It was ten o'clock when she got the call from Leo. She'd held the meal until he called, of course, but all the prep work had been done hours before, the chopping and seasoning, the elegant but not too overt table settings. She knew he'd be working, and that he might not get there until late.
Jordan Kendall was not overly sentimental about holidays. She lived her life in the present and focused her attention on what could be addressed rationally and effectively. Dwelling on intangibles was just so much nonsense to her. Her life was her own, and it was great.
The meal was for Leo, and they both knew it.
Still, there was a part of her that liked the idea of ringing in the holiday with a friend. There had been the party at the firm, of course, and the invitations, most of which she had declined.
It wasn't like she was building her entire Christmas around a man.
He was just somebody who needed a friend at the holidays, and she was glad to be that friend.
Leo was on his way. An official car with a driver, probably followed by a Secret Service detail in another car. Such was the life of the Chief of Staff.
She wasn't doing this for herself, she thought as she tossed the foil-wrapped packet of fish into the dishwasher and set the cycle to Rinse. This was all about Leo.
He wanted to explain why he was late, but she wouldn't let him. Jordan had a way of cutting him off when he was trying to be charming, or at least apologetic; and he couldn't be sure whether it was endearing or infuriating. She'd left him to wander about her place while she put the finishing touches on dinner. He could smell it cooking in the other room, seafood, and he realized with chagrin that he hadn't had anything substantial to eat (aside from the sugary snacks lurking everywhere during the holidays) in nearly ten hours. His stomach growled churlishly.
He made himself comfortable as she futzed around in the kitchen. Her apartment was nice enough. For what he was paying her for legal services, she probably could have bought the entire top floor of the Ritz-Carlton. But Jordan seemed content in her modest condo. For all he knew, she could have lousy taste, but it looked okay to him. Modern furniture, all that god-damned marbled paint on the walls people seemed to like these days. A spiral staircase that led to the upper level of the duplex. She had limited artwork, but it was at least recognizable to him--not that abstract crap he hated so much. Pretty much your standard abode for the overpriced lawyer who has everything.
It was the living room that captured his attention. Now, this was a room to get comfy in. The whole thing focused around one of those arty fireplaces, but there was also a huge overstuffed couch that he just immediately fell in love with. Leo had no problem picturing Jordan falling asleep on that couch, her glasses perched on the edge of her nose, halfway through a legal document or some non-fiction book with lots of footnotes.
"The girl likes to read," he muttered to himself as he picked up a book she'd left on the table. No dust jacket; a book on the Peloponnesian wars.
He liked smart women.
A built-in bookshelf lined the entire wall behind the couch, and Leo took his time searching the spines for anything he recognized. The books weren't ornamental. They had been read, probably with Jordan's notes scribbled in the margins chastising the author for logical flaws or for missing obvious connections. No John Grisham novels here either, he noted as he realized not a single volume had a dust jacket. No, the Counselor's tastes ran more to The Brilliant and The Dead. Seneca. Homer. Descartes. Machiavelli. An entire row of works by early Americans, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and later to Emerson, to Thoreau. Feminist theory by Simone de Beauvoir, Camille Paglia (that gave him pause), Gloria Steinem. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alfred Lord Tennyson.
He was surprised when he found the cartoons. Sure, there were several volumes of classic political cartoons and a collection from The New Yorker magazine.
But it was the copy of It Was a Dark and Stormy Night by Snoopy (in hardcover, no less) that made him laugh.
She was a woman of unexpected depth.
"Just in case you have to ask, it's not roast goose and stuffing," she said as they dug into the meal.
Leo feigned surprise at her as he bit into his tilapia. "Really?" he said. She wanted to laugh, but that would have killed the joke, so she raised a single eyebrow instead. "Good chicken," he mumbled and took another bite.
This time she did laugh. He'd managed to commandeer the joke, and she let him have it. "Fish," she corrected. "Steamed tilapia."
"And the spaghetti?" He was being obvious, now. Playing the South Side card, like he didn't have a brain in his head that hadn't been forged on the mean streets of Chicago.
"Good stuff." He rolled it on his fork, like a kid, and popped it into his mouth. "Very good stuff," he added with his mouth half-full.
Yeah, he was really working it hard. She wondered why he felt the need to try so hard with her, why he thought she might find this Street Thug Gone Big Time routine charming.
It didn't matter that she did find it charming. She found it charming to an almost criminally inappropriate level, to be honest.
His twinkling eyes brought it all back to her. This was such a not good idea, she thought. She shouldn't be having dinner with him alone in her condo. She shouldn't be feeding him the only meal she cooked well enough to serve to company. She shouldn't be smiling at him over their glasses of non-alcoholic sparkling cider. (The bottle of Zin she would have normally served with this meal was hiding in the back of her fridge.)
They should have gone out. To a nice, safe restaurant. In public. Where people would keep an eye on them.
Leo was her client. He was the White House Chief of Staff.
And he was a recovering alcoholic who was going through hell.
She felt a twinge of guilt as she watched him dig into the fish again. She shouldn't have waited until after he told her his secret to say yes. He'd been asking her out for a while, and she'd waited until he was the most vulnerable to say yes to him.
He deserved better than that.
Even if he was her client. Even if she had no business feeling this close to him, on Christmas Eve, eating dishwasher fish and pretending to be annoyed at his rough edges. Pretending not to be amused by his obvious attempts at charm.
She scanned his face, his eyes, for signs that any of this--the MS scandal, the hearings, any of it--might be getting to him.
She didn't know Leo that well. She'd thought she did, but yesterday, she learned better. She learned there was something fragile behind this brick wall of a man, and it scared the hell out of her.
She also learned she cared, in a way that was more than perhaps strictly professional, what happened to him.
And that scared her, too. She took a bite of her fish, watching as he ate, wondering how long it had been since he'd just relaxed.
Neither of them were big on relaxation, she reminded herself. "I hope you don't mind the squash," she said, watching him pick it out of the primavera.
He looked up at her with big eyes, realizing he'd been caught. She found herself laughing softly. "Sorry," he said, and started to put them back into the mix.
"It's okay." She picked the squash out of her pasta in solidarity. "I'm not that crazy about them either. I much prefer broccoli."
He speared a huge broccoli with his fork and made a gesture of putting it on her plate.
"You hate broccoli, too?" she asked in mock frustration.
"I'm a meat and potatoes kind of guy." His face was sheepish, but she could see the glimmer of amusement in his eyes.
"Eat your fish, Chief," she said, her eyes narrowed but shining as much as his.
"It's chicken, Counselor," he corrected, then ate an entire branch of broccoli in one bite. Just for her.
"You cooked it how?" He knew she had to be messing with him. Waited until he'd eaten the entire damned fish, and then bam! The punchline.
She was laughing, a real laugh like he hadn't heard in weeks, not since all this crap with the MS hit the fan. "It's an old trick I learned in law school," she said, pushing her chair back from the table to stand. "You wrap the fish in foil with the seasonings and run it through the rinse cycle on the top level of your dishwasher. Comes out perfectly steamed."
"They taught you that in law school?"
"Well, I had to eat, didn't I? Donuts and ramen noodles get old after a while." She took his plate, the one he was still staring at in disbelief, and balanced it on her left arm. "They show it on cooking shows all the time."
She knew he wouldn't let that one pass. "You watch cooking shows?"
"It's a spectator sport," she dead-panned as she stacked the dirty dishes, waitress-like, atop the one she already carried. "Like football. Only entertaining."
"Ha-ha." He got up to follow her into the kitchen. Aside from the dishes she was carrying and the pasta pot cooling on the stove, her kitchen looked like a room that wasn't used often. "You're kidding about the dishwasher, right?"
She nodded to two tightly wadded balls of foil on the counter next to the dishwasher.
"You aren't kidding." She wasn't kidding.
Jordan put the dishes on the counter next to the sink and rubbed the moisture from her eyes, still trying to control the laughter that was bubbling out of her at his expense. She wasn't wearing her glasses tonight. It made her eyes seem sharper, brighter. She was pretty when she laughed.
She was pretty when she didn't laugh, too.
"It's not like I used detergent," she choked out finally.
"No, rosemary and a hint of ginger." He let go with his own laugh, giving it to her like a gift. He was grateful to her in a way he couldn't really explain. She hadn't made the whole dinner into An Evening of Keeping Leo Sober, complete with Twelve Steps and Serenity Prayer.
She'd taken it easy on him, thank God, and he was grateful for that.
She was beautiful.
The thought came at him from left field, like the dangerous ones always did. It hit him right in the gut, and there was no going back from it once it lodged itself in.
She was beautiful, and he wanted her.
Definitely one of the dangerous thoughts, he acknowledged as she began to fill the sink with warm soapy water. She stacked the dirty dishes in the suds, and then dried her long, slender hands with a decorated towel that hung from a loop attached to the wall above the sink.
She was beautiful, and he wanted her.
He flirted with her, of course. He liked smart women, tough women with lives of their own. And Jordan Kendall was definitely a tough woman with a life of her own. She hadn't bitched about the late hour. In fact, when he'd arrived, she'd had dinner cooking and was working on briefs in her office.
He found the fact that she was working at 10:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve irrationally sexy.
He found the fact that she cooked dinner in her dishwasher hilariously sexy.
And he found the fact that she was holding his hand extremely sexy. Sexier still, because she obviously didn't realize she was doing it.
"Well, however you cooked it," he said, measuring his tones carefully so he wouldn't draw attention to the fact that she'd changed everything when she touched him, "It was damn good chicken."
She laughed again, and squeezed his hand gently.
She was beautiful, he thought as the moment passed and she let go of his hand to start on the dishes. She was beautiful, and he wanted her.
It was 12:43 a.m. when she thought to look at the clock. "It's Christmas," she inserted into the spirited conversation they were having.
Leo raised his eyebrows at her in that typically Leo way of his. "Is that your way of admitting you're wrong?" His eyes were practically sparkling with the current debate, the latest in a whirlwind of topics they'd covered over the last two hours.
"Not a chance."
He'd taken off his jacket to build a fire in the fireplace, mocking her mercilessly for not knowing where to open the flue, teasing her for having a fireplace that she'd never even bothered to light. He'd taken the centerpiece of her décor and changed it from showpiece to warmth in just a few minutes.
And now he was sitting on her couch. Lounging, actually, next to her, and arguing political philosophies and history. Entertaining her.
"Merry Christmas," he said in a soft voice. She tried not to notice the reflected firelight dancing in the highlights of his hair. She tried not to smell his cologne, or feel his warmth.
No, that was the fireplace.
"Merry Christmas." Her whisper seemed out of place between them, and when he leaned over to kiss her, she wanted to stop him. She wanted to remind him that she was his lawyer, and that all of this had to stay above board. There were ethical considerations, and the last thing he needed was another scandal on his hands.
Instead she kissed him back. She tasted the cider on his breath, the lingering rosemary and garlic and ginger on his tongue. She felt him wrap her in his arms, and felt herself responding to his touch in a way she hadn't done with anyone, not for a long time. Responding to his touch in a way she couldn't afford to right now, not in the middle of a scandal, not in the middle of the hearings.
"I'm sorry," she said as she pushed away from him. "It's…"
"Yeah," he said, pulling back into himself, struggling to retreat from the place they'd just gone to. "Yeah, I know, I'm sorry…"
"Maybe I should…"
"You don't have to," she said, and kicked herself mentally. Yes, he should go. He should put on his jacket and his overcoat and get into his damned official car and go very far away before they did something very stupid and very impossible to undo once done. "We're adults, Leo." When did her voice get so damned breathy? "We can control ourselves."
It was meant to be light, but when he looked at her the way he did, with that hunger in his eyes, with that look of barely-controlled desire, when he said, "I don't want to control myself" in that Street Thug Gone Bad voice of his, she knew he was right.
He had to go. He had to go right now.
She stood, pulling Madam Lawyer around her fast and fierce. "Um, we can get together on the 26th at your office to discuss strategy."
Duh. They'd already scheduled that meeting.
"Yeah," he covered. He was already grabbing for his jacket, all Leo, all the time, just the way she liked him, a safe, brick wall of a guy. "I'll have, um, Margaret confirm the time and we'll…"
"Yeah," she said, handing him his overcoat. She needed this to be over. She needed there to be distance between them again, not this damned warmth (no, that was the fireplace).
He kissed her again, at the door. They stood there, both trying to conceal what was slamming against their insides with a professional façade, and he kissed her, sweetly, on the cheek.
She wanted to slap him. Instead, she smiled and wished him a Merry Christmas.
The car was waiting for him just across the street. It was a clear, frigid night and he could see the moon, way up high on its path across the sky. Leo thought absently that she might have liked snow on Christmas, then kicked himself for the sentiment.
She was absolutely right to have pushed him out of her apartment. She was right to have been horrified at what he'd done. What they had almost done. Things were tough enough now without introducing hormones into the mix.
He couldn't help but think about how she'd felt in his arms, about how long it had been since he'd wanted a woman as much as he'd wanted Jordan tonight. He wondered if he would have found the strength to pull away if she hadn't said anything.
Was it so bad to want to sleep with your attorney?
Yeah, he thought. Probably best that she pushed him the hell out of her apartment when she did. Because the way he'd felt on the couch, he wouldn't have been able to think of one good reason not to lead her up that spiral staircase.
He told the driver to take him back to 1600. He didn't think the President would be asleep, and there were things they needed to discuss if they were going to stay on track.
He reached into his jacket pocket to get his cell and felt something stiff, like cardboard, in the inner pocket of his overcoat. He fished around and pulled out a card, neatly addressed in feminine handwriting to him.
It was a generic holiday card, nothing fancy, very corporate. On the inside, though, he found a small color print, just the size of a postcard. It was a picture of the Old Chicago skyline in the snow, a beautiful pen and ink sketch, maybe from a hundred years ago.
She'd only written one line in the main card. "In case you get homesick." She'd signed it "J."
Leo had to grin as the car headed into the first hours of a capital Christmas.
The girl definitely had style.