“You’re a little bit damaged, I’m a sucker for that
Wanna fill up the spaces, and be everything you lack
You’re a little bit jaded, and you’re closing the door
And all that you felt then, you don’t feel it anymore”
—“Broken” Lauren Hoffman
In the financial district of San Francisco, just North of Market on Montgomery Street, stood Hathaway Gates, an iconic and monstrous neo-gothic edifice that was famed for not only flawless design, but for the distinction as the tallest building in the city for many years. Covered in pairs of narrow windows and outlined at every significant level in fencing of pointed arches, it had housed some of the world’s boldest adventure capitalist companies before they migrated down to Menlo Park. With the exodus of those financial institutions began a steady influx of law firms, both large and small, to fill in the vacating offices. Near the top of the thirty-two story building, residing in two floors with another floor devoted entirely to its law library, was the corporate law firm of Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter LLP. It was one of the larger firms in the city and one of the most respected in the country, dealing heavily in the corporate realm, with specialty in international business. It was a beacon of success that every new lawyer in the lawyer-saturated state eyed with envy and dreams of being one of its elite.
At street level in front of the building, Alessa Allen tilted her head back, her eyes drawing farther and farther up the receding lines of the main tower, the two shorter wings on either side subconsciously contributing to the daunting and looming effect. Her interview was to be on the twenty-seventh floor. She had arrived half an hour early to ensure no hiccups with the BART cost her the job of her dreams, and had spent the extra time at the coffee shop down the way going over her info cards about the firm’s history and the past and current clients. Brushing her brunette hair back over her right shoulder, she smoothed her cool-gray pencil skirt and straightened her plum jacket. She was as ready as she would ever be.
She passed through the arched entrance and found her way through the equally impressive lobby that was segmented by more gothic arches and columns of stone, to the elevators. Her modest heels clicked solidly against the pale marble flooring. It was a quick ride up, and she forced a confident stride as she made for the receptionist. The forty-something woman welcomed her with a professional smile and then led her to an open seating area to wait for Mr. Ashbury, the junior partner who would be conducting her last interview.
On her short walk there, she took notice of her stylish surroundings, appreciating the height of the ceilings and the polish of the floors. The woodwork was light and the interior walls a soft gray, the exterior wall being nothing more than exposed brick, with echoes of the arch themes evident in the architecture. And to finish the sophisticated look, each exposed desk was adorned with exquisite white orchids. The layout was broken up into clusters of glassed offices around the perimeter and open work stations with people performing the work of an office, their cumulated sounds a soft buzzing of activity. When the receptionist showed her to a chair and offered her a drink, Alessa declined with a smile, snapping her attention back to the task at hand.
Though her stomach was quaking, she controlled her breathing and forced her hands from fidgeting in her lap as they were wont to do. Her meeting was in ten minutes, and she could manage some semblance of peace until then. After all, she reminded herself, though she might have missed her opportunity to introduce herself to Mr. Ashbury as the others had at the recruiting event, she had more than made up for it with meticulous research on the career of the man who would ultimately decide her fate.
Alessa controlled the impulse to bite her thumbnail as she recalled the wine and cheese event Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter LLP had hosted to begin the tedious task of selecting the new associate. Though she discovered Mr. Burton was no longer the hiring partner as his most recent stroke had incapacitated him, the evening had nonetheless started with promise. And though the large banquet hall at the hotel was swimming with would-be candidates, Alessa had scored a spot in one of the first-round, group interviews. Her performance in it had earned her a second and more formal, one-on-one session with a senior staffer later that evening. In the end, she was told to expect a call to set a time over the next coming weeks for her final interview with Mr. Ashbury. It had been her intent to seek him out while there and get in a little face time; after all, schmoozing was the name of the game, no matter how nauseating it was. Unfortunately, she had received a text and had to make a quick exit, missing her opportunity.
And so she had researched him until she knew all the major highlights of his career, as well as some the other finer points, and analyzed them for his strengths and short comings. She had learned that a great deal of his practice overlapped with her own areas of interest and expertise, indicating they would possibly work together. She also had learned that he would be her direct supervisor as he oversaw the department she was vying for. And that meant she had to be compelling and likeable, understanding he wouldn’t hire her if he didn’t want to work with her.
While Alessa mustered up her confidence and charm, at the far west side of the floor Denny sat at his desk, reviewing her file. It had been a long week and half full of interviews for a new associate, and thankfully, he only had two more hopefuls to see. And though he had his own case load backing up so he could interview each and every one, he didn’t complain. After all, it was to be expected that his recent promotion to junior partner would come with a shift in responsibilities, both in quantity as well as quality, and so he attacked this important task with the same dauntless fortitude that had thus far marked his stellar career.
His new role as supervisor of the associates in the insolvency and reorganization, business litigation, and business transactions departments and head of the hiring committee had been inherited from John Burton. The same partner who had hired him nearly five years ago, even though Denny had been convinced at the time that the taciturn, old lawyer had disliked him. He would never forget the old, staunch and crafty partner who was single handedly responsible for stripping five years from every associate’s life through sheer terror alone. And yet, it was that very same impenetrable old man who had written such a glowing recommendation for the next interviewee.
He was simultaneously intrigued by and skeptical of her, as she was the only one of the twenty applicants he hadn’t met. Apparently, she had been at the company’s recruiting event and had performed exceedingly well in the two semi-formal interviews, but she never introduced herself to him, which was highly unusual. But even more remarkable was the letter from Burton who, despite his tenuous health, had bothered to send him an email detailing how he had met her several years back while she was still in school and had at the time been prepared to hire her, should she wish for a position with them.
He rang for his secretary, Clare. The plump, middle-age blonde appeared a second later and confirmed the candidate had already arrived fifteen minutes ago.
“Grace said she’s rather pretty,” Clare remarked as though that were in the possible hire’s favor.
Denny finished his tea and held his cup out to Clare to take. “If only beauty could write corporate by-laws,” he quipped, taking a last, longing look at his stack of files for the by-laws he was currently writing.
“You never know,” she responded in her sing-song voice that only a mother of three could have as she left his office, setting his cup and saucer on her own desk on her way to fetch the latest interviewee.
Denny did one last sweep of his area, making sure it looked clean and professional while hoping the woman he was about to interview would be either brilliant and a sure bet, or so horrible as to not even be a consideration. Not a minute later he heard approaching footsteps and looked up from the open file and notes laid before him. Clare walked in and then stepped aside to introduce him to his guest. He stood and then froze.
“Mr. Ashbury, this is Alessa Allen. Ms. Allen, Mr. Ashbury.”
Stepping through his doorway and striding gracefully to him was an apparition he was certain he would never be blessed to ever see again. She held a smile as she approached, but as she met his gaze, her eyelashes flickered and her smile faltered. Her hand that had been outstretched seemed to hesitate, as if it were about to retract, but she forced the smile to remain plastic on her face and her hand woodenly presented for him to take.
“Mr. Ashbury, it is a great pleasure to meet you. Thank you for this opportunity.”
Her hand was still there, waiting for his touch. His heart finally beat and he could feel his lungs fill with the air he had momentarily deprived them of. “Ms. Allen, the pleasure is all mine,” he returned, recovering to take her cool, slim hand into his large and heated one. He assumed she must not recognize him, given she had likely only seen him for a split second before the light in the alley went out so many years ago.
“Thank you, Clare, you may leave us, that is–unless you would care for something to drink, Ms. Allen. Coffee perhaps?”
She smiled, tugging her hand from his grasp to fist it at her side. “No, I’m fine. I don’t need any coffee to make me anymore nervous,” she replied softly, looking distractedly at the chair, wanting to sit but waiting to be invited to do so.
He shook his head at Clare, dismissing her. Denny made a gesture for Alessa to sit. “Nervous?” he asked, hearing her quiet confession. “Well, let’s see what I can do to put you at ease. Please, have a seat.”
Alessa quickly busied herself making herself comfortable in the chair, struggling to turn her startled thoughts from the handsome man. When she had first stepped into his office, a frisson of recognition sparked through her gut like built-up static electricity, but she was unable to place him and felt disconcerted and off-balance. She cleared her throat and looked up, hoping she hid her unease.
Denny returned to his side of the desk, his heart slamming wildly, loudly. Surely she could hear it. Alessa, he thought half dizzily, an answer to a long-lost puzzle falling into his soul. For nearly a minute he sat and simply stared at her, his mind unraveling and winding back up until he could focus on their purpose there.
As Denny stared at her, Alessa returned his scrutinizing gaze to study him, in spite of the nervous quiver in her stomach that was beginning to tighten and clench. The apprehension this man provoked was making her near sick on top of the already nerve-wracking situation of the high-pressured job interview. While she held her frozen smile, she quickly took note that he was likely in his early thirties, was tall and of an athletic build, had amazing hazel eyes and a sensual mouth, and as his suit jacket parted, she saw that he wore a pair of blue suspenders. The look was not odd, rather uniquely stylish. His office, too, was stylish in a refined and subtle way, with large pen and ink sketches of buildings she recognized as being from the Bay Area. His voice eventually snapped her from her examination.
“Well, Alessa,” he began, saying her name as though tasting a rare and lovely vintage of wine, “thank you for coming today.”
Game time. “Of course. Thank you for the invitation,” she returned gracefully. “As I understand it, this is to be the last round of interviews before a decision is made? I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
“Yes, so many of you young hopefuls, it’ll be a difficult decision,” he admitted, baiting her confidence that was so evident and on easy display.
She only smiled self-assuredly. “Then I hope I make it a little easier for you today,” she replied, echoing his very thoughts from earlier.
He blinked once before he recovered, something bristling at that bravado, that same know-it-all manner that had first piqued his interest and temper so many years ago. His annoyance skewed the meaning of his words as he proceeded. “Oh, I’m sure you will. Though, I find it slightly unorthodox to not have met you before. I’ve already met all the other applicants at the recruiting party. But I failed to see you there.”
He could see her guarded expression, though she still held her smile. “Yes, well, my first two interviews had gone very well, and at the last minute something else required my attention, and so I had to leave early. But I hope we can make up for that today,” she polished off with a charming smile.
Again his eyes narrowed at her easy composure that crept under his skin. And so he began chipping it away in earnest. “You attended Berkeley and not an Ivy League back east. Not even Stanford.”
It wasn’t a question she had anticipated, not even really a question as he phrased it, but she returned the conversation skillfully, at any rate. “I did take a few courses at Stanford when I was in high school. After I led my high school Mock Trial team to national victory my junior year, Stanford awarded me with a scholarship to attend summer classes in the field of study I was considering to pursue in college. But I chose Berkeley when it came time to select a university. It’s closer to home,” she admitted, but stopped before she said too much.
“You chose Berkeley? Or did you simply not get into Stanford?” he questioned skeptically.
Her smile tightened as she bit back a retort. “No, I didn’t apply to Stanford.”
“Knew you wouldn’t get in?” he stated in a presumptuous manner.
Her face darkened even further. “I had an early acceptance to Berkeley, so I had no need to look elsewhere, even Stanford. Berkeley was my first choice because it meant I could live at home and commute. If I didn’t make it, I could have applied at Chico-”
“Chico?” he interrupted disbelieving.
“Yes, any public school would have done fine.”
“Not if you expected to work in a setting like this.”
She visibly stiffened at that remark, her mouth no longer a lying smile. “It’s true the course work may not have been as rigorous or the outcome as highly esteemed by people such as yourself, but I have always believed an education is what you make of it. Self-determined, self-motivated, self-led. I have what it takes to be successful, by anyone’s standard,” her eyes raking down his smug figure, “in any situation, whether at Stanford, Berkeley, or Timbuktu.”
Breathing a little more harshly than was called for in a job interview, Alessa attempted to rein in the glare in her eyes. Point made, she softened a little, her ire dying down so she could regroup. “And I think it is that internal navigation and determination that makes me an asset to any company I work for,” she salvaged.
Denny narrowed his eyes at her again before he looked pointedly down at her open file, picking it up and making a great show of perusing it. Alessa used the quick moment to gather her wits. Attractive or not, this man had a condescending and presumptuous manner that irritated her nearly beyond control. But as he was her gateway into the firm, she would have to better contain her indignation. She wasn’t certain what it would take to repair the damage she had done as she didn’t understand the origin of his antagonistic manner, but she would be charm itself if needed.
Eventually, he lowered her file. “Speaking of working, it looks like you interned for Cohen, Sills, Cleary and Leech. Why aren’t you working there?” he asked in a blunt and borderline-aggressive manner. “Didn’t they offer you the job?” He gave an expression of bemused befuddlement. “They usually do hire the intern. Well, if he’s good, at any rate.”
She kept repeating ”repair, repair,” over in her mind, forcing civility when the man deserved none. “Actually, they did. But that was three years ago. I wasn’t prepared to start working in the corporate world right out of school. My background isn’t as privileged as many of my contemporaries. I didn’t have a gap year before college, or anywhere in the subsequent six years-”
“Seven,” he interrupted.
Her eyebrows shot up in question.
“It takes seven years for a J.D. Four for undergrad, three for law,” he clarified.
“Oh, well,” she said with a bewitching, but patronizing smile, “if you would have looked more closely at the résumé you seemed so intent to study, you would have noticed I finished undergrad in three.” Her smile brightened. “So, as I was saying, I needed some break from school and from corporate law-”
“Realized you weren’t cut out for the work?”
She ignored his near-caustic remark intent on selling herself. “I realized that as qualified as I was to be a lawyer at any firm, I wasn’t as well rounded in life experiences as I would have wished. You see, I was your typical focused, boring geek with little life outside of school. Even my extra-curriculars were of the academic bent as well. I knew when I did begin my career, I would need to bring more to the table than classroom knowledge. And so, when I graduated, I got a job with the Asian Art Museum here in the city as their legal counsel for international buying and sharing laws. The challenges of dealing with various cultures to progress not only business, but true cultural exchange as well as navigating state, national and international law was exactly what I was looking for. It has been a very rewarding three years.”
Denton Ashbury was quiet as he leaned back in his chair, studying the girl from his political science class so many years ago, the young woman he practically accosted in an alley way after a trivia contest, and could barely contain the unreasonable urge to punish her for leaving him for so long. He knew his desires were leading him into dangerous territory, but he couldn’t seem to rein in his impulse to goad the beautiful know-it-all into losing her own irritating poise.
“But now you’re ready to be a lawyer. So, why haven’t you sought a job over at CSCL? Trouble there?”
She frowned. “No. Of course not. I want to work here, specifically.”
His brow knitted. “Why here?”
“Well, for one, Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter is ideally located here in the Bay Area. And as Trump says, ‘location, location, location.’ Secondly, you’re not quite as large a firm as Cohen, or Brusch and Stevens in New York. Therefore, you have less clients, which puts you deeper in with them, gives you a better perspective to partner, build together. I like that. It also means there is more room for advancement here if I am so inclined, which I am. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you deal more heavily in the Asian markets, especially Korea, which is my main interest, and so it suited me more than any of the others.”
“So, you are interested in advancement?”
She couldn’t quite tell if his tone indicated it was unlikely someone like she could ever hope to become more than merely a lower level employee or if her very desire to move up was dirty and shameful. “Well, I’m not interested in staying stagnant, remaining an associate, or being dismissed because I lack ability to move forward,” she explained, defending her aspirations.
“And what general means do you employ for advancement?”
“Besides hard work, ingenuity, demonstration of leadership, vision, and success?” she snapped tersely, angered over his implicative tone.
“Yes, besides the obvious,” his eyes were cutting into her, daring for a reaction.
“Well, I have already discussed my internal drive, top-class work, superior research skills. And I would say the discipline to use tact and the ability to respectfully defer to my superiors, but if I said that, I have a feeling I am about to make liar out of myself.”
“You find it hard to use tact?” an almost smile playing at his lips, enjoying the angry spark in her blue eyes.
“At times, especially when I am the only one in the conversation doing so,” she retorted bitingly, disbelieving how horribly this interview was going. None of her previous interviews had been anything beyond the utter professional encounter one would expect, and so she could only sit and stare at him, aghast at how awfully he was behaving, effectively ruining her chances to work in the one law firm she wanted. She was beginning to feel her dreams slipping through her finger, when not a month ago she had had all confidence in Mr. Burton’s promise to her.
When he had no immediate response to dig, she pressed on. “If I may follow your lead and ask a bold question, will you please tell me what I have done to earn such animosity from you? Is there something about me that offends you? Because I cannot for the life of me understand why you are being so antagonistic. Or is this your method for easing my nerves as you had promised?” Her pretty mouth was set in a hard, displeased frown.
Denny’s first reaction was to tell her exactly what she had done, to accuse her of beating him in trivia, of being so highly confident and unattainable, and to openly blame her for being too young for him when they first met. Denny looked at her hard. But when all of her great sins were listed out before him, he recognized them for what they were: excuses for his insecurities and deplorable behavior. And with that realization, all his hostility melted away as he knew that in all their interactions, he had been the only one to behave in a manner worthy of reproach. And with his bitterness cleared, he felt in its wake that first, initial attraction towards her that had been there from the moment he saw her legs in those running shorts.
But now, as he stared intently at her and her expression of anger mingling with hurt, he was uncertain how to proceed, how to gain what he truly wanted, if indeed that was even possible at this point. But the more he studied her, the more he knew exactly what he wanted and the more his resolve grew to get it, regardless of complications.
He sighed. “Have I really acted so horribly?” he asked with a soft, defeated smile. He leaned forward, placing his forearms on his desk, clasping his hands. “Ms. Allen,” he began humbly, “if I have said or acted in any way you find unjust, unprofessional, and/or offensive, I truly apologize. It is wrong for me to project any of my personal issues onto you, and I can assure you, my attitude heretofore does in no way reflect your appropriateness for this position and will have no bearing on my decision to hire you for said position. If you were hurt or offended by my words, behavior, or attitude, again, I sincerely apologize. Now, if you are still interested in the position here, let’s discuss law. Shall we?” he asked invitingly, hoping.
Alessa wasn’t fooled by his apology. He was an intelligent and successful lawyer. He undoubtedly saw his behavior as grounds for harassment or at the very least unfair hiring practices. She ignored the small pulse of disappointment that his change of heart had nothing to do with his heart, choosing to push it down and not question its origin or significance. No matter his reasons for his attitude change, she knew this was her chance to make a last-ditch effort to secure a position with the firm. She didn’t smile, but her expression didn’t bare any enmity. “Very well,” she replied at last, nodding her head, “let’s discuss law.”
Over the course of the next hour the two argued, not with any animosity, but over matters of law, several of them examples from Denny’s own career in which she disagreed with a particular course, or wording in a document, or interpretation of a ruling. He found her perspective on certain topics to be refreshing, if not entirely practical, but he knew those were things she would learn only through experience. He was also impressed by her clearly thorough knowledge of his own career, even if she expounded upon specific errors he had made. It demonstrated excellent research skills, and he knew from her file she was a brilliant writer.
Of erotica as well. A particular scene in one of those stories she had written flashed into his mind before he could control it. He felt an answering rushing of blood to his groin and then all the rest seemed to drift away. He felt a spark deep inside come to life. It was hungry for fuel and she was his kindling. All he wanted at the moment was to know her, to spend his life peeling back every satiny, sultry layer until he found the core, to mine the deep-well of passion that was capable of penning such stories.
As their conversation was coming to a close, he began analyzing the situation in which he found himself. At that moment, all his other goals in life were taking a back seat to his one, new imperative: get under the skin of Alessa Allen.
To give her the job or to not give her the job became the first question he needed to answer. On the one hand, he doubted she would accept a date with him, let alone allow him the very intimate access he craved, if he didn’t hire her, and so the office was his greatest chance at spending time with her. On the other hand, it would be complicated wooing a fellow coworker. The undertaking would have to be done subtly and in secret as fraternization was severely frowned upon in the corporate world, especially so in the legal field. And atop that was the danger of running the knife’s edge between pursuit and harassment, especially if she proved resistant, which seemed likely.
He also realized it would be more than simply asking her out. What he knew from his past observations of her was that she was extremely closed off and not likely to be interested. He would have put her down as a lesbian, simply not interested in men, but the heterosexual nature of her erotic writings seemed to be evidence to the contrary. And yet, for unknown reasons, she chose to keep her passion hidden, caged. She was an enigma to be solved, a passionate nature to be cultivated. The undertaking would require monumental patience, observation, delicacy, and skill. She was an intricate puzzle to be understood and solved.
He smiled at her. Challenge accepted.
“Well, this has been an extremely entertaining hour,” he said with obvious reluctance at having to end their time. “But I must regretfully beg deferment on that topic until a later date when all my time is yours.” He watched her eyes widen ever so slightly, and then the most delightful pink heat her cheeks. “As it is, I have corporate by-laws I have to get back to.”
She gave him a conceding smiled, and then looked down at her lap. When she cleared her throat and looked back up, her embarrassment was gone and her expression was merely pleasant. “Yes, well, I hope in some approximation I have met with your approval, demonstrated I can be an asset to this firm. Even if I do not have limitless depositories of tact,” she said with a shy smile.
Denny returned her smile with a laugh of his own, before standing up to escort her out. “Indeed you have. And I’m rather glad you have some gumption. I’d hate for anyone to walk over you. I have one last applicant to see and then will turn my recommendation to the higher ups who will meet this Thursday. You should expect a call on Friday, either way. Thank you again, Ms. Allen; despite my earlier behavior, it has been a pleasure.” He walked her to the elevators, unhappy to see her go, but excited to know he would see her again soon.
The rest of the day was lost to him as he could only think about her. The next applicant would have to be a Supreme Court Justice to get the position now: for, as far as he was concerned, Alessa Allen was the newest hire at Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter LLP.