Vivien Shelton kissed the five doggie noses arrayed at varying heights in front of her and backed out of her Manhattan apartment. She clutched a tape roller and her computer bag in one hand, and a tall espresso-strength coffee in the other. Ellis whined mournfully and Brooklyn gave a sharp, disapproving bark.
She looked regretfully at her gaggle of greyhounds. “I know, guys. But I can’t stay and play. Klein, Schmidt and Belker pays me for my legal expertise, not my frisbee skills. Tabitha will keep you company, okay?” She glanced at the tiny blonde walker, still incredulous that the dogs didn’t pull her right off her feet.
“Queenie has a 2 p.m. vet’s appointment, remember. Just have them send me the bill–forty-three greyhounds later, they know I’m good for it.”
“Will do.” Tabitha crunched down on a Granny Smith apple and waved goodbye. “What about the couple who’s interested in Yonkers? What should I tell them?”
“I’m not comfortable with him going to them. There’s something ‘off’ about those people. Tell them he’s already been placed.”
“Okay. Have a good one, Viv.”
“You too!” She dropped another quick kiss on little Mannie’s speckled pink nose–he was practically an albino–and he licked her cheek, probably taking off half of her makeup. Mannie was the latest in her long line of rescued greyhounds, and he hadn’t left her side for a moment all day on Sunday. She felt guilty leaving him, but he was in good hands. Cranky old Schmidt would have a stroke if she brought Mannie anywhere near the office.
Viv glanced at her watch and galloped toward the elevator, madly tape-rolling the little white hairs off of her left, trouser-clad thigh. She did her lower left leg while waiting for the car to arrive, and her right leg on the way down from the seventeenth floor to the first. A slurp of coffee, then the right front of her jacket. Another slurp, and the left front.
Mr. Duarte from the eleventh floor watched eagerly as the roller skimmed over her breasts, and she sent him a quelling look. This only made him look hopeful that she might punish him. Duarte gave her the creeps.
Once they got to the ground floor, Viv waited for him to scram. Then she sidled over to Timmy, the doorman, raised a come-hither brow, and dove down the service hallway. Timmy appeared within seconds, she presented her backside, and he tape-rollered her from nape to ankles.
“Oooooh, Timmy. Was that good for you, darling?” She winked at him once he was done. “Because, as always, it was sensational for me.”
“You’re lucky I’m here to service you, Miss Viv.” Timmy winked back.
“That I am,” Viv agreed. “That I am. Thank you!” She popped the tape roller into her bulging computer bag and rushed out the door just as the firm’s car-and-driver appeared.
Viv had once thought that the chauffered car was a nice perk of working at Klein, Schmidt and Belker; a luxury. She now considered Maurice and the Lincoln Continental to be jailer and paddy-wagon, respectively. Maurice made sure she was working hard to generate the big bucks for Schmidt and Belker by 7:45 a.m. each weekday morning, and by 9:45 a.m. on too-regular Saturdays. (Klein was technically out of the picture, since he’d dropped dead at a urinal in the men’s room three years ago. He’d left behind a spectacular courtroom win-ratio and an exposed trouser-snake that bent even farther right than his politics.)
“Good morning, Maurice,” Viv said crisply as she got into the Lincoln. “And how are you today?” The usual nauseating smell of wintergreen gum and Tropical Fruit carpet freshener assailed her nostrils.
The wizened little man looked at his watch and frowned. “Better, now that you’re in. Four times around the block today, Miss Shelton!”
“Four, really? How frustrating. Were you early?” Viv was never late. Not by as much as thirty seconds. And tardiness in others was one of her biggest pet peeves.
“Early, schmurly,” grumbled Maurice, lurching forward and left in the heavy traffic and cutting off an irate and vocal middle-eastern cab driver. Then he floored it for all of eight feet before dodging right again, barely missing a bike messenger, and slamming on the brakes.
Viv took it all in stride. She had a strong suspicion that Schmidt and Belker awarded Maurice an annual bonus for delivering her hundred-and-thirty pounds of flesh before eight o’clock each day. Her pounds and those of the other five attorneys on his run, that is.
She had at least fifteen minutes to kill before the car got from her Upper East Side building to the law offices in midtown, so she checked e-mail on her palm pilot.
Please, she prayed, let there not be any more wedding horrors awaiting her. Since the troubling news that her best friend Julia Spinelli was getting married to some redneck she’d only known a month, Viv had tried to digest the fact that she’d have to be a . . . she shuddered, unable to wrap her mind around the concept.
A bridesmaid. Vivien didn’t want to be anybody’s maid, not even for a day. The whole concept was foreign, it implied servitude and worse: it spanned all the possibilities of polyester.
She’d already had to leave a deposition one day to find a full-length, strapless foundation garment in her bra size. Julia had then commanded that she purchase a pair of satin Manolo evening mules and a flaring petticoat. Viv had never in her life worn something as fussy as a petticoat, and she dreaded seeing the hideous taffeta creation that went over it. Oh, God! Please let her not have to wear anything with a bow on the butt . . .
Under any other circumstances, she’d laugh her ass off at the idea of one of Manhattan’s top divorce attorneys moonlighting as a bridesmaid in a wedding. But all the humor went out of it immediately when she was the top divorce attorney in question. Viv had represented some high profile clients, and she only hoped the papers didn’t get hold of this. She could see the headlines now: Raptor in Rosebuds! Will Shelton serve groom papers at reception?
Viv shook off what she knew were selfish thoughts under the circumstances. She should be a lot more concerned about Julia than she was about herself. She’d already questioned her delicately on the phone about this guy Roman—and she’d told Julia that coincidentally she knew his sister, KiKi Douglas. Unfortunately Viv had represented her ex-husband in their Manhattan divorce three years ago.
“Listen, hon,” she’d said to Julia. “If Roman is anything like KiKi, you want to be careful.”
“Roman is nothing like KiKi!” Julia had exclaimed, even though to Viv’s knowledge she’d never met her.
Viv had closed her eyes to ward off a migraine—-impossible-—and sent an urgent e-mail to Sydney Spinelli, Julia’s older sister.
Today there was a reply, and Vivien scanned it quickly.
Subject: Re: Your little sister has gone crazy!
Tell me about it! Yes, I’ve met him, and there’s something fishy with the guy. What kind of Texan speaks Italian, wears designer clothes and has a vineyard??? And Viv, here’s the really awful part: the ring he gave her is FAKE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I think he’s marrying her for the $$$. But I can’t talk sense into her.
“Fake?!” Viv said it aloud, with enough force that Maurice squinted at her in the rear view mirror. “What? She has got to be kidding!”
Viv typed a quick reply. She’d call Sydney as soon as she got to the office.
Subject: FAKE ring???
What do you mean, the ring he gave her is fake?! HOW COULD HE??? I’m speechless. xoxoxo, Viv
*This electronic message transmission contains information from the law firm of Klein, Schmidt and Belker that may be confidential or privileged. The information is intended solely for the recipient and use by any other party is not authorized. If you are not the intended recipient, be aware that any copying, disclosure, distribution or use of the contents of this transmission is prohibited. If you have received this electronic transmission in error, please notify us immediately. Thank you.
Sydney was obviously on-line at the same time, because before Viv had finished reading one of the work e-mails her reply popped into the mailbox.
Subject: Re: FAKE ring???
Viv, supposedly it’s not his fault. The grandmother sold it way back when and he didn’t know. (Do you believe this? Not sure, myself.) But it doesn’t matter! Our Julia has got it bad: she’s STILL WEARING the ring, and says she doesn’t care that it’s fake. Why? Because HE gave it to her. I give up . . . I’m going home. Can you at least get her to sign a prenup? I’m serious!!!!!!!
Viv stared in disbelief at the text. Julia was still wearing a fake ring . . . she logged off and shut her laptop with a snap. This was insane. This Roman guy must be damn good in bed to have her deluded to this extreme. He sounded like one-hundred-percent bad news—-and if he was related to KiKi Douglas, whose face had been ALL over the tabloids lately, then he was a prize schmuck.
Julia needed a pre-nup, all right. The question was how to convince her of that. People in love and planning a wedding did not want to think about the ugly death of that love and the dissolution of the wedding. You couldn’t really blame them.
Viv shuddered at the idea of grabbing Julia and telling her that the fabric, cut and design of her gown didn’t matter because she’d be burning it in a backyard bonfire in less than a year.
“Julia, honey,” she saw herself saying, “don’t worry that the doves they delivered for the event are both male. You’ll be roasting them on the barbecue with veggie kabobs by Christmas.”
“Sweetie, don’t bother freezing the top of that cake—unless you want something heavy and icicle-encrusted with which to brain your husband after he absconds with your trust fund.”
“Lacy white bridal lingerie imported from France? Don’t spend the money—unless you’ve got some red or purple dye on hand. You can transform them for your divorce trousseau.”
Viv winced. Julia, the poor thing, wouldn’t want to listen to any of this. But Vivien had seen the rough side of marriage. She dealt with it every day: the ugly accusations, the dirty little secrets, the infidelity, the asset hiding, the custody squabbles–even the occasional kidnapping of the miserable couple’s children by one spouse.
Viv had seen some strange things. She’d attended a Divorce Dirge for a client of hers and downed a dirty martini as the ex-husband was burned in effigy.
A caterer client had baked a large, penis-shaped chocolate cake for a luncheon, serving a stunned Viv a good chunk of the balls on a china plate. The client had then thanked her in front of everyone for her great work.
And during one case the cheating s.o.b. of a husband had propositioned Viv right in front of her client, his wife!
But Viv’s mistrust of marriage went far deeper than her job. Not only were her own parents divorced, but their parents before them. She simply did not believe in bridal bliss.
As the Lincoln pulled up in front of Klein, Schmidt and Belker’s building, Viv pulled her things together. She got out with an unenthusiastic thanks to Maurice, who gunned the engine and pulled away before she even had the door closed. Then she schlepped inside.
The first face she saw that morning belonged to grumpy old Schmidt, whose yarmulke hung precariously from a bobby pin attached to one of three final strands of combed-over hair. Now, in Schmidt’s favor, he’d been married to the same woman for forty-eight years.
But Viv had a suspicion that Mrs. Schmidt hung around more out of inertia and fear of the man’s divorce law expertise than out of any burning passion for him. And she’d long ago decided that Schmidt stayed with her due to a fondness for her chocolate babka cake and light touch with potato latkes. He was also far too fond of his money to part with any of it due to divorce.
Schmidt grunted at her and she nodded back as she passed him on her way to her office, navigating the sea of dark mahogany tables, tasteful green plants and leather seating.
Belker, the younger partner, had covered the walls of the firm with his dour, very minor, Old Master Flemish paintings, which Viv referred to collectively as the Sour Pusses. Belky, unlike Schmidt, had been divorced twice and had given each wife a considerable amount of money for his freedom. But since the firm dumped more on him by the truckload, he didn’t seem to mind overly much.
Unfortunately Belky had a thing for Viv’s assistant Andie, a former client whom she’d hired in an unwise moment of sympathy. She’d negotiated a fabulous settlement for Andie, the bulk of which was her husband’s 2.3 million dollar house. Unfortunately he’d stopped making the insurance payments on it and burned it down with himself inside it.
Andie was terribly sweet and had a way with Viv’s usually upset female clients, whom she plied with tea and sympathy and great gossip.
Belker was sitting on the corner of her desk with his scrawny knees apart when Viv appeared, his chest puffed out like a rooster’s. “I had the judge in the palm of my hand,” he said, eyeing Andie’s plump assets in their tight black sweater. “Had her purring.”
“Good morning,” Viv said, hardly able to refrain from rolling her eyes.
“’Morning!” Andie sang.
Belker nodded coolly and removed his vile, skinny buns from their perch. “Ah, Vivien,” he said. “I have something to discuss with you.”
Ugh. She didn’t want to discuss anything with Belky other than a promotion and a raise—or taking some of the six weeks of vacation owed to her by the firm.
“Certainly, Howard,” Viv told him, accepting the stack of phone messages Andie extended toward her.
Belky followed her into her office, picking at the dead skin on his left hand—-he had psoriasis.
Viv swallowed as tiny little flakes of his flesh spiraled toward her carpet—the same carpet she walked on in stocking feet when she worked late. She averted her gaze and crossed her arms in front of her, waiting for him to begin.
“You may not be aware, Vivien, that I’ve just taken on the divorce case of one Samuel Buckheimer.”
“Congratulations,” she said, infusing her voice with just the right amount of cordiality.
“Yes, well. Sam owns a couple of large operations both here in New York and in Florida. Greyhound tracks. And he happened to come across your name as a large donor to–”
Viv felt her face freezing. “Oh, he did, did he?”
“Yes. He was very pointed in his questioning. Frankly, it was embarrassing.”
“Howard. While I feel for your being put in such a position, I must respectfully say that my personal donations or activities outside the firm are a private matter.”
“I’d just like you to think about it, Vivien. Okay?”
“He’s also being represented by you, not me.”
“He’s concerned about any of his money adding to . . . er, your bottom line. Since you two are philosophically opposed,” said Belky smoothly.
Viv gritted her teeth. “Yes, that we certainly are. I don’t think that the torture, starvation and neglect of animals for profit is acceptable. Do you?”
Her boss ignored the question. “Great work on the Alderson case, by the way,” he said to soften her up.
“See you at the meeting later.”
Viv glared at his hunched little back as he left her office, trailing more tiny bits of his decayed flesh. This wasn’t the first run-in they’d had over work she did outside of Klein, Schmidt and Belker. As far as he was concerned, pro bono activities were a waste of time, unless they were accompanied by the firm’s name in huge letters and reported in the media.
She’d learned that it was useless to lobby Klein, Schmidt for charitable contributions unless they involved a fat tax write-off and good spin.
Vivien sighed and began to return phone calls, eyeing the towering stack of briefs and files on her credenza. Just a little light reading to pass the time . . . she glanced at her watch. She had less than twenty minutes before her first appointment.
She’d resolved a couple of issues with one client and left a message returning another one’s call when Andie beeped through. “Miss Sydney Spinelli is on line 4.”
“Okay, thanks.” Viv punched the button. “Syd? I was just going to call you.”
“Vivien! How are you? How’s your mother?”
“I’m fine. She’s fine. You?”
“I’m . . . great, actually.” And Syd—-Syd! actually giggled. “I’m still here in Fredericksburg. I’ve uh, met someone.”
“Well, I hope you’re not going to marry the guy after a week,” Viv said dryly.
“Not yet,” Syd chirped.
Syd never chirped. She, like Viv, had studied the entire time that Viv, Julia and Sydney had spent at boarding school in Massachusetts. Well, she’d played field hockey, too. She’d never gotten into trouble, that was for sure. And she’d never been upbeat and bubbly, like her sister. But today, Sydney’s voice could almost be mistaken for Julia’s.
“Syd, what is going on down there in Texas? Julia’s wearing this fake rock, and she believes this b.s. story about the grandmother hocking it without anyone’s knowledge?”
“Yup. And I can’t talk any sense into her. I’ve been accused of jealousy and meddling. And now that I’ve met Alex, I especially can’t say anything to her, because she throws my own romance into my face. Viv, you’re Julia’s best friend. You’re the Ball-Busting Bitch of Manhattan: the New York Post said so.”
Viv glanced at the framed copy of the article that she’d proudly hung on her wall. Her lips twitched at the unflattering photo, which made her look like Dracula’s trailer-trash mistress on a bender.
“You have to come down here and reason with her,” said Sydney. “At least get her to sign one of those iron-clad pre-nups of yours. This Roman guy says he’s head over heels for Julia, but he’s expanding the family vineyard and looking for cash to do it—-I heard him say it myself. He thinks we’re like a blue-collar version of the Hilton sisters; the Marv’s Motor Inn heiresses.”
“Syd, if she didn’t respond well to you talking with her, she won’t listen to me, either. I’m not even family.”
“She’ll listen to you because there’s no sibling rivalry involved. And you’re so frighteningly business-like. You just tell her you want to protect her legally. You say, ‘Here, Julesy, sign on this dotted line and I’ll take care of the rest.’”
Andie buzzed through. “Mrs. Bonana is here for your eight-thirty.”
“Okay, thanks,” Viv told her. “Can you put her in one of the small conference rooms?”
“They’re all full.”
“Oh. All right. Send her in.” Viv went back to Sydney. “Look, hon, I’m glad you think I’m frightening, but I doubt that even I can scare Julia into doing something she doesn’t want to do. That dent in her chin means, as you very well know, that she’s stubborn. And she’s also a bona fide romantic. Plus, as usual I’m up to the eyeballs in work right now, and I’ll be lucky if I can get away to be there for the wedding.”
Andie brought a dubiously sun-streaked brunette to her office door. Viv nodded and held up a finger.
“Please, Viv. You’ve got to do something.”
“Syd, it sounds as if you might need a pre-nup soon yourself, doll.”
“Oh, no. Alex is completely trustworthy.”
Viv groaned. “See what I mean? And you don’t think your sister will have the same reaction?”
“No, really, this is different.”
How many times had Viv heard that before? “I’ve got to go—-I have an appointment.”
“Please say you’ll think about coming down and talking to her. I can’t do anything else. It’s all up to you . . .”