You don't know a woman
till you've met her in court.
~ Norman Mailer
"It's a great day for a divorce." Lauren took a quick look around to see if anyone had heard her talking to herself before she hurried up the courthouse steps. If everything went according to plan, she would walk out of this building a free woman. She'd sleep a lot better and breathe a lot easier minus the hundred and eighty pounds of man meat she'd been lugging around for far too long.
A blessed blast of cool air billowed from the building when she hauled open the plate glass door. Although it was a few days into September, the hot, humid temps that plagued Sterling through the lazy months of summer were stubbornly hanging on. She lifted her hand in greeting to Rusty as he tucked the floor polisher into the janitorial closet; she nodded to colleagues she met in the hallway. The reverberation of her high heels clicking against the marble floor had her smiling. It was a satisfying sound—one she'd heard nearly every workday since she'd passed the Maryland Bar and ordered the door plaque that read Lauren E. Hunkavic, Attorney At Law.
Of course, it was Flynn now. The name change was about the only good thing that had come from her marriage. Not that she wasn't proud of her maiden name. Her Czechoslovakian great-grandparents had risked everything, left everyone they loved in search of a new life across the ocean. But kids were mean. And mercilessly unrelenting. Every Halloween she had been saddled with Hunk-a-trick. The summer she went through a chubby stage, it had been Hunk-a-thick. She lost the weight and they'd come up with Hunk-a-stick. She hadn't gone on a single Saturday movie outing with friends that she hadn't heard Hunk-a-flick at least once. Missing a couple of days of school turned her into Hunk-a-sick. Although the teasing during her adolescence had been mostly innocuous, it had been endless and irritating as the hell. Her parents and teachers alike had explained that the kids were simply goading her into reacting. "They're paying for a ticket," her dad had told her, "but you don't have to put on a show." High school seemed to mature most of her peers, but there had been a moron or two who just seemed to get crueler and nastier in their twisting of her last name.
Turning the corner, she wasn't surprised to see her father sitting on the bench near the elevator. His beat up Dodge Ram had been parked on West Main Street directly in front of the courthouse steps. He must have arrived at daybreak to bag the prime spot. Even though she was ten minutes early for their court appointment—the first slot of the day—Lauren had been forced to use the side lot.
She tried to gauge her father's mood as she got closer. If Eeyore ever took sick in the 100 Acre Wood, Lew Hunkavic would be the perfect stand-in for the pessimistic Equus asinus.
"Hey there, Dad. You look good this morning. All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You must have slept well."
Asking her dad how he was feeling held too great a possibility of opening a huge can of big, fat blood worms. Instead, she made a habit of making the most positive assessment possible.
"My hair hurts." He raked his stubby fingers through the thatch of silver covering his scalp, tilting his head and wincing as he did so. "Been hurting for days. You'da known about it if you'da called."
"Dad, we had dinner on Sunday," she reminded him lightly. "It's only Wednesday."
"I know what day of the week it is," he groused.
She punched the elevator call button. "Come the weekend, you won't have to worry about me calling you, will you?" A slight movement had her eyes darting to his face. She'd thought she'd seen his mouth quirk, but surely she was mistaken. He had to be as dismayed about these circumstances as she.
"Besides that," she continued, "your hair can't hurt."
He rose from the bench, the rubber tip of his cane squeaking on the polished stone floor.
"Hair is made up of nothing but dead cells, Dad. No nerve endings, no pain."
He glowered, his gray-green eyes narrowing on her, just as the elevator dinged, the up arrow lit and the doors slid open. "It's carbunculosis."
They stepped inside and Lauren touched the button that would take them to the third floor.
"An infection of the scalp. I researched it at that website I told you about. All Natural Health dot org."
The internet. It was both a blessing and a bane. A person could find information about anything there. Anything.
Most people spent their golden years traveling the country, or engrossed in some well-loved hobby, or immersed in great works of literature. Not her seventy-year-old dad. Oh, no. He spent his days hunched over a keyboard, trolling the Web for medical maladies with which to label every ache and pain he experienced.
Softly, she warned, "Dad, it wouldn't hurt to get a professional opinion."
He straightened. "You telling me my scalp isn't sore?"
"I'm not saying that at all." Suddenly, Lauren realized she'd better back peddle a bit. She needed her dad in good spirits this morning. Well, as good as his spirits could be, anyway.
The doors slid open and they exited the elevator.
"I have no doubt you're hurting," she told him. "I can see by the look on your face. Maybe you should go see Dr. Amos."
"Charlie Amos is a dimwit."
"Dad, you and Dr. Amos have been friends for—"
"I don't need a doctor, Lauren. I bought myself some tea tree oil. A few drops in my shampoo should take care of the problem."
"Tea tree oil, huh?" She stifled the sigh building at the base of her diaphragm. "Where'd you hear about that? Find A Cure dot com?" Before he could respond, she said, "Dad, you need to forgive Doc."
"Bless my butt and call me Betty. The man couldn't diagnose a simple rash, Lauren." Lew shook his head in disgust. "Dry skin, my ass. I knew I had a problem, and I found a cure, too. That old quack can't even turn on a computer, let alone do a Google search. He's way behind the times. How can he ever expect to keep up with advances in health care?"
Medical journals, maybe? Professional conferences? Refresher courses? But Lauren zipped her lip.
The fact was that the good doctor had the gall to warn her father not to take everything he read on the Net as gospel truth. That had been four months ago, and since then her dad had refused to acknowledge Dr. Amos existed.
They arrived at the double doors of the courtroom, and Lauren spun to face her father.
"Okay, Dad—" she lifted her free hand, palm up "—can we set this aside for now? This is very important to me."
The deep sigh he emitted could have been his reluctance to veer off the topic of his latest infirmity, or it could have been his reaction to the court petition she'd filed. Either way, she'd felt it best to ignore his gloom.
"We've gone over what the judge might ask you, right?" She dipped her chin, arched her brows, straightening the collar of his royal blue dress shirt. "You remember how to respond, yes?"
"Lauren, I'm not a four year old."
She gave him a small smile, smoothing the fabric of his shirt. "Sorry, Dad."
Her attaché thumped against the door of courtroom number three as she grabbed the handle. The room was empty and quiet as they made their way up the center aisle and took seats at the plaintiff's table. Lauren snapped open her soft leather case and pulled out the file containing her divorce papers.
Papers that were missing a vital signature. And it wasn't hers.
She spent a few minutes studying her notes and mulling over all the arguments and rebuttals that might arise. The court clerk entered from one of the two doors located behind the judge's bench, perused the room and then ducked back inside the office.
"The judge must be ready to start," Lauren told her father, glancing at her watch. One minute before nine. "It's just like Greg to be late. Never takes a single thing seriously." Dipping her gaze to her notes again, she murmured, "He's probably rescuing some poor, decrepit soul out there somewhere." If there was a poor, decrepit soul within a hundred mile radius of Sterling Greg would find it, that was certain.
A few minutes later, the door at the main entrance to the courtroom swung open and Greg waltzed in. Lauren forced herself not to turn around, keeping her eyes glued to the documents in front of her. But she could see his loose, breezy stride in her mind's eye. And she could easily imagine his attire: battered, steel-toed Wolverines, worn blue jeans and t-shirt. If he'd decided to dress up for the occasion, he might have gone all out and donned a polo shirt.
With her arm firmly twisted behind her back, she'd have admitted the fact that, when they'd first met Greg's blue-collar style had appealed to her. He was different from the men she'd dated—the studious collegians that had made up her social circle while she'd earned her law degree.
Soft, worn denim had the ability to hug a man's rear like no other fabric. And the physical nature of Greg's work tightened his glutes to pinch-tempting firmness. The memory had heat flushing Lauren's face.
She'd grown adept at ignoring her husband altogether. The practice had kept her sane for months now. But to force those inappropriate images from her brain, she lifted her gaze to the empty court clerk's desk and snipped, "It's good that some people finally decided to show up."
"Good morning to you, too, Lauren."
He stood next to her, close enough that the familiar scent of him—bath soap and sunshine—forced the muscles of her belly to tense involuntarily. She felt him move away, heard him take a seat at the defendant's table, and that's when she stole a glance. His skin was tanned to a deep golden olive, his black-as-night hair slicked back from his morning shower, his even blacker eyes staring directly at her. She redirected her gaze as casually as possible.
"How you doing, Lew?" Greg asked her father.
"Got carbunculosis. My hair is damn sore."
"That's a shame."
Lauren couldn't quite keep from rolling her eyes at the sympathy in Greg's tone. Like he really cared. But then she sobered because she knew he truly did. About her dad, at least. Ever since she'd introduced the two men, they'd been fast friends. Of all the gripes she had against Greg, his treatment of her father would never be one of them.
"You running a fever?" Greg scooted his chair a bit as he spoke.
"Nah." Lew shook his head. "Nothing like that. I'm sure adding a little anti-bacterial oil to my shampoo will fix me right up."
As appreciative as she'd always been of Greg's concern for and patience with her dad, she was just too annoyed with the man right now to show it. She picked up her file folder and legal pad and tapped them smartly on the table. "I see you came prepared, as usual."
No documents. No notepad. Not even a carpenter's pencil tucked behind his ear. Looks as though he'd given today's court appearance as much attention as the divorce petition she'd served him with.
She sensed rather than saw his mouth draw into a slow smile.
Softly, he replied, "Hey, I'm here, aren't I?"
Before she could offer a biting retort, the court clerk appeared.
"All rise," the woman said, just as Judge Brooks opened the door of his office. "Court is now in session. The Honorable Matthew Brooks presiding."
A tall man in his sixties, Judge Brooks had salt and pepper hair and ruddy cheeks. He was one of three judges in Sterling, which meant he presided over a third of the legal proceedings that filtered through the courthouse and that he and Lauren saw each other often. She knew him to be smart and open-minded and fair. He slipped into his black leather chair, set down the papers he was carrying and smiled at each of them in turn.
"Mrs. Flynn, I've read your complaint," the judge said, "and from what I can see here, you don't really have a legal leg to stand on. But I agreed to meet with all parties concerned today because I'm sure you intend to try to change my mind."
Ready for a fight, Lauren stood. "Judge, if you'll allow me to explain. It's been a full year since I—"
Judge Brooks lifted a hand. "Hold on, Counselor. I'm not finished."
She sat down, murmuring a quick, "Pardon me."
The man propped his elbows on the desk, fisted his hands and focused on Lauren. "Your frustration is made quite clear in your complaint. But you know the law, Mrs. Flynn." He stared at the documents in front of him then looked up at her again. "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"
She knew Matthew Brooks' 'fatherly lecture' tone when she heard it. But she was willing to suffer through a mild scolding for wasting the court's time if it meant she'd have a chance to argue her grievance in the end. And he was too fair not to hear her out.
"I don't mind at all, Judge," she said.
The clerk stood, but the judge shook his head. "There'll be no swearing in today. We're just chatting this morning. This meeting has about as much legal binding as if we were sitting across the street at Rose's Diner." He looked at Lauren and asked, "I read that you and Gregory Flynn have been living separately and apart without cohabitation for twelve months. But what I want to know is this; did your husband commit adultery?"
"No, Your Honor," she said.
"Did he desert you?"
"No. I was the one who asked him to leave."
"Was he convicted of a crime?"
Does costing me every last nickel of savings count as a crime? she wanted to rail. Does breaking my heart count? Does making me cry until I puked count? How about disillusioning me? Or pissing me off beyond all reason? None of those charges being convictable offenses, all she curtly replied was, "No, he wasn't."
"Is Gregory Flynn insane?"
She went still and then glanced over at the man in question, seeing his dark eyes glitter, and then he gave her one of those devil-may-care smiles of his. Her heart fluttered at the same instant that her ire flared. Damn, but the man irritated her. She couldn't believe that not so long ago she'd found that grin highly arousing. Automatically, her litigation training kicked in and she refrained from glaring at him. Turning to Judge Brooks once again, she hesitated a few long seconds before answering, "No. Not in any certifiable way, that is."
Ignoring her quip, the judge queried, "Has he abused you?"
That all depended on a person's definition of abuse. He'd abused her bank account; he'd battered her heart; he'd pummeled to death her idea of a good and solid man-woman relationship. Lauren thought she just might be able to argue this point and win, but keeping her focus on the goal of completely severing all ties to Greg here, now, today, she forced herself to answer, "He hasn't."
"And we wouldn't be here at all," the judge said quietly, "if this separation were voluntary. Isn't that true, Mrs. Flynn?"
The day she had told Greg he had to pack his things and leave she'd never been angrier in her life. He'd argued with her that they could work things out, but she'd stood firm. If she'd been raised just a tad differently, she'd have surrendered to her fury that day; she'd have screamed bloody murder and tossed his clothes out on the front lawn; she'd have--
Now was not the time to get lost in pleasant daydreams.
"According to Maryland law, if the separation were voluntary, the divorce would be final after twelve months." Judge Brooks lowered his clasped hands and leaned forward. "As I said before, Mrs. Flynn, I understand that you're frustrated. You've been waiting a year for your husband to agree to a divorce. That's a long time. It's logical, even reasonable, that you'd want to get on with your life. However, I must remind you that since this is an involuntary separation, and that Mr. Flynn has every legal right to wait the full two years allowed by law before signing those papers."
Lauren popped up from her seat. "But there's no need to wait, your Honor. There is absolutely, positively no possibility of reconciliation. None. Nada." She swiped her flattened palm through the air. "Zip."
Flipping open her file, she glanced at her notes. Going over things in an orderly manner was crucial. "I brought my father as a fact witness. He'll be happy to testify that Greg and I aren't getting back together."
"Mrs. Flynn, sit down," the Judge said quietly. "Relax. Whether or not you'll be getting back together doesn't matter. The law states—"
"I know what the law states." Judge Brooks cast her a narrowed-eyed warning and she clamped her lips shut. She lowered herself onto her seat as he'd ordered, muttering, "I'm sorry I interrupted you. It won't happen again."
The judge studied her a moment and then turned his resigned gaze to her father. "Mr. Hunkavic?"
"Yes, sir." Her dad sat up straighter, his fingers curled on the knob of his cane. "That's me. Lewis Ivan Hunkavic."
"Do you feel, Mr. Hunkavic, that your daughter and son-in-law have any chance of working out their differences?"
"Well, your Honor, sir."
The odd hitch in her dad's tone had Lauren turning toward him. He combed his fingers through his hair, his bushy brows pulling together.
"My first concern is Lauren's happiness, of course," Lew began. He paused, then added, "I know what she wants me to say to you. She's yammered at me about it numerous times."
Her lips parted and she sucked in a silent gasp.
"You're not sworn in, Mr. Hunkavic," Judge Brooks explained, "but that doesn't mean I wouldn't appreciate complete honesty here."
She watched her dad hesitate a moment, then he did the most peculiar thing. He reached down with his free hand, grasped the arm of his chair and scooted it the merest fraction of an inch—away from her.
"Sir, I have to admit," he said, his gaze trained on the judge, "my daughter tends to be a tad stubborn. She inherited that trait from her mother."
The judge smiled just as Lew quietly added, "God rest her soul."
"Excuse me for butting in, Judge." Lauren stood again, her voice loud and clear. "But I think my father's about to become a hostile witness."
"Mrs. Flynn, you promised you wouldn't interrupt. And might I remind you that you requested this meeting? This is an informal gathering." As if confirming the remark, Judge Brooks reached over and slid the gavel a few inches to his right. "We're just chatting here. That's all we're doing."
Lauren sat again, casting her father a withering look even though she knew it would have no effect on the old coot whatsoever. There were times when Lew Hunkavic could be as infuriating as her husband, and she could feel in her bones that this was surely going to be one of them.
"You were saying, Mr. Hunkavic?" Judge Brooks said.
Lew tapped his cane silently against the floor twice. "Sir, I believe my daughter is very angry with Greg. With good reason, I'll give her that. He's made a few mistakes over the past couple of years." He leaned forward, softening his voice even further. "But, personally, I don't think money is a good reason to end a marriage."
Again, Lauren sucked in a sharp breath. "Dad! There's more to this than money. You know that."
She faced forward, ignoring the men on either side of her. "Your Honor, there is no possibility of reconciliation for Gregory Flynn and myself. I can guarantee this. It takes two to tango, and not only am I unwilling to dance, I can no longer hear the music." Stiffly, she added, "The fact that I had to sell my tap shoes to pay my husband's debt is only one reason our marriage fell apart."
Beside her, Lew murmured, "Did you ever think that was part of the problem between you and Greg? You insisted on tangoing in tap shoes?"
Lauren took no notice of her father's questions, focusing only on making her point. "Judge Brooks, I emptied my savings and pension funds in order to pay Greg's debts. He's cost me nearly sixty thousand dollars. My father will be moving in with me at the end of the week because I can no longer afford to pay his rent and save for my retirement at the same time."
"Thanks for telling the world I'm a kept man," her dad said.
"I'm not keeping you, Dad. I'm helping you. There's a big difference." She glanced over at Greg and saw him staring straight ahead, the muscle near his temple so tense it looked painful. His embarrassment didn't concern her. She wanted his signature on those papers, damn it.
"Judge," she continued, "it will take me years to recoup my losses. Every time I sit down to pay bills and realize that I have to trim my budget even further due to Greg's poor financial planning, his stupid business choices, I get sick to my stomach. My nausea only increases when I remember how he lied. He betrayed my trust. I want this over with. Once and for all and forever." She snapped her jaw shut and offered Judge Brooks a look of unwavering determination.
The elderly man in the formidable black robe returned her gaze, and she worried that he might disappoint her. But then he shook his head ever so slightly and turned to Greg.
And that's when Lauren could almost taste victory.
"Mr. Flynn," Judge Brooks said softly, "do you mind if I ask you why you're dragging your heels on this thing?"
Lauren watched Greg ponder the question for a moment.
Finally, he lifted his burly shoulders a fraction, raised one calloused hand, palm up, and said, "Pride, I guess."
The judge tapped his fingertips soundlessly on his desktop. "Your answer surprises me. I was expecting to hear something altogether different. Can you help me understand what you mean?"
A tall, solid man used to handling a miter saw or climbing around on roofing trusses, Greg looked uncomfortable in the hard-angled, wooden chair. However, it could have been the question he found discomfiting.
"I don't like the idea of leaving things like this."
When he hesitated, the judge coaxed, "What do you mean, Mr. Flynn? Leave things like what?"
Greg cleared his throat and shifted his weight in the chair. "I, uh, I don't like the idea of walking away from Lauren while things are. . .well, such a mess. If she'd accept my calls, or talk to me when she sees me on the street, I could have saved us from having to come here today. I could have expressed my feelings to her. Explained my plan. I was hoping to work things out." He splayed his hands on the tabletop. "Not that I think we'll get back together or anything like that, Judge. Lauren's made that clear enough." He pondered a moment, scrubbing at his jaw. "But I wanted to work out the business end of things. It would be humiliating for me to agree to divorce my wife while I still owe her so much money. You're a man, I'm sure you can understand that."
Lauren blinked. "But you don't owe me any money." Confusion weakened her tone. She looked at the judge and firmly stated, "He doesn't owe me any money."
"That's what I tried to tell him," Lew said under his breath.
"Oh, but I do." The resolve in Greg's words was as strong as hers and it drew her attention. He faced her, had turned his entire body to address her as if she were the only person in the room. "You said it yourself, Lauren. Nearly sixty thousand dollars."
"But, Greg, my name was on the business." Boy, had that been a mistake. But love had a way of making a person as blind as a mole rat. "That was my share of the debt when the store went under."
"That was my debt, Lauren. Not yours."
The intensity of his onyx eyes threatened to suck her in, swallow her whole. This was exactly why she'd turned and walked in the opposite direction whenever she'd spied him in the Super G or at the County Bank. She couldn't talk to the man without feeling she might come apart at the seams.
"Your Honor—" She concentrated on the man in the black robe—the one person who had some semblance of a chance of tipping the balance and winning her freedom. "Will you please explain the law to him? Make him see that he does not owe me any money?"
Judge Brooks' expression had lightened significantly as Greg had talked. "You have to admit, Mrs. Flynn, that your husband's motives are genuine. He's looking out for your best interest." He shrugged. "I'd even go so far as to say Mr. Flynn is being downright chivalrous in the matter."
Lauren frowned. "No disrespect intended, but chivalry died along with King Arthur."
"There you go again," Lew grumbled, "tangoing in tap shoes."
Glancing over her shoulder, she said, "That makes absolutely no sense. Can you sit there quietly? If you refuse to help my case, Dad, the least you can do is not hurt it." He looked wounded, but her determination was building and she didn't want to lose the momentum. She swung her gaze to the judge. "I don't want Mr. Flynn's money. I want his signature. On these documents." She waved the papers in the air. "I don't want to wait another year for my divorce. I need to—"
"All right, already!" Greg smacked the tabletop and stood, the legs of his chair grating against the floor. "If it's that important to you, Lauren, I'll sign the papers."
Yes! This was what she'd been hoping for. That Greg would finally understand her vexation and agree to dissolve their marriage, once and for all.
She snatched up her Montblanc and set the petition in front of Greg with rocket speed. His rough fingertips grazed the back of her hand when he reached for the ink pen; heated electricity skittered across her skin forcing her to suppress a shiver. He showed no sign of noticing.
"You should read them before signing," she murmured, overwhelmed with satisfaction as she watched him scrawl his name on the line.
He set down the pen, his severe gaze raking her face. "Thanks for the advice, Counselor."
Ignoring his disgruntled tone, Lauren picked up documents. "Judge Brooks, may I approach the bench? If you sign these now, it will expedite the process even further."
"Hold up a minute, Mrs. Flynn." The judge opened the manila file sitting on his desk. "This changes everything. We have property to take care of. We might as well do it now since we're all present."
She paused, her heart fluttering. "I beg your pardon, Judge, but there's nothing to divvy up. I bought the house before we married. Greg's name was never on the deed." Lauren couldn't count the number of times she'd thanked the heavens for that bit of saving grace. "All the inventory was liquidated and the store was sold, and it took everything to pay the business debts. I kept my car. He kept his truck. And I agreed he should keep his tools so he could earn a living." She straightened the documents in her hands, tapped them on the table. "So you can see, there's nothing else left to split."
"Oh, Mrs. Flynn," the judge almost sang the words while he shuffled through the papers in front of him, "now there's where you're wrong."