by Louise McBain
Camille Robbins is determined to stay on the partnership track at the prestigious San Francisco law firm of Walker and Jenkins—and that’s meant putting love on the back burner for the past seven years.
But now Camille is back in her hometown of Washington, DC to care for her ailing father, and back at the DC branch of the law firm where she worked years ago. Returning to the office means returning to face her former boss and lover, the incomparable Mia Shannon.
To complicate matters, Camille begins a wild journey with the daughter of the firm’s biggest client—the fiery redhead Hannah Richards—even though she knows that Hannah is strictly off-limits.
With Mia determined to throw a wrench in the works, will the hurt feelings of a spurned lover ruin any chance they might have? Or will Hannah see beyond the chaos and lies to finally claim Camille’s heart…
FROM THE AUTHOR
"The idea for Claiming Camille sprang from an article I read at the beginning of the #metoo movement. A woman in her sixties had just been made aware that a clandestine romance she’d had with her high school teacher, a man now in his eighties, was not the special relationship she’d believed it to be. Her former lover had pursued numerous other students during the course of his career and was now going to jail. The knowledge was devastating because it corrupted a cherished memory. Harder still was the idea that love had made the woman party to her own abuse. Tricky topics that got my mind spinning. What if the reality of a past relationship differed from your perception of it? If you couldn’t trust the past, how could you trust the future?
Enter Camille Robbins. When she split with her boss, Mia Shannon, eight years ago, Camille chalked it up to bad timing. Mia was ten years older and a partner at Camille’s law firm where strict no fraternization rules prevented them from being a public couple. Suddenly back in Mia’s orbit, Camille is forced to reconsider the dynamic of their relationship when she learns Mia’s current girlfriend, Lillian, is almost an exact replica of Camille’s younger self. Lillian is also an associate on Mia’s team. Lillian is also a secret. The new information threatens to erode Camille’s self-esteem until she meets Hannah, a sexy climbing instructor who is not afraid to let everyone know that Camille has captured her interest. When Hannah literally sweeps Camille off her feet, Camille begins to believe that love is possible. Claiming Camille is a book about the undeniable chemistry between two women and the courage it takes for them to trust it."—Louise McBain
Kris W. - The characters are amazing, the dialogue is perfect, the romance is off the charts, and I laughed multiple times throughout the story. At several points while reading this lovely story I realized my face was hurting from smiling for so long. Not to say that there isn’t plenty of drama and intrigue because there is, but overall the story gave of a fun and sexy vibe that was perfect and entertaining. A supremely great read.
Kicking cats away from the front door, Camille Robbins answered the bell. Thank God the physical therapist was on time. If the woman was as capable as the agency had promised, Camille could transition her father’s care and be at the office by eight thirty a.m. It was two hours later than she wanted to arrive, but there was no avoiding the disruption in her schedule. She bit her lip. Any other day being late to work wouldn’t be an issue. But this was her first time back in the Washington, DC office since transferring to San Francisco nearly eight years ago. She’d hoped to have more time to acclimate before the workday began.
She pulled open the front door, and a flash of fur to the left told her one of the cats was making a break for daylight. She moved to block it with the low heel of her shoe, but wasn’t quick enough. The determined feline slipped through her legs and might have been two blocks down the street if a woman dressed in a chic white tracksuit hadn’t hit it with her purse. Swinging the gorgeous patent leather handbag with impressive precision, she knocked the cat squarely back into the house.
“Thank you so much,” Camille stammered.
The woman nodded as if this were a completely normal occurrence and offered Camille a crisp white envelope. “I am Martina. I think you are expecting me.”
“Yes, please, come in.” Camille stepped aside to let the woman enter and almost stumbled over the thwarted escapee.
“Khloe, stop!” she scolded the orange tabby. Two more felines joined the runner, and the trio began chasing each other around the entrance hall. Martina’s face registered benign surprise but she didn’t comment. Camille cursed her luck. Great first impression, stellar.
The cat situation was slightly mortifying, and not easily explained. One day, about a year after Camille’s mother died, her father had gone for a walk and come back with five cats. A mother and four kittens he had, of course, named them after the Kardashians: Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Kris and Rob. Camille still wasn’t sure how he’d pulled it off. When her assistant Cory had adopted a cat, there’d been more paperwork than when Camille had purchased her townhouse. There had also been weeks of home visits, reference checks, and the menacing possibility of future contact. Cat adoption professionals did not play around.
Camille knew Joe Robbins hadn’t obtained the Kardashians through such strict channels. But when she’d questioned him, the normally unflappable media studies professor had been indignant. He’d surprised Camille by raising his voice, loudly announcing that he’d missed out on having cats his entire adult life. Camille’s mother had been allergic and had persuaded him to keep fish instead. Fish! They were so much work and gave nothing back. Nothing! In the end, Camille had been supportive. If her father wanted cats, he should have cats. Why he needed five cats simultaneously was a question for another time.
One of the Kardashian sisters, perhaps Kim, left the game and moved over to rub against Martina’s ankle.
“I’m sorry,” Camille apologized, noticing with embarrassment that cat hair now clung to the physical therapist’s white pants.
“It is nothing.” Martina smiled and her entire face changed as fine lines around her eyes and mouth softened her imperious beauty.
Camille couldn’t help but smile in return. “Thank you. The cats belong to my father.” She nodded toward a pair of paneled doors to the left of the foyer. “There’s a futon in his office. The stairs are difficult to manage with his injuries, so he’s sleeping in there.”
“That is best. He has a bathroom downstairs too?”
“Yes, it’s just here.” Camille pointed to a door further down the hall. The Woodley Park home was a standard colonial with three upstairs bedrooms and a finished basement. Her parents had bought it more than thirty years ago when her mother, Mary, had been pregnant with Camille. The modest brick house was the only place Camille had ever truly considered home.
“The agency filled me in on your father’s case. How is he feeling today?” Martina gave her crinkly smile again, and Camille relaxed even further.
“Better than yesterday, I think. I just gave him breakfast, and his morning meds. The painkillers may be making him a bit loopy though. He’s acting a little silly…well, sillier than usual.”
Martina nodded, as if this were to be expected. “That is good news.”
“Really? He’s supposed to be high?”
“It tells us his body is mending. He doesn’t need so much medicine for pain so it goes to his head. I’ll review the dosage with his doctor.”
“It is my job,” Martina said simply. “I will also assess his mobility and get him started on some exercises to stop muscle atrophy.”
“That sounds great.”
“Shall I meet the patient?”
“Yes, follow me please.”
“You are a very good daughter to care for your father.”
“Thank you.” Camille quashed a surge of guilt. She’d only agreed to come home because there’d been a break in her schedule. An age-discrimination suit had settled early leaving her unexpectedly free. Optimally, Camille would have used the time to work on her new townhouse—she’d yet to buy bedroom furniture or kitchen appliances—but five years had passed since she’d last been to DC. And her father had asked.
“He may be sleeping,” Camille explained as she tapped the tall paneled door twice with her knuckles. There was no answer.
“Wake him gently.”
Camille’s absence hadn’t been intentional. Life had just been busy. Camille’s polite English father hadn’t seemed to notice anyway. He’d seemed perfectly happy traveling to California a few times a year, staying in a hotel and calling it a relationship. She knocked again. This time, a bit louder.
“I’m alive!” came a muffled call from behind the doors. Camille smiled weakly.
Before her mother died eight years ago, Camille and her father had been close. She would have entered his room without knocking. But grief over Mary Robbins’s death had driven a wedge between them. It was no one’s fault. It wasn’t that Camille’s father wouldn’t share his grief—he just didn’t know how. Joe had mourned his wife privately, keeping a stoic public front while Camille had grieved openly. She’d stopped eating, sobbed endlessly, lost weight. Joe had given her a wide berth and a clean handkerchief, but never offered his shoulder. Therapy had moved Camille beyond resentment and into a place of understanding. She knew it would take time to reestablish a close relationship with her father, but she was trying, and things were getting better.
She rolled the door into the wall. “He doesn’t usually nap this early. But as you said, it may be time to dial back the meds.”
“How long have you been caring for him?”
“Just a few days. I wish I could do more. But my training is in law, not medicine.”
Martina patted her arm. “He is lucky to have you.”
Camille experienced another stab of guilt. “Thank you.”
Joe Robbins had been suspiciously insistent that Camille come home to care for him. After three days in the house she’d understood why. It had very little to do with his convalescence and everything to do with his cats. The litter boxes were kept in the basement. Camille’s childhood playroom, a sacred space that had borne witness to every stage of her life from finger painting to finger fucking, was now effectively a cat lavatory. It was awful. Steep stairs prevented Joe from performing the chore himself so Camille had been enlisted. She’d scooped the boxes exactly once since returning home and was not looking forward to doing it again.
The Kardashian sisters raced past them into Joe’s office.
“I’m sorry about the cats.” Camille watched Martina for a reaction. There was a chance she would bolt if she learned there were two more.
“Please, don’t apologize. It only means your father has lots of room in his heart.”
Though unintentional, the remark cut Camille to the quick. It galled her to think the emptiness in her father’s heart was so vast that he’d had to fill it with cats. Tears threatened, and she felt Martina’s warm hand on her arm.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes, I’m sorry.” Camille wiped at her eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Please, let the tears come.” With practiced care, Martina reached up and pulled Camille’s hand away from her face, leaving behind a hint of floral perfume.
They entered Joe’s office and Martina’s eyes widened slightly at the elaborate floor-to-ceiling cat activity center dominating the room. Camille approached her father and laid a hand on the convertible futon he’d been sleeping on since his accident. “Dad, Martina, your physical therapist, is here. She’s going to get you started on some exercises.”
“Good morning, Joe.” Martina walked toward the futon. She was a voluptuous Italian woman in her mid-sixties, wearing an expensive-looking tracksuit with a fancy designer logo that Camille didn’t recognize. Her salt-and-pepper hair, twisted into a neat chignon, was effortlessly elegant. Joe looked up from the New York Times and his bright green eyes, so much like Camille’s, lit with obvious interest. Camille watched in horror as they dropped to Martina’s ample bosom.
The meds were definitely affecting him.
“Buongiorno, Joe, is there anything you need?”
“I’d fancy a cuddle.” He tried to execute a rakish smile, but his facial abrasions from the accident lent more menace than charm.
“Dad!” Camille squeaked, but Martina shook her head.
“You’re not well enough for that. Also, I am too much woman.”
“But what a way to go!” He giggled and again tried to smile. Camille felt sick.
A week prior, a texting Uber driver had knocked her father off his bicycle. He’d landed in a beautifully landscaped flower bed on Nebraska Avenue, suffering road burn, a broken femur, two cracked ribs and a moderate concussion. The prognosis was for a full recovery. Joe had been very lucky but the bicycle was now a tangled mess of tires and titanium, serving (at Joe’s insistence) as a cautionary sculpture in the American University quad.
“But I am here to help you.” Martina laid a hand on the nylon brace immobilizing his leg. “Tell me, how are you feeling today?”
“I falafel,” he replied, and giggled again.
Martina looked quizzically at Camille.
“The man who hit him was ordering Lebanese takeout. ‘I falafel’ is his new favorite joke.” Camille shook her head apologetically.
“But that is funny.” Martina smiled. “And a good sign. Good humor is best for good healing.”
Joe beamed like a first grader awarded a gold star.
Camille glanced at the mantel clock. If she took the Metro to Dupont Circle, she’d likely make it the office by eight thirty. The train would be crowded but it would be faster than walking. Martina read Camille’s body language and shooed her toward the door.
“I think you have someplace to be?”
“Yes, actually. I’m on my way to work.”
“Then go. Joe and I will have a nice morning. Right, Joe?”
“So very nice,” her father said, staring at Martina’s breasts again.
“It’s okay, Camille. We will sort out his medicine and then begin some exercises. Go to work.”
“If you’re sure?”
Ten minutes later, Camille was walking toward the Woodley Park Metro Station. The DC offices of Walker and Jenkins were in Dupont Circle, either a mile and a half walk or one train stop away. Today Camille would take the Metro. Striding briskly to the station, she took the opportunity to check in with Cory. It was obscenely early in California, but this morning Cory was at his mother’s house in Atlanta and would be up drinking green tea and watching The Today Show. He was using the unexpected break as an opportunity for a home visit of his own. He answered the phone on the first ring and began scatter-shooting questions.
“How’s the office? Have you seen Mia yet? Will you please FaceTime me so I can see what you’re wearing?”
“Good morning to you too, Cory. How’s your mom?”
“Mean and fat, just like always. I can’t believe I’m wasting my vacation time here. Right now she’s out buying ammunition for her BB gun so she can shoot squirrels off her bird feeder. Answer my questions, please.”
“I’m not at the office yet.”
There was a long pause. “Are you sick? Please tell me you wore the facemask I gave you for the plane. You never got a flu shot this year. Not even when that nurse came to the office.”
“There wasn’t time. But don’t worry, I’m not sick. I’m just late.”
Cory’s confusion was understandable. Camille’s early mornings were normally non-negotiable. It was a habit she’d started at the University of Virginia School of Law nearly ten years ago. Arriving two hours before the office workday began gave her two hours to get her bearings. She could do the pregame check of email, voice mail and caffeine. It was the difference between easing yourself into a lake and diving right in. Today she’d be forced to take the plunge.
It didn’t matter too much, because Camille didn’t have any pressing cases. On family leave, her schedule was clear and her time her own. She’d also capitalized on needing a temporary office at Walker and Jenkins DC branch for political reasons. The firm would announce the new partners in a few weeks. Being seen around the head office could only improve Camille’s chances. She explained this strategy to Cory and then her reason for being late.
“Martina? Does she play tennis?”
Camille rolled her eyes but couldn’t suppress a giggle. Cory was a whip-thin southern boy with a whip-sharp wit to match. He’d been Camille’s legal assistant for nearly five years. “It wasn’t on her resumé but I can ask her.”
“Are you wearing the Prada suit from the sample sale?”
Camille looked down at the pencil skirt and high-waisted suit jacket he’d insisted she buy the month before.
“Good girl. The green makes your eyes pop and the skirt makes your ass look like a work of art.”
“It’s true. The Pilates has paid off. Wait until that bitch Mianderthal sees you. She’ll come sniffing back around. Just watch.”
“Thanks. But that’s not what I want. Not at all.”
“I know. All you care about is making partner, your new townhouse, Pilates and…”
“You,” Camille finished the sentence. “I care about you and that’s enough.”
“I care about you too, sweetie. Will you text me tonight? I’ll be at the farm tomorrow and there’s no cell service out there. Just chickens and Chinese checkers. Lord, help me.”
“That actually sounds fun.” Camille thought of Cory with his family and smiled. A thought occurred to her. “Will you please send Bobby my notes on the Frackit appeal before you go to the farm?”
Cory snorted. “You really think there’s going to be an appeal?”
“I think we need to be prepared. Send Bobby the notes?”
“I already did.”
“I really am.”
Bobby Fry was one of several partners at Walker and Jenkins who gave Camille employment work. Earlier in Camille’s career, her law practice had been less defined. She’d dabbled in insurance cases, commercial litigation, really anything a partner asked her to do. But since moving to San Francisco, she’d found a personal niche in employment law. Her last case had ended in very public success.
“You know that preparing for an appeal is a waste of time?”
“I don’t know that.”
“You beat the shit out of Skater Boy.”
“Be that as it may.”
Last month Camille had successfully defended a virtual gaming company in Silicon Valley from an age-discrimination suit brought by a twenty-nine-year-old celebrity coder named Scotty Blalock, aka Skater Boy. Though neither federal nor California law protected workers under the age of forty from age discrimination, Skater Boy had filed suit anyway.
Then he’d written an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle lamenting the injustice of age-based bias. It had been a blatant publicity stunt but Camille had kept her eye on the ball. Arguing the illegitimacy of his claim, she’d filed a motion to dismiss, had her picture in the paper and won the case before it even went to trial. The positive result would not hurt her partnership chances.
“Did Bobby text back?” There was little chance Skater Boy would file a notice of appeal—the district court judge had been clear she thought the lawsuit frivolous—but Camille couldn’t be too careful. The lawsuit, though unsuccessful, had garnered enough unwanted publicity for the software company. Bad press affected profit points.
“Bobby’s on a yacht in Cabo celebrating with the Frackit CEO.”
“Is that kid old enough to drink?”
“That’s why they went to Mexico. Duh.”
“Oh, yeah, duh.”
Cory was Camille’s closest confidante in San Francisco where, by design, her social life was almost nonexistent. She simply had no time. If Cory wasn’t her assistant and also absolutely charming, it was doubtful he’d be in her life either. Camille found that she got the maximum return on her days if she didn’t clutter them up with people. Personally, she made no claims on anyone and allowed none to be made on her. Yes, her life was devoid of intimacy but it was much safer this way. Camille was happy to admit this, though it drove her therapist to make long speeches about the important difference between self-realization and self-actualization.
Camille worked hard and saved her money. As a result, she’d achieved nearly all she’d set out to do. Six months ago, she’d closed on her townhouse and the partnership announcement was imminent. It lacked only the perfunctory vote at the annual partners’ meeting, scheduled for later in the month. All Camille’s dreams were coming true, but why wasn’t she happier?
She arrived at Woodley Park station and walked down the massive escalator. She loved taking the train to work. It wasn’t just the convenience—it was the energy. There was something electric about being caught up in the rush of a new workday. Camille had always reveled in the collective purpose and intent of the other passengers. When she was a little girl she’d imagined it powered the train.
Stepping off the escalator, she experienced a sense of emotional déjà-vu that left her rattled, though not surprised. This had been her route to work the summer she’d first met Mia. The sense memory of the location put her back there like it was yesterday. As commuters rushed past her, Camille took a moment for the highlight reel to play out and was gratified to feel only nostalgia rather than longing or regret. She was relieved. The trifecta of time, distance, and therapy had healed her broken heart. Mia was a defining relationship in Camille’s life, but she no longer defined Camille.
The round lights lining the tracks began to blink, alerting those on the platform to an incoming train. Camille could hear the rumbling through the tunnel and moved with the crowd to position herself for boarding. The lights started blinking more quickly and the train barreled into view, the brakes squeaking in protest as the driver brought the cars to a halt. The doors opened, revealing a wall of people packed together like a bamboo forest. They locked eyes with the commuters on the platform. Camille felt the challenge in the air and rose to meet it.
One stop later, she exited the train at Dupont Circle and headed toward the behemoth escalator up to the street. Camille remembered that it had two hundred and ninety-one steps. The Woodley Park Station had an even higher stair count at three hundred and forty-two. She’d memorized the numbers in seventh grade, when her brain must have had a special adhesive. Also committed to memory were all her middle school friends’ birthdays and the lyrics to Salt-N-Pepa’s Very Necessary album.
Perhaps it was the spring air or being back in the city of her youth or maybe it was that “Shoop” had begun playing in her head, but Camille felt a surge of hope. Martina seemed like a good fit. Physical therapy would help Joe Robbins get back to scooping his own litter boxes very soon. Camille could go back to San Francisco with a clear conscious and a better relationship with her father.
She stepped onto the inside escalator and began walking up the moving staircase. “Shoop” pounded on her internal soundtrack. She nodded her head to the beat of the song as the lyrics played in her head. Camille had sung it in high school to psyche herself up before tennis matches. The first line always got her going.
Here I go! Here I go! Here I go, again!
Nodding to the beat, she continued her personal affirmations. There was every reason to feel good about herself. At thirty-five, she was poised to make partner in one of the country’s top law firms. She owned a Victorian townhouse in San Francisco. She had her health, Cory to gossip with, a few investments and Val, a very nice woman who asked nothing of her beyond an occasional, very satisfying fuck.
It was the perfect arrangement. Val rented the basement apartment next door and traveled extensively. Every six weeks or so, she’d show up on Camille’s doorstep with a bottle of pinot noir and a big, fat joint. Camille enjoyed the sweet release elicited from the talented fingers of her enigmatic neighbor but didn’t worry if Val would remember her birthday. In fact, Val couldn’t remember her birthday, because Camille had never told her the date.
Her quads began to burn as she pushed herself to continue the ascent. Dredging up more lyrics to the song, she lifted her legs to the beat.
I like what you do, when you do the voodoo that you do so well. Make me wanna Shoop!
She worked her body harder, not looking up for fear that if she saw the remaining distance, she’d get psyched-out and stop.
Camille didn’t realize she was singing out loud, until she heard the words echoing down from above. Confused, she looked up into the smiling eyes of a woman moving toward her on the downward escalator. A very pretty woman who’d also chosen to walk the steps. A woman who was looking directly into Camille’s eyes and singing.
Welcome to the Team
The managing partner personally escorted Camille to her temporary office at Walker and Jenkins. It was an excellent sign. The courtesy went well beyond Steve Benson’s prescribed duties and sent Camille a clear message. The long-awaited partnership was on track. The venerable lion of the firm did not get out from behind his massive desk for just anyone. Camille was now considered a peer and thus deserving of peer treatment.
“How’s the coffee?” he asked, squinting affably down at her. Camille smiled back noticing that what hair he had left was wrapped around his head like Caesar’s crown.
“Good,” she lied and pretended to sip the scalding rocket fuel.
“Best beans in the city,” he informed her. She recognized the tone of a zealot and was careful not to offer an opinion. Sharing his special brew with her, as noxious as she found it, was another excellent sign. She was sure now that the partnership was a lock. Gliding down the hallway, Camille felt almost weightless. She allowed it to sink in.
Making partner at a major law firm was a huge accomplishment. Camille’s value lay in being a worker bee, her success attributable to long, hard hours and zero mistakes. It made for a boring life, but the endless slog of late nights and weekend work was about to pay off. Her mother would have been beyond proud. To become an equity partner, Camille would need to attract clients of her own, become a rainmaker. But that was the next rung on the ladder. Today she would enjoy her success.
“Congratulations on the Frackit dismissal,” Benson said amiably. “I understand you’re doing great work in California. Bobby Fry says you go the extra mile for the client. That’s fantastic, Camille, fantastic. I had to remind Bobby that we trained you. I think he’s worried we’ll lure you back.”
“Thanks, Steve,” Camille said sincerely. The compliment meant a great deal. She had no desire to relocate to DC but it was nice to be considered. “But I’m only here a couple weeks to look after my dad.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s much better. Thanks for loaning me the office.”
“It’s no problem.” Benson stopped at a heavy wooden door at the end of the hallway, and pulled out a key card. “Beverly’s out on maternity leave for the next six weeks. You got lucky. She’s got the best office in the building. We’re all very jealous.” He opened the door and stood back for Camille to enter.
The first thing she noticed was the light. Looking over Massachusetts Avenue, the large corner office caught the morning sun. Camille could easily imagine why the other attorneys might be envious. Bright rays dropped in through a bay window on the east side, bouncing light across the room and washing everything in warmth. The effect was dazzling. Plaster on the frescoed ceiling looked white as bone. The beveled mirror above the mantel sparkled like water.
“This is stunning.” Camille walked farther into the office, taking in the architectural details. The building was older than her townhouse, but it had the same feeling of permanence, of something built to last.
“The light is certainly beautiful,” Benson replied dryly.
Camille wondered at his tone. It wasn’t until she looked around a bit more that she began to understand. Oh, dear. Beverly Stanley liked baseball. She liked baseball a lot. The Washington Nationals in particular. Camille spun in a circle to take it all in. There was enough Nats swag in the room to host a pop-up sale.
“Beverly is a Nats fan,” she said finally, causing Benson to laugh out loud. His tall frame shook with genuine mirth.
“They told me you were quick.” He winked at Camille, who continued to gawk.
Every flat surface in the room was covered in Washington Nationals paraphernalia. It looked like an MLB gift shop. In addition to the mini ball caps and bobbleheads there were clocks and cups, snow globes and ashtrays. Did people even smoke anymore?
Rows of bobbleheads lined the two main levels of the fireplace’s intricately carved mahogany mantel. On a higher tier, ceramic garden gnomes in Nationals uniforms stood stalwartly out of place in front of the hand-painted tiles. A giant eagle was propped against the hearth, along with what looked to Camille to be stuffed-animal US Presidents. Only Teddy Roosevelt looked happy, his face beaming in the spotlight. The rest suffered silently. Camille did not make eye contact with Lincoln, lest she embarrass them both.
“I’ll leave you to start your day,” Benson said, interrupting her thoughts.
“Okay, Steve. Thanks for walking me down.” She wanted him to know the gesture had not gone unnoticed.
He gave her his politician’s smile. “Not a problem.”
The door closed and Camille put her laptop bag down on top of the Washington Nationals desk blotter. A brass plate next to the matching pen set identified the owner as Beverly Stanley, Nationals Fanatic. At least she was owning it.
Camille chided herself for being snarky. If anything, Beverly Stanley deserved her sympathy. Hadn’t Camille seen firsthand how an interest could grow into a hobby and how a hobby could turn into an obsession?
Camille’s mother had collected so many ornamental frogs that her father had special shelves built in the basement. By the time she’d died there’d been more than four hundred. Porcelain frogs, jade frogs, crystal frogs, carved wooden frogs, frogs made of dried pasta which Camille had glued together in elementary school. Like a biblical plague, they’d begun attaching themselves to Mary Robbins in early life, and by the time Camille was born, they’d colonized the entire house. Individually they were whimsical and fun. Taken together they were madness. Amphibian delirium.
Wow, Camille hadn’t thought about the frogs in a long time. As far as she knew, they were still in the basement, awaiting the estate sale that would be their ultimate destiny.
Beverly Stanley, Nationals Fanatic, was at defcon-frog with the Washington Nationals. But professionally, it didn’t seem to have hindered her success. Camille looked around the impressive corner office and made a mental note to check out a few games once her dad was feeling better.
There was a light tapping on the door and Camille’s gut tightened. She hoped it wasn’t Mia—not so soon. She’d worried that she might have to see her former lover eventually, but not now. Not when the day was going so well.
The knock sounded again, this time more insistent. Camille straightened her skirt and braced herself for the confrontation. A feeling of dread churned in her stomach next to Benson’s high-octane coffee. Before she reached the door, it cracked open, revealing a far more welcome sight.
“Jenna the Antenna,” Camille whispered reverently. Reaching out, she pulled a tiny woman through the doorway into an automatic hug. Detecting the familiar scents of patchouli and Juicy Fruit gum, she couldn’t help but smile.
“Thank God you’re here.”
Jenna whipped her head from side to side, as if scanning the room for insurgents. Impulsively, Camille hugged her again. Closing the office door, she leaned against it and crossed her arms. “So, I hear you’re a stuffy old lawyer now.”
Jenna’s oversized eyes widened even further with delight, but she nodded without smiling.
“And I hear you’re a soon-to-be asshole partner.”
Camille grinned, and they both said “Congratulations” at exactly the same time, and then “Jinx!”
Falling into chairs, they laughed at the improbability of the situation. Camille and Jenna had started on Mia’s team on the same day, Camille as an associate attorney and Jenna as a paralegal and research assistant. Despite Jenna’s subordinate position, a camaraderie had blossomed between the two young women. They’d hit it off immediately, sharing a mutual awe of Mia and an obsession with the giant sushi toro roll at the restaurant across the street.
Over time their connection had deepened and they’d become true confidantes. Jenna had been the only other person at the firm to know about Camille’s affair with Mia. Camille had been a bridesmaid at Jenna’s wedding. She’d traveled to the Bahamas with a plane full of Jenna’s crazy relatives and toasted her friend and her new wife under a beautiful Caribbean sky.
They’d kept in touch through social media, so Camille was up on Jenna’s life. She knew she and her wife Melissa had just moved outside the city to a house in the trendy northern Virginia neighborhood of Del Ray, and that they had a puppy. But Camille and Jenna hadn’t had an intimate talk in years. Their personal contact had dwindled to birthday texts and likes on Instagram. Camille felt a stab of regret.
“So, how hard do you suck?” Jenna asked as if reading her mind.
“Jenna, I’m…” Camille began but her friend cut her off.
“A lazy bitch, who forgot all about the person who held her hair back when she puked up Jägermeister behind the dumpster at the 9:30 Club?” Jenna finished the sentence. Despite her words, her eyes flashed with the perfect combination of love and mischief. Camille felt a wave of nostalgia wash over her. How had she lost contact with Jenna?
“Yes, in fact, I am that lazy bitch,” Camille agreed, and then leaned back in her chair to regard her old friend. It seemed miraculous, but their intimacy was instantly restored. As if just yesterday they’d shared a pitcher of margaritas at Lauriol Plaza.
“I thought that was you,” Jenna replied, brown ringlets bouncing around her shoulders.
“And you, my dear,” Camille said, “are a shameless whore who came to San Francisco, posted photos of yourself on social media and did not call me.”
“It was my cousin’s wedding!”
“You were shameless.”
“You were lazy.”
“Well, you look stunning.” Jenna fluttered a hand in Camille’s direction. “You’re all shiny, very California.”
Camille blushed, but accepted the compliment with grace. She knew she looked different. Part of it was relentless Pilates, but the other part was just as Jenna had said. It was California. There was something about being in a place where everyone took care of themselves that had made her want to raise her game. The remedies had been pretty basic. She’d taken up exercise and stopped eating red meat and sugar. Camille had begun treating her own animal body as she would a beloved pet, and it showed. The margarita fat she’d acquired in college and law school had melted away like a redundant second skin. The body that had emerged was lithe and spare, angular in places where there’d been curves. But that wasn’t all. She’d let her hair grow out of the preppy bob Mia had preferred. It now brushed past her shoulders. Today, the dark blond mass was piled on top of her head, secured in place with a tortoiseshell clip.
“And you look…” Camille considered the best adjective to describe Jenna’s appearance. Camille had always thought her friend looked like the 1920’s silent film actress Clara Bow. Her curly brown ringlets offset luminous brown eyes and a pouty little mouth. She was simply adorable. Jenna looked at her expectantly.
“I think you look exactly the same.”
“The same? I just said you were stunning!”
“Well, you were stunning five years ago.”
“True.” Jenna rubbed her palms together. “Okay, let’s spill some tea.”
“What?” Camille looked at Jenna’s empty hands. “We can’t make a mess in here. I only have the office on loan. I would hate to break anything.”
“That would be a travesty.” Jenna picked up a Washington Nationals snow globe and gave it a vigorous shake. Red stars dropped over the tiny baseball player inside. “But I’m not talking about a Boston Tea Party, Camille. A spill-the-tea party is about gossip.”
Camille shook her head. Her friend was not called Jenna the Antenna just because the words rhymed. The woman did not miss a trick. Not only did she have the best gaydar Camille had ever seen, but her nose for news was uncanny. She’d been an excellent research assistant before going back to law school.
“Do you have something you want to tell me?”
“There may be something of interest.”
“Is it about Mia?”
“Do I want to know?”
“I don’t know, Cam-o-flage. You tell me?”
Camille cringed at the old nickname. It had been Jenna’s gentle joke about the clandestine nature of Camille’s relationship with Mia. She had also called her Double-O-Robbins, with the emphasis always on the O.
“Well forewarned is forearmed, and all that.”
“Am I going into battle?”
“It is Mia we’re talking about.”
Camille closed her eyes. “Good point.”
A loud knock interrupted their conversation and Camille started. Jenna was quick to reassure her. “Don’t worry, girl. The dragon lady is not in the office today.”
Camille blushed as relief flooded her body like a dose of Xanax. Though secure that Mia no longer had the power to control her, she was still apprehensive about seeing her again.
The knock sounded a second time, and Steve Benson ducked his head through the door. If he was surprised to find Jenna, he didn’t show it. A natural politician, he acknowledged her warmly, then asked her about her cases, Melissa, and even the new house in Del Ray. Niceties over, he turned to Camille.
“Do you have a sec?”
There was only one answer to his question. “Sure.”
He turned to Jenna. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”
“Nothing that won’t keep.” Jenna rose from the chair, and smirking at Camille, sashayed out. Stifling an eye roll, Camille focused her attention on the managing partner. Benson had picked up a baseball encased in a protective plastic shell and was studying it under an official Nats desk lamp. She watched him turn the ball from side to side, reading the signatures scratched into the surface, and wondered what this was about. The man had not come back down here to look at old baseballs.
“I’d like you to sit in on a meeting.” For the first time, Camille noticed he had a folder tucked under his arm.
“I would have mentioned it earlier, but I just got the file myself.”
“That’s all right.” Trying not to eye the folder, Camille put on her professional visage. A meeting could mean anything—a gathering of associates, office staff debating the best coffeemaker or even something regarding a client. She waited for Benson to elaborate.
“There’s been an intellectual property suit filed against Gowear.”
“Really?” Camille recognized the name of Mia’s largest client. The outdoor outfitting company had made its name with manufacturing of environmentally friendly clothing and gear. Gowear retained Walker and Jenkins to address a myriad of corporate legal issues. It would be normal for Camille to be brought in on an employment case, but IP was not her area of expertise. “I hadn’t heard.”
Benson replaced the ball on its pedestal and turned to face her. “It hasn’t hit the press yet.”
“Who’s making the claim?”
“The fashion icon from the sixties?”
Benson nodded. “Gowear altered a protected image of her and used it on a promotional T-shirt. Her people want licensing fees plus damages.”
“Sounds pretty cut-and-dried.”
“Yeah but Gowear wants to keep it out of the press.”
“That will be interesting.”
“I’m glad you think so.” Benson held out the folder. “Welcome to the team.”