Eccentrics always resisted being presorted and John Lloyd Branson was reputed to be the Texas Panhandle's most eccentric lawyer since Temple Houston had defended the innocent, the defenseless, and a few soiled doves in Old Mobeetie more than a hundred years before. He certainly dressed eccentrically. His beautifully tailored three-piece suit looked as if it were imported from Savile Row. The turquoise bolo he wore in place of a tie was a domestic bit of fashion from a Navajo reservation. A gold watch chain stretched across his vest. From it dangled a Phi Beta Kappa key and a tiny bear made of polished black pottery. His boots were black and handcrafted, polished to a mirror-like shine that reflected the silver-headed cane hooked over the arm of his chair. He should have looked mismatched. He didn't.
Looking up, L.A. received another shock. Eyes as black as obsidian were examining her, seemingly piercing her skull to analyze her thoughts. She stood motionless, aware that she was in the presence of a will stronger than any she had ever known, directed by an intelligence greater than her own.
An unconscious sigh escaped her lips when eyelids closed over his piercing stare. His eyes opened again to to express a watchfulness mixed with a mild curiosity. She blinked wondering if her mind was playing tricks on her. She must have mistaken his expression because his eyes were such a shock. The blond hair and fair skin led her to expect blue eyes. Those eyes with irises dark brown enough to appear black were so unusual and so unexpected she had seen more force of personality than was actually there.
"So you are L.A. Fairchild." A slow drawl that was almost more a caricature than a natural voice startled her. A deaf person could go to sleep trying to read those lips was her first irreverent thought. "How do you do?" she said, slowing uncrossing her fingers but not offering to shake hands. Imagine shaking hands with John Lloyd Branson and leaving a wet palm print. Why at all the important times ion her life did her palms have to sweat?
The black eyes blinked slowly in the thin, austere face. "What is your name?" he asked.
She swallowed and her headache went beyond verging and into completion. "L.A. . . . "
"L.A. is a city, young lady, where people occasionally spit on the sidewalks. You are a woman, and I refuse to address you by those ridiculous initials." The drawl had been replaced by a distinct voice that clipped each word with the precision of a sharp knife.
Her first instinct was to slap hell out of him, her second to call him a nineteenth-century male chauvinist pig and a twenty-four-carat bastard. Self-preservation stopped her first impulse; John Lloyd Branson didn't impress her as the type to turn the other cheek. As for name-calling, her gut instinct told her that he was better at it than she, and since she hated to lose, she satisfied herself by politely inclining her head. "Then you may call me Miss Fairchild."
She caught a sudden glint of respect in his eyes. He waved his hand toward a wooden armchair conveniently placed at one end of an enormous rolltop desk. "Sit down, Lydia Ann, and tell me why you decided to come to Canadian, Texas."
He glanced at an open folder on his desk, then looked up. "Having aspirations toward being a gentleman, I'd appreciate it very much if you'd sit down so I can. Gentlemen never sit while ladies are standing, and you are a lady, I believe." His drawl was back, slower than ever.
Lydia took two steps and sank into the chair. "You already know my name?"
John Lloyd sat down and smiled at her. "Do you think I would consent to hire a law student just finishing his"--he cocked one eyebrow in amusement--"or her second year to clerk for me without knowing everything?"
He lifted the folder off his desk and quoted from it, his black eyes never leaving her face. "Lydia Ann Fairchild: twenty-four years old; five feet, ten and one-half inches tall with blond hair and blue eyes; daughter of an auto
mechanic and a librarian. . . " He interrupted himself to smile again. "I presume your father was the auto mechanic?"
"Don't be so defensive, Miss Fairchild; I wasn't denigrating his profession. I was merely ascertaining if it was indeed your father and not your mother who was the mechanic. There days one can't be sure." He glanced at the folder again. "To continue, you graduated with honors from The University of Texas, entered Southern Methodist University School of Law, and at the end of two years have the highest grade point in your class. An admirable academic record," he said, placing the folder back on his desk. "But to repeat why did you come to Canadian, Texas?"
She considered lying but discarded the idea. She wasn't good enough at it to fool John Lloyd Branson. "I needed a job. The dean recommended you as the best lawyer in Texas. You sounded interesting"--She avoided his eyes--"so I came."
"Miss Fairchild," he asked, stroking the little pottery bear with one long finger. What exactly did the dean tell you?"
Those black eyes were disconcerting at such close range, and Lydia swallowed. "He said John Lloyd Branson could climb into a pen full of Brahma bulls, climb out again, dust himself off, and call the vet to come treat the survivors."
He laughed, a laugh as slow and deep as his voice. "He might have exaggerated a little," he murmured. "And what else did he say?"
"That Lawyer Branson was eccentric, but brilliant and that he attended Harvard Law School and clerked for one of the Justices of the Supreme Court in Washington."
"Did he mention why I moved to Canadian?"
"You were born here. You came roaring back into town one day cursing Washington, the Supreme Court, and judges in general. You said everybody east of the Mississippi was a goddam crook, and that you weren't leaving Texas again. You said you preferred the home-grown variety of crook to the sleazy, sneaky kind around Washington."
John Lloyd cocked one eyebrow. "That is an approximation of my comments."
"You also always vote for yourself in presidential elections."
"I prefer to vote for a trustworthy candidate."
Lydia leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. She found herself enjoying telling him what the dean had said. She would enjoy it even more if John Lloyd Branson had the decency to act uncomfortable at hearing himself described as an egotistical, arrogant son of a bitch.
John Lloyd smiled and she suddenly became disconcerted. "Did he also tell you I'm a very dangerous man to cross? That I'm a good friend and a bad enemy?"
She sat up straight. "Vengeance is mine", saith the Lord, and Lawyer Branson sees himself as the Lord's right-hand man."
John Lloyd leaned back in his chair and hooked his thumbs in his vest. "I believe I'm known around the Panhandle as a God-fearing man."
"I'm certain you are. God makes sure he stays on the right side of Lawyer Branson."
She sat back again, feeling as though she'd finally won a point--several in fact--in this verbal confrontation. Until she noticed the expression in John Lloyd's eyes. He was amused.
My dear Miss Fairchild, I'm, certain your last two comments are not direct quotes from the dean."
"I'm capable of drawing my own conclusions," she retorted.
"So am I, Miss Fairchild," he replied blandly. "And I conclude that you are worth saving."
He nodded. The dean, who is a close friend of mine, tells me you are quite brilliant, always well prepared in class, but you show a marked proclivity for unsuitable relationships. This flaw demonstrates a lack of discrimination and objectivity."
She gasped. "I don't believe Dean Johnson said that!"
John Lloyd placed the folder on his desk. "You're quite right, Miss Fairchild; he didn't. What he said was you were a sucker for a worthless man and were going to ruin your. . . I believe his words were 'Goddamed career if somebody didn't teach her to look for the nettles among the roses.' So far you've managed to extricate yourself from these relationships with your reputation, if not your virtue, intact, but. . . "
"You leave my virtue out of this discussion!"
He cocked an eyebrow again and she felt an almost overwhelming impulse to find the nearest razor and shave it off. "I intend to, Miss Fairchild. Although you are beautiful, quite desirable in fact, I have no designs on your body. It is your mind I plan to seduce."
"You're not seducing either one," she said as she rose with as much dignity as she could muster. "I'm going back to Dallas. And I'm going to tell the dean exactly what I think of him."
John Lloyd pushed himself to his feet with an awkward motion. He caught Lydia by the shoulders. She found herself gently but firmly sitting down again. "I don't think that would be wise, Miss Fairchild."
In her opinion she had three choices: she could kick him in what her rape prevention instructor had indicated was a man's most vulnerable area; she could turn her head and bite his wrist, or she could behave in a civilized manner. Since open-toes sandals are not ideal kicking shoes, and the dentist had warned against endangering her caps by biting down on something hard, like a wrist, she opted for civilized behavior. It was probably safer anyway. "Unhand me, Mr. Branson, or I'll scream. You wouldn't want your secretary to catch you in the act of manhandling me. She seemed like such a nice old lady."
John Lloyd's grip tightened. "My secretary was indicted for chopping up her husband with an ax. You may have heard about it; there was some little notoriety at the time. I succeeded in obtaining a suspended sentence for her and as a result she's quite fond of me. So you see, my dear, Mrs. Dinwittie wouldn't come to your rescue if I were disemboweling you."
"Chopped up her husband?" she asked, positive she'd misunderstood.
"Actually she was justified. He had several nasty habits, one being his enthusiasm for target shooting. Unfortunately, under the influence of alcoholic beverages he sometimes would discharge his pistol in the house. Mostly at Mrs. Dinwittie.
"Oh, God," said Lydia with as close to a gasp as she was capable.
"I didn't mean to frighten you, Miss Fairchild."
me? First you tell me Lizzie Borden is your secretary--"
"I believe some unimaginative journalist so dubbed her," interrupted John Lloyd softly.
"Then you physically prevent me from leaving your office, now you have gall to tell me you don't mean to frighten me?"
"I told you about Mrs. Dinwittie to indicate that an emotional scene would prove more embarrassing to you than to me. As for my physically restraining you, I apologize."
He grinned, which shocked her almost as much as discovering Mrs. Dinwittie was an ax murderer. She didn't equate John Lloyd Branson with so plebian an expression as a grin.
"I distrusted the expression in your eyes. To be quite frank, Miss Fairchild, I expected physical retaliation."
She smiled, or at least her lips stretched. She wasn't sure if the action was a smile or a grimace. "I never dreamed of kicking you, Mr. Branson."
"In that case"--He released her and sat down, again with a barely perceptible awkwardness--"We'll continue our discussion." His drawl was gone, his tone as sharp and quick as a whip.
"I don't think we have anything else to discuss. You made very unprofessional comments about my personal life."
"But necessary," he interrupted. "You see, Miss Fairchild, in addition to everything else I know about you, I also know your taste in reading material. You enjoy romances. Nothing wrong with that except I don't want you casting me as a romantic hero. I also am"--he hesitated--"unsuitable."
John Lloyd settled back in his chair and crossed one elegantly clad leg over the other. "Nothing to say, Miss Fairchild? No rebuttal? No discussion of my character?"
She took a deep breath, something she realized she'd been doing frequently since meeting John Lloyd Branson. "Let me see if I understand you, Mr. Branson. You're going to save me from my evil companions and, being above the sins of the flesh, you promise not to seduce me as part of my salvation. In return, I'm to control my romantic tendencies and not fall in love with you." She batted her lashes. "Did I leave anything out, Mr. Branson, sir?"
John Lloyd chuckled. "With a summation like that, Miss Fairchild, I predict a great future for you arguing before juries filled religious fundamentalists." He studied her, then sighed. "However, you're wrong on several points. I'm not in the business of saving people; I leave that to God."
"I'm sure He's most appreciative," remarked Lydia dryly.
Other than a raised eyebrow and a sharp look John Lloyd ignored her. "Secondly, I'm not above the sins of the flesh. I merely don't indulge during office hours. Nor do I seduce my employees."
"In other words, you don't mess in your nest," remarked Lydia.
John Lloyd responded with another sharp look and continued. "Thirdly, Your companions are not evil, merely inappropriate. A football player on academic probation is not your intellectual equal. Nor is the gentleman who flunked out of four universities while trying to find himself."
"He hasn't decided in what direction he's intended to go," Lydia protested.
John Lloyd's voice was without a trace of a drawl. "Then I suggest he buy a road map. As for your most recent swain, the less said the better."
Lydia felt like squirming. Her judgment had been a little poor in that particular case. "He had a legitimate grievance against the English Department."
"Nailing a protest sign to the office door of the president of the university was not the way to handle it, Miss Fairchild. Besides, the dean tells me four out of the ten words on the sign were misspelled, leading me to believe it was the English Department with the legitimate grievance. Your defending him, by referring to the president of Southern Methodist University as"--he glanced at her file--"a tyrant was very foolish. Your exile to Canadian and my office was the dean's equivalent of getting you out of town until the heat's off. In other words, until the president's desire for a pound of flesh has passed, yours being the flesh in question, of course."
John Lloyd's voice slowed and deepened to its country drawl. "To sum up . . ."
"Don't bother," said Lydia sharply. "I don't think I'm up to any more character analysis."
John Lloyd ignored her and she wondered why she hadn't saved her breath. Stopping John Lloyd Branson from speaking his mind was comparable to stopping a landslide: both were forces of nature and would flatten anyone who got in their way.
He touched the tips of his finger together as if he were a Chinese philosopher. "To sum up," he continued. "While it is an American tradition to help the defenseless, it is wise to first determine if they are defenseless only because someone took away their switchblades."
"Just a minute! None of my, uh, companions were violent," interrupted Lydia.
"You misunderstand me, Miss Fairchild. I was speaking metaphorically."
Then try talking plainly."
"You form these unsuitable attachments because you cannot recognize a lie when your emotions are involved, Miss Fairchild, and that is a skill you must develop. Otherwise. . . "
"You will fail in your chosen profession." John Lloyd leaned forward, his black eyes intent. "Your clients will lie, opposing attorneys will lie, the police will lie, witnesses will lie. You can believe no one."
"No one but John Lloyd Brandon?"
He tapped a thick file lying on the corner of his desk. "Study this. I'll pick you up around seven and we'll have dinner with the people involved in this little legal action." He frowned at her. "And do something with your hair. Although I'm not a connoisseur of ladies' hair styles, I believe the bun is as out of date as old maid schoolteachers and spinster librarians. To use the vernacular, you resemble a peeled onion."
He handed her the file. "Enjoy your beauty, Miss Fairchild; it is a fleeting thing.
He abruptly turned his chair toward his desk. "Seven o'clock," he said in dismissal.
She was standing in the middle of the tiny bedroom of her garage apartment before she realized he'd never denied that he, too, would lie. She glanced in the dresser mirror. He didn't lie about one thing: she did look like a peeled onion.