Practice Makes Perfect - By Julie James


THE ALARM CLOCK went off at 5:30 a.m.

Payton Kendall lifted a sleepy hand to her nightstand and fumbled around to silence the god-awful beeping. She lay there, snuggled in amongst her cozy down pillows, blinking, rousing. Allowing herself these first, and last, few seconds of the day that she could call her own. Then—suddenly remembering—she jumped out of bed.

Today was the day.

Payton had a plan for this morning—she had set her alarm to wake her a half hour earlier than usual. There was a purpose for this: she had observed his daily routine and guessed that he got to the office every morning by 7:00 a.m. He liked being the first one in the office, she knew. On this morning, however, she would be there when he got in. Waiting.

In her mind she had it all worked out—she would act casual. She would be in her office, and when she heard him walk in, she would just “happen” to stroll by to get something from the printer. “Good morning,” she would say with a smile. And without her having to say anything else, he would know exactly what that smile meant.

He’d be wearing one of his designer suits, the ones Payton knew he had hand-tailored to fit him just so. “The man knows how to wear a suit,” she had overheard one of the secretaries say while gossiping by the coffeemaker in the fifty-third-floor break room. Payton had resisted the urge to follow up the secretary’s comment with one of her own, lest she reveal the feelings about him that she had fought to keep so carefully hidden.

Moving with purpose, Payton sped through her morning routine. How much easier it must be to be a man, she reflected not for the first time. No makeup to apply, no hair to straighten, no legs to shave. They didn’t even have to sit to pee, the lazy bastards. Just shower, shave, wham-bam, out the door in ten minutes. Although, Payton suspected, he put a little more effort into it. That perfectly imperfect, mussed-just-right hair of his certainly required product of some sort. And, from what she had personally observed, he never wore the same shirt/tie combo twice in the same month.

Not that Payton didn’t put some effort into her appearance as well. A jury consultant she had worked with during a particularly tricky gender discrimination trial had told her that jurors—both men and women—responded more favorably to female lawyers who were attractive. While Payton found this to be sadly sexist, she accepted it as a fact nonetheless and thus made it a general rule to always put her best face forward, literally, at work. Besides, she’d rather hang herself by a pinky toe than ever let him see her looking anything but her best.

The “L” ride into the office was quiet, with far fewer passengers riding this early in the morning. The city seemed to be just waking up as Payton walked along the Chicago River the three blocks to her law firm’s offices. The early morning sun glinted off the river, casting it in a soft golden glow. Payton smiled to herself as she cut through the lobby of her building; she was in that good of a mood.

Her excitement grew as the elevator rose to the fifty-third floor. Her floor. His floor. The door opened, revealing a dark office hallway. The secretaries wouldn’t be in for at least two hours, which was good. If all went as planned, she had a few things to say to him and now she would be able to speak freely, without fear of the two of them being overheard.

Payton strode with confidence down the corridor, her briefcase swinging at her side. His office was closer to the elevator bank; she would pass it en route to hers. Eight years it had been since they had moved into their respective offices across the floor from each other. She could picture perfectly the letters on the nameplate outside his office.


My, how the mere mention of that name made her pulse quicken . . .

Payton rounded the corner, grinning in anticipation as she thought about what he would say when—

She stopped cold.

His office light was on.

But—how? This couldn’t be. She had gotten up at this ridiculous hour to get in first. What about her plans, her big plans? The casual stroll by the printer, the way she was supposed to smile knowingly and say, Good morning, J.D.?

She heard a familiar rich baritone voice behind her.

“Good morning,