Mr. Ashcroft Will See You Now

“Your newspaper, Mr. Ashcroft.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Bridges.”

The middle-aged, plump housekeeper nodded in acknowledgment and picked up the remnants of his breakfast from the dining table. “You’re on page six.”

“Is that right?” His hazel eyes lit up with amusement. “I wonder what they could possibly be writing about me now.”

“Seems to be documenting your summer vacation, sir.”

He opened the paper.

MR. ASHCROFT WILL SEE YOU NOW” the headline read, accompanied by a photo of him wading in the surf wearing only his board shorts and a pair of sunglasses.

“CHICAGOBASED CEO OF ASHCROFT INDUSTRIES SHOWS OFF ABS AND INK WHILE VACATIONING IN BARBADOS” read the caption.

“Who comes up with this nonsense?” he muttered, sipping his coffee and turning the page.

“Not a bad picture, though,” Mrs. Bridges said. “Nice to see you enjoying yourself.”

“Hm. Wish they’d feature the charity as much,” Mr. Ashcroft  replied, flipping to the business section.

“I suspect they’re tired of covering your business deals,” Mrs. Bridges said, amusement in her voice as she took the dishes out of the room.

He snorted, skimming the headlines.

“ASHCROFT INDUSTRIES A TOP S&P 500 CONTENDER AFTER RECORD-BREAKING REAL ESTATE DEAL

“SAY ‘HEY SIRI’ TO THE COMPANY PREPARING TO UPEND THE AI INDUSTRY

“CARTER & FRANKLIN EMBEZZLEMENT SCANDAL UNCOVERED AFTER SENIOR PARTNER DIES FROM HEART ATTACK

“MORTGAGE RATES LOOK TO RISE AGAIN AS EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS COME BACK STRONG

Mr. Ashcroft downed the rest of his coffee. His cell phone rang beside him and he picked it up.

“Ashcroft.”

“Hey, Mr. Ashcroft! Those stock numbers, am I right?”

“Hey, Don. Yeah, it was a good start,” Ashcroft replied, holding the phone with his shoulder as he fastened a Cartier watch around his wrist. “Here’s hoping it holds.”

“Well, everything’s volatile right now. Chances are we’ll drop before the end of the day. But I swear man, I have never known anybody who can turn a deal in his favor like you.”

Ashcroft snorted. “Tell that to Mr. Moretti. He was pissed.”

“You’re telling me. I thought he had us on that last phone call.”

“I did, too.”

“Yeah. Well, congrats. Your empire just got a bit bigger.”

“Thanks, Don.”

“I gotta go. I’m meeting up with the city planner on that new industrial complex.”

“It’s what I pay you for,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, so tell HR I need a raise,” the other man said, laughing.

Goodbye, Don.”

Mr. Ashcroft hung up the call and shrugged into his suit jacket. By all accounts, it was going to be an interesting day at the office. As he left his penthouse apartment, a dark figure fell in behind him as he waited at the elevator.

“Morning, Hughes,” he said without turning.

“Mr. Ashcroft,” his head of security replied. “Which car would you like to take, sir?”

“The Hypersport, I think. Good day for it.”

“Sir, if I may, I don’t know that there’s ever a good day for driving in Chicago,” Hughes said, sending off a text.

The young CEO snorted as the elevator dinged and the doors opened. The tall, dark-eyed man followed him inside. “Maybe you’re right. But I don’t know, Hughes. Something about today. It’s a good day.” He hit the garage floor button and adjusted his tie.

“I heard about the stock, congrats.”

“I assume you did well?”

“Yes, Mr. Ashcroft, thank you.”

“Seems like the press caught wind of my Barbados trip,” Mr. Ashcroft added.

“Yes sir, Mrs. Bridges informed me this morning.”

“Parasites,” he muttered. “That picture will be all over the internet today.”

“It will die off in a few days.”

“Were you able to put together that dossier I asked for?” Ashcroft asked him as the elevator doors opened to the garage. Hughes had already sent for the car to be brought around.

“Should be on your desk when you get in.”

“Wonderful. Thank you.”

The valet drove up in the Hypersport. Hughes held the door open for him and he slid into the driver’s seat.

“Have a pleasant day, sir.”

“Thank you, Hughes.”

The engine purred under his hands and he pulled out of the underground garage and into traffic. Hughes was right, of course. No such thing as a pleasant drive in Chicago.

The Ashcroft Industries building was impressive, even for the Chicago skyline. The morning sun shone brightly against the tempered glass of the modern building, scattering the rays and drawing attention to its fifty-two-story size. Not nearly the tallest building, but definitely the most striking. An architect’s wet dream, someone told him once.

“Good morning, Mr. Ashcroft,” the front desk assistant chirped at him as he headed for the elevator.

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“Morning,” he replied absentmindedly, responding to an email on his phone.

“Mr. Ashcroft,” a businessman greeted him in passing as he walked by.

“Mr. Dawson,” he responded, still typing.

The doors opened on cue and Ashcroft stepped inside, hitting the button for the top floor.

Email finished, he checked his calendar on the way up. Nothing on his afternoon. Good. The last two weeks of back-to-back meetings, some going late into the evening, had worn his patience thin.

“Good morning, Mr. Ashcroft,” his chipper assistant greeted him as the elevator doors opened.

“Miss Lang,” he acknowledged her, motioning for her to follow him as he walked through the office. “Messages?”

“I forwarded them all to you, but mostly it’s just people calling about the stock prices.”

“Mostly?” he turned to face her.

“Well, there’s always press, you know.”

He did know. He settled into his wingback office chair.

“Would you like coffee?” she asked him.

“I had some already, thank you,” he replied. “But if you want to send a runner down to Starbucks, I’ll pay for drinks for the office.”

Her face lit up. “Oh, that’s so nice, thank you!”

“When I win, we all win,” he replied. “Might as well celebrate. I’ll ping accounting and let them know you’ll need the corporate card.”

Miss Lang bobbed once. “Great. Anything else you need?”

Mr. Ashcroft shook his head. “No, I’ll buzz you if there’s anything else. Thank you, Miss Lang.”

Miss Lang, easily still in her early twenties, bobbed again and shut the door behind her.

Blessed silence.

Thank god.

A morning of people chattering at him wore the CEO down. And he was antsier than usual. He absentmindedly massaged the area over his heart and leaned his head back against his chair, closing his eyes. Keeping a cool demeanor, especially for pointless phone calls like Don’s, was getting harder. He needed to find some time to unwind.

Ashcroft opened his eyes again, searching for the folder Hughes had told him would be there. Sure enough, the seemingly innocuous manilla folder was stacked on top of his regular paperwork and contracts to review. Ignoring those, he crossed one leg over the other and fished the manilla folder off the desk. After sending off a quick message to accounting as promised, he flipped open the folder in his lap and began to read over the summary.

***

Amberley Quinn was still in her pajamas at noon, something she hadn’t done since college. She slouched on the couch in her condo and clicked on the news, nursing a cup of coffee. She, along with most of Chicago, probably, watched the footage of the FBI raiding a building downtown and arresting multiple people. A building she worked in, and people she knew. It had been on a loop for the last twenty-four hours. Of all the law firms in Chicago, she had to be working for the one embezzling their clients’ money.

The day before had been hell.

They’d had about ten minutes’ warning before the story broke. The named partner, Mark Franklin, was stealing money from their clients’ trusts with the help of the other named partner, Robert Carter. But then, Carter died from a sudden heart attack and all of the money discrepancies were brought to light.

Suddenly the phones were ringing off the hook, office and cell alike. Most of the associate attorneys’ clients fired them that day. Most of them wouldn’t get paid. The clerical staff had been let go. The office suite was being torn apart.

Amberley only had two active cases. She’d been leading the Melancon case for the  better part of two years and mercifully their retainer had already been spent. They’d had a final judgement handed down in their favor a few weeks ago. The rest was just paperwork.

The other client, unfortunately, had not been as lucky. She’d just been retained; the first client she’d taken on since the Melancon case, so their money had been fresh pickings for the firm partners. The FBI had questioned her, of course, and she imagined her firm financials were under scrutiny, but she hadn’t done anything illegal. If the books were doctored, she had nothing to do with it.

Her phone rang as the segment switched to covering celebrity beach vacations, complete with pictures of a shirtless guy in the ocean.

“Hey Liv,” she picked up the call.

“How you holding up, Amb?”

“Oh, you know. Contemplating unemployment and cursing Robert Carter in his grave. You?”

“About the same. Listen, me and a couple of the others are planning to meet up for drinks tomorrow night so we can toast Franklin’s ill-health. You in?”

“But I’m having so much fun hanging out by myself,” Amberley drawled, voice dripping with sarcasm. “But yeah, might as well. Gotta start looking for jobs on Monday.”

“Cool, I’ll let them know and text you once we figure out where we wanna go.’

“Sounds good,” Amberley said, leaning against the kitchen counter and programming the coffee maker to brew a new pot.

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“You need any help wrapping up the Melancon case?”

“No, I just have to finish up billing. I plan to give them a steep discount.”

Her friend laughed on the other end. “At least they agreed to keep paying you.”

“Not much left to pay,” Amberley muttered as she clicked off the TV. “I can’t bill them for clerical work.”

“I guess not. Hey listen, I gotta go. Somebody just fell. Or hit somebody else. Or something, I don’t know.”

Faint wailing echoed in the background. “Better you than me,” Amberley said.

“Hey, if my sister wants to pay me to take care of her kids, I’m not turning up my nose at money right now.”

Amberley laughed. “Good point. Get going, text me later.”

The call dropped. Almost immediately, her phone rang again. Sighing, she answered. “I’m not helping you babysit, Liv,”

“Babysit who?”

Amberley stood straight up. “Oh, dad! Hi.” She combed her fingers through her short platinum hair out of nervous habit.

“Hey Amber. Who’s babysitting?” Her father’s voice was warm, but an undercurrent of chill seeped through anyway.

“Associate at work—well. Sorta.”

“I saw the news,” her dad said. The simple statement was loaded with unasked questions.

“Christ, is there really nothing going on in the Hamptons that they’re showing Chicago news now?” Amberley said, pouring herself a fresh cup of coffee.

“Why didn’t you call?”

“Haven’t really had time. It’s been a little hectic.”

There was a pause on the other end. “How are you holding up, considering?”

Amberley flopped back down onto the couch, narrowly avoiding sloshing her coffee on herself. “I swear everyone thinks I’m about to go off the rails. I’m fine. Pissed, obviously, but fine.”

“Your mother and I worry about you.”

“Well, that’s great, dad, but unless you can go back in time and prevent the jackass from embezzling a bunch of money, there’s not much you can do.”

“Have you thought about coming home for a little while, since you’re between jobs?”

Amberley rolled her eyes so hard she saw her brain. “No. I like it here. There’s too much baggage in New York.”

“I know mom would love to see you.”

“And I am planning to come home for Christmas, as we have discussed.”

“Well. If you need me to make any calls, get you any interviews, just say the word…”

“I appreciate it, dad,” Amberley cut him off. “But I think I’ll be fine. I’m wrapping up a case that I can still bill and since they didn’t fire me, I’ve got something to get me by while I find a new job.”

“Okay. But if you need a little extra…”

“You’ll be the first one I call, I promise.”

“Alright. Well, just take care of yourself and if you start to feel down…”

“You will also be my first call. I’m good, dad, really. Give my love to mom.”

“I will.”

Amberley tossed her phone onto the couch cushion and stared up at the ceiling. Her dad wasn’t concerned about her. At least, not wholly. He just wanted her to keep her name—and his—out of the papers.

Well, dad, this time, it wasn’t my fault.

***

The bar was loud. Indigo, it was called.

Amberley weaved through the crowd, occasionally glancing at her text messages from Liv telling her where to find them. She was relieved to recognize a few faces at the bar on the far side of the establishment. Liv caught sight of her and waved.

“Glad you’re here!” Liv shouted over the din of booming music and crowd chatter.

“How are we supposed to cuss at Carter and Franklin if we can’t hear each other?” Amberley yelled back.

“There’s a back room. Used to be a speakeasy. Quieter there. Figured we’d throw back a few drinks first. Here, we just ordered shots!” Liv motioned for the other two attorneys from the former firm to hand Amberley a shot glass.

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“Hi Jake and Noah!” Amberley yelled to them. They nodded at her.

“To shitty bosses and shittier lawyers. May they rot in hell!” Liv shouted as a toast.

Amberley saluted the toast with a laugh and tossed back the alcohol.

Tequila. Of course.

“Ack, I need a chaser!” Amberley squealed.

Jake handed her a lime wedge from somewhere. Amberley sank her teeth into it, screwing her face up as the sour juice exploded in her mouth and cut through the burn of the alcohol. She shook her head and made a face. “Going hard right away, I see!” she yelled at Liv.

Liv gave her a thumbs up with a cheeky grin, then tapped two fingers to her lips and pointed. The universal smokers’ sign. Amberley nodded and grabbed her hand as Liv squeezed past what looked like a frat party to a side door leading out to the fenced patio.

Outside, the sudden absence of overwhelming noise left Amberley’s ears ringing.

“Couldn’t pick a cocktail bar?” she grinned at her friend.

Liv had a cigarette in her mouth and the lighter in her hand clicked once, twice as she lit the end and inhaled, shaking her head.

“No,” she said. Smoke escaped her painted red lips as she spoke. “The guys wanted something with a little more action. The back room is a good compromise, I think.” She ran a hand through her short black pixie cut.

Amberley nodded and extended her hand for the cigarette. “It is.”

Liv handed the lipstick-stained cigarette to her with a smirk. “Thought you quit?”

Amberley took a drag, reveling in the familiar act. “I did,” she said, handing it back to Liv. “But I can still bum off you every once in a while.”

“Careful,” Liv said. “You’ll be right back to a pack a day.”

Amberley stilled for a moment as Liv leaned on the railing and gazed blankly into the parking lot. Liv was more right than she knew. Her friend didn’t notice her expression change.

“Well,” Amberley said. “I got my one drag, just to remind myself it’s gross,” she said pointedly.

Liv snorted. “Yeah, all quitters say that. Only takes one to suck them back in, though. I’ve tried to quit like six times.”

Amberley leaned back on the cold, metal railing and tipped her head up, staring at the star-studded sky. The moon was just rising. “What are we going to do, Liv?” she asked, turning her head to look at her friend.

Liv pursed her lips and squinted into the distance, thinking. She took another puff. “What we have to, I guess. We’re lawyers, and this is Chicago. Shitty timing though. God, I can’t believe the fuckers were doing that all this time. The firm is going to go completely bankrupt before the end of this: just you wait.”

“That’s what happens when you embezzle all your clients’ money and then don’t have the courtesy to clean up the mess before you die,” Amberley replied matter-of-factly.

Liv laughed and coughed, choking on the smoke. “Yeah, that’s about right,” she said through the coughing. “I hope they call me to testify. I’ve got a lot to say about the assholes.”

“Wish they’d prepared us more in law school for this kind of thing,” Amberley said. “But I don’t suppose there’s a course titled “How to Land on Your Feet After Your Firm Commits a Felony.” She paused. “101,” she added with a smile.

“Maybe they should,” Liv muttered, putting the cigarette out in an ash tray. “Oh look, baller at three o’clock,” she said, jerking her chin in the direction of the bar’s entrance.

A car pulled up outside the establishment—a slick black beauty with vanity plates and a logo Amberley wasn’t familiar with. One of the bouncers moved an orange cone out of the way of a paid parking space. Amberley scoffed. “Who pays to park at a bar?”

Liv snorted. “Probably another crooked attorney. Come on, Noah and Jake are probably wondering where we went. We’ll make them go with us into the speakeasy.” Liv linked arms with her, and together they reentered the cacophonous bar.

The other two attorneys hadn’t moved from their spots in the crowd.

“It’s too loud!” Liv yelled at them. “Let’s go to the back!”

They nodded. Noah stuffed a five-dollar bill into the tip jar of the bartender, and they made their way toward the back of the bar.

The sign over the hall said “Bathrooms”, which Amberley pointed out as they walked down the stairs to the lower level.

“Yeah, but that’s not all that’s down here,” Liv replied. She put her palm against the innocuous wall at the end of the hallway, felt around for a minute, then grinned as she pulled open a door. The space beyond was more dimly lit with blue ambient lighting and the music wasn’t nearly as loud.

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The noise of the main bar dulled when she shut the door. There was still a crowd, but Liv was right: it was much quieter. Black, egg carton-shaped Styrofoam covered the walls and ceiling. Soundproofing, Amberley realized. Cool.

“God, I can actually hear myself think in here,” Liv told the guys. “Why do you like noisy bars anyway?”

“We don’t hang out in bars to talk,” Jake pointed out. “We come to drink.”

“Among other things,” Noah added.

Amberley snorted. “Good point. Would kill the mood if you learned the floozy you’re chatting up doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together.”

Noah rolled his eyes at her.

“I think I see an open table,” Jake pointed across the room of leather couches and red velvet. There was, indeed, a large table open off to the side of the room. Jake, Amberley, and Liv aimed for it. Noah headed for the bar saying something about “more shots.”

“Have any of you talked to Elaine?” Amberley asked as Liv sat and scooted around the black leather booth seat so Amberley could slide in after her. “She probably had the biggest case load.”

“Yeah, she’s meeting up later,” Liv replied, whipping out her phone to confirm. “Oh, or now. She says she’s on her way.”

“Good,” Amberley said. “She was a mess on Wednesday.”

“Fuckers,” Liv repeated. “I only wish Carter hadn’t keeled over so he could go to jail too.”

“Any chance this won’t affect our own careers? Working for a couple of felons?” Jake asked.

“I can’t imagine it would, right?” Amberley replied, suddenly unsure. “If we’re cleared of any wrongdoing?”

“What if you accepted a cash bonus from them last year?” Jake replied. “Hypothetically, of course.”

“Shit, Jake,” Liv stared at him. “I totally forgot about that.”

“We’re not an accessory if we didn’t know,” Amberley replied as Noah approached with his hands full of shot glasses. “Probably should tell the feds though, just in case it comes up.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be questioned plenty,” Liv replied darkly. “Our entire history at the firm will probably be investigated.”

“How to Handle Your New Job After Your Last Firm Committed a Felony 101,” Amberley quipped, drawing puzzled looks from Noah and Jake. Liv laughed, though.

Noah passed around shots. Amberley squinted at it suspiciously. “What is this?”

“Whiskey,” he replied. He raised his shot glass. “Something something fuck Carter & Franklin,” he said.

“No, no,” Liv interjected before they could toss back the alcohol. “We need something more eloquent than that.” She cleared her throat. “May Carter be burning in the circle of hell reserved for cheats and liars, and may Franklin drop the soap in prison,” she said.

The others cackled their approval, and they upended the shots.

“Oh god,” Liv coughed. “Jeez, Noah, you ask for the bottom of the barrel stuff or what?”

“I’m unemployed and paying off student loans,” he retorted. “I can’t afford the nice stuff.”

Amberley stuck her tongue out, shaking her head. “I need a beer. I’ll get the next round.”

“Thank god, I’d like to have taste buds at the end of the night,” Jake said. “Grab me one too?”

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“Me too,” Liv said.

“And me,” Noah replied.

Amberley snorted. “I’ll be back.” She slid out of the booth and picked her way around various couches and tables toward the bar.

“Must be nice,” Amberley heard Noah mutter before she was far enough away. “Daddy footed the bill for her.”

“Shut up,” Liv snapped at him. “She can’t help where she came from any more than you can help being an ass, apparently.”

If there was one positive thing about Carter & Franklin going under, it’s that she wouldn’t have to work with Noah anymore. Hopefully.

Amberley leaned on the bar and signaled for the bartender. The bartender nodded at her in acknowledgement as she poured a few shots for the guys down the bar.

“Four beers, whatever’s halfway decent,” Amberley told her.

“Bottle or draft?” she replied.

“Bottle.”

“You got it.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Elaine come through the hidden door and called to the bartender, “You know what, make it five.”

The bartender nodded as she flitted from place to place behind the counter, scooping ice and pouring shots and searching for beer in one of the coolers.

The bartender shoved the drinks toward her, and Amberley handed her an AMEX.

“Close or open?” the bartender asked, swiping her card.

“Open,” Amberley replied.

“Okay, card will be here when you’re ready to close out.”

“Thanks.”

Amberley tried to contort her fingers around the five longnecks and barely succeeded.

“Need some help?” a voice of velvet-wrapped steel asked. Amberley turned and blinked up at the man. Dark unruly curls swept across a strong brow and intense hazel eyes. Stylish I-forgot-to-shave-and-woke-up-like-this stubble darkened his upper lip and square jaw. He had the faintest of smiles on his face. “I’m happy to assist, if you need it,” he added. “Not that I doubt your ability to juggle a handful of beers. But figured I’d make it easier, at any rate.”

Amberley smiled back tentatively. “I think I’m okay, but I appreciate the offer,” she said.

He inclined his head. “Anytime.”

She side-eyed him for a minute, trying to place him, before she headed back to the table.

“Here.” She passed the beers out. “And one for you, Elaine.”

The plump woman accepted it. She looked haggard. “Thanks, Am.”

“You holding up okay?” Amberley asked her as she sat down again.

“Just angry,” Elaine replied, taking a swig of the beer. “I’ve never had so many emails at once in all my life. Withdrawal after withdrawal after withdrawal. I mean I don’t blame them, but it still sucks.”

“You’re lucky, Am,” Noah said. “You only had the one case after Melancon.”

“Lucky? I guess,” Amberley replied, nursing her own beer. “I have to start from scratch. That case has been the last two years of my life and only having one to show for all that time isn’t necessarily fantastic for my resume.”

“It was so high-profile though,” Liv pointed out. “With Ashcroft Industries on it too, the press was outrageous.”

“Yeah, until they got dropped,” Amberley pointed out. “The press didn’t care so much then.”

“Still,” Liv shrugged. “You won.”

“Should have been settled months ago,” Amberley muttered. “But yeah, I guess so.”

“Excuse me,” someone interjected.

The group looked up.

A flushed busboy stood there, looking absolutely mortified. “I’m so sorry to interrupt, we don’t normally do this, but…I’ve been asked to give you all…these.” He placed a new round of beers on the table. “Courtesy of…well, he didn’t actually give me his name. But him.” He gestured in the direction of the bar. His job done, the busboy fled after delivering the drinks.

Amberley turned, knowing instinctively who it was. The helpful guy from earlier. He observed their reactions with calm intensity, raising his glass once they’d seen him.

“Poor kid,” Liv said, trying and failing to conceal her laughter.

“Nervous thing, wasn’t he?” Elaine said, grabbing a fresh beer from the new batch. “Hm, I haven’t heard of this brand before.”

“Hey, I’m not gonna turn down free drinks,” Jake said. “Weird though, guys usually send drinks to girls only.”

“Showing off, probably,” Noah muttered.

“Holy shit, it’s good though,” Liv said after taking a swig of it. “I’ll have to get some for at home.”

Jake pulled out his phone. “Same. I’m gonna look it up.”

The back of Amberley’s neck tingled with the awareness of watching eyes.

“What the actual fuck,” Jake swore. “This shit is like…five hundred a case.”

“For beer?” Elaine squeaked.

“Look.” Jake turned his phone so they could see the prices. “Who the hell sends fifty-dollar beers to a table of strangers?”

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“I told you, he’s showing off,” Noah replied mildly.

“I’m not complaining,” Liv retorted. “If he wants to waste his money on a bunch of unemployed lawyers, let him.” She saluted the guy with the beer in question and he smiled wryly in response.

“This side of the bar is boring,” Noah complained. “I want to go back up.”

“Speak for yourself,” Elaine said. “I’ll stay anywhere a hot guy wants to send me free drinks.”

Noah rolled his eyes and looked at Jake. “Wanna go?”

Jake shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

“Party-poopers,” Liv said as they slid out of the booth.

“People handle stress differently,” Amberley said. “They just want to get laid.”

“Don’t we all,” Liv said under her breath.

“Go talk to Mr. Generous over there then,” Amberley said.

“I might,” Liv said, sipping on her beer. “I’m gonna go get more shots anyway.”

“Get something palatable, would you?” Amberley said. “Something not…straight.”

Liv laughed. “Sure.”

Amberley got up to let Liv pass then nodded at Elaine. “Have you retained any cases?”

“A few,” the other woman replied. “Mostly returning clients, people I’ve worked with directly. Can’t complain about the repeat business, but I’ll have to take them with me to whatever new firm I end up at.”

Amberley finished off her craft beer. It really was tasty. “At least you don’t have to start from scratch.”

“Noah shouldn’t have said that. About being lucky, I mean. He’s being more of a dick than usual.”

Amberley sighed. “I can’t really blame him.”

“I can for you.”

Amberley snorted. “Well, if I am actually lucky, I won’t have to work with him at my next job.”

Liv came back with bright pink shots. “The guy’s a clam,” she said, exuding disappointment. “Couldn’t hardly get him to say one word to me. Other than “you’re welcome” when I thanked him for the beers.”

Amberley inspected the new drinks. “What are these?”

“Starfuckers. Watermelon, I think.”

“Works for me,” Elaine said, reaching for one.

Amberley took her own. “Cheers,” she said. Liv didn’t object to the boring toast this time. “Much better,” Amberley said after she set down the shot glass.

“I want another cigarette,” Liv said. She was pouting a little.

Elaine nodded and scooched around the black leather seat. “I’ll have one too.”

Liv looked at Amberley. “Coming?”

Amberley hesitated for just a moment, considering. “No,” she finally said. “You’re right. If I take another drag off one of you, I’ll be buying a pack before the end of the night.”

“You sure? I hate leaving you in here by yourself,” Liv said.

Amberley laughed. “Trust me, I’m happy to go get another beer and wait for you to come back.”

“Okay then. Get us one too. Can you afford the stuff Mr. Generous got us?”

Amberley grimaced. “I don’t have that much to throw away on drinks,” she said. “As much as I love you both.”

“Oh well, worth a shot. Okay, we’ll be back.”

Liv and Elaine headed back upstairs toward the patio and Amberley sidled toward the bar. The shots were starting to hit her now. Her mind buzzed pleasantly as she placed her order and perched on an open barstool.

She looked up and made eye contact with Mr. Generous. He gestured to himself, then pointed in her direction, eyebrows raised and head cocked to one side. A question. Amberley shrugged noncommittally and nodded. He walked around and sat on the stool next to her. He ordered another one of…whatever he was drinking. The bartender skipped her other pending orders in favor of his and complied immediately. He handed her a bill that looked suspiciously like a fifty.

“Must be nice,” Amberley said to him as the girl handed him his drink in exchange. “They say money can’t buy happiness, but I think that’s bull. Money can buy just about everything.”

“You’d be surprised,” he replied, catching her gaze again with those dark hazel eyes. It was unnerving. “For example, your colleague mentioned you all lost your jobs. My condolences.”

Amberley frowned slightly. “She’s…a bit more outspoken about it than the rest of us.”

“Hm.” He sipped his drink. “All that to say, you can’t buy your way into a new job. Well,” he amended. “You shouldn’t be able to at any rate.”

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The bartender finally slid Amberley her drinks. “Sounds like you have experience with the latter,” she replied, taking a swig out of a bottle.

He shrugged. “I work in business. I inevitably come across it on occasion.”

“What kind of work do you do?” Amberley asked politely.

“Mostly I work with real estate, but I have additional interests in technology and development.”

“Don’t suppose you need a defense attorney, do you?” Amberley replied facetiously. “Because I’ve got a whole table of them looking for new jobs.”

He side-eyed her. “Not a…defense attorney, per se, but my company is looking for a new chief legal officer, if you’re interested. It’s mostly related to the things I mentioned before, so you probably wouldn’t have much active litigation, but we have been known to need defense counsel on a few occasions.”

Amberley shrugged—the alcohol in her veins making her more flippant than she might have been to a potential new employer. “Better than no job.”

His lips twitched in a smile. “I tell you what. I’ll give you my card and the number for our HR. If you decide you’re interested, give them a call, tell them Nate gave you the information personally. He turned to the bartended. “Can I get a pen?” She happily obliged him. He wrote a phone number on the back of his business card. “If they give you trouble, you can call me directly.” He slid the phone number across the bar to her.

“That’s nice of you,” Amberley said, surprised. “I’m Amberley, by the way. Amberley Quinn.” She reached out a hand and with a smile, he shook it. It might have just been the alcohol, but she flushed as the touch of his hand sent a zing of tingling sensation through her.

“I’m Nate,” he said. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Quinn. Call anytime.”

And just like that, he was gone.

Amberley looked over at the table and saw that Liv and Elaine had returned from their smoke break. Their eyes were wide with questions and unmasked zeal. She could hear the squealing now. She smiled and gathered the three beers in hand to take them back to the table. She turned over the business card to check the information.

NATHANIEL ASHCROFT
CEO
ASHCROFT INDUSTRIES

Holy shit.