Now and Forever – Chapter One
Leland McNeil’s voice was as soothing as the melody of a children’s lullaby. His deep monotone was breaking Cole’s resolve to appear engaged in this meeting. It was almost 10 a.m., and the boost from his 5 a.m. cup of coffee was long gone.
“. . . those were the good old days, I suppose,” McNeil droned. “Back when we had to research case law rather than gaggling it or gogling it, or whatever you youngsters do today.”
Grayson Chamberlain piped up. “I still love using the textbooks in the firm’s library for research, sir. There’s nothing like the smell and feel of a book in my hands.”
McNeil smiled appreciatively and Cole suppressed a grunt of annoyance. Grayson was a shameless bootlicker.
“You know what it takes to make it in this firm, Grayson,” McNeil said. He was one of Murphy and Kline’s oldest partners, rich beyond retirement worries. He was in his 80s and still worked like a Timex. It was all he knew.
Cole’s friend Matt coughed lightly beside him. He had to be thinking the same thing Cole was. Grayson knew what it took to succeed, all right. Ass kissing and glory hogging. He was so good at those particular skills they belonged at the top of his fucking resume.
“Times are changing, gentlemen,” McNeil said softly, staring out the glass wall of his office at the panoramic view of the Chicago skyline. The silence stretched, and tension flared in Cole’s gut. He had to write deposition questions, prepare for a client meeting and read several dozen pages of paralegal notes.
But Leland McNeil was known for these stretches of inner thought, and everyone at the firm knew it was best not to disturb him. Cole’s thoughts shifted to Emma, who’d been nestled against him when he responded to the blare of the alarm at four this morning. She got to sleep thirty minutes later than he did, so he was always careful not to disturb her. But this morning in particular, he’d been tempted to.
She’d already been asleep when he got home from work the night before at 10:30. They were both putting in long days at work. But his fatigue had left him when he crawled into bed beside her and took in the warm vanilla scent that was so distinctively Em. It wasn’t the overdone, perfumey vanilla; it was the real deal, from days spent baking. And it blended with the light smell of her perfume so perfectly that it never failed to arouse him.
And then when she’d snuggled into him and her nipples tightened against his bare chest through the thin fabric of her t-shirt, sleep became the last thing on his mind. But she’d been out cold, and he hadn’t had the heart to wake her up. Ditto this morning, when he’d considered waking her up for the slow, deep lovemaking that always put them both in a contended state of mind for the day ahead.
They needed to make time for each other this weekend. He missed their rituals, like falling asleep and waking up together. Especially falling asleep because shit, was he tired.
“Am I boring you, Marlowe?” McNeil prodded, arching his bushy white eyebrows.
“Uh, no.” Cole cleared his throat. “No, sir.”
“That’s good. I wouldn’t want you to fall asleep when we’re discussing the Calcotte account.”
Cole sat up straight in his chair and adjusted his tie. “What about it? I’m meeting with their CFO this afternoon.”
“Hmm.” McNeil rubbed the scarce whiskers on his chin. “Can you handle that account and the one Driscoll needs your help with?”
“Of course. Calcotte is one of the firm’s biggest clients. They’re always a top priority for me.”
“Maybe too much so,” McNeil said. His attempt at a fatherly tone just came off condescending. “I’m told you missed the meeting with Driscoll about the new client.”
Cole’s heart pounded rapidly. Missed a meeting? He hadn’t missed a meeting since starting at the firm. Matt’s groan from the next chair grabbed Cole’s attention.
“You mean that lame bicycle thing?” Matt asked. “Riding bikes with Driscoll around the cold-ass city before sunrise hardly constitutes a meeting.”
“Ryder, I expect laziness from you,” McNeil snapped. His dark-rimmed glasses had slid down low on his nose, and he glared over the top of them. “But not from Marlowe. Driscoll is trying to do team-building exercises and I expect the junior attorneys on my team to get on board.”
Cole ran a hand through his hair and shifted in his chair. “McNeil, the reason I couldn’t be there was because I was here. I had billing logs to get through before eight that morning and I just couldn’t get away.”
“Interesting,” Grayson said, smirking. “Did I not see you in line at the coffee shop downstairs when I was on the way back from the team building meeting at seven a.m.?”
Cole glared at his colleague. He was tall and lean, with a perfect part down one side of his perfect black hair that Cole was always itching to mess up, just to fuck with him. “Yeah, I drank some coffee, secret agent man. What’s it matter?”
Grayson crossed one leg over the other and held his hands up in surrender. “I’m just saying, you didn’t look overwhelmed with work to me. It looked like you were blowing off the team building exercise. I made it. I just stayed late the night before to get my billing logs done.”
“That’s ’cause you’ve got no life, Grayson,” Matt said, shaking his head.
“There’s no need for personal attacks,” Grayson countered, his passive-aggressive tone making Cole turn away in disgust.
“It wasn’t a personal attack, it was a statement of fact,” Matt said. He turned in his chair to face Grayson and Cole saw the fabric of his dark suit jacket straining against his former linebacker friend’s broad shoulders. “You’ve got nothing but this job.”
“Damned right, Ryder,” McNeil said, pushing his glasses back up onto his nose. “If Grayson has made his work the priority in his life right now, it stands to reason he’ll be more amply rewarded for it than others.” His gaze flicked to Matt and then Cole.
Matt shook his head and Cole could feel the tension building in the chair next to him. “So, what, it’s have a life or work here?” Matt asked. “Because my wife’s divorcing me and we haven’t even been married a year yet. I’m here 90 hours a week. And then I get called lazy?”
“Relatively speaking, you are lazy,” McNeil said. His piercing eyes and flat tone told Cole he was annoyed with having to state what he felt was the obvious.
Matt shifted in the chair and laughed bitterly. “I don’t know what else I can do. Whatever I do, it’s not enough. Or maybe I should say it’s not enough for you, because it’s definitely enough. I know junior attorneys work crazy hours, but I don’t have anything left to give but the time I spend showering and sleeping a few hours a night.”
McNeil folded his hands on his desk and stared Matt down. “If you don’t see this job as the opportunity that it is, someone else will. You’re going down to work on Amanda Martinez’ team.”
Cole heard the surprised exhale Matt gave, but didn’t want to chance looking at him. “What the fuck? You’re demoting me?”
“You’re damn right,” McNeil said. “If you can’t perform at the same level as the others on this team, make room for someone who can.”
Matt scoffed and folded his arms. “What, like Grayson? Your weird-ass, brown nosing fraternity brother who can do no wrong? No need for a colonoscopy this year, McNeil – no one has a better view of the inside of your ass than Grayson.”
Cole bit the inside of his cheek, ordering himself not to smile.
McNeil smiled and narrowed his dark, beady eyes. “Grayson and I both belonged to the same fraternity, yes, but I preceded him by about 60 years, Ryder. He earned his spot on this team with hard work.”
“Marlowe.” McNeil turned his steely gaze to Cole. “Will you make it to future team building sessions?”
Cole cleared his throat. He needed this job, and the bonus he was in line for. Emma’s construction loan on the bakery was due soon. “Yes, sir.”
“McNeil?” Grayson held a finger up in the air like a student waiting to be called on in class. “If it would help, I could take over Calcotte so Cole has more time for his billing logs and the team building meetings.”
Cole’s mouth dropped open. “What? No—”
“That’s an excellent idea, Grayson,” McNeil said. “Thanks for pitching in.”
“No. Hold on,” Cole interjected as Grayson stood up from his chair. “I’ve busted my ass on that account for eight months now. I’m the one they know, and I know all the ins and outs of the account. I don’t think it’s fair—”
“Maybe next time you’ll be more proactive and less reactive,” McNeil said.
“But I’m in line for a bonus on that account in a couple of weeks.”
Grayson shook his head and smiled sadly. “Cole, when you start working for bonuses instead of working for clients, you’ve lost sight of what’s important.”
“Eat shit, Grayson,” Matt muttered, standing up. “I’m going down to kick some ass on Martinez’ team.”
“That will be all, gentlemen,” McNeil said dismissively.
Cole saw his biggest client slipping through his fingers. “But—”
“Martinez can make room for you, too, Cole,” McNeil threatened, raising his eyes from the paper he’d picked up to meet Cole’s gaze.
Cole sighed and swallowed his disappointment. “No.”