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Harmless Error
By Kate Donovan

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 Harmless Error

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Harmless Error
By Kate Donovan
ISBN: 0759596255
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Harmless Error , by Kate Donovan

CHAPTER ONE

"Ms. Banyon? Sorry to disturb you, but you have a visitor." Laurel Banyon looked up from People vs. Anderson and smiled an appreciative smile. Her niece—all her nieces— were such good sports to play legal secretary for her whenever the need arose. This particular twenty-year-old drama major had been sitting in Laurel's outer office doing some schoolwork on a sadly outmoded computer but had obviously greeted an unexpected client with courtesy and professionalism. "Thanks, Jessie. Is it anyone I know?"

The girl glanced behind herself, then slipped into Laurel's office, closed the door to the outer room and blurted out, "He's gorgeous! Even more gorgeous than in the movie!" Clasping her hands to her heart, she pretended to swoon, then continued, "I can't believe you know him! Why's he here? Is it law stuff or acting stuff? Or"—her tone turned breathless-"are you dating him? Can I—"

"Jessie!"
"Huh?"
"Who is 'he'?"

"Oh!" The niece grinned sheepishly. "I thought you knew. It's the lawyer from False Pretenses."

Laurel arched an eyebrow in amused frustration. "Are you saying Derek Grainger is in my waiting room? Or is it the actor who played him in the movie? Or just someone who looks like one of them? In any case," she added playfully, "he sounds promising. Did he give you his name?"

"He said, 'I'm Derek Grainger, and I'm here to see Laurel Banyon.' Then he apologized for not having an appointment—like he would need an appointment." Jessie rolled her huge blue eyes at the absurdity of such a thought. Laurel nodded in sobered agreement. As much as she might have enjoyed meeting a famous movie star, a visit from Derek Grainger was, in many ways, more impressive. The man—a brilliant, highly principled defense attorney from San Francisco—was a legend at the age of thirty-three. While Laurel had never actually met him, she had read the book he'd co-authored on the subject of a celebrated case, and had seen the Hollywood interpretation of that same case, starring sex symbol Trevor Harris as a hunky, gutsy courtroom brawler. Despite her niece's admiring assessment, Laurel was fairly certain that the real Derek Grainger couldn't hold a candle to superstar Harris in the looks department. On the other hand, it was Grainger, not Harris, who had saved a doomed man's life and reputation by methodically reducing the prosecution's double-murder case to a pile of rubble and, to Laurel Banyon, that was the stuff from which true heroes were made.

"Laurel? Should I show him in?"

"I guess so. I just wish I wasn't wearing jeans. And"—she located a compact in her desk drawer and frowned into the mirror—"I wish I had my blue lenses with me."

"Why? I love your real eyes. We all do," Jessie insisted.

"That's why Elaine's choosing violets for her bridal bouquet. As a tribute to you."

"There's a gruesome image. A bouquet of eyeballs? Anyway"—Laurel shrugged—"I like my eye color too. And I like my hair color, but put the two together and it's so melodramatic. On the other hand, I don't seem to have a choice at the moment, so..." She pulled an enameled clip from her auburn hair, allowing a tangle of waves to cascade around her shoulders. "Let's give him the full effect, shall we?"

"You look beautiful." Jessie's eyes were dancing. "Anyway, he's wearing jeans too. And a gorgeous heather gray polo shirt. Wait till you see him.You'll die."

"Assuming he's still out there."

The warning hit home, and Jessie quickly opened the door. "Mr. Grainger? Ms. Banyon will see you now."

Derek Grainger sidled past the wide-eyed niece, flashed a devastating smile, and extended his hand confidently. "Thanks for seeing me without an appointment, Ms. Banyon. Do you have a few minutes?"

Laurel gripped his hand as firmly as she dared, secretly grateful for its steadying influence. Jessie had been all too accurate—he was an extremely attractive man. Not flashy or bulked up like Trevor Harris, but tall, lean, and commanding, with deep blue eyes and wavy black hair. His hand was strong and warm, and just slightly callused, and there were laugh lines around his mouth—imperfections that made the overall effect even headier.The man obviously had charisma as well as a great build. And he was waiting for her to say something, so she said, "Hi."

"Hi." He grinned. "Nice to meet you. Nice office," he added, his gaze taking in the profusion of antiques, from her solid oak partners' desk to a row of salvaged filing cabinets, before returning to Laurel's face. He was waiting again, this time for her to release his hand, but she was too busy trying to formulate a coherent statement.

"Ms. Banyon?" Jessie prodded. "Do you want me to get some coffee or something?"

Laurel flushed and gave the visitor back his hand. "No thanks, Jessie. I'll call you if we need you."

"Do you want me to call the judge and check on that arrest warrant again?"

Laurel smiled at the sweet, illogical offer. The loyal drama major was giving this role her all, and her aunt loved her madly for it. "That's not necessary."

"Okay. Bye, Mr. Grainger."

Derek grinned again and waited for the girl to disappear before asking, "Call the judge and check on that warrant?"

"She's my niece. She wants to impress you." "So far, I'm impressed by everything about you." "I see." She tried to take offense at the remark—what did he know about her?—but his smile was so genuine she couldn't summon even token hostility. "How can I help you, Mr. Grainger?"

"You can call me Derek, for starters." He motioned toward an elegant green velvet settee. "Make yourself comfortable, Laurel."

She wanted to remind him this was her office, but her curiosity was outweighing her indignation, and so she perched instead on the corner of her desk. "What's this about?"

"I want to hire you."

"As your attorney?"

"My attorney?" He stared for a moment before succumbing to a deep, rumbling chuckle. "That's great! And very Laurel Banyon-esque, from all I hear," he said finally. Annoyance, a little late but still welcome, flooded her, and she glared as she asked, "Didn't you just say you'd like to hire me? I'm a lawyer, Mr. Grainger. When people hire me, that's usually the reason. I may not be as famous as you, but—"

"Actually, I've found you're something of a mini-celebrity, at least around the Sacramento legal community." "Is that so?" Laurel slipped off the desk and moved to the window, allowing the warmth and beauty of the spring day to soothe her ruffled pride. She had heard the gentle tease underlying Grainger's tone, and knew without asking that he hadn't heard the things about her that really counted. Laurel Banyon, straight-A student, high school valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, second in her law school class—and last but not least, up-and-coming young attorney who had never lost a case. Had he heard those stories? Undoubtedly not. He'd heard the other ones.

"Laurel?" He was standing behind her, his mouth uncomfortably close to her ear. "Did I offend you?" "Why are you here?" she murmured.

"I want to hire you." His hands were on her shoulders, turning her to face him. "I'm putting a team together. A defense team, for a tough appeal. I think you'd be a perfect addition."

"Based on what?" Her voice was almost wistful as she added, "What is it you've heard? And from whom?"

"I spent last night with a couple of your biggest fans." "Last night? Oh, no..." A knot had formed in the pit of her stomach. "Judge Seaton's retirement dinner?"

Derek nodded. "He and I are very close. He was my constitutional law professor, years ago, and we've kept in touch ever since.You could say he's my mentor."

"And somehow, last night, my name came up? Are you saying he dared to mention me in his retirement speech?"

Derek grinned. "I got the impression it's an established inside joke, right? That he retired to escape your antics in his courtroom."

"Antics?" She caught her temper and smiled icily. "Don't believe everything you hear."

"He produced a witness to corroborate the stories," Derek insisted mischievously. "Your ex-fiancé."

Laurel could feel her cheeks turning scarlet. "I'm glad you all had such a good time at my expense."

"They were singing your praises." His grin had become the sincerest of smiles. "Two years out of law school and you've already begun to make a name for yourself. That's impressive, Laurel."

She wasn't sure she wanted to know what "name" that was. Laughingstock? Kook? Failure? Joe Harrington adored her, of course, but still saw her as a grandstander. And Judge Seaton! He had no respect for what he termed her "shenanigans," despite the fact that, like it or not, she'd been successful with each and every one.

Successful, but a failure nevertheless. Despite her triumphs, her clients had been unable to pay her anything approximating a living wage. Her criminal law practice was in trouble, and the jokes that constantly circulated weren't helping matters one bit. Now people were even coming from out of town to ridicule her! Eyeing her visitor grimly, she reminded him, "You mentioned wanting to hire me? Let me guess.Your next movie's going to be a comedy, and you dropped by for some pointers?"

The remark seemed to offend him. "I don't make movies, Ms. Banyon. I had nothing to do with—" He cleared his throat, then began again, visibly struggling to keep his tone even. "I co-authored the book, but the movie was strictly the client's circus. He's the one who benefited financially, and I had no involvement with it whatsoever. I haven't even seen it."

"You're kidding." She was enjoying the unexpected role reversal. Suddenly, Derek Grainger was the one feeling foolish, and she intended to milk it a bit. "You should rent the video, Derek. Really. It's very flattering.You came off as an incredibly virile guy."

"Virile?" He chuckled ruefully. "You wouldn't believe the rumors it's generated—about my stamina and my habits. I understand I routinely used the top of my desk as a sexual playground?"

"Your glass-topped desk," she confirmed with mock sincerity. "It was some of the best camera work I've ever seen. I'll never understand why it didn't win any Oscars."

"Are we even yet?"
"Pardon?"

"You're embarrassed over Seaton's stories, and so you're trying to embarrass me in return," he said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I've endured hundreds of hours of ribbing over that stupid movie, Laurel, but it hasn't hurt me professionally. If anything, the effect has been the opposite in that regard. That's what you need to do—take these stories about your creative lawyering and use them to help your image rather than hurt it."

"Creative lawyering?"

"You're creative. Imaginative. I admire that.That's why I want you on my team."

Laurel moistened her lips slightly, fascinated despite her better judgment. "Explain that."

"Sure." He drew her back to the desk, urged her onto her perch, then towered above her. "I want to mount an all-out defense for my client. No holds barred. We have an unlimited budget, and I've got the time, the skills, and the reputation. But you've got guts. You're willing to make a complete fool of yourself in order to win, and that's something I've never been able to do. I admire it. I need it."

She liked his use of the word "guts" almost as much as she despised "fool.""Don't you have guts?"

"Sure. I can be daring, but I can't be imaginative. I'm a technician," he explained quietly. "I know the law cold, I absorb facts like a sponge, and I inspire confidence in my listeners. Those are my strengths. But—" He paused to shrug. "There are times when those qualities aren't enough. That's where you come in."

"The fool?"
"Huh?"
"Never mind. Go on."

"You stood in Judge Seaton's courtroom and dared to argue that confidential communications between a woman and her hairdresser should be as privileged as those between a psychotherapist and his patient."

Laurel flushed. "Only under certain well-defined circumstances. Women do tell their hairdressers things, Derek. When someone's kneading your scalp and redesigning your appearance, you tend to let your guard down, and...well, never mind."

"It was brilliant," he assured her. "Irrational, but brilliant. I almost died laughing when Seaton told me the story."

"Did he tell you I won that case?"

"Absolutely. He said he threw out your client's confession because it was unreliable, but only after you dragged the whole court to the beauty salon to demonstrate how disorienting the odors from those chemical beauty treatments can be."

"They are disorienting. Two of the male jurors actually got nauseous from all those fumes. It was an unusually busy day at the salon," she added with a reluctant smile, remembering how her three oldest nieces had just "happened" to schedule appointments for permanents on that particular day.

"That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Seaton admits no other attorney could have pulled it off. And your ex-fiancé claims you're a genius."

"Wait!" Laurel groaned. "Did Joe tell you that silly entrapment story?"

"Entrapment?"

"Never mind." She silently thanked Joseph Anthony Harrington, although she suspected it wasn't loyalty, but rather a bruised ego, that had kept him from telling that particular anecdote. After all, Joe had been the prosecutor in that case, and had been mortified by her successful theatrics. Maybe he was still smarting from the experience.

"In your own way, Laurel, you're as much of a quote-unquote legend as I am."

"With several obvious differences," Laurel reminded him. "Yo u 're the toast of San Francisco and I'm the laughingstock of Sacramento." Her eyes widened. "When you referred to my image earlier, that's what you were getting at, right?"

"Exactly. I think you need me as much as I need you. Yo u 'll bring a little inspiration to my case, and I'll lend a little dignity to your otherwise thriving career. It is thriving, isn't it?"

"I have a steady stream of clients, despite my tarnished image," she said wearily. "Unfortunately, I'm not handling the business end very well."

"Which explains why your niece is filling in as your secretary?"

"Worse. I can't even afford her," Laurel said with a laugh. "She's just out there working on an assignment. Luckily, I can type and I don't mind answering my own phone.When I get really swamped, there's a temporary secretarial service right across the street. I'm doing okay." Her chin came up defensively. "And I'm a damned good lawyer."

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that." "Well, then..." She took a deep breath. "What exactly would our arrangement be?"

"I'd hire you straight out. As an independent contractor. At a thousand dollars a day, for a minimum of two weeks, possibly longer. I'll set up an office here in town, and you'll work there, using my support staff and equipment. How does that sound?"

Laurel pretended to ponder the offer, but inside she was reeling. She had barely managed to pay her rent the previous month, and the thought of earning it in one day...

Derek seemed to read her mind. "I tried to come up with an attractive proposal. Have I succeeded?"

"I'm tempted," she admitted. "When's the final filing date for the brief?"

"In three weeks." Frustration had crept into his tone. "Assuming it'll take a full week for the actual writing, that leaves only two weeks to find reversible error."

"That sounds doable. Who else will be on the team?"

"I'm hoping we won't need anyone else. My plan is, I'll look for technical errors while you search for emotional ones."

"'Emotional'? Don't you mean 'irrational'?" She sifted her fingers impatiently through her hair. "There's a tenor to this whole thing that frankly offends me, Derek. I happen to be a very competent technical lawyer. Those few notorious incidents you heard about last night only represent a tiny portion of my experience. I win my cases because I'm good, not because of stunts."

"And I win my cases because of hard work, not because of eloquence or style," he agreed confidently. "Still, we each have an ace in the hole, don't we? I'm suggesting we pool our talents and see what happens."

"For this one case only, right?"

"Right. I've got a couple of other matters pending, but I'm hoping to dedicate about ninety percent of my time over the next few weeks to this appeal."

"I've got some unavoidable commitments this week myself, but they shouldn't take much time." Laurel swiveled to study her desk calendar. "I can basically work around your schedule." She turned back to face him. "Tell me about our client.What kind of case is it?"

Derek's face became impassive. "I'm not at liberty to talk about the case. It's a sensitive one. Let's just say it's a challenge. When you're officially on board, next week, we'll go over the details."

His wooden demeanor alarmed her. "I'm not going into this blind, Derek. I already suffer from a damaged reputation, as you so ungallantly noted. I don't need to look any more foolish than I apparently already do."

"This man's situation is far from foolish, I guarantee you."

"He's a man? Okay." She took a deep breath. "Is he a rapist?"

"Is that a problem for you?"

"Yes. Rapists and child molesters are 'problems' for me, even at a thousand dollars a day."

"Even if the client claims he's innocent?" "Yes. Even then."

Derek shook his head. "That's a lousy attitude for an up-and- coming defense counsel, but fortunately it's irrelevant. Our client wasn't convicted of rape or any other sex offense."

"And we're going to comb through the transcripts, find the errors, write the appellate brief, present the argument, and then that's it? Case closed?"

"Exactly. It'll be hard work, but the compensation is good and the experience, for both of us, should be invaluable."

"I suppose.You'll be the lead attorney..."

"And you'll be the well-paid flunky." He smiled to soften the possible insult. "I work long hours, Laurel. Ten or eleven a day, sometimes, and seven days a week when things get hot. You're working on Saturday now, so I assume that's not a problem?"

"I need one day off a week," Laurel corrected. "And I definitely can't work next Saturday. My niece is getting married."

"Her? She's just a kid!"

"She's hardly a kid, but she's also not the one getting married. I have seven nieces. You've met Jessie—the twenty-22 year-old. It's Elaine—a twenty-four-year-old—who's getting married. And I have to be there when she does." "That's fine. I can spare you for a couple of hours." Laurel grinned sympathetically. "The entire day, I'm afraid. This isn't a city hall wedding, it's a blow-out. But I can work next Sunday if you really think it's necessary."

"Great. We'll need every minute." She studied him skeptically. "Are you so sure it's going to be this complicated?"

"I'm a detail nut," he explained with a smile. "When you said we'll comb through the transcripts, it wasn't an exaggeration. I want to discuss every word, every sneeze, every everything. We'll put it under my technical microscope and then we'll turn you loose on it, looking for the weak spot. I know it's in there."

Laurel slid to her feet and nodded. "It's always in there. And I agree, between the two of us, we're bound to find it." He proffered his hand eagerly. "We have a deal?"

"Sure. One thousand dollars a day, six days a week. And strictly business. Right?"

He chuckled. "That goes without saying." "Well, say it anyway," Laurel suggested. "I get enough pleasure from my business without mixing business with pleasure. Understand?"

"No, but I think I agree. When I'm working on a case, my social life goes on hold, so you can consider it an iron-clad part of our contract. One thousand a day, strictly business."

"Fine.You've got yourself a deal."

"And you've got yourself a ticket into the big leagues, where they appreciate creative genius."

This time she shook his hand with brisk confidence. If they were going to work together, it would have to be as equals, and she needed to establish that from the start. "I'm sure we'll make a good team, Derek."

"I've got a room at the Sutter Plaza now. I'll arrange for a suite instead, and we can work out of there. I'll lease any equipment we need, and transfer all the records up here."

"Wouldn't it be easier if I just commuted to San Francisco?"

"Actually, I think I need to be out of the city for this one," Derek confessed. "I want to concentrate. No distractions. My secretary can handle most of the calls and mail down there, and fax me whatever I need."

"The Plaza's good for me too." Laurel nodded as she spoke. "It's just three blocks from here, and within walking distance of the state law library."

"You won't need to use the library. I'll get a computer hook-up to one of the research services."

"That's a waste of money."

"It's also my decision. Plus, you'll need to have access to all the transcripts and records, and believe me, they're not portable. And by then I'll have copies of most of the major news stories, and bios on all the jurors."

"In other words, we're going to be buried alive under a ton of paper."

"We're going to eat, drink, and sleep this thing," he confirmed. "I want to cover all the bases on this one. I want this guy to go free."

"I can see that," she murmured, wondering if she'd just imagined the hint of vulnerability in his tone. "Don't worry, Derek. I've never lost a case. Not a single one."

"What?" His eyes widened. "Are you serious?"

"Completely." She flashed her most confident smile. "I'll see you bright and early Monday morning."


When he'd left, Laurel flopped onto the settee and rehashed the encounter in her mind. Derek Grainger had tried to appear easygoing and upbeat, but beneath all that had lurked something grim and unsettling. She, in turn, had probably appeared defensive and off-balance, and she wondered if he'd been astute enough to guess she was actually a strong, confident woman.They would learn the truth about each other soon enough, she supposed. Working so intensely, in such close quarters and for such high stakes, would bring out the worst as well as the best. It made her grimace slightly—did she really want to see any man's worst?

"Laurel? Is everything okay?"

She motioned for her niece to enter. "Sit down and I'll tell you all about him."

"First things first: did he ask you out?"

"Hardly. It was all business, believe me." She laughed at the disappointment on Jessie's face. "The good news is, I'm going to work on a case with him. And I'm actually going to make decent money for a change. And," she nudged a stack of dusty books with her toe, "I can take these back to the library, for a while at least."

Jessie leaned down to examine the titles. "Wills, Trusts, Probate... This is what Grandpa and Uncle Bobby keep telling you to do?"

"They have lots of friends who'd hire me to do estate planning for them. Unfortunately, it doesn't interest me. But it pays well."

"But so does Derek Grainger?"

"Exactly."

"Is it another murder case, like the one in his movie?" "I don't know," Laurel admitted, bristling slightly at her own ignorance. "He should have told me, but I think he's trying to establish who's boss by controlling the flow of information."

"He'll never control you, Laurel. Mom says even Grandpa couldn't."

"That's right," Laurel said with a grin. "Anyway, you and Lisa can still use this place during the week. I'll be spending most of my time at Derek's suite at the Sutter Plaza."

"The Plaza? Oohh, that sounds more like a date than work."

"Believe me, it's work.Ten hours a day, six days a week."

"It's so romantic." Laurel grinned in defeat. "Have it your way, then. Just don't tell the rest of the family I'm having an affair."

"What about Uncle Joe? Will he be jealous?"

"Let's hope so. He apparently gossiped about me last night at a party, so I owe him some grief. In fact, I think I'll go see him right now and yell at him. With any luck, he'll have a hangover and be completely at my mercy." Jessie sighed. "I wish you still loved him."

"I do. He's my best friend." She jumped to her feet and gave the girl a hug. "Want to go visit him with me?"

"I can't. Clay's taking me to the movies."

"Clay? Again? This is starting to sound serious."

"He's a loner," Jessie confided with a melodramatic sigh.

"I'm just his latest conquest."

"Well, you seem to be taking it in stride." Laurel grinned. "Aren't you afraid he'll break your heart?" "My drama coach says I need the experience, so..." Jessie pouted slyly. "I'm willing to suffer for the sake of my career, just like you."

Laurel smiled, enjoying both the performance and the sentiment. Of all her seven nieces, Jessie was the most like Laurel, from her flair for melodrama to her overactive and always optimistic imagination.They could have been twins, if it weren't for the six-year difference in their ages and the fact that Jessie was a tall, cool blond with huge blue eyes and porcelain skin. None of the nieces had the outrageous coloring that had been both a challenge and trademark for Laurel during her volatile career as an actress-turned-lawyer.

"Laurel?"
"Hmm?"
"What if you and Mr. Grainger lose the case?"

"As your drama coach would say, the experience would be good for me. On the other hand"—her flippant tone faded into cool determination—"I've never lost a case, and I'm not about to start with this one."


"This is just great. You refuse to form a partnership with me, your best friend and the greatest lover you ever had, but some jerk from San Francisco walks into your office and you fall right into his arms."

"Does your head hurt, Joe?" Laurel rumpled her ex-lover's shaggy golden hair with mock concern. "Poor baby."

"Don't change the subject! This is nuts, Laurel. Tell him you changed your mind."

She pretended to pout. "You 're the one who convinced him to hire me."

"That's bull!" Joe Harrington winced visibly. "Hand me that ice pack, will you? Thanks. Anyway, that's bull and you know it. All I did was tell him what a wild woman you are in the courtroom.Who knew he'd take it the wrong way?"

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning, he's gonna be all over you the minute he gets you alone in that suite." The prosecutor's bloodshot eyes narrowed. "We both saw that movie, Laurel.You said yourself that desktop stuff looked painful. And speaking of pain..." His tone softened to a whimper. "Do you still carry aspirin in your purse?"

"Once we broke up, I didn't need to anymore." "Man, you're mean today."

She grinned and pulled out her pill case. "Here, you big baby. Try to learn a lesson from this. You can't take hard liquor."

"I know, I know.You should have gone with me, Laurel, to protect me from my dark side. It's all your fault." "You didn't take a date?"

"Nah. I kept thinking you'd change your mind. And"— he eyed her dourly—"you definitely should have come.You hurt the old guy's feelings by staying away." When she jutted her chin forward in defiance, he scolded her. "You know how Judge Seaton feels about you. He's the one who got Grainger's motor running, I'll bet. He probably told him about that hot little body of yours." Joe's grin had widened predictably. "After all those tall, stacked models that throw themselves at celebrities like him, Grainger probably found someone like you refreshingly different."

"Meaning what?"
"Meaning you're little.Tiny. Petite. Like a scale model of a woman. Everything's there, and the proportions are dyna-mite, but—" He chuckled wickedly. "Where's the rest of you?"

"Five-foot-four is not short, dear. It's average. The only short, petite, scaled-down organ in this room—"

"Time out!" He shook his aching head. "What's up with you today? Can't you take a joke?"

"Apparently not."

"You know how I feel about your body," he insisted. "It's my all-time favorite. I was just harassing you out of jealousy."

"That's silly. We broke up six months ago. Get over it."
"Never."

"Well, there's nothing to worry about anyway. I'm a great judge of character, and I could tell Grainger was a complete professional. But just to be safe, I inserted the standard no-sex clause in our contract."

"Huh?" Joe's scowl faded. "You really did that?"

"Yep."

"Man, that brings back memories. I remember how torturous it was for me, working side by side with you when you were clerking at our office every summer during law school and wouldn't even let me look at you. And you'd wear those damned spike heels, just to cause me pain." He leaned back against the sofa cushion and rubbed his eyes. "I almost feel sorry for Grainger now."

"That's the spirit."

"However..." He opened one eye and tried to glare. "I'm coming by that suite, every single day, at varying hours, unannounced. Make sure you tell him that."

"Yes, dear."
"Am I still your date for the wedding?"

"Of course. My nieces would disown me if I showed up without their Uncle Joe."

He nodded smugly. "It's hard to believe, isn't it? Little Elaine, getting married."

"Little Elaine is only three years younger than me," Laurel reminded him. "Even Jessie will be twenty-one next month. Our girls are growing up."

"I guess you're right. Man..." He rubbed his eyes again.

"It's tough being a surrogate uncle, you know. Especially when it's all nieces and no nephews."

"Poor Joe."

"Yeah." He struggled to his feet and reached for the ice pack. "I hate to be a bad host, but I'm going back to bed. Feel free to join me," he added over his shoulder as he lumbered down the hall.

Laurel watched in wistful silence as the lanky, golden-haired giant peeled off his rumpled bathrobe just before disappearing into the bedroom. She'd been down that hall more than once, and remembered all too well how warm and cozy things could get in Joe Harrington's king-sized bed. In addition to his other lovable attributes, the man was a born cuddler—in fact, given his hangover, cuddling was probably all he could manage for the next few hours—and she could use some of that right now. Of course, it would be a mistake in the long run, but for the moment...

If only Joe could have been "the one." It would have made life so simple. They'd be married by now if she had just allowed him to take the lead. Instead, she had had the bittersweet insight to recognize their romance for what it was—an amazing friendship in disguise—and had set him free despite his fervent protests. Still, until one of them found someone else, the danger of backsliding was ever-present, especially now, with a living legend lurking in the shadows, threatening to challenge both her self-image and her self-confidence.Without a doubt, Joe Harrington could make her feel like a success again, at least temporarily.

Don't let Derek Grainger psych you out! she ordered herself sternly. He's just a lawyer with a little more experience and a lot better press than you. And appellate work? Big deal. Once you've found out more about the case—about the verdict, and the client— you'll do great. So, she took one last, longing look toward Joe's bedroom, get out of here before you do something really, really stupid.

Excerpted from Harmless Error , by Kate Donovan . Copyright (c) 2001 by Kate Donovan . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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