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She should have known it would make him testy. Domestic cases always made him testy.

Claire knew more than to ask about his past. She had learned just enough from his coworkers to make her wary of bringing up the topic of his father. The one time she had mentioned McCoy senior, the look that came into his son's eyes was frightening. It turned them so cold and dark that she had shuddered and changed the subject. Jack McCoy hated his father. Only the remembrance of him lying weak in a hospital bed, hooked up to a succession of tubes, most of the life eaten out of his once-swarthy form, helped abate his haunted memories of the childhood in which he had been terrorized. The same hands that had beaten his wife to a pulp during long years of marriage reached weakly for those of his son, and the raspy voice Jack had inherited pleaded, "Forgive me, John."

The name he detested. His father had never called him "Jack." Maybe that was why he went by it.

Jack had only looked at him, listening to the sound of the monitor beep, knowing his mother was outside in the hall. She didn't know what to do without her husband by her side, a dominating force to tell her how to live, how to think, how to behave. He had said nothing, only watched as his father's eyes closed, and then gone into the hall to comfort her. How she could mourn the sick bastard that had broken her ribs, thrown her down the stairs, and smacked her across the face more times than Jack could remember, he would never know.

Claire saw the same expression as he looked at the file. She wasn't sure why Adam Schiff kept assigning him these cases, whether it was out of common ignorance or if he wanted Jack to face the past, to be forced to put his feelings aside and prosecute those who murdered abusive husbands and fathers. The case had been difficult for the police, for they had not immediately discerned it was a domestic killing. The woman lived alone, quiet among her coworkers and meticulous in her personal life. There seemed no looming secrets in her past, nothing to indicate she was hiding from anyone. Then came the paper trail, the realization it was not her sexually aggressive boss that slipped into her apartment and strangled her with a piano wire, but her vengeful husband, a violent man she had eluded for eight years.

Looking at the crime scene photograph, the muscle in his cheek tightened. It was there, the evidence he needed to convict. The medical examiner's report stated long-term abuse. He shook his head. "We find one with the courage to leave," he said quietly, "and the son of a bitch does this to her."

He tossed the file onto his desk and looked up at Claire. It was late afternoon and the blinds were mostly closed, letting in frail fragments of light to cast a rippling pattern across the floor. She glanced toward the closed office door and rounded his desk, hand trailing along the back of his chair before she leaned down to put her arms around his neck. She could smell his cologne. It was what had initially drawn her to him, a whiff of that scent as she walked down the hall with Ben Stone her first week in the office. Jack had looked at her as he passed. It was nothing more than a glance, but in that glance she had known. His reputation preceded him, and she was less than surprised when he requested her transferal to his office after Ben retired. Then, she had asserted nothing would ever exist between them. What a playful farce it seemed now.

"I am sorry, Jack," she said. It felt so personal in the office, so private, despite the numerous individuals at work beyond the four walls. If she concentrated, she could hear them walking down the hall, speaking into their cell phones, arguing with defense attorneys as they attempted to get plea-bargains.

He reached up and touched her hand, turning his face slightly toward hers. "You have no reason to be sorry," he retorted. "Be sorry for the victim, if anyone." He glanced at his watch. "I have a meeting with Adam to discuss the Penbroke case. If you'll wait for me, I'll take you to dinner at Le Chantelle."

Rising to his feet, Jack reached for his jacket. Claire leaned against the desk as he tightened his tie, loose from an afternoon of paperwork. Crossing her arms, she remarked, "I'm not sure that's a good idea. The last time I was there, the wine made me…"

"Interesting company. You should drink more often." He looked at her a long moment, his dark eyes concealing the nature of his thoughts. "Are you going to wait for me or not?"

With a shrug that indicated she would so long as nothing else of interest arose to occupy her time, Claire reached for the file on his desk. Jack vanished out the door, knowing she would be there when he returned. As much as she enjoyed aggravating him, she liked spending time with him more. She had not thought this would be true after their first meeting, but it had rapidly become apparent there was a connection. The constant fighting for the first six months of their professional relationship had been verbal foreplay, and gradually she had admitted that she was interested. McCoy forced her to make the first move. Whether it was a tribute to the "latent feminism" he accused her of, or part of his abnormal tactics, Claire could not be certain.

Though new to the district, the restaurant was one of their favorites. They encountered coworkers and friends there on more than one occasion, and in earlier times it would have bothered her to have them seen together. There was nothing preventing it, for the office held no policies, but she had no desire to become one of McCoy's long list of conquests. She had heard enough about his previous assistants to be wary of entanglements, but while others referenced them with coy winks and smiles, he was never disrespectful. She had met all of them, and each seemed congenial toward him. Even his ex-wife held no distaste for a marriage that had fallen apart over long hours and workaholic tendencies. Jack had spent more time at the office than at home.

"Adam wants us to take a plea bargain," Jack said after they ordered.

Claire looked at him in the candlelight, across her glass of wine as she lifted it to her lips without taking a sip. He loved how graceful her movements were, how subtle the tone of her skin beneath the soft light. "And you don't want to," she appraised.

"Our case is circumstantial at best, and Mr. Hilton has hired one of the best attorneys in the system. Adam doesn't want to run the risk of losing at trial. I can't say I blame him, but what justice does that provide the victim? She had the courage to leave him. Most women never leave. Most cases that cross my desk are the one time the husband was too drunk or furious to care and killed her in a fit of violent rage. But this wasn't violent so much as it was calculating. He entered her apartment and waited for her. He then strangled her with a wire from her own instrument. That's heinous. It doesn't deserve a plea."

Jack turned his wine glass on the tablecloth, venturing to look at her. Claire understood, if not everything; he could see it in her eyes. The photographs had been what most profoundly unnerved him. Anna Murdstone reminded him of his mother: the same petite frame, soft brown hair curling around her shoulders, and similar Irish features. She had the moral courage his mother lacked, and it bothered him.

Leaning across the table and placing her hand on his, her fingertips caressing the ring that graced his right hand, Claire said, "I agree with you. I read the file and he doesn't deserve a plea. But at the end of the day, that's Adam's call. So we'll make him an offer, and see to it that he rejects it. Use the pomp and ceremony of his attorney against him, and bruise his ego a little bit."

"You're starting to sound like me," he objected, but there was amusement in his eyes. McCoy was unethical, and she was solid. That was why Adam had approved their partnership, believing Kincaid would prevent McCoy from going too far. Instead, it seemed to have the reverse effect. Long hours had brought them together, evenings spent after everyone else had gone, pouring over paperwork with open law books and half-eaten boxes of Chinese food scattered around them. Everyone said McCoy worked his assistants twice as hard as anyone else. Claire could believe it. She had spent more sleepless nights sifting through evidence or standing outside the coroner's office than she cared to remember.

"Bluffing isn't the only thing you have taught me," she replied coyly, and took up her wine glass. It was the last they spoke of business that evening. She asked him to come in when he took her home, and he considered for a moment before replying that he had a draft that had to be on Branch's desk in the morning. As much as he would have liked to remain, he had the feeling that with the brooding thoughts tempting to surface, he would hardly be amiable company.