An Imperfect Process

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An Imperfect Process

A Circle of Friends Series #3

Previously titled: Twist of Fate

When lawyer Val Covington receives a windfall and leaves her corporate career to practice "do-gooder law," her assistant offers to come with her—if Val will look into the case of Kendra's former lover, who is on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit.

Val agrees, but she can't do it alone. She finds help in Rob Smith, her landlord, who is as capable as he is mysterious.

If justice is an imperfect process, so is falling in love. Val and Rob are drawn together as they fight to save an innocent man's life, but can they overcome their fears to build a lasting future?

An emotionally-charged story of honor, courage, and the healing power of love that readers will remember.

~Romance Reviews Today

Once again Mary Jo Putney illuminates a serious issue with skill, grace, and powerhouse storytelling... a perfect combination of heart, soul, and thoughtful drama.

~Deborah Smith, author of Sweet Hush

A Circle of Friends Series

The Burning PointThe Spiral PathAn Imperfect ProcessA Holiday Fling

Successful, harried attorney Val Covington has worked hard in a corporate law office to pay off her school loans and build some security for her future.  Then an unexpected windfall gives her the opportunity to make some changes, if she has the courage.  Warily considering the idea of opening her own practice, she visits a former church that is being remodeled into office space to see if it might be suitable.

Chapter 2

Val turned south on Old Harford Road from Northern Parkway.  Unlike nearby Harford Road, a busy through street, this older route was a quiet residential road.  The address Kate had given her was a couple of blocks down.  Turning into a cross street, she parked her car and studied the stone structure on the corner.

Petite and well-proportioned, the church was dangerously charming.  Leave it to Kate, an architect by training, to know about such an interesting possibility.

That didn’t mean the building would work for Val even if she did decide to set up her own office—a very big if.  Though small for a church, the structure would be large for a sole practitioner law firm.  Probably built in the early twentieth century, it had Gothic arched windows containing roundels of stained glass at the top.  The clear lower panels allowed lots of light in.  From here, the interior looked white and empty.

She climbed from her car and went to explore.  A “For Rent” sign in the front window looked weathered, and she wondered how long Rob Smith had been trying to find a tenant.  This was a big project for a carpenter; if he had all his money tied up in the church, he might be hurting.

Reminding herself that she shouldn’t rent an office simply to make a stranger’s life easier, she circled around behind the building.  Neat shrubs lined the foundations, and well-grown trees shaded the corner lot.  This close, she could see that the back of the structure had a second floor.  Still more space that she wouldn’t need.

Behind the church was a parking lot that might hold eight or ten cars.  A wheelchair ramp, which was good—the carpenter knew the law.  There was street parking, too, and much nicer than the claustrophobic parking garage Val used downtown.

She was touching a glossy magnolia leaf when a voice asked, “Can I help you?”

Almost jumping from her skin, she spun around to see powerfully built man in jeans and worn blue work shirt standing an arm’s length away.  His shaggy light brown hair and beard were sun-bleached, and his eyes were startlingly light against tanned skin.  The faintest tint of blue kept them from being the color of ice.  Her mind made a swift association with the frontier mountain men: strong, craggy, utterly competent.

And gorgeous.  Mustn’t overlook the fact that he was gorgeous.

“Sorry.”  His voice was deep and pleasant.  “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.  I was doing some pruning on the other side of the building.”

He seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place him.  His accent wasn’t Baltimore, though.  Western, maybe.  “Are you Rob Smith?”

“Yes.”  His brows arched enquiringly.  Again she felt a flicker of recognition, but no sense that they had met before.  Maybe she had seen him in passing somewhere.  For a big city, Baltimore could be a pretty small town.  But no, surely she would remember seeing a man who made her nerve endings tingle just looking at him.

Reminding herself that she was here on business, she held out her hand.  “Hi, I’m Val Covington.  My friend Kate Corsi, Patrick Donovan’s wife, said you had remodeled an old church for commercial use, so I thought I’d take a look.  I…I’m considering setting up my own office.”

His warm, strong hand was callused and marked by minor scars.  A working man’s hand.  Maybe he seemed familiar not as an individual, but because of his general resemblance to numerous workmen she had hired over the years—strong, at ease in his body.  Whether carpenters, roofers, electricians, or landscapers, they tended to have the kind of confidence that came with physical mastery of the world around them.

The workmen she knew tended to be beer-drinking, sports-watching, guy-type guys, but they were also fun, reliable, and had an innate courtesy she enjoyed.  The man who had done the tile work in her new kitchen was so attractive that she might have jumped him if he weren’t happily married with two children.  So instead she made brownies and sent them home to his kids.

“Do you want to see the inside?”

“That would be nice, Mr. Smith.”  There, she sounded collected and professional.

“Call me Rob.”  The faintest of smiles showed in his eyes.  “‘Mr. Smith’ sounds so generic.”

And he had a sophisticated sense of humor.  She was doomed.  “Okay, Rob.  I’m Val.  What kind of church was this?”

“Originally Methodist.”  He unsnapped a key ring from his belt and climbed three steps to the back entrance.  Arched and made of heavy oak, the door had the huge, vine-like hammered iron hinges often seen on English churches.

Rob unlocked the door, then held it open for her.  “They outgrew the space and built a larger church out in Parkville.  A gospel church was here for a while, but they outgrew it and moved on, too.”

She stepped across the threshold into a small reception hall.  The interior was completely unfurnished, with warm white walls, handsome moldings, and floors of beautifully polished oak.  “I suppose this area was offices for the minister and church secretary and that sort of thing?”

“Yes, with a kitchen and church hall below.  There are four rooms here in the back for offices, supplies, storage, whatever.”

She opened a door on the right and found herself in a sizable room with oak wainscoting.  “The builders really liked oak.”

“American church Gothic, circa 1910.”  Rob stroked the wainscoting with his fingertips.  “This place needed a lot of work.  The shell was solid, but the roof was crumbling and most of the larger stained glass panels had been stolen.  Luckily I was able to salvage some smaller pieces and incorporate them into the new windows.”

She wondered about his educational background—the exterminator she called every spring to rid her house of wasps was a Phi Beta Kappa in Russian history.  Smith spoke like an English major.  Which made carpentry a good choice, since a degree in English was not exactly a career path.

She opened the door that led to the front of the church, then halted in delight.  The high-ceilinged original sanctuary soared above her with light pouring through the windows.  For an instant she felt that every prayer, every song, the church had ever known was echoing through her.  And underneath was a sense of deep connection intertwined with sharp alarm.

Clamping down on her reaction until she could examine it more closely, she said, “How lovely.  This place…sings.”

“You can feel it?”

She glanced at Rob.  Hard to read expressions under that beard, but his eyes were intent.  “If you mean can I feel that this was a much loved house of worship, yes.  I’m glad you saved it.  No new building would ever have such richness.”   She advanced, feeling as if she were swimming in light.  “Not right for me, though.”

“What sort of business are you in?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“A lawyer?”

She smiled wryly at the surprise in his voice.  “People always have trouble believing that.  My first week in law school, one professor called on me by saying, ‘You, the barmaid in the third row.’”

“Isn’t that considered harassment?”

“Probably, but at Harvard Law, the philosophy is to torment students into toughness.  If you can’t take it, too bad.  I was warned that HLS is not a user-friendly school, but I didn’t really appreciate what that meant until it was too late.”

“In the case of that professor, it meant that he noticed you.  Any man would.”

To her surprise, she blushed.  “Is that a compliment?”

“Definitely, in a non-harassing sort of way.”  He smiled and changed the subject.  “Why Harvard?  Because it looks so good on a résumé?”

“That, and to prove I could do it.”  Her reply was absent because her attention was on Rob, who was standing in a swath of light.  With the sun gilding his hair and emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders, he was a sight well worth admiring.

Suppressing thoughts of how long she had been celibate, she continued, “My mother says that even when I was a toddler, the surest way to get me to do something was to say it was a bad idea.”

“Tenacity is a useful trait for a lawyer.  What’s your specialty?”

“I’m a litigator, currently working for a firm that does mostly corporate work.  I’m thinking of opening my own office so I have more variety and fewer hours.”  She gestured around the former sanctuary.  “Practicing law here might ruin the beautiful energy.  And the building is too large, especially with the upstairs office space.”

“Actually, the upper level is an apartment with an outside entrance.  I’m staying there now, but if you wanted to live over the shop, I could find another place.”

She drifted to a window, admiring the care with which the surviving stained glass had been combined with the clear glass panels.  Rob was a man who liked doing things right.  “That’s okay, I don’t want to be that close to my work.”

“Will you stay with corporate litigation?”

She scanned the room, unable resist imagining it as a reception area.  “What I really want to practice isn’t law, but justice,” she said slowly.  “I want to give little guys the kind of representation that usually only big guys can afford.  I want to rip some fat cat throats out.”

The unnerving light eyes regarded her thoughtfully.  “That’s a mission this old church would approve.  A modern version of driving the moneylenders from the temple.”

Why had she said so much to a stranger?  “Perhaps.  Or maybe I’m just temporarily insane with spring fever.  Thanks for the tour, Rob.  Even though this wouldn’t be right for me, you’ve done a beautiful job.”

“Thank you.”  He ushered her toward the back door.  “If you change your mind, give me a call.  Do you have the number?”

“Kate gave it to me.”  With a last wave, she climbed into her car and headed for downtown, her mind churning.  To think that if Howard Reid hadn’t canceled this afternoon’s deposition to play golf, she would be terrorizing his expert witness rather than having all these unsettling new experiences.

Rob watched the burgundy-colored Lexus turn south on Old Harford Road, wondering if she had bought the car to match her hair.  Even with a schoolmarm hairstyle and her sexy little body disguised in a severely cut navy suit, Val Covington crackled with physical and mental energy.  She must be hell on heels in a courtroom.

How long was it since he had been so aware of a woman?  Years.  Four years, three months, and seven days, to be exact.  He was glad that she appreciated the church’s uniqueness, but it was just as well she wasn’t interested in renting.  If she were that near, she would be a temptation.

Yet he couldn’t resist going up to his apartment and plugging “Val Covington” into a search engine.  He got plenty of hits, mostly in the Daily Record, Baltimore’s business and legal newspaper.  She had won some high profile cases, and was a newly made partner at a top city law firm.  Having met the lady, he wasn’t surprised.

Nor was he surprised that she was considering her own office.  Not only were corporate law firm jobs murderously demanding, but no amount of dressing the part could quite hide the maverick gleam in her eyes.  He hoped she decided to go out on her own and rip some fat cat throats.

Preferably in a neighborhood far from this one.

Luckily Kendra wasn’t in her office when Val returned, since she would notice her boss’s distracted mood.  Safely in her office, Val closed the door and tried to concentrate on the most urgent of the briefs she had to write.

Usually work focused her mind, but not today.  After fifteen futile minutes, she gave up in exasperation and closed the file.  Digging out her calculator, she began playing with figures, estimating expenses and cash flow if she opened her own office.

Making her best guess on the costs, it appeared that even after paying humongous taxes, the Centurion windfall would give her enough money to pay for startup costs, then subsidize the business until it was established and could pay for itself.

And amazingly, that was based on a forty-hour work week.  What a luxury that would be!  She should be able to divide her time between paying clients and pro bono work and make enough for mortgage money, cat food, and her retirement fund.  Having her own office meant she wouldn’t be able to do the intellectually challenging work that required a team of lawyers, but working more closely with clients and their needs would compensate for that.

Her pulse quickened at the knowledge that she could really do this if she wanted to.  Her hesitation came not from economics, but fear.  The insecurities of her childhood had left her with a craving for logic and order, which was one reason the law appealed to her.  Despite her frustrations with Crouse, Resnick, it was a known quantity, and lucrative.  Abandoning that to become her own boss would be exciting but unpredictable, and she did not love for her life to be unpredictable.

Of course, there were a whole range of possibilities between staying at Crouse, Resnick and starting her own office.  She could go to work for a corporation, or enter the government sector, which would be less demanding and still provide a steady, comfortable income.  That kind of change would be safe and relatively easy.

And yet, when she had entered the old church sanctuary, she’d experienced such a sense of rightness.  Exhilaration, even.

She stepped into her small washroom and stared into the mirror, knowing she was at a crossroads.  One direction was familiar, safe, and exhausting.  The other was unknown, enticing, and damned scary.

The mirror reflected back her lawyer costume: dark tailored suit, a discreet, tasteful gold chain around her neck and matching gold earrings, hair secured in a sleek knot at her nape.  This was how she had gone to work every day for years.  The image was very different from how she looked on her own time.

She jerked out her hairpins, then wet her fingers and ran them through her hair to restore the natural bounce of the energetic red mass.  Little Orphan Annie on a bad hair day was how she described herself.  These red curls had been the bane of her childhood.  The bright, carroty color had made her stand out in a crowd no matter how much she wanted to blend in with the other girls.  With age the color had darkened to a less violent shade, but even so, she was doomed to go through life looking like a short barmaid who needed to lose a few pounds.

But she didn’t have to go through life wearing tailored suits.  The choice was up to her.  If she wanted a new life, it was time to take a few cautious steps in that direction.

 If only it were possible to fast forward through change and go directly to the next secure niche….