Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Chapter Excerpt: 2nd Chance

 Notes: Hi darlins! Between the holiday, no daycare, and enormous revisions coming my way for a holiday romance due way too soon, I've got no blog story this week. What I've got instead is the original first chapter of the aforementioned story, which has been completely rewritten multiple times at this point and no longer bears any resemblance to this, but it still gives you a feel for the book that will be coming out. So...yes. Have half of a chapter of a new contemporary romance! FYI, Patreon followers get the whole thing ;) They get all the good stuff, join me there! https://www.patreon.com/Cari_Z




It all started with a suit.

My first day as a newly-minted lawyer with Staller, Weisz and Coast, I wore the wrong suit to the office. I didn’t know it was the wrong suit at the time—I only ever wore one back in Edgewood, a gift from my parents on my sixteenth birthday for when I needed to dress up for my dad’s political events. By the time I finished law school, I had a few more, but possession didn’t do much to mitigate my ignorance.

I walked into the corporate office in a black suit and tie—not charcoal, not grey, not navy—black. Shiny black shoes and a white shirt with French cuffs rounded out my look. I thought I was dapper. The man who hired me, Marcus Staller, took one look at me as I walked into his office that morning and immediately shook his head, got up from his desk, and asked his secretary to hold all his phone calls while he “dealt with this abomination.”

“Max,” he said to me, looking me up and down with a frown on his face. “There’s only one time in a man’s life when it’s acceptable to wear a black suit in the daytime, and that’s at a funeral.”

I frowned. “The guy at D and G said it was fashionable.”

Marcus scoffed. “Dolce and Gabbana make most of their money selling to G-men. Do you want your corporate clients to think you’re representing the government’s best interests, or yours? No.” He took me into his closet—it made my eyebrows rise, having a closet in your office, but that was before I knew about the kind of hours lawyers kept—and loaned me a midnight blue, pinstriped Canali. It was slightly too big, but “better than what you have on, son. You don’t want the other associates poking fun at you all day.” No, I damn well did not.

The advice began with suits, but it didn’t end there. Marcus was one of the founding members of the firm, a lawyer with thirty years of experience operating out of Manhattan, and he helped me navigate the waters of everything from surviving the cutthroat associate’s pool, to the best restaurants a lawyer on a budget—ie, me—could afford to take a client to, to how to identify cases that looked too good to be true.

Mass torts and class action lawsuits are the devil’s workshop,” he opined over lunch one day after news broke that a competitor of ours had just filed for bankruptcy. “Most lawyers aren’t good enough businesspeople to handle the nuts and bolts that go into developing portfolios for that kind of work. They get lured in with promises of big money and get in over their heads once half their cases get thrown out for lack of a decent work-up. Stick with corporate law, Max. You’ll get wealthy without losing your shirt.”

I’d taken Marcus’s advice to heart, and dedicated all my time and energy to Staller, Weisz and Coast. After three years, it was beginning to pay off. I was taking the lead on cases, starting to court my own clients. I was also the second in command when it came to any of Marcus’s personal cases, including a big merger he was overseeing personally between two of our clients, each with a lot to gain if things went well and a lot to lose if they didn’t. Once this case was in the bag, I’d have a bonus big enough to put a down payment on an apartment. In New York City, this was saying a lot.

The black suit, my first suit, the one I’d bought with my signing bonus, went to the back of my closet where I kept my other fashion mistakes, like the football jersey I didn’t have the shoulders to pull off and the sparkly mesh top I’d never been bold enough to wear out clubbing. I forgot about it, had a dozen other suits with the Marcus Staller seal of approval, and that was all I needed. I’d found a mentor who respected me, who put energy into me, who wanted to see me succeed. The work was hard and the hours were insane, but I didn’t mind. The only people I wanted to see outside of work were my best friend Hal and his family, but they lived far enough away that I could plan for those visits well in advance. My life felt narrow, but I didn’t mind that.

Then, two weeks before Christmas, I came into the firm early one morning and found Marcus lying on the floor of his office. I ran over and checked him, called his name, but from the moment I saw him I knew he was gone—too still, too silent. Dead.

It felt like a window I hadn’t even know was in my head suddenly shattered, letting all the old, anxious thoughts I thought I’d exorcised mingle with the rest of my mind. Marcus was dead, and I knew that nothing at the firm would ever be the same for me again.

I wore my black Dolce and Gabbana suit to Marcus’s funeral, five days after his fatal heart attack. It was a morning service, all indoors thanks to the winter weather outside. I sat through the service led by his priest, the eulogies given by the other two named partners in the firm, listened to his children cry, and kissed his widow Clara on her pale, thin cheek after she lifted her black veil out of the way.

“I’m so sorry,” I told her, feeling useless just for saying it but not knowing how to say anything else. I’d learned a lot from Marcus over the years, but his off-the-cuff lectures on case law and haute couture and fine food hadn’t extended to how to grieve.

“Thank you, Max.” She dredged up a smile for me as she took my hand between her elegantly gloved ones. “Oh, Marcus was so fond of you. He always said you were the only one of the junior associates who didn’t make him want to tear his hair out.”

I smiled weakly. “High praise.” Marcus had been so proud of his full head of hair, barely graying at fifty-five.

“I was going to ask him to invite you to our place for Christmas this year. He said you never go home for Christmas, that you always spend it alone.”

That was true, but… “I’ve got friends here in the city I’ll stay with.” Kind of. If meeting a bunch of other single associates for racquetball on Christmas Eve morning could be considered “staying with.” It wasn’t even something I wanted to do, more of a “show up or shut up” kind of deal.

“That’s good.” She glanced over at Marcus’s coffin, lying just below the altar at the front of St. Thomas’s Church. It was a beautiful casket, sleek and shining but not ostentatious. He would have approved. If he wasn’t dead. Fuck. “I hope that your friends make you happy. I hope you—you get some happiness this holiday season, because you never—God, you never know when things will change.” Her eyes were wet, her expression haunted. “Remember to be with the people that you love, Max. Be with them before it’s too late.”

I nodded numbly, then stepped out of the receiving line and headed outside. I probably should have gone up for one last look, like so many of Marcus’s other friends, but I couldn’t. Seeing him dead once was bad enough—putting myself through it a second time was impossible.

I needed air. I needed some way to avoid the tsunami of pain that was about to wash over me. I stepped through the front door of the church into the bitter winter air and made it two steps before I doubled over, hands on my knees, and forced myself to breathe. This was the wrong place to be weak, but right now I didn’t care who saw me.

Marcus was gone. He was gone. No more late-night pizzas while we fought to find precedent, no more booming laugh and funny anecdotes about all the places in Manhattan where he’d met a client, no more tips and hints about how to put my best foot forward in the sea of blue-bloods I was now swimming with. Marcus was dead, and he’d left a loving wife and two teenage boys behind. I didn’t have any children, or a wife—I didn’t want a wife either, given how firmly planted I was on the gay end of the spectrum—but there were people I loved. People I hadn’t seen in person in way too long.

As soon as I caught my breath, I pulled out my phone and called Hal. Pick up, pick up… He did, on the third ring. “Max? Hey, it’s kinda early for you to call. What’s up?”

And suddenly I didn’t know what to say. How did I explain that I’d been forced into an epiphany by tragedy, that I only wanted to see him and the girls right now because I was having a panic attack over the possibility of dying alone and unloved? I couldn’t speak, just breathed for another minute, and Hal, God fucking bless him, let me. He knew my moods—he’d been putting up with me since middle school, after all. He made light conversation about his work, about his kids, and graciously didn’t mention his own personal tragedy lately, the impending divorce.

As soon as I found my voice, I choked out, “Can I come and stay with you for Christmas?”

“You…yeah, of course. Really?”

I couldn’t blame him for being surprised. I’d had him and his family out to visit me half a dozen times over the past decade, but I’d never, ever considered going back to Edgewood. Hal knew that, and he’d never pushed.

“Really. Please.”

“Max.” Hal used his gentle voice on me, the same one he pulled out when one of his girls had a problem. “You’re always welcome with us. We’d love to have you here for Christmas, Marnie and Steph have been bugging me for months about seeing you again.”

The thread of anxiety spooled tight in my chest began to slowly unwind. “You’re sure I won’t be in the way? I can sleep on the couch in the living room, it’s—”

“You would kill your back the first night, not to mention ruin whatever fancy-pants pajamas you wear to bed with crumbs and icing and whatever else the thing’s stained with,” Hal said matter-of-factly. “It’s fine, you can take Christine’s room. She’s staying with her host family in Florence for the holidays.”

Oh, right. Hal’s little sister was doing a year abroad in Italy.

“And Nicky’s got his own place now, so no need to worry about him. Come, stay. We’d love to have you.”

I exhaled and ran a hand through my hair. It was stiff with product, the stuff I secretly hated but wore because slicking it back made me look more intimidating, apparently, and I needed all the help I could get with that in the courtroom. Too pretty to be a shark, I remember some of my classmates saying when they found out where I was interning. More like a goldfish. “Thank you, Hal.”

“You gonna come now, or wait until closer to Christmas?”

“I—” That was a good question. I had plenty of vacation time saved up—I hadn’t taken more than a day here and there in my three years with the firm, and all of Marcus’s cases were on hold over the holidays while the named partners figured out which senior associates to give them to. My skin suddenly itched with the need to get out of here, out of Manhattan, out of the city entirely. “I’ll be there by tonight.” Edgewood was only a four-hour drive. I could arrive before dinner.

“Sounds good, but be careful, okay? We’re supposed to get another few inches in the next couple of hours.”

“I’ll be fine.” I actually felt like I would be, now that I had a plan. I was going—not home for Christmas, not exactly, but as close as I wanted to get. We said goodbye and ended the call, and I practically ran back to my apartment and started throwing things into a bag.

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