Chapter 1

Pay attention.

This is where Fate really screwed up. A tall, slender, upright, uptight blonde with chin-length hair, dressed in an asexual pantsuit, masculine shoes, and clutching a ridiculous suitcase walked into the firm and into his life.

She was standing in the front, talking to Peggy about something or other. Sweet, chubby, annoying Peggy was waving her hands, giving directions to the boardroom. The blonde stared sternly, rudely at the flustered secretary, impatiently, too. Unceremonious, cold, frigid. He knew from the start he wouldn't like her.

"That's her, that's the girl," Wilson intimated, with a scandalous look on his face. He was a short man with a poor complexion, the final memory of his acne-studded youth, with an enlarged Adam's apple and pudgy hands. His suit, though obviously tailored, was not at all flattering. He was standing in the doorway of Noah's office, an uninvited habit of his, looking out at the chaos that suddenly stirred among the desks of paralegals as the blonde moved past, like a breeze or some such stupid thing. Wilson turned to look and smiled, prepared for gossip, in anticipation of it, "That's the one Goldman snapped up after Schultz. She seems a little young."

She was young. By the looks of her skin, she was at most in her late twenties. But, of course, her mannerisms and clothing suggested ten years to her chronological age. And there was something cocky in her face, and maybe there should have been, but Noah wouldn't admit it. After all, she was the one hired to replace Schultz, and he had been working for two years to make senior partner. Eighty hour weeks, depositions, court dates. But it would change, he told himself. As soon as Schultz retired, he'd have a place wide open. He'd be a partner. His lousy one-fifty grand a year were nothing compared to the cash that would start piling in. And he did deserve it, after all.

They snatched him up fresh out of law school. Sure, it wasn't Harvard. Harvard wouldn't take him; but NYU did, and he was a star. He graduated at the top of his class, lobbied in Washington for a year, came back and received an internship at one of the most exclusive law firms in Manhattan. Goldman and Johnson, Esq. Goldman was really in charge. Johnson was a figurehead of sorts, who helped Goldman fund the place in the late sixties, when they were still young and passionate about those things that the young are passionate about. Well, Noah supposed, the civil rights era would do that to men. In the new millenium, little mattered in the world except money. There were no convictions, no needs to sacrifice himself in the name of causes greater than oneself. Goldman realized it soon enough. He jazzed his firm so that it specialized in everything, from divorce to real estate law, except, perhaps, human rights. Johnson, Schultz once told Noah, was not as capable as Goldman. He never really came to terms. For most of the eighties and nineties, he spent his time walking up and down the halls of the precious firm, whistling to himself, and getting little work done.

It was no surprise that Schultz didn't like Johnson. He had joined the two men in '79 and had spent most of his professional life trying to push the latter out. It was unfortunate for him that the disillusioned lunatic would not quit whistling up and down the halls, would not retire. When Schultz finally deserted his career in favor of a house on an island in the Caribbean, Johnson only shrugged and kept on with his cheery malingering, and Noah had his eyes set on an empty chair.

To be only thirty, and already faced with a chance like this. To get an early start. If Goldman could only fully appreciate the fruit of his labor at sixty, Noah did not want to be Goldman. Noah wanted it all now; to strike while the iron was hot; to grab life by the horns. He wanted the money and the power, the reverence of his, his own, employees. Stupid annoying Peggy screeching about that handsome young lawyer who made partner at such an unspeakably rapid rate. His father would be proud, and brag to his friends at the Sunday dinner parties his upscale, youngish, tortured, artificial wife liked to throw. Those dinner parties with the flowered china and the white tablecloth, the sparkling chandelier, shined shoes on a shined parquet, warm fluorescence, and all those men and women that he didn't know who turned to him when he was fifteen and asked, what are you doing with your life? And the cold evening, their country house in Connecticut, overlooking the Atlantic, and its distant, gray, profound nothingness.

And then Goldman made an announcement. He seemed so sure in his blue suit, with his graying hair (the product of a life spent in courtrooms), his bony fingers. He was replacing Schultz, he said. With a brilliant lawyer, the mind of the new generation, that would push Goldman and Johnson, Esq. into the future. Her name was Anna Vaughn.

And they all pet his back, Peggy and Wilson and Margie and Conrad and Rochelle, and said, it should have been you. And there they were now, those back-stabbers, those two-faced, disloyal back-stabbers, running up to the heinous bitch Anna Vaughn and introducing themselves and vying, vying to tears, for the chance to shake her hand, to feel her claws.

He watched them all through the windows of his office, heard their gushing through the half-open door and pretended to work. Alas, a man named Murphy once proposed a law, and there was nothing in the world to do.

Wilson excused himself. He ran up to her like all the others, as if she were some sort of celebrity, or a local heroine, or even Goldman himself. Noah could only hear some words: honored, you, pleasure, work, associate. He pointed to Noah. Noah really hated Wilson.

She turned to him for a second and her brown eyes met his. It was a momentary attack, a hard, alarming, disarming pounce that she made without even moving a muscle. And before he could even conclude that she most certainly did look at him, her face was again distracted by the chattering of Wilson and she turned away and moved down the hall to Goldman's office.

While water-cooler conversation usually consisted of television reviews, Noah was mildly interested in what was being said now. He stood from his desk and walked out of his office, looking for water, though there was a cup of coffee that he had on his desk, though his secretary could get him anything he wanted, and though in reality he wasn't even that thirsty in the first place.

Just as he expected, a small circle of secretaries and interns gathered nearby with paper cones in their hands, whispering to one another. They were women, three in their middle age, and one still a college student with red hair, green eyes, and breasts disproportional to her petite frame. They were probably in the middle of a feminist rant, blind admiration for the newcomer because she supposedly had a vagina (though by her walk he could not be sure, he said to himself.) When they saw him approach, they all quieted immediately and greeted him, casting their heads down, as if it was not obvious to him that they were speaking of his failure. He poured cold water into a cone and sipped slowly, with his back turned to the room, figuring and re-figuring how in the world he would ever be able to turn around.

"Villiers!" he heard the loud, obnoxious tone behind him. He turned to see Goldman, in a striped gray suit, heading toward him. She was by his side, gray like her new mentor, and serious, deadly and serious.

"Goldman," Noah said uncomfortably, throwing the cup into a basket, placing his hands into his pockets, trying to look as relaxed as possible.

"I'd like you to meet someone. Noah Villiers, Anna Vaughn."

He met her eyes again. They were frigid, disdainful. He smiled charmingly at her, if only to make her uncomfortable. To his chagrin, she did not seem intimidated. She extended her hand. There was a ring on it. A golden band. She was left-handed.

"It's nice to meet you, Miss Vaughn," he said pleasantly, wrapping his fingers around hers.

"And you, as well, Mr. Villiers," she said in a deep, fascinating, sophisticated voice, "Villiers, is that French?"

"Yes, it is. My father's side."

"Beautiful country, isn't it?"

"It is," he nodded. She was better at small talk than he was.

"Miss Vaughn spent a year in Paris," Goldman cut in.

"Did you?"

"Yes," she said, "it became my second home."

"What were you doing there?"

"Pardon?"

"I mean, what were you doing there that you couldn't do here?"

"Studied," she raised her eyebrow, "I suppose I could have done that here. But Harvard had a wonderful abroad program with the Sorbonne, and I'd always wanted to visit Paris."

In old movies about civilized musketeers, the proper way of igniting a duel was to slap the opponent with a glove. She must have loved those movies.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Goldman smiled at Noah, "Harvard law."

"A great accomplishment," Noah smiled through his teeth, "Didn't you study on an island?"

Goldman had studied on an island. He told Noah that once, when they sipped scotch after a successful day at court. It doesn't matter where you get your education, he had said, or what education you get, for that matter. All that means anything in the world is what you do with it. And it's all about Willa-fucking-Cather. Noah didn't really understand. He looked it up on the internet. She said that everything she needed to learn she knew by the end of her adolescence. Certainly Goldman believed in nature over nurture. He was such a hypocrite.

Goldman laughed. "Miss Vaughn herself spent some time on an island. She spent two years in the Peace Corps."

"Miss Vaughn has achieved a great deal in a relatively short amount of time."

Her eyes met his again and she flicked her lip.

"All right, gentlemen, that's enough about me."

"Not quite," Goldman said, "you should be proud."

"It's quite admirable, after all, Miss Vaughn. I hope we didn't make you uncomfortable," Noah added.

Her posture was perfect. "Not at all," she said.

"Well, I'm glad you admire her, Villiers. That's exactly the kind of relationship I want to foster among my partners."

"Excuse me?" Noah looked away from her eyes.

"Oh, I didn't tell you? I'm promoting you."

Noah's eyes opened wide.

"You and Miss Vaughn are now partners. It is your duty to accommodate her with the firm and assist her in anything she may need you for."

And then they opened wider. Goldman had a way of saying things and then disappearing, or navigating away via words. That was how he measured his success. The ability to pretend that bad news was actually good. He called to Johnson, who was whistling down the hall, and excused himself.

"Ms. Vaughn," Noah said as genially as he could, his fists clenched in his pockets. It was then that he suddenly became aware of his surroundings. Everyone was staring at them. He nodded at her and walked down the hallway into his office.

When he was in the safety of the little transparent room, he wondered if he could throw something or break something without anyone noticing. Careful anger was hardly satisfying. Vaughn appeared in the doorway. She had her arms folded comfortably. He stared at her.

"That was-" she began, pursing her lips, "the most uncomfortable introduction I had ever experienced."

"Well, I guess we're both glad it's over with."

"I was thinking we'd try again. Like, hey, I'm Anna. How are you?"

"Villiers," he said dryly.

She smiled, "All right. Last name basis it is."

"How old are you, Miss Vaughn, if you don't mind my asking?"

She sighed, "That's a little personal for such a formal introduction, isn't it?"

"I don't see anything personal about it."

"In that case, I'm twenty-eight. How old are you, Mr. Villiers?"

"I'm turning thirty on Friday."

She nodded. There was a moment of silence.

"All right," she inhaled, "now that we have finished acquiring useless information from one another, I guess we can start talking about work."

"How may I assist you?" he said sarcastically.

"Well, I don't think Mr. Goldman phrased it properly. You're not my assistant. I don't want you to feel that way at all. I would just really appreciate your help in becoming familiar with-aspects of this company."

"To assist you, you mean."

"Help."

"They're synonyms, Miss Vaughn."

"With slightly different connotations."

He hated her already, and the hate only grew as he stared at her finger, her damn finger with that ugly ring. He wondered who the man was who would desire this entirely undesirable woman, with her stern eyes and her small mouth, with her flat skinny body, boyish haircut. When she smiled, she accentuated her high cheekbones, and her nose looked sharper, cockier.

"I understand you've been employed here for some time," she said.

"A few years, yes."

"And how do you like it?"

"I like it quite fine, Miss Vaughn. If you excuse me-I don't mean to be rude, I just-I have a lot of work to finish."

"Oh," her face distorted, brown eyes squinted, dark eyebrows were brought together, lips pursed, cheeks flushed, "Yes, of course. Excuse me, please."

She walked out of the office and closed the door gently behind her. He was alone again. He sat at his desk. So Goldman decided to make them partners. Goldman didn't trust him to take over the job alone. He had to bring in another, and to add insult to injury, a woman! But that didn't matter. By all accounts this was good news. Two hours ago he believed that Goldman had snubbed him but now it turned out that he was given a foot in the door. Anna Vaughn was a problem, an obstacle, of course, but she wasn't unbeatable. As a matter of fact, the only thing that stood between Noah and the full benefits of the promotion was Anna Vaughn. He only had to destroy one annoying little bitch. Candy was never taken so easily from children.