Jack's day couldn't have started out any worse. He had gotten into a screaming fight with Victor before breakfast, spilled his coffee in the taxi, and was now running late for a board meeting. On top of that, he realized he had left a stack of files in Thatcher's office and needed to retrieve them before the conference. The only thing keeping him going is the prospect of his lunch date with Sara.
"Morning, Mr. McAllister," the receptionist greeted him. "Would you like me to let Mr. Karston you're here?"
"I'm in a hurry, Maggie," Jack says, proceeding past the desk and pausing for a moment in front of the dark wood doors to straighten his askew tie.
He jumps back when someone pushes the door open from inside and he's shocked when Brandi emerges, looking slightly rumpled and very much upset. She clutches her coat to her chest and her face is swollen and red from crying.
"Oh!" Brandi cries in surprise. "Sorry, I almost hit you there, Jack." She quickly wipes her eyes and looks at the floor.
Jack ducks his head to meet her eye. "No problem. Is everything okay?"
Brandi puts on a brave face. "Oh, yes. Everything's fine. I was just talking to Mr. Karston about the trial." Her grin is strained and as she talks, her eyes fill with tears once more. "I should go," she says in a strangled voice. "Have a good day." She pushes past him and rushes to the elevator.
Jack turns to watch her leave, wondering what she was doing in Thatcher's office so early in the morning. He shakes his head, deciding he has better things to worry about than TJ's fake alibi and knocks on the door.
"Enter," Thatcher says, his voice gruff.
Jack pulls the brass knob and steps inside, closing the door again. Thatcher is laid out on the long velvet couch in the middle of the room, his feet up on the coffee table and a glass of ice water in one hand. His eyes are bloodshot by the looks of his day-old attire, it appears as if he'd spent the night here.
"What is it?" asks Thatcher, rubbing his throbbing head.
"I left my files in here," Jack replies, his eyes scanning the room before locating them on a corner table. "Did you sleep here?"
Thatcher stands up, smoothing down the creases in his suit. "Yes. I had to work very late."
"Ah," Jack nods, all too familiar with the late-night crashes at the office deal. "What did Brandi want?"
The elder gentleman flinches and the corners of his mouth pull downwards. "The whore wanted more money."
Jack tucks his folders into his briefcase and stands across from his father-in-law, the table laden with empty scotch glasses and glass cigarette trays between them. "Did you give it to her?" he asks, slightly offended by Thatcher's cruel language towards the woman who was keeping TJ out of prison.
Thatcher scratches his chin and smirks. "You have no idea. Anyways, if that was all you needed, I'd appreciate it if you left now," he responds coldly. "I have lots of work to do."
Jack regards him curiously. "Is everything okay?"
"Fine," Thatcher snaps. "Leave."
As soon as he's gone, Thatcher slams the door behind him and locks it. Jack checks his watch as he pounds the elevator button, already seven minutes late. He groans internally when the doors slide apart and he comes face-to-face with Jules Whitman.
"Hey!" Jules says cheerfully, looking up from her cell.
Jack nods politely and steps into the lift, pressing the round 2 button and then the inwards facing arrows. He stares straight ahead at his reflection and goes over his presentation in his head, coming up with an excuse for being late.
Jules taps her long fingernails against her phone case and stares at him. "How's your family?"
"You mean, how's Valerie?" he replies, scuffing his shoe against the tile.
Jules rolls her eyes. "Look, Jack, if this is just going to be weird between us, I can-"
"Look," he says firmly, "as far as I'm concerned, you're just my techie assistant, not my daughter's girlfriend. We keep social and work life separate, got it?"
The elevator dings and it's his floor. "Good. I'll see you in an hour."
Jules nods, her lower lip pulled between her teeth. "Bye," she says quietly as the doors close again.
Jack rushes down the hall and bursts into conference room B.
"McAllister, so nice of you to join us," says the city council chairman from the chair across the long table.
He sets his briefcase on first empty chair and stands at the front of the room. "Sorry, I-the elevator malfunctioned. Where are we with getting those panels?"
Elaine tries Jack's phone again, getting the voicemail. She wipes the bar down distractedly, glancing at the young couple in the corner table. They can't be much older than 18 but she can tell they're in love. There's the recognizable glow about them both; how they smile at each other when they talk, how they hold hands across the table, never breaking gazes even for a moment.
She sighs, momentarily jealous of the lovers, and drops the rag into the sink. It's not quite lunch hour yet so the kids are the only two in the restaurant. The sun streams in through the huge street-side windows and taxis zoom past with passengers who peer into the trendy restaurant in hopes of glimpsing a C-list celebrity sitting at the bar. Elaine carefully washes a few chopping knives in the sudsy water, enjoying the sensation of the hot water enveloping her tired hands.
"Hey there, this seat taken?" a familiar voice asks.
Elaine smiles as she looks up. "Aiden! I thought you weren't supposed to come until Tuesday?" She looks over the counter and sees that he comes with no bottle of wine this time. She removes her hands from the dishwater and dries them on a clean towel.
The young man flashes his perfectly straight white teeth, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I thought I'd swing by. I was in the neighborhood…"
"You live all the way uptown," she accuses teasingly, feeling her pulse quicken at the appearance of the handsome and oh-so-charming wine guy. His burgundy button-down hugs his fit torso perfectly, buttoned an inch below his collar bone to reveal a couple of dark chest hairs. He had obviously spent extra time in front of the mirror today from the looks of his carefully combed hair and clean-shaven face. He smells of expensive cologne and something about him seems more pulled-together than he normally is.
Aiden sighs, fake remorse playing across his expression. "You caught me. I'm here to see you."
Elaine's eyebrows lift and she tilts her head to the side. "Me?"
"Can I buy you a coffee?" Aiden says quickly, as if he had spent all morning trying to muster up the courage to ask. He runs a nervous hand through his hair and tries to stand up taller.
Elaine's smile fades and she pushes her hair behind her ear to buy herself time to think. "Aiden I…" she fiddles with the wedding band on her left finger.
Aiden catches the movement and looks dejected, but doesn't regard it directly. "Just coffee. My intentions are pure."
"It's just coffee and…" Aiden pauses then reaches over the bar, taking her hand in his. "and I like you, Elaine."
She stares at their hands, feeling electricity being exchanged from where they're connected. Heat rises to her cheeks and she can feel herself growing red. She glances around the empty restaurant and then calls to the waitress bringing the young couple their brunch. "Heather? Will you watch the restaurant for an hour or so? I need to run some errands."
Heather looks from Elaine to Aiden and gives them a knowing smile. "Of course."
Aiden beams, his face lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning.
Elaine can't help but return his grin as she puts on her jacket and takes his proffered arm. It's just coffee, she tells herself. No harm in coffee.
Jack packs up his papers as the employees file out of the room before him. A few stop to shake his hand and thank him for the presentation. He only barely hears what their saying, distracted by thoughts of Sara and how soon he'll be able to see her.
He can't stop thinking about her, no matter how hard he tries to focus. He sees her everywhere, in everything. He'll catch a flash of a dark ponytail and his heart will skip a beat, a camera will flash and he'll turn to find her, a calm, seductive voice will reach his ears and he'll begin to smile. Never in a million years had Jack imagined he might feel this way about another person.
When finally, he's the lone person in the conference room, he takes a chair and checks his messages. Three missed calls from Elaine and a text from Sara.
S: I miss you 3
For good measure, he calls Elaine to see what she wanted but only gets the answering machine. He finds it strange that Elaine would have her phone off during work hours but turns his attention back to Sara, shooting her a response before leaving for lunch.
J: miss you more 3 see u soon
Sara carefully adjusts the exposure on her most recent photo; a longshot of a teenage couple kissing on a park bench, their faces obscured by thick, white fog. A large tree hangs above them, its branches bare, giving the impression of skeletal fingers. In the background is a small pond where geese float lazily in the algae-filled water. The attention is always drawn back to the subject, despite the insurmountable amount of background objects, thanks to the depth of field and the overall interest. There's something about the two kids that's so hesitant yet so special, it's hard to take your eye from them.
Alissa sticks her head into the office. "Sara, there's someone here to see you."
Sara immediately begins to straighten her desk, sweeping empty coffee cups into the trash bin and pulling her papers into a big pile.
Jack knocks on the doorframe, a bouquet of flowers in hand.
Sara leaps from her chair and practically dives across her desk to hug him, receiving a strange look from Alissa in the other room. "Nice to see you again, Fred," she says loudly, using the pseudonym to detract suspicion from her boss who already knows too much already.
She closes the door quickly and pulls the blinds on the windows. Turning around, she grabs onto Jack and pulls him against her. "I thought we were meeting at the restaurant at noon," she says, kissing him.
Jack smiles against her mouth. "I couldn't wait. We can still go later if you want." He twists his head to the side to get at her neck. Pulling her earlobe between his teeth, he growls dirty words into her ear as he presses her back into the wood door.
"Wait," Sara says, pulling back to look up into his dark brown eyes. "Why did you take that picture?"
He frowns, his expression serious. "What picture?"
Without breaking eye contact, she reaches into his pocket and pulls out the picture in question, folded in half and worn from being taken out so often. She holds it up.
"Oh, that picture. You just look so beautiful when you sleep; I wanted to remember that sight forever, even when I'm not with you…" he explains, leaning in for another kiss.
Sara turns away. "Damn it, Jack, you couldn't have just used your phone?" she says angrily.
Jack's brow furrows with concern. "Sara…" he sighs. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you would be upset… what happened?" he asks, knowing she wouldn't be reacting this way for no reason.
The corner of her mouth twitches, the way it does when she's trying to say something painful. "My husband… he found the picture."
Jack's jaw slackens. "Does he…?"
"No," she shakes her head, bringing her thumbnail to her lips nervously. "No. He thinks I'm taking shallow selfies," she says with a light laugh. "He thinks I took it."
Jack unfolds the picture and looks at it. "Wow. I must be pretty good with a camera if he mistook this for your work."
Sara giggles. "Yeah, or he has a low opinion of mine." She kisses him gently, testing the waters for any hesitation. She leans against the door again as Jack kisses her back, his tongue darting into the cavern of her mouth, tasting spearmint and whiskey.
She yanks at the hem of his shirt, fumbling to undo the buttons as he leaves a trail of kisses down her collarbone. "I'm glad you came," she mumbles, guiding his hand to the zipper at the back of her dress and pulling it down. He helps her shrug out of the restraining black material and it drops to the floor, pooled around her ankles.
Soon, their clothes are tossed around the office; the morning sun warming their backs. It's like they're the only ones in the world when they're together.
After a few whispered "I love you"s between frantic kisses and grappling hands, her legs are wrapped around his waist and he's making love to her against her office door, oblivious to the entire outside world, oblivious to their spouses' whereabouts.
"So the bottom line is that we've got nothing against them still and we're down a couple grand, paying that girl," says the female detective.
Drew slams his glass down on the table where the ice clanks against each other, spinning in the caramel-colored liquid. "No, the bottom line is that we don't have the circumstantial evidence we were looking for. But," he puts emphasis on the transition, "what we do have is knowledge that Thatcher Karston raped an innocent woman."
Everyone in the room turns to look at him with appalled expressions.
"Brandi will never testify against him for that," says the detective, "you know that. It's one of the many downfalls of having an illegal occupation. Plus, that information can't be held in the court of law."
"No," Drew agrees, "but we do know where Karston holds weakness. He's cheated on his wife. Now all we have to do is catch him at it again; send a photographer to follow him around, get him in the act."
"Stafford, you are out of your mind," says one of the partners, Griffiths. "Do you have any ideas how many laws we've broken already? Do you want to get sent to prison? I sure as hell don't."
Drew glares at him, his mouth curled into a malicious smile. "You want out, the door's right there. But you have no idea what's been started here. You walk out, you'll never be safe."
Griffiths comes toe-to-toe with him. "Are you threatening me, Stafford? This is getting out of hand. This is supposed to be a civil trial, the court is supposed to handle the outcome of this, not scandal and slander. This isn't about justice anymore for you, it's too personal. And when things get personal, it gets damn ugly from there!" he shouts, bringing his fist down on the table so the glass jumps, sending the ice onto the floor where it lies in a puddle.
"Damn right, it's personal. You knew what you were getting into when you signed for this, Griffiths. You know how these huge profile cases get. And if you don't, well it was stupid of me to even partner with you because you're a whole lot dumber than I thought," Drew hisses, color rising to his face. "You have no idea what we've started here. This is a bloody war and if you back out, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."
Griffiths glares down at him. He's a large man for a lawyer, well built, almost a foot taller than Stafford. But at this time, he feels like the smaller one. He nods slowly. "So what are we going to do then?" he asks calmly.
Drew smirks and turns to face the window where he can see the capital in the distance. "Get someone to trail Karston. We're going to expose this guy for who he is; a liar and a cheater." He picks up his drink and knocks back the remaining contents. "He's not going to get away with this."
"We have reservations at the Vanilla Bean café, that new coffee shop uptown. I hear they have a goat cheese omelet to die for," Jack says, helping Sara zip up her dress. His fingers linger at the nape of her neck as she straps on her heels.
"That sounds amazing," she replies, her stomach rumbling. She watches as Jack pulls on his jacket and fixes his hair in the reflection of her monitor.
She waits until he's properly attired before pulling the shades and unlocking the door. Alissa is waiting for her in the lobby with a sly grin. "Fred is it?" she asks quietly, giving him an approving nod.
Jack shakes her hand. "Nice to meet you," he says in an English accent.
Sara tries not to laugh as her boss and secret lover shake hands.
"So you're the one buying up all of Sara's work?" Alissa asks.
Jack looks to Sara. "I guess you can say that."
Sara grabs his arm and drags him over to the elevators. "Alissa, I'm going to take my lunch break now and…" she looks happily at Jack. "Fred and I are going to share a cab."
"Oh, sure," says Alissa, "take as much time as you need, I know you've been working very hard lately." She and Sara share a long stare at each other.
"Okay, great, thanks," Sara says, hurrying to the elevators with Jack in tow. "I shouldn't be long."
"Mhmm," Alissa says, seeing past her friend's front. She can tell that "Fred" is the one Sara's been head over heels about. She can see it in her eyes. "share a cab, my ass," she mutters to herself.
"So you and your husband never talk?" Aiden asks, turning his straw around the coffee he has yet to touch.
Elaine sighs, having anticipated light conversations about pop culture on this coffee date, not deep marital talk. "I wouldn't say never… but when we do, it's usually about work or the kids." She peers around the crowded café, a new joint called Vanilla Bean that, according to Aiden, is the coolest of hangouts at the moment. Apparently, it had been featured in Glamour magazine as one of the best places to get coffee. Beautiful people around Aiden's age sit at wooden tables on steel stools with books and laptops in front of them, sipping lattes and munching on bagels and scones.
Aiden senses her distractedness and reaches over to take her hand. They're sitting side-by-side in a secluded booth below a dim lamp where they're able to see the entire café from their seats.
He's sitting a little too closely for her liking, but it's comforting. Aiden's knee is touching hers and he keeps purposefully nudging her under the table with his foot. His intense gaze makes her feel like she's the only one in the restaurant that's worth his attention. Even with all of the skimpily dressed college girls traipsing around, Aiden never looks away from her.
She looks away when she finds herself getting lost in his blue eyes and hides her blush behind her teacup.
He continues to stare at her, brushing away a strand of her hair from her forehead that had slipped from her ponytail.
Her entire body responds to his touch, warmth spreading from where his fingers brushed her skin and coursing through her entire being. She's confused by these feelings because she had never felt this way before, not even with Jack, who she cares for deeply.
"Do you love him?" Aiden asks quietly.
Elaine's breath hitches in her throat and she swallows her tears. "I don't know."
Aiden's thumb strokes the back of her hand and he scoots closer, putting a crooked finger under her chin. "Laine," he says, "You are the most incredible, complicated, intelligent person I've ever met. But you're stuck married to a man that you don't love."
"I never said-"
"I know you didn't say it, but you don't," Aiden says and she knows he's right. He puts his hand on her thigh. "You could be happy, Laine, you deserve to be happy."
She smiles, biting her lower lip, and putting her hand over his. "You know, my mom was the only one who ever called me 'Laine'."
Aiden tilts his head and leans in, brushing his lips against hers. Her eyes fall closed and she's swept up in the moment, all too aware of the hand on her waist. She feels her foot rising off the floor to hook an ankle around his leg, drawing him closer. It's just a kiss, she tells herself. No harm in a kiss.