on the carpet again. This Gino she recognized.
Sterling waited for him to explain and finally he found the words. "Sometimes I need to be in complete control. I have to be certain in my soul that I am capable of gaining and keeping control even within the savagery of this business. There is no trust left, and yet you trusted me enough to let me commit an act with you that was brutal and unspeakably cold." Gino looked deep into the clear pools of her eyes and was sure he saw her understanding burning there. "I only have real trust in one thing and that is the way I feel about?" His voice trailed off. He had come too close to making a declaration. "I'm sorry." The last of his words were whispered tenderly into her ear as he held her.
For days afterward Gino would cringe at the sight of the dark bruises on Sterling's body. He could not believe he had been so primitive in his lovemaking. Little gifts were offered by way of apology, followed by not so little gifts. For her part, she tried to dismiss the entire experience from her mind, knowing the depth of his guilt when he presented her with the keys to a new Mercedes convertible.
A week went by and then another, with no ripples in the daily doings of the trial. Sterling did as she was told, but offered nothing extra by way of effort or opinion. She did as Gino had bid her and made sure that she secured her case documents at all times. The two lovers had not seen each other in several days. He had called to say that he was in Miami on business and would be back after the weekend. The young woman was pondering her situation, both as Gino's mistress and as a member of a Mob Operated law firm when her doorbell rang.
She wasn't expecting company and the whole cloak and dagger thing with Stan Reed had her edgy. Life in the Projects had taught her to be wary, a lesson she never forgot. Sterling leaned over and watched out the peephole until she could focus on the figure standing in front of her door. "Mary, Mother of God," she breathed, recognizing Gino's daughter standing in the hallway.
Sterling ushered the young woman into the entry foyer of her apartment where the two women studied each other cautiously. Sterling had seen the young woman from a distance at a restaurant once when she had been dining out with Gino. The gangster had spirited her out of the establishment before he had to explain his mistress' presence to his daughter.
"My name is Anna and you are very beautiful. I don't blame Papa for wanting to be with you."
Sterling was dumbstruck at the dark beauty standing before her. Enormous brown eyes captured her. They were her father's eyes, except that they held warmth and compassion that Sterling had not realized was missing in Gino's eyes until now.
"Forgive me, please come in." Sterling motioned toward the sofa in the center of the sunken den. Anna moved slowly towards it, looking around her and absorbing her surroundings as she went.
"I know that you are called Sterling. Papa has never said your name in my presence, but I asked Carlos. He didn't want to tell me, but I made him." Sterling suspected that this young woman was very good at getting whatever she liked out of people, especially men. "He likes you. Did you know that? He doesn't like many people either. You should be flattered." Carlos was the bodyguard that accompanied Gino everywhere he went. Sterling had never heard him utter more than a grunt, but made a point to treat him with the same respect he showed her.
Still tongue-tied, Sterling enjoyed the ease with which Anna held her one sided conversation. Fascinated by the sway of the young woman's straight, dark hair as she talked, her eyes followed its movement. "This is a nice place but not as fancy as I thought it would be. My Papa likes a lot of European junk. This is much better." She indicated the clean lines of the apartment's furnishings. Sterling acknowledged the compliment, waiting patiently to discover the purpose of the visit.
"Can I get you anything? Are you hungry or thirsty?" Sterling was accustomed to her lover coming in famished. A never-ending supply of food and drink made its way magically into her refrigerator. All she had to do was make a list and stuff it in the mailbox on the wall outside her door. This particular luxury would spoil her later in life.
"I'm not allowed to drink. Can you imagine? I'm past twenty-one and they treat me like a baby. Unfortunately I have six older brothers all of whom think it is their duty to protect my innocence." She rolled her eyes and made Sterling laugh.
Sterling was surprised that Gino's daughter was practically the same age as she was. "Wine it is then." The attorney gave her a conspiratorial smile and rose from the sofa to fetch it. When she returned to the den, Anna was scrutinizing the books on the desk and the shelves lining the walls behind it.
"You read a lot. I suspected you were very smart. My brothers think a woman is good for only one thing, but I know my Papa and he wouldn't waste his time on a dummy." She smiled with obvious pride in her father as she accepted the glass of white wine.
"I'm very pleased that you came here and that you felt comfortable doing so Anna. Your father is a very special friend to me." Before she could add anything more, Anna launched into another energetic monologue. Sterling settled back into the sofa cushions and enjoyed listening.
The crisp linen of the peasant blouse Anna wore contrasted with the deep bronze tones of her complexion. Like Gino, she had a year round suntan. Sterling found herself focusing on the lace that covered the soft swell of breast barely visible above the top button. Shocked at her own outrageous curiosity, she shook her head to clear it and returned her attention to the conversation.
Anna's slender body was total motion as she spoke, expressing every syllable as if it were critical to do so. Anna's hands mesmerized the young attorney as she waved them for emphasis to make a point about her brothers' ignorant and backward attitudes. A half-hour later, Anna had her hostess laughing out loud with her sarcastic slams on her Catholic upbringing and her family's double standard. Anna was charming and charismatic, much like her father. Sterling was amazed at the presence of a woman so young.
"Well, before I take up any more of your time, I guess you are wondering why I am here. I should get to the point. Papa asked me to give you a message. He would not let me write it, or call. He said that I must bring it in person. I knew when he said that how important it must be because my father has always separated his family from his friends."
Sterling nodded her understanding, trying to make it obvious that she felt no slight at Gino's policies regarding this.
"I am to tell you that you will hear from Papa when he returns next week, but in the meantime he wants you to go away for a few days. He suggested a place at the Cape. It's all in the letter I think." Now she reached into the leather shoulder bag next to her and handed Sterling a thick white envelope. It bore no markings at all.
"I know where he means." Sterling voice was solemn. This visit from Gino's daughter was puzzling and his mysterious banishment was truly disturbing. Each was lost in thought, grasping for some reasonable explanation of Gino's motivation. The two young women were, oddly, comfortable enough in each other's company to silently sip their wine. When Anna's glass was empty, Sterling offered to refill it but was refused.
Anna laughed as she stood up. "I certainly can't show up at home tipsy, now can I? My mother watches like a hawk. I don't know what she thinks will happen if I'm given a little freedom, but she says that I'm too much like my Papa." The young beauty shook her head and laughed again. Sterling thought it was the most carefree laughter she had ever heard and found herself laughing a little with her guest.
"It was very nice meeting you Sterling." The attorney shook the hand that was offered her. Its warmth sent a small tingle through her. At close range Anna's eyes were her father's exactly and Sterling was drawn to them, unable to look away.
"I appreciate you delivering the message. I would like to think that I will see you again some time, but I know the chances of that are pretty slim." She smiled sadly and studied the envelope she now held.
"Never say never Sterling." Anna hesitated a moment before turning to depart. "My father didn't tell me that you are such an intriguing woman or that you are so beautiful. In fact, the only thing about you that doesn't surprise me is the hint of danger that I see in your eyes. That is something prerequisite for a friend of Gino Bertilini." There was no time for a response. Anna was gone.
The rustic country store was the only place to buy groceries for twenty miles. Sterling studied the limited selection, trying to decide on something simple that she could have for dinner. Cooking was definitely not her strong suit, but she could heat something up. She was studying the label on a soup can, her back to the counter where the ancient proprietor sat, watching the five o'clock news on a large portable television.
"It was a veritable 'Who's Who' of underworld celebrities today at the graveside service for Stan Reed, Attorney to the Mob."
Sterling's eyes grew wide and she spun around just in time to see the screen fill with Anna Bertilini, hooking her arm through that of her father's stoic figure. Gino's eyes were unreadable through dark glasses but Anna seemed stricken. Sterling thought she looked glamorous in the simple black dress that she wore and totally out of place against the backdrop of funeral flowers.
"Thus far the ongoing investigation of the explosion that caused fire to sweep through the law offices of Reed has yielded nothing. The other four victims are also being buried today in private services. The very public case pending in Federal court that was being handled by the Reed law firm has been postponed. A source close to Gino Bertilini, notorious crime boss, says that several attorneys have been contacted, but no decision will be made until those close to Stan Reed have had an opportunity to recover from their loss."
She could not think clearly, but Sterling knew she had to get the hell out of that store. Paying for the contents of her shopping basket she quickly exited and climbed into the all terrain vehicle she had rented for her stay at the beach. 'He knew.' The single thought echoed through her and made her weak with nausea. 'He didn't want me to be caught in the crossfire. What will happen now, though? There will be repercussions surely. I still don't understand what Reed hoped to gain by selling Gino out. It must have been something very big to risk so much after thirty-five years of friendship.'
Thoughts were careening off corners of her mind as she drove the short distance to the cottage she had rented. It sat on a remote tip of coastline, which is why she and Gino had chosen it for a getaway once before. The house was nothing special, but high fencing and electronic gates insuring privacy, secured the grounds. A spectacular view of the ocean from each of the five rooms in the house was a bonus that Sterling could not appreciate at the moment. In fact, as her paranoia blossomed she found herself pulling draperies closed for the first time in her three-day stay. The young attorney was imagining all sorts of scenarios that involved murders of retaliation. If Gino had considered her a target because of her relationship with him, she wondered who else might be in danger.
Sterling pulled the threadbare quilt from the back of the sofa and wrapped herself in it. Huddled in an overstuffed armchair she stared out the only window that she had left uncurtained and cast about in her conscious mind for answers. The intense young barrister didn't dare entertain any of the dark answers that were stacking up in her subconscious.
Gino's letter had said that someone would come for her when the smoke settled, he just hadn't said how long she should be prepared to wait. A week had gone by without much sleep or appetite. In fact, she sat staring out at the breaking waves as the tide rushed in only to watch it recede and begin the process over again. Lost in a dark tangle of imagined atrocities, she was currently trying to convince herself that her discoveries of disloyalty in the law firm had not resulted in the mass murder of the defense team. Sterling was trying to convince herself that she would live to see thirty when she heard the soft 'thunk' of a car door closing.
In an instant, Sterling had reached between the cushion and arm of the chair she was sitting in to retrieve the 45 automatic secreted there. The metallic sigh of a round being chambered was audible above the breaking of the waves. The attorney slid on sock feet to the front windows but didn't get an opportunity to peek through the curtains before she heard the sound of a key in the door lock. Slipping behind the door, Sterling drew her breath in as the door swung open slowly. When the shadowed figure was far enough into the room she reached out with her foot and kicked the door closed with all her might. This left her hands free, one of which held the gun at eye level while the other grabbed an outstretched hand and twisted it behind the back of the unsuspecting intruder.
"Don't move or I swear I'll blow a hole through?"
"Sterling, it's me!" came the shrill cry. The attorney pulled the gun barrel away from the temple it rested against and leaned around to check the profile of her prisoner. Still unable to identify the interloper in the dusky dark, she maintained the painful hold on the twisted arm. In fact, she raised it higher and heard her captive's intake of breath as the pain of her action hit home.
"It's me, Anna. Don't shoot for God's sake!" The plea was genuine. Gino's daughter did not doubt that the woman behind her was capable of pulling a trigger. Sterling reached her gun hand over and hit a switch, bathing the room with light. It was indeed Anna who's arm she had almost broken and she released it immediately, taking a step backward at the same time.
"What in the hell are you doing here? I damn near killed you!" Sterling was feeling the panic now, realizing that she had very nearly murdered Gino's only daughter. Then she remembered that she could trust no one, not even Anna and did a visual check for weapons. The silky outfit she wore was sheer. It clung to Anna's body in a way that revealed everything, including the fact that she could not possibly be hiding a weapon on her person. She carried nothing in her hands except the ring of keys that had gained her entry. Sterling recognized the chunky brass of Gino's key ring and knew that Anna was not there to kill her.
Still breathless with fear, Anna took a moment to calm herself before finding her voice and offering an explanation for her presence. Gino's daughter explained that she hadn't seen Sterling's car anywhere and assumed the attorney was gone. Otherwise, she would have announced her presence by calling Sterling's cell phone number, which her father had given her. No one else had that number. The younger woman had hoped it would be enough assurance to allow the attorney to calm down and wait with her.
"Papa will call us here in a little while. I don't know much more than you, but something big has happened. I hope you don't mind the intrusion." Anna was so sincere in her apology that Sterling felt guilty for suspecting her of participating in any wrongdoing.
"No, it's fine. I just wasn't expecting to see you again so soon and I'm still uncertain as to why Gino has me hiding here." She noticed Anna noticing the pistol protruding from her jeans. Her face was all apologies. "Sorry, as I said, I've been a little uneasy about this whole situation." Sterling ran her fingers through her dark hair and took a deep breath. "Come on in and tell me what you know."
Anna had little to tell. Carlos had come to the house and dispatched her, by Gino's orders to find Sterling and wait for his call. The fact that Carlos had left his boss' side was unprecedented and said a great deal about the seriousness of the situation. There had been little time for discussion or conjecture when Sterling's cell phone rang.
"How are you my sweet?" It was Gino's voice, but Sterling knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. "I don't have much time and I have a great deal to tell you, so please forgive me for getting straight to the point."
Anna had crossed the tiny den of the cottage. Even so, the confines of the small room didn't afford much privacy to Sterling and her caller. "Francis and Michael are dead. My sons are dead!" Gino's voice was momentarily stolen by a quiet sob. "I needed Anna to be with someone strong when I tell her, Sterling. I couldn't trust anyone but you."
Sterling tried not to visibly react when she heard the next statement. "They were working with Reed to take over the business. Alex is the brain in this, I am almost certain, with his mother's voice always in his ear. She doesn't approve of?" He hesitated, uncertain how much detail he wanted to give her. "Let's just say she disapproves of almost everything I do and has pitted three of our sons against the rest of us." Gino sounded tired. "Needless to say, when I find Alex, he will join his brothers." Gino made it clear that it boiled down to a tug of war between him and is oldest son. Whoever was left standing when this was over would hold the job that had been Gino's for over twenty-five years. That job for Alex as his new retainer, coupled with a promise of Sterling Hayes for himself, had been the prize that Stan Reed had been willing to risk his life for.
"I have no intention of retiring. At least, not on anyone else's terms." The power was returning to his voice making it completely familiar again. "I wish I could be with you, but it is dangerous now. My family is being torn apart and I can trust no one with your safety. Anna and you are my heart and so the greatest threat they can use against me. Please take care of each other for a short while and I will get you to more permanent safety." His brief endearments warmed her. It was Anna's turn.
Sterling braced for the outpouring of anguish she expected from Gino's daughter when she heard the news. Surprisingly, a sharp intake of breath was the only signal that it had been done. Anna turned to look at her father's mistress and nodded briefly her acceptance of his plan. Her eyes, large and tremendously expressive under any circumstances, were enormous now and filled with recognizable pain.
The conversation ended and the young crime heiress looked stricken. She stood staring into Sterling's cool blue eyes, looking for a lifeline, an explanation, and some salvation. When the tears finally started it was sudden and by the time the attorney could get to Anna, she was near collapse. Sterling guided her to the worn sofa and held the younger woman tightly. She whispered nonsensical words in an effort to soothe her charge and was shocked to find herself crying along in empathy for the young woman's loss and the loss Gino must be feeling. Sterling had no siblings, but she been visited by death. The day her mother died she'd felt a trap door open beneath her feet and she'd been falling ever since.
Daylight turned to dusk then total darkness before Anna had cried herself out. Sterling kept wondering how a woman so young could have so much pent up sadness and emotion in her. It made her wonder if Gino was capable of the same depth of feeling. If so, she had certainly never been witness to anything that caused her to suspect it.
"Time to rest now. Come on and I'll find you something to sleep in." Anna mechanically did as she was told. Not bothering with modesty she threw off the skirt and blouse she'd been wearing and slipped into the nightshirt offered her. It was huge on her slight figure. Sterling had packed a few of Gino's things, not knowing if he would be joining her. "It belongs to your papa." Anna looked at her and smiled a little. She gathered the fabric near the button closures and brought it up to her nose.
"Yes. It most definitely belongs to my Papa. Thank you." Her arms went around Sterling's neck and she pulled her face down the short distance required to plant a kiss on her lips. The expression of gratitude was a great deal more than was necessary. When she was finally released, the older woman flushed deeply but it went unnoticed as Anna stripped the top coverings of the bed down and climbed between the sheets.
"Try to sleep," was all the confused barrister could choke out as she started from the room.
Anna's voice cut like the sharpest of knives. "Surely you won't leave me tonight. I need someone close. Please Sterling." A slight pain rushed across her consciousness, shallow but promising a bloom of anguish. The taller woman could not deny such a request, especially after promising Gino that she would watch over his daughter.
Pulling her own pajama shirt from the dresser, Sterling disappeared into the bathroom to change. She extinguished the bedside lamp and slipped into bed, careful to stay on her side. It shocked the attorney when she felt a shifting of weight and a warm body pressed firmly against the length of her back. An arm snaked itself under her own and a hand rested on her abdomen.
Neither of the women was able to sleep, each for their own reasons. Caught in a net of silent misery Sterling tried to remain perfectly still. The warm breath on the back of her neck was reminiscent of the exhausted slumber Gino always fell into when they had finished making love. During those times she generally felt a sense of relief. Now she felt a growing sense of unaccustomed desire.
Sterling Hayes had never wanted physical intimacy with anyone before although she accepted it as a part of her relationship with Gino, and exhibited some genuine enthusiasm at times. As Anna began to circle her navel with feather light strokes of her fingertips, Sterling felt a stirring she could not comprehend. Alarmed and confused she spoke quietly; hoping a return to the mundane would somehow ground her.
"Are you OK? I mean, do you need anything?"
Sterling received no response except a widening of the circle pattern Anna traced. When fingers came into contact with the soft underside of her breast she quit breathing and let the electric jolt run the length of her body before inhaling again. Anna gently but firmly succeeded in rolling the older woman over so that she could see her face. The chaos that she saw there was appealing. Finally, someone was in some ways, more naïve than 'Gino's Baby Girl'.
It dawned on Anna that she was caressing the same body that her father revered. Somehow that did not matter. With death's shadow hovering so close, she was instinctively seeking an affirmation of life and might have found any body in her arms.
No words were spoken between them. Sterling was frankly amazed at her own responses. Never prudish, this experience still managed to catch her unaware. Her breathing was labored as she fought to keep from crying out into the night. Sterling could not help but wonder how the young woman who caressed her knew where to touch and how to stimulate the body of another woman. All of the questions that formulated in Sterling's mind as she lay there were quieted as she gave herself over to guilty pleasure.
Anna, all those years ago had shown Sterling a path, the only path that ever made sense to the beautiful young attorney. The intimate incident was never mentioned again or even acknowledged when it was over.
As suspected, Alex had been the leader of Gino's malcontent sons. Within days the mob boss knew this with certainty and once again his heart was broken. It all could have belonged to them soon enough, but they would not wait and now he had three less sons. To spare his grandchildren, the murders of all three had been made to look like retribution from a rival family, but all the other local leaders were called together for a brief meeting with Gino.
He candidly revealed the plot that Alex had set in motion with Stan Reed's help. With Joey on trial, Michael and Francis, Gino's two remaining loyal sons would be murdered as a means to start a war with one of the families represented at the table. During the course of it, Gino would die and Alex would be left in charge. Joey's stay in jail would end at the hands of some inmate and the way would be clear.
The crime leaders of Boston listened wide-eyed at the man who had survived the plot of his own family. Gino had not hesitated in the killing of his own flesh and blood, so all of them knew exactly where they stood if they chose to cross him. In awe of his cold cruelty, the six men around the table also all felt compassion for the aging leader. Any of them could easily find themselves in the same position and not all of them were sure they could have done what was necessary to survive the situation.
Sterling and Anna were brought out of hiding in time for Anna to attend her fallen brother's funerals. She was never made aware of their disloyalties.
Gino's young mistress reeled as the tale unfolded over the next few weeks. It had been her instincts that had originally uncovered the plot and Gino was alive as a result of the doubt that Sterling had planted in his mind. Her loyalty had not and never would be questioned, but the mobster would now spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulders to see what his remaining three sons were doing.
Things changed drastically after that. Sterling opened her own firm. Sartori, found hanging in his cell as soon as Gino uncovered his part in the plot against him, no longer needed representation, but the young woman quietly and effectively cleared Joey's name.
Gino sent clients to her, the majority of which were wealthy, unsavory types, trying to operate outside the law. Sterling demanded justice for each of them and soon gained the reputation as a legal gladiator, walking out into the courtroom arena regularly and doing the bidding of the rich and powerful.
The firm grew quickly and Sterling worked long hours. Gino might have missed her company, but he didn't complain. His own time was taken up with increased vigilance and soul searching. The strain of heartache over recent events contributed to his failing health and in the spring of Sterling's first year in practice, he had a stroke. It left him partially paralyzed and in a wheel chair. His sons were asked to take over the business and Gino quietly retired.
The loss of physical mobility ended the already dwindling sexual relationship between Sterling and her mentor. Gino had lost his zest for life on the day he buried Alex. Now, his best days were spent guiding Sterling in the building of her reputation. They shared dinner in her apartment often where he taught her every ruthless trick he knew to help her succeed.
His second stroke put him in a nursing home, unable to recognize anyone. Years ago the proud man had struck a deal with Carlos, his bodyguard. Carlos had protected Gino against assault for twenty-seven years, taking a bullet himself on two occasions to spare Gino's life. Now, it was the silent servant's obligation to his boss and friend to relieve Gino of the burden of living without dignity. When the once great man was found dead by the morning shift nurse, everyone suspected a third stroke had ended his life.
The demise of any figure in the underworld is an interesting event. The funeral of the deceased is a yardstick by which their power may be measured. The number of dignitaries present at Gino's funeral showed clearly that he had been a great and powerful man indeed.
There were no rules governing the attendance of ex-girlfriends or jealous enemies. Sterling was torn about attending the service. She wanted to stay away out of respect for his family, but she was burying more than a benefactor. She was losing her constant friend and the only person who had treated her honestly. Her tall figure stood stoically at the back of the deep crown of mourners and was the first to leave when the service was complete.
A light touch on her arm as she was getting into her car, spun her around as Sterling fought her instinct to punish the invasion of her space. She was surprised to see the calm countenance of Anna, unafraid but obviously in great pain.
Sterling had no trouble getting Anna to meet her gaze, but was unprepared for the effect the sad brown eyes had on her. Even after all that had happened and the passage of time, Sterling felt the touch of the young woman's fingers on her skin and electricity pricked the flesh of her forearms, bringing gooseflesh.
"I am sorry about the loss of your father, Anna. He was a great man and a good friend." The offer of condolences was automatic from the attorney.
Anna finally spoke. "He loved you. I was jealous of that, because I believed that his love was something I shared with you and no other. He talked to me about that once."
Blue eyes narrowed.
"He told me how much of himself he saw in you. When he realized he loved you it frightened him for many reasons, but it showed him too that he was capable of that." The young woman wept quietly.
"I don't know what to say to you Anna, except that I owe everything I am to Gino and I feel an obligation to honor his memory and his trust with great accomplishment." Tears pooled in her eyes, but she kept them from falling by a tremendous act of will. She had now heard Gino's love for her confirmed for the first time by his daughter.
"Good luck to you Sterling. You were a large part of the small beauty in my father's life. I thank you for giving him that." Anna wiped a hand across the attorney's face and turned to go. Sterling could find no words to stop her. She simply watched her until she rejoined the group of mourners near the funeral tent by Gino's grave.
"Charlie, this is Sam. Please plan for a short meeting on this Sanders contract tomorrow. Call Peter and set up a time. We need to discuss the financing and the special stipulations before you present this to your co-op agent. Thanks."
Sam had seven agents working in her firm at the moment. Some of them were highly successful, organized and easy to work with. Then there was Charlie. He had the contacts to be a tremendous seller, but he wouldn't do his homework. This would be the broker's third meeting with him in as many months. Sam had been lucky to catch this particular contract. It had been left with her for presentation to the listing agent while Charlie was away for a long weekend. One glance and the astute Realtor had smelled a rat.
'He is definitely up to something with this five day closing thing. No legitimate mortgage application could be processed, approved and closed in five days, especially on people who are new to the area.' Sam shook her head. It wasn't the first time Charlie had put together a less than totally above board deal. The problem with Sam was that she would not look the other way like a lot of Brokers even though Charlie was a high volume producer. Shaking her head, she reached for the stack of mail that had been staring at her all morning.
The young woman was tired today. Unable to sleep, she had spent most of the previous night reading the latest Harry Potter adventure. All that was remaining for her to do at the office was look at the stack of mail spilling across the corner of her desk and she would go home early.
'Bills, junk, caravan flier. Hmmmmm. I may go to see that listing. I've always wondered what the inside of that house looks like.' The creamy paper of an expensive envelope looked out of place among the sales mailers and windowed envelopes that carried Sam's bills. 'Hayes & Simpson, Attorneys at Law' it proclaimed. 'That woman said she would be calling me. I was wondering what happened to her.'
Sam tore open the envelope and unfolded the single page it contained. As she read down the paragraphs she became more and more agitated by the language and then the message it conveyed. The signature at the bottom was that of the junior lawyer she had met at her deposition. Her case was apparently no longer of great enough importance for the high and mighty Sterling Hayes to address personally. Additionally, she was being offered a settlement sum far less than what she had asked for in the suit.
Tossing the letter onto her desk, Samantha balled up her fist and pounded it once on her desktop. Peter, who had been coming through the door at just that moment, pivoted on his heel as if to leave, but looked back over his shoulder to check his boss' expression before making a choice to stay or go.
"What on earth is that? Are you being jilted, audited or proposed to by an inmate?" His attempt at lightening up the situation failed miserably.
"It's from Lowry's lawyer, or more specifically from some flunky who works for her!" The anger in her eyes was something Peter had only witnessed on one previous occasion and that was when Sam had been handed proof of Janet's infidelities for the first time.
"Apparently this is a bad thing, yes?"
"Yes, a very bad thing. She made it sound like she was going to get Lowry to settle this right away. I was hoping to put the whole thing behind me. It has done nothing but keep my blood pressure up since it started." Sam scanned the letter again; hoping she had misunderstood its contents, but there was no question that she was being screwed by the offer they were putting on the table.
The broker punched the numbers printed on the letterhead and asked for Mike Epson, prepared to give him a piece of her mind. She was completely surprised when it was Sterling Hayes' voice that came on the line instead. In the moment it took for Sam to make the mental adjustment, the attorney offered a warm greeting, visualizing the sexy young woman.
The young Realtor's response was a good deal less than friendly. "I see you've lost your stomach for cheating me yourself and have put one of your underlings back on the case. More like, this paltry sum isn't worthy of your attention, right Miss Hayes?" There was a bitter hiss when Sam pronounced the Miss.
"On the contrary, I personally oversee each aspect of every case pending in my office. My reputation is at stake." Sterling paused to let that information do the damage she intended for it to do. "I tried to contact your attorney, but you were true to your word and fired him. That necessitates someone from my office contacting you personally. Since you and I seem to have a conflict I assumed it would be more comfortable for both of us if Mike took over the negotiations."
"Negotiations!? This is insulting! You're offering me half of what I paid out to restore my office and the tone of the letter suggests that this is your final offer."
"Miss Hilliard," the hiss was there when Sterling pronounced it, too. "Surely you weren't expecting a blank check. I believe you yourself are in a profession where negotiation is a large part of the process. The correspondence you received was a standard offer format."
"So you did see the letter that was sent to me?"
"I had a copy brought to me when the receptionist told me that it was you on the phone." Sterling remarked as a smile formed on her lips. "I didn't suppose you were calling me to invite me out for lunch, not after the last conversation we had." 'I bet you look beautiful right now with your eyes flashing fire and the flush of anger on your cheeks. How much would I love to kiss you senseless and make you forget everything, including your name.'
Clear blue eyes were slightly amused. Unpleasant confrontation was a daily diet for Sterling. She was getting a kick out of the Realtor's impassioned response. "Since you are without legal council and possibly unaccustomed to the workings of a law suit, please allow me to explain how this game is played. This is strictly off the record of course."
"We make a lowball offer assuming that you will send a counter-proposal, stating just what you are willing to accept to settle this case."
"I told you up front what my expenditures were," Sam interjected.
Sterling chuckled. "Nobody asks for what they really want. It is a standard procedure to cushion your demands and then settle for something less than the amount named in the suit."
"Wouldn't it just be simpler if everyone started out making honest disclosures and reasonable requests? It seems unfair to penalize people for showing integrity in their business dealings, don't you think?" Samantha paused for effect and then turned the verbal knife she'd just stuck in Sterling's back. "Of course, if everyone shared that point of view I suppose there would be no need for lawyers."
This snipe finally cracked Sterling's cool exterior. The attorney was no longer having fun. "Miss Hilliard, my client pays me well to represent his interests."
"So your job is to help wealthy clients avoid obeying the law. That's a worthy undertaking." The sarcasm was dripping in her voice.
"I practice law not law enforcement. My clients deserve able representation the same as anyone else. Should I discriminate against them because they are rich? I'm not some sinister character, I am only doing my job." Sterling's knuckles were white on the telephone receiver as she continued. "Like you, Ms. Hilliard, I live to serve. After all, most peoples' worlds can not continue to spin without the acquisition of the perfect Decatur bungalow." Her own sarcastic rebuttal made the attorney feel slightly better.
Sam took a deep breath and delivered the final blow. "I'm not out to save the world Sterling, I'm just trying to make a living, same as you. I just don't happen to make it by walking over the bodies of the beaten or assisting people in carrying out deliberate cruelty." Sam's face was flushed and her eyes were positively flaming.
Sterling had rarely been the target of such anger and passion and was having a difficult time adjusting to the intensity of the electrically charged situation as was evidenced by her weak response. "I think this conversation is over. I will tell Mike to expect your counter-proposal in the near future. If you develop some personality conflict with him, perhaps I can keep sending opponents at you until you find a worthy adversary. Good day."
The steady sound of a dead phone line hummed in Samantha's ears for a few seconds before she reacted and hung up.
Sterling's hand shook as she replaced the telephone in its cradle. 'Ooohhhh! That Hilliard woman infuriates me! She acts like all of this is news to her when we've been playing by these rules in the grown up world for decades.' Sterling clenched her jaw, reacting to the on target assessment of her clients and their legal needs. Granted, there were a lot of money grubbing, looters among them, but there were some ruthless individuals in the real estate world, too. The brooding attorney was irritated with herself for not mentioning that on the phone and for allowing herself the little fantasy she'd enjoyed only minutes ago. 'She is a pompous, self-righteous, cold bitch. I'll definitely pass.'
The e-mail draft took less than a minute to complete. 'Mike. Expect a counter from the Hilliard woman on the flood of her office building. Prepare Lowry for settling. Write him a letter, telling him the damning nature of the photos we saw at the deposition and recommend he settle quickly and quietly. Copy to me on that.' She signed her usual lower case 's' with a period behind it and touched the send button.
'That takes care of that.' Sterling focused her attention on the research synopsis before her.
Continued in Part 2.