In The Cost of Happiness, paralegal Meghan Mattson is under-appreciated at the law firm of Fergusson & Leith until Dan Howard joins as a partner and recognizes—and isn’t threatened by—a fine legal mind. A successful collaboration at work soon morphs into a physical relationship.
At the hotel, they settled back into the same seats as the night before, the papers from the three boxes coming out in carefully organized piles.
“I’m not seeing anything really exciting, are you?” he asked as he got up to get them two more sodas.
“No. We still have a box to go, though.” she said, pushing back her chair and rolling her shoulders.
Dan checked the clock—after ten. “All right, let’s go through that one and get it over with. I’m starting to feel phone fatigue.”
She laughed. “Only starting?”
She’d carefully repacked the documents from the second box and was setting out the file folders from the third box. Technical support calls, reports written by the engineers and more invoices, Dan noted. The fact was, he really didn’t want to find something exciting at this point. Looked like their first guess was right—they’d have to challenge the plaintiffs to prove as a threshold issue that ProCell’s technology even had the power to generate inflated charges. If it worked, ProCell would be out of the litigation a year or so earlier than the other defendants, and wouldn’t have to pay damages. A year’s worth of legal and expert witness fees would still be hefty, what with reports, depositions, interrogatories and the like. Frustrating, but he knew that was just how the legal system worked sometimes.
Half an hour later, they were both satisfied they’d gone through what they had, and found nothing. He got up and took his watch off instinctively—it was a habit from school, a demarcation between working and not working.
“You want another soda?” Dan asked.
He turned around to see Meghan doing her hair-swirling routine. Her back was turned to him. The sight of her slender fingers tangled in all that hair was both endearing and exciting.
Time to get her out of the room.
“No thanks,” she answered.
Dan realized he was standing in the middle of the room and couldn’t remember why. What had he offered her—? Oh, right. Another soda.
She was doing something with the boxes that surely didn’t need doing. He moved to stop her.
“Let me,” he said, reaching for the box on the table. His hand brushed against her arm. He flinched at the contact.
She backed away from the table, her head down and her hair shielding her face. Shyness? Or nerves?
Or does she feel what I feel?
No. Don’t go there.
He stacked the boxes on the floor by the window, then followed her to the door. There was a closet on the left, and the bathroom on the right, and a hallway’s width between. He reached for the door to open it for her. She’d grabbed it first, so his hand closed around hers. Neither of them moved.
He could hear her breathing. His heartbeat was almost as loud and there was a rushing in his head. He couldn’t figure out how to let go of her hand, now trapped between his fingers and the knob. His brain refused to solve the problem of how to open the door.
He could smell her now. She was warm, and her hair looked enticingly soft. He leaned towards her, and his other hand—the hand that wasn’t glued to hers on the doorknob—rose to touch her hair. It was even silkier than he’d imagined.
She made a noise. His brain gave up trying to solve the doorknob/hand problem and concentrated on identifying the noise. Protest? Assent? Pleasure? Distress?
“Meghan,” he breathed. It wasn’t really a question.
All the light was behind him, back in the main part of the hotel room, where the table and chairs and boxes and TV were. He couldn’t see her face, only her hair. He could feel her tension, and when she relaxed, he felt that too.
You have to tell me to stop, he wanted to say out loud.
She turned into him, letting go of the doorknob, letting her face rest against his shirt, her hair brushing against his chin. He held her lightly. This wasn’t going to work. If his brain couldn’t figure out how to let go of a doorknob, there was no hope here.
He nuzzled the curve of her neck, smelling her hair and skin. She made that noise again, and this time he could tell it was a nice noise, an assent, pleasure.
And then they were kissing, and it wasn’t relaxed anymore. She felt so good, her lips, her tongue, her waist, her hips, the curve of her back. He pressed her against the wall next to the closet, bending down to taste her again and again. And she kissed him back, hard, harder than he’d thought she would. She strained against him, one arm up around his neck, the other hand pulling his shirt out of his waistband.
Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes.
Dan could feel the precise moment when all that lofty don’t-screw-this-up, do-the-right-thing crap flew out his head—he was having Meghan Mattson, and that was all there was to it. He reached under her top and found the lace of her bra, its clasp, her nipples, the weight of her breasts. Old instincts merged with a new craving for what made her unique. His kisses started to move to her neckline, which he pushed aside. Her skin was softness over strength.
He unbuttoned the top of her trousers and released the zipper. It slid down as his hand slipped in, cupping her abdomen and moving down. His other hand slipped over her ass. He would have pressed her closer to him, to his erection, but her hand was in the way, moving seductively and slowly along his length. The room was like a sauna, and he could feel himself melting even as he got harder.
A bed. They needed a bed. And…
He said it again, this time out loud. “Oh, shit.” He left his hands where they were. In that instant everything felt different.
“What?” He could hear her confusion. His eyes were closed, his face alongside hers.
“No condoms,” he murmured. He knew she didn’t have any. He just knew.
She slumped back against the wall, and curled her arms around him, pulling her into him.
“That’s okay,” she tried to reassure him.
His brain clicked back on. What did okay mean? “Okay, I’m on the pill and I magically know you don’t have any communicable diseases?” Or “That’s okay because it’s better if we stop, as we’re perilously close to acting out the cliché scene with the partner and the paralegal having an out-of-town fling?”