Their Protector: An MC Outlaw Halloween Romance, page 21
Except for Charles, of course. But he doesn’t have to make much of an effort, considering that he’s Jack Holt's son.
Now that I realize the stringent requirements that exist for everyone except Charles, I'm beginning to wonder if my career is really as secure as I used to think it was. It doesn't seem as if interviewing and getting the job is cutting it anymore. Instead, all associates are subject to strict evaluations and "suggestions" for improvement.
I'm beginning to wonder if I can ever possibly keep up with all the hoops they make associates jump through, or if they even have any intention of making us partners. Maybe their goal is to just find reasons we're not good enough so they can string us along as billable hour drones for seven years before cutting us loose to go work at some second-rate insurance defense firm.
"I'm going to keep this performance evaluation short and sweet, Riley," Mr. Holt says, as soon as I sit down, without bothering with any kind of standard pleasantries first. “Your billable hours are great, your work is solid, your networking is as expected."
I nod, glad that all my hard work is being recognized.
“But your pro bono hours are not on track with the other associates’, and the only misgivings expressed by any partner have related to your fit here with the firm," he continues, making me feel crestfallen.
“My fit ?” I ask, squirming in the oversized leather chair in the large conference room that is occupied only by Mr. Holt and myself.
I want to ask how I'm supposed to find time to do pro bono hours— volunteering to represent clients for free— when I've already billed more hours than any other associate. But I assume he expects me to figure that out on my own.
And I'm intrigued— although dismayed— by his use of the word “fit.” I need to fit in at the firm; I need to make it work. My parents had spent a lot of money on law school and would be furious at me if they knew I don’t make partner because I don't “fit in.”
“There’s another thing. As you know, Riley, this firm has a strong and proud military tradition,” Mr. Holt continues. “And you’re the only associate who doesn’t have some tie with the military.”
I think about it and realize he's right: many of the partners had served in the military before going to law school, and many of the associates are in the Reserves. There are lawyers who had gone to West Point, the Air Force Academy, who had been in JAG before being hired by the firm, and who regularly volunteer at the VA, helping with disability cases or access to health care.
Except for your son , I want to point out to Mr. Holt, because Charles is the only other associate with absolutely no connection to the military. But he doesn't count.
Mr. Holt rarely speaks of my relationship with Charles at work, but when he does, it's to repeat his favorite line that he’s glad his son hooked himself to a rising star: that I'm good for Charles and can keep him on track. I know he says similar things to Charles in private, and I know that's one of the main reasons that Charles and I are still together.
The unspoken assumption is that the normal rules of associate standards don't apply to Charles. He's expected to go to happy hours and golf tournaments with the partners and important firm clients, not slave away as a billable hour slave like the rest of us. And apparently, he doesn't need to have any military connection, although everyone else, including me, needs to meet that requirement.
It's not fair, but such is life.
If Mr. Holt says I need to have some connection to the military, and that I need to volunteer more pro bono hours to be a good fit for the firm, then that's exactly what I'll do. He's clearly signaling that I should kill two birds with one stone and volunteer in some capacity that helps the military.
"I understand your concerns, Mr. Holt," I tell him, always the eager-to-please associate. "And I'll get right on it. Don't worry."
"I'm glad to hear that, Riley," he says, half smiling at me and then looking at his watch, clearly ready for the next victim— I mean, associate— who will take my seat for their performance evaluation. He picks up my file and bangs it lightly on the conference room table.
"I'll have my secretary add a note to your file that we've discussed these matters and you're rectifying the situation. I appreciate your diligence and obedience. I just wish I could say the same about my son. But he's been better with your influence, so hopefully you'll keep rubbing off on him."
There goes my plan to talk to Charles about breaking up yet again , I think, as I stand up to leave.
I nod at Mr. Holt.
"Thank you for the evaluation, and have a great day."
"Cindy?" he calls out, before I've even opened the door.
I guess he's so busy trying to tell his secretary that he's ready for the next evaluation that he can't even bid me a good day in return.
That's okay, though, because my day has already been ruined, and nothing Mr. Holt can say at this point will make it any better.
What the fuck?
How can this guy think he can treat my mom like this?
"Hey, you," I call to the guy, whose hair is long and greasy on the bottom and non-existent on top. "Knock it off."
"Or what?" he spits at me.
He’s cowering over her, pausing but not stopping his quest to exert his dominance over her not just emotionally but physically as well.
He's clearly drunk or high or just out of his mind because he's crazy. Who knows, with the kind of guys my mom likes to bring home with her.
How do I get myself into these situations?
One minute I'm balls deep in a blonde hottie I'd picked up at a bar, going at it like there's no tomorrow, making her moan, groan and call my name over and over and over. It's what I do— make women come.
But then the next minute, I'm face to face with one of the losers my mom likes to date. I guess that's also what I do, whether I like to admit it or not— clean up my mom's messes for her.
"Or I'll have to knock it off for you," I tell him.
He's not stopping, so I have to carry through on my word.
I’ve always been a man of my fucking word. I try not to make many promises, and to always keep those promises that I do make.
Before I know it, I'm in a rage, throwing fists, arms, kicking legs, feet— anything to get him to stop. And to make it clear how little I appreciate some loser who comes in and roughs up my mom.
"Jensen," my mom cries out, but I ignore her.
If she didn't want me to handle this, she never should have called me.
I’m surprised— but glad— that she managed to do it before things escalated too much. But now that she’s called me, she can’t expect me to just ignore her pleas for help because she changed her mind on a whim, or doesn’t want to upset this current Loser of the Week that she’s dating.
She should know by now that I'm not someone who idly sits around doing nothing. If someone I love— and yes, it's a strong word for my mom but I do love her; she's my mother, after all— needs help, I spring into action.
It's what I do. What I've always done. It's how I've done so well as a SEAL. I don't have awards for valor for nothing.
I keep going, pounding on the poor guy probably a bit longer than I have to, but he deserves it and plus, it feels cathartic. I get out the rage of my past, my present, my future. All of the ugliness I usually try to push aside comes crashing down on me and pushes itself out in a wave of ignition.
When the poor suck is lying in a fetal position on the ground, I finally stop and take a breath.
He’ll be all right, but I hope I’ve taught him a lesson.
"Jensen, I didn't mean for you to do that ," Mom says, wringing her hands frantically. "Do you think I should call for help?"
"Do whatever you think is best for you," I tell her. "You always do anyway."
She looks at me, crying, and then turns to help him.
She always does that too. Chooses the lose
I think about adding something else, but I don't. I just shake my head and walk back out the door, muttering to myself instead of out loud to her.
And maybe you should think about not doing things you don't mean to do, before you actually do them.
“Hey pretty lady, what are you doing here?”
An inmate in an orange jumpsuit presses up against the gate of his jail cell as he spits this question at me. Then he spreads his index and middle fingers across his mouth and wags his tongue at me through them.
I try not to grimace as I recoil at his leering gaze. Then I quickly turn my head away so as not to display my disgust and fear to the man’s face.
But the prisoner’s question is valid, and one that I’m asking myself right now in fact.
What am I doing here?
I’m not the kind of lawyer who works in a jail. Correction: I wasn’t that type of lawyer. Yet the fact remains that here I am walking into a gritty jail instead of a fancy high rise like I have for the past four years of my legal career.
I was finally able to talk to Charles a little bit after my evaluation with his dad, and he hadn't bothered to mention anything to me about his form of "entertaining" the clients, or his whereabouts on the night that we were supposed to have our date.
I hadn't had the energy to get into any of that with him. Instead, I'd told him that his dad and the other partners want me to volunteer for a military organization and that I'd found this one.
"The VLA? They deal with, like, criminals," Charles had said, grimacing. "At like, the jail."
Clearly Charles didn't think I should be volunteering here, but he doesn’t understand what’s at stake if I don’t.
“Ms. Morrell, keep following me, this way please,” says Tim McDonald— or is it O’Donald?— as he leads me through the prison complex I’ve never before entered. “We’re almost there.”
He must know that I’m strongly considering turning around and leaving. Maybe Charles was right— I don’t need to go to these lengths to impress the firm.
There has to be something I can do that satisfies the firm's military pro bono requirements and that doesn’t involve trips to the local jail where I’m accosted by lecherous inmates. But ever since my latest performance evaluation at the firm, Jack Holt’s words have been ringing in my memory.
I need to fit in at the firm. I need to do whatever it takes.
It's no wonder Charles doesn’t understand. He was born to "fit in" at his father's firm, whereas I have to go to great lengths to earn that privilege.
When I began calling around to military legal service organizations where I could volunteer so that I could be a better “fit” for the firm, the Veterans’ Legal Alliance was the only one that responded immediately. So, I jumped on the opportunity to obtain a pro bono gig as quickly as possible.
Tim had explained to me that the VLA organization provides all types of legal services and representation to military veterans, and that usually means representing them in criminal trials. It’s a totally different world than I’m used to, since my work at the firm involves representing large corporations in civil litigation matters in which they’re fighting over money or partnership agreements. But I’m open to anything that will help me become partner at the firm.
Now, Tim leads me to an open meeting room or visiting room of some type. A handful of inmates stand around speaking in hushed tones to each other, while others sit quietly by themselves.
“These are some of the men in our program, who are waiting to meet with their lawyers or be transported to the hearing room for their cases to be called,” Tim explains.
He sits down on a bench at one of the tables a few feet away from the men. I follow his lead and sit down at the bench on the other side of the table.
One of the prisoners catches my eye and I can’t help but stare. While the rest of the men have short, buzzed, military style haircuts, this man has a gruff, outdoorsy look: long hair and a long beard.
His short-sleeved jumpsuit reveals muscular pecs covered in tattoos. I can’t take my eyes off a Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead tattoo on his right arm: it’s a colorful skull full of flowers and a cross.
The stranger returns my stare, his eyes the color of dark coal. I feel them burning into my pale blue eyes as if I’m Lot’s wife looking back on Sodom in a rebellious, forbidden act. I tear my eyes away from him and force myself to look at Tim, hoping that I won’t turn into a pillar of salt.
What in the world was that ? I wonder, as a scourge of electricity courses through my veins. I cannot possibly have felt attracted to that… criminal . He’s not even my type .
I like nerdy, intellectual guys, not long-haired convicts covered in tattoos. Except for those celebrity guys I just thought about why trying to make myself come. But that doesn't count. That's not real life.
In real life I'm in a relationship , I remind myself, as an afterthought. But I can’t seem to stop staring at the stranger’s thick brown hair, shining brown eyes, and constantly flexed muscles.
I am going to have to try hard to tear my thoughts away from him and keep them focused on this new volunteer job.
What have I gotten myself into ? I wonder, on many different levels.
I look at the inmate again and then back at Tim, who is eager to explain the new gig to me.
I guess I'm about to find out.
“It’s amazing how many military personnel are arrested while serving or shortly thereafter,” Tim explains, handing me a thick binder full of information.
Veterans’ Legal Alliance, Inc. , it reads on the front cover, and then: How to represent a service member or veteran charged with a crime in state criminal court .
“I’m not really knowledgeable about…” I begin, but Tim holds up his hand and smiles kindly at me.
“We know you don’t have criminal law experience,” he says, easing my fears. “But since you routinely handle complex commercial litigation and white collar crime- type fraud suits between business partners and the like, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it quickly.”
I look at him skeptically, hoping he’s right.
“These kinds of cases are more difficult in some ways but the basic procedures will be a cakewalk for you,” Tim continues. “And we are here to train you and provide you with all the support and resources you need.”
“‘We’ being…?” I ask, looking around the room and noting the lack of any other lawyers.
I suddenly feel a presence immediately behind my right shoulder and jump, realizing that Mr. Not My Type is standing directly behind me. I’m not sure how long he’s been there. I feel goosebumps spring up all over my body, and it’s not because I’m afraid, or cold.
“Myself, as director of the organization,” Tim continues, “and all other staff and attorneys. I must admit we run a slim ship, which is due to the lack of willing personnel, but those who are available to help are incredibly passionate and talented at what they do.”
“I see,” I say, trying not to blush and hoping that Mr. Not My Type can’t tell what an inexplicably powerful effect his presence has on me.
The inmate clears his throat and says, “Mr. McDonald?” in a polite yet bold tone of voice.
I can literally feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck, as if he had whispered his question right there in public, in one of my most intimate spots.
“Yes, Jensen?” Tim responds, with a smile. “Call me Tim. And this is Riley Morrell. She might be volunteering temporarily with our organization. Riley, this is Jensen Bradford.”
“Hello, Riley ,” says Jensen, extending a well-built forearm in my direction.
There’s something about the way he says my name that sounds so foreign and new, as if I’ve never been called it before in my life.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” I say, reaching out to
He shakes my hand like a lumberjack and I wonder how tall he is. Definitely quite tall. But his eyes remain focused on Tim’s.
“Mr. McDonald,” he continues, dropping my hand and leaving it to feel suddenly completely empty. “I’m wondering if Dylan is here? He said he’d talk to me about my arraignment hearing before it starts, and that’s relatively soon.”
“I believe he was held over in court,” Tim answers. “He has a busy docket today. But I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”
“All right, thank you sir,” Jensen says. “I’m glad to hear it because I’d really like to talk to him.”
He returns to the table on the far side of the room without so much as glancing back at me, and I feel slighted, even though I have no idea why I want this prisoner to talk to me, as eloquent and polite of a prisoner as he may be.
Sure, he’s tall, athletic, muscular, and gorgeous. But that doesn’t mean I should have an instant crush on him, I remind myself.
I’m in a relationship, even if that fact is so easy to forget these days. After protesting against my choice of pro bono work, Charles didn’t even bat an eye this morning when I told him I was leaving the office and wasn’t sure when I’d be back. Although he had been against me going to the jail in theory, once I’d told him I was going, he seemed not to care one bit.
In fact, I don’t know if he even heard me, even though I’d repeated myself. I have to admit that ours has always been a relationship built on politics and convenience more so than on passion or romance, but lately Charles has become more distant than ever.
I try to focus on Tim’s explanation of the process for representing veterans. But I can’t help sneaking glances at Jensen.
A few times, he meets my gaze and stares back at me unabashedly. It’s enough to cause my heart to race just as fast as when I’m delivering a closing argument in trial.
“Many of our veterans aren’t used to life after the military,” Tim explains. “They’ve been taught different ways of handling conflict than are acceptable in or expected by the rest of society. Sometimes they experience flashbacks or fight-or-flight reactions due to PTSD, either already diagnosed or as yet undiscovered.”
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