Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

JESSICA BURNSTEIN, 45,
FULL OF OPTIMISM

I left the house this morning, determined to take the day by the horns and throw it over my shoulder like a scarf, if necessary. I'd had two cups of coffee, I'd remembered to floss, and I was going to tell my boss the crap with Valentina simply wasn't going to fly anymore.

Forty minutes later, because this is Los Angeles and it takes forty minutes to go anywhere, at any time, I walked into the office slightly less full of beans and with "TiK ToK" by Kesha stuck in my head. I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about that, but it was the last thing playing when I turned off the car. 'The party don't start till I walk in . . .' If only I had half her confidence.

I could hear John before I could see him, which was par for the course. Classic iron hand in the velvet glove, my boss, and if occasionally the gloves are fingerless and the fingers a little bit stabby, so much the better. Southern to the core, with all the civility and elegance that implies, but with a Yankee carpetbagger's eye for profitable misery. Our law firm doesn't openly chase ambulances, but John does love a tearful plaintiff. He can smell salt water before it steps off the elevator.

I spotted his head over a carpeted cubicle wall. It was angled in such a way that I knew he was with a client. Maybe even a potential client; there was an especially unguent quality to the way his hair fell over his forehead, his eyes hooded with concern. He's handsome, in the way any large predator is handsome—best appreciated from a safe distance. Up close the extra rows of teeth tend to be a distraction.

As if feeling my disapproval, John looked up and spotted me.

"Ah, Jessica!" he said as if his whole pitch had been waiting for this moment. "You must meet our newest client."

As there were nearly half a dozen legal assistants in cubicles between the two of us, we both charted an intersecting course and met up—as if by magic—by the impressive double doors to the office suite.

"Mrs. Falconer, this is Jessica Burnstein, a partner and one of our most brilliant attorneys."

The woman, who was older than I had suspected from John's level of intensity, gazed tremulously up at me. "Will she be on my case?"

"No," said John firmly. "I will be handling your case myself."

Older and richer, then.

The lady and I shook hands, and I applied the carefully calibrated smile lawyers use when they're meeting someone who has probably been wronged in some way but whose opportunity for vengeance/justice has arrived. The smile says, You're fine now, but I'm sorry for your loss/accident/partial dismemberment/inability to compete internationally in your chosen sport. After nearly twenty years of practice, it comes pretty easily.

John ushered Mrs. Falconer to the elevators, and I headed to my office. As I passed Laurel, my assistant, I told her to ask Valentina to come and see me.

• • •

Valentina is younger than me, hungrier than me, and after my job. I'm her mentor, so that's fine with me. It's been eight or nine years since I took her under my wing; she's ready to leave the nest, and I'm ready to make room. However, John was using Valentina's future as a stick to prod me with, and I was tired of it.

Valentina came in and shut the door behind her. She slinked—there is no other word, unless it's slunk—across the carpet and flowed into a chair. It's not her fault she's a partial liquid; she was born that way.

Natural beauty is no more of an achievement than deformity is a punishment—it just is. Valentina is incredibly smart, and one of the hardest-working lawyers I've ever met. In a business where appearance contributes to success, she makes sure the first impression of beauty is quickly overwhelmed by the second and more lasting impression of competence. Beauty always fades, but it lasts so much longer if you lay a thick layer of intelligence and integrity underneath it.
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