The Love Wars
Breaking up is hard to do. At least the first few times.
Even though Molly Grant has only a handful of relationships behind her, she’s already been through more divorces than she can count.
At the premier Manhattan law firm where she’s a matrimonial attorney, the hours are long, the bosses tyrannical, and the bonuses stratospheric. Her clients are rich, famous, and used to getting their way. Molly’s job—and primary concern in life—is to work as hard as possible to make sure they do. Until she meets the client who changes everything….
Fern Walker is the desperate former wife of a ruthless media mogul. Her powerful ex is slowly pushing her out of her young children’s lives, and she fears losing them forever. Molly—haunted by an incident from her own past—finds herself unable to walk away from Fern and sets out to help her. She just needs to do it without her bosses finding out.
Now, as complications both professional and personal stack up, Molly can only hope that her own wits, heart, and instincts are enough—both in and out of court.
An opened three- pack of pastel- colored sticky notes triggers the fight in the kitchen. Our brawling, which has already swept through several rooms of the house, focuses on the small things: loose wedding photos; extra toilet paper rolls; the ordinary ceramic soap dish bought in happier times. Never mind that I’ve never set eyes on any of the stuff we’re fighting about, or that I’m not actually part of this couple (or any other, for that matter). I’m here solely for the battle, to guard against, as my boss Lillian delicately put it, any “hell hath no fury burning and slashing shit.”
Now, though, we’ve taken a sharp veer into the surreal. The kitchen— gleaming white marble countertops and floor tiles, six- burner stove, massive central island— should be the set for some celebrity chef concocting culinary masterpieces. Instead, it’s where Stewart Billings is desperately trying to smuggle sticky notes into a garbage bag filled with his “personal items,” those things he’s allowed to take when he’s booted out of this six- story town house (Central Park adjacent) later this afternoon, pursuant to the terms of the prenuptial agreement he signed seven years ago. The rest of us, two lawyers and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Liesel, watch him with various degrees of disbelief.
“Stewart. Sticky notes down,” Liesel says, walking forward
with her palm extended.
“But I bought them,” he says, wiping his nose with his sleeve. “I remember doing it. I was deciding between these and—”
“Stewart, please. Have you ever really bought anything?” She presses her fingers against her palm, opening and closing them like a fourth- grade teacher commandeering a contraband video game.
I try to catch the eye of Erika, the other lawyer, but she is suddenly typing feverishly on her BlackBerry, wholly consumed.
Stewart blinks at me, fixing his features in a puppy dog pout. We’ve been at this for several hours, long enough that he’s pegged me as the softy. Not that I have any real competition in this group. Before I can respond, Liesel cuts in. “Megan is my lawyer, Stewart.”
“Molly.” I offer my third reminder of the day. “My name is Molly.”
“Whatever. She’s here to protect me from you, you idiot.” She waves a hand at me. “Tell him.”
I pause, trying to come up with a politic response for Liesel.
“Hello?” Liesel snaps her fingers in my direction. “Speak. Tell him you’re here to protect me.”
“I’m here to make sure the move goes smoothly.” I am mortified at the squeak in my voice. “Why don’t you split the sticky pads, maybe each take one and a half?”
Liesel snorts. “Thanks, Pollyanna, for that crackerjack legal analysis. Stewart, I’m warning you. Put them down.”
Stewart, displaying a bravery I have not yet seen this morning, defies her, clutching the sticky pads with one hand and continuing to root around the drawer with the other.
I walk over to Erika and lower my voice. “Maybe one of us should run out to get another packet of notepads? It might help move things along.”
Stewart, hearing me, drops the notes on the counter. “It’s not about the sticky pads. It’s the principle of this whole thing.” His voice descends from a wail into a forlorn whimper. “The principle of this whole, incredibly fucked-up thing.”
Oh Lord. Is he crying? Without thinking, I grab a tissue from my pocket and offer it to him. Luckily, Liesel misses my lapse into empathy; she’s too busy staring at Stewart with frosty disdain. “Which incredibly fucked-up thing?” She flashes a harsh smile. “That you slept with your trainer? Or that your gravy train’s ending?”
Unsurprisingly, Stewart does not look soothed.
When his sniffles become impossible to ignore, Erika finally looks up from her BlackBerry. “Stewart.” She frowns, taking his arm and leading him out of the kitchen. “Let’s go calm down.” Liesel stalks over to the kitchen island, flicks the sticky notes in the open drawer and slams it shut. “I’m going upstairs.” She throws the words over her shoulder, not bothering to look at me. “But what about the rest of—”
Still walking away from me, she cuts me off. “I’ll be in the cat room. Don’t follow me; strangers upset them.”
The cat room? I don’t even get a chance to ask before Liesel exits the room and heads upstairs, her feet pounding a percussive BOOM on each step.
My descent down the rabbit hole into Bacon Payne’s matrimonial department began at approximately eleven in the morning two months before moving day at the Billings house. I had finished packing up the last crumbs from my desk in the corporate group (stapler, ficus, opened box of Thin Mints) and, Bankers Box carefully balanced on my forearms, took the elevator to the firm’s thirty- seventh floor.
When the doors opened, Kim, the matrimonial department’s secretary, was pacing back and forth, clutching a stack of files. I had seen her before; she was one of the smokers that huddled outside the firm’s service entrance, the group that Kevin, my former office mate, had dubbed “the Dementors.” The nickname was spot-on: the smokers clustered outside, miserably sucking down their cigarettes and creating a cloud of perpetual smoke, regardless of weather, time of day or, presumably, their workloads.
Although she had obviously been waiting for my arrival, Kim barely glanced at me as she shoved the files into my box, squashing my ficus in the process. “Getfamiliar. AnyquestionsaskLiz,” she said, her back already to me as she led me down a hallway and nodded into an office.
I peered into the empty office. “Is this—,” I started to ask, but Kim was already halfway down the hall.
My name, Molly Grant, was on the nameplate, so it probably was my office, I reasoned, and the one next door that read ELIZABETH SHER must be Liz’s. I glanced in to see a woman talking into one of those goofy headsets that always made me think of telephone operators in old movies.
“I know, Bob, I know,” she said, her hands waving as though he were in the room, “but that still doesn’t get to our issues with the holidays. Mmmm- hmmm. Yup. No, so what if she’s Jewish?” She shook her head emphatically, and her blond corkscrews bobbed along. “They celebrated Christmas with the kids every single year. It’s a family tradition. No, no, no— let me finish— Ruby should be able to continue the family traditions too.”
A few minutes later, Liz, apparently having resolved Ruby’s holiday plans, buzzed my intercom. “Molly,” she said, her shout floating through our common wall a beat ahead of her muffled voice on my speakerphone. “I’m finishing up some calls, but lunch when I’m done?”
“Okay,” I yelled in the direction of her office.
“Hi, Bill. Liz Sher,” I heard her say, her voice now sharp with purpose. “Listen, if you’re going to spend that much money on hookers, please use cash, not your credit card. It’s just bad planning.”
I suppressed a smile. If Bill and Ruby were reliable indicators of our clientele, I would not be bored.
When I graduated from law school, I thought corporate law sounded perfect: arm’s-length, sophisticated business transactions on behalf of anonymous institutions. It would be, Dean Laylor advised me, the best antidote to what he referred to as “that unfortunate clinic incident.”
And there was nowhere better to bury myself in the paperwork generated by sterile financial transactions than the corporate group of the Manhattan headquarters of Bacon, Buckley, Worthington & Payne, LLP.
Home of five hundred impeccably credentialed lawyers, Bacon Payne’s client list included behemoth global financial institutions, cutting- edge technology companies chockablock with newly minted millionaires, and the rulers of several obscenely wealthy foreign nations. Bacon Payne’s plush Park Avenue offices boasted an art gallery, complete with an original Miró, a state-of-he- art gym and a dining room (not cafeteria, mind you). Year after year, its attorneys received the highest compensation in Manhattan.
The day after I received my offer, Tara Parker, my law school’s director of career services, who clipped around the halls like a championship mall- walker, tracked me down in the library. She leaned her blond- cropped head close to mine and said in a stage whisper, “Well, this is it, honey. Your life is about to start.”
I met the gaze of her fiercely mascaraed eyes and felt her words in my soul. This must be what I had been working so hard for all of my life.
Right before she walked away, she patted my arm. “Have you seen their Miró?”
I shook my head.
She rolled her eyes. “Exquisite.”
Five months and twenty- nine days after starting, I recognized that I’d made a mistake. I had just spent an all- nighter summarizing the contents of thirty- six Bankers Boxes filled with mind- numbing financials related to the sale of a German poultry feed company. When I finally presented my memo to a partner named Doug King, he yelled at me for twenty minutes for the unforgivable crime of spelling “document” as “dicament” on page 4.
I stood stone- faced through his diatribe— even nodding occasionally to affirm a few insults of which Doug King seemed especially proud— but immediately afterward I ducked into a secluded internal stairwell and burst into tears. My big problem wasn’t just that Doug King (who I later learned was nicknamed Douche King) had called me “lazy,” “stupid” and “the face of Bacon Payne’s lowered hiring standards.” Nor was it that I was exhausted enough to hallucinate tiny brown floating bugs around my peripheral vision. It was that I didn’t give a flying fig about any of the work I had done since starting at the firm.
At that point, it might have made sense to look for another job, but I dug in my heels. I had to stay. Not for the salary, although Bacon Payne paid more than any other firm, but for what some starry- eyed associate had dubbed the “Payne- ment.” Every Bacon Payne associate who came in as a first- year and made it to his or her fifth anniversary in good standing was given a whopper of a lump- sum bonus, equal to one entire year in salary.
The second I heard about the Payne- ment, I did some quick calculations— all Bacon Payne associates did at some point— and realized that if I was diligent about paying off my student loans the first five years, I could easily knock off the rest with the bonus. Five years after law school, I could be free to do whatever I wanted.
To be honest, my fantasy was only planned up to the part where I lassoed the American Dream for the Grant Family by paying off my parents’ home equity line of credit, a loan they’d taken out nine years before to finance my college tuition. I was fuzzy on the details, but with the three of us debt free, I was sure the rest would fall into place and I hung tight, sloughing through three interminably boring years. Until I realized that there was a better way to wait out my sentence at Bacon Payne.
I’d been on the elevator after yet another all- nighter, desperately wanting a shower— it was one of those sticky July days and I felt incredibly smelly and greasy- haired. Factsination!—the news and information service that was helpfully displayed 24-7 on monitors on our elevators— made me yearn for the days of Muzak. The word of the day, the screen informed me, was paroxysm, as in Mr. Smith had a paroxysm of rage when he saw all the work still on his desk.
I stopped myself from flipping off the screen as the doors opened on the thirty- seventh floor. A female attorney stepped in, looking so crisp: showered, clean and downright elegant.
“I still can’t believe that,” she said to her companion, an older woman in a proper pink suit whom I took to be a client. “He claimed ignorance to every question: how much he made, what his credit bills totaled, the purchase price of the ski house. I’ve never taken a deposition like that.”
“I told you he was slimy and evasive,” said the client. “Will this hurt us?”
“Not at all, Joyce.” Crisp lawyer’s voice rang with confidence as she looked sternly at the client, her voice ringing with confidence. “We’re right where we want to be.”
I was stunned. My own days were filled with nebulous orders barked down a chain of command from partner to senior associate to midlevel associate to me. It was like the childhood game of telephone with the punch line being that billions of dollars were at stake. Meanwhile, this lawyer, this clean and well- groomed junior associate who looked not much older than I, had been advising actual human beings and taking depositions— something I’d only seen on television.
I had always sort of thought of the matrimonial group with a touch of distaste, like distant relatives whom you had to invite to Christmas dinner, but inevitably got a little too drunk and messed up the Heritage Village arrangement. But maybe I had gotten it all wrong. Maybe it was the place to be, the most exciting department at Bacon Payne.
Lillian Starling led the group and her name was constantly in the gossip magazines because of her high- profile cases. I was thrilled each time I spotted one of her rich and famous clients in person. We all were: every so often, one of the other associates would rush down the hall, stick his head in one of our offices and whisper, for example, when the star of that TV show Night Wings was there, “Dana Carter, in reception on thirty- three, now.” This year alone, I had pretended to nonchalantly walk by the reception area to see a Brazilian pop star (great skin), a two- time Oscar winner (much shorter in person than in his films) and one of New York’s senators (flagrant nose- picker), all waiting for Lillian Starling.
So, I embarked on “Operation Transfer” (Kevin, a firm believer in nicknames, also deserved naming credit for that one). I hounded Lionel Baird, the corporate group’s assigning partner, for work involving the matrimonial group. He had looked a little concerned, as though he was missing something— most corporate associates were not eager to do divorce work, which at Bacon Payne had all the cachet of ambulance chasing— but a few weeks later, he knocked on my door with an assignment: Rick Roth had retained Lillian Starling for his divorce. One of Mr. Roth’s big problems was his wife’s claims that Rick’s company, Little Miss Fancy— a girls’ clothing company based, Lionel had said, on the “puked-up tutu aesthetic”—was marital property. Lillian, in order to understand the worth of Little Miss Fancy, needed a corporate associate to cull through the company’s financial records.
I culled. And after I spent an entire month of eighteen- hour days sorting and organizing and sorting some more, one of Lillian’s associates, a first- year named Denise, quit, and I was invited to take her spot.
I had to reassure Lionel Baird that no, I had not been hit on the head, nor was I under duress; I did genuinely want to transfer to the matrimonial group and yes, it would mean the world to me if he could advise Dominic Pizaro, the head of corporate, to sign off on the move. (Dominic himself would not have an opinion about this; to Dominic, junior associates were as indistinguishable as one ridged potato chip from the rest of its bag mates— just another snack that might break on its way to being eaten.)
And so, I felt a warped joy upon hearing Liz reprimand her client about his escort fees: it meant I was finally on the right track.
A few hours later, I sat at one of the booths in the Bacon Payne dining room with Liz and Rachel Stanton, another matrimonial associate.
“So tell us,” said Rachel, sinking in the seat across from me. “How it went down.”
I summarized my role on the Little Miss Fancy assignment and Liz swallowed a forkful of penne. “You must have done one heck of a job with that due diligence.”
“I also sort of made a personal appeal to Lillian about how much I wanted to be in this group.”
Early one evening during my third week of work on the Roth case, I was bracing myself to open yet another one of the forty boxes, wondering whether my daily headaches indicated the return of my caffeine addiction when Lillian Starling breezed in.
“This is Little Miss Fancy?” Her sharp brown eyes darted around the room, taking in the stacks of boxes and barely glancing at me. I jumped up from my chair with astonishing torque considering the cushy depth of the leather seat.
This was the closest I had been to Lillian. I towered over her even with the lift that her voluminous brown hair gave her—the side effect of the extra inches offered by her hair was a dwarfing of her face, which looked disproportionately tiny, like a Monchhichi doll. And that hair! Expertly layered and blown out, it had every shade of brown I could imagine: highlights of caramel, copper, ash brown, chocolate, chestnut, fawn and russet. I could tell that had I read Vogue with the zeal that I reserved for People, I would have been able to quickly identify the designers responsible for her expensive nubby black and oatmeal suit and and heels.
“Hi, Ms. Starling. I’m Molly Grant, the corporate associate assigned to the case. Can I help you find anything?”
“Yes, we have a financial statement due to the court this week and we need some of the tax returns and registers. . . .” Her back was to me and she started impatiently lifting the lids off the boxes without looking at their contents, “Oh, God. Is this in any kind of order at all?”
“Here, let me show you.” I quickly lifted two of the boxes, plunked them down on the table and handed her a manila folder from the side of one. “Copies of the tax returns and financial reports from the years prior to and immediately after the marriage, as well as the date of commencement of the action. And this memo summarizes all of the numbers. The backup documentation is in here.”
Lillian glanced at the folder, her face impassive. And right then, at that exact moment, my parents called, the conference room’s ordinary soundtrack— layers of sterile HVAC system white noise— suddenly pierced by the loud and twangy string chords that kick off Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Lillian’s head jerked up from the memo. I intoned seven I’m sorrys in a meditative chant and rushed to turn off the phone, honestly believing in that moment that getting a personal call at seven o’clock at night indicated severe perversions in my character.
Lillian gave a shave of a nod— dipping her eyelids, not her chin— but it was, I knew, a miniature stamp of approval. “I like that song,” she said distractedly, and I could not determine which had won her over: my snap to attention or my taste in Southern rock.
Her eyes returned to the memo and she said, “Helpful,” confirming it by opening the flap on her Birkin bag and sliding in the document. Emboldened, I started talking. “Actually, Ms. Starling, I’ve sorted almost everything, so let me know if you need anything else. Also, I just wanted to say— thanks for the opportunity. This is really interesting work and I’m actually a big fan of yours. I would love to work on more matrimonial cases with you if you ever need me.” The words had poured out in an obvious and desperate attempt to force a connection between us.
At the memory of this, I smiled sheepishly across the table at Liz and Rachel. “Did I say appeal? To be honest, it was a flat- out genuflect.”
“Now I get it.” Liz grinned and pointed at me with her fork. “You’re the perfect hire. You fed her ego, plus she gets to stick it to corporate.”
“What, like an East Coast/ West Coast thing? The gang warfare of Bacon Payne?”
Rachel laughed. “More like a one- sided inferiority complex thing. You know how corporate deals are constantly paraded in front of hires, clients, summer associates? Well, Lillian hates being a little fish in a big pond. A chance to steal an associate from corporate is vindication.”
I thought of Kevin’s words from earlier that morning. “I can’t believe you’re actually going to become a divorce lawyer,” he had said as I gently placed my ill- fated ficus in the Bankers Box. “Have you no ambition?”
“Plus the timing was right because Denise had just given notice,” I said. “Why did she leave, by the way?”
Rachel dropped her head, suddenly focused on locating the remaining chickpeas in her salad, and Liz squinted and twisted her mouth. “She and Lillian had some differences. Lillian didn’t really think she was”—she paused, searching for the right word—“ committed to the practice and the clients.”
“Any advice for how I can appear committed?” Even as I asked, I wasn’t really concerned. I had already proven myself, literally doubling my workload as a sign of my interest.
“Just be available to her,” said Liz. “You’ll figure it out.”
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” Rachel half laughed. “Hey,” she said to a woman approaching our table.
It was the lawyer from the elevator; my memory had not exaggerated her crispness. She was one of those glossy and elegant women native to Manhattan but rare in a law firm: shiny chestnut- colored hair, clear blemish- free skin, groomed eyebrows and nails. Her body was narrow and lean without being bony and I was sure all her clothing looked perfectly put together, with no wrinkles, sweater pills or pet hair to be found.
Women like her had been making me feel rumpled and sweaty since I had moved to New York, like they had the answer to some question I didn’t even know how to ask. Usually these insecurities were subterranean, of the low- grade, nagging variety, but that day in the elevator, seeing her had pushed them center stage, under a spotlight.
I looked down at my nails— they were shapeless but clean. I probably wasn’t sweating, given that there wasn’t a partner in sight and, as always, all thirteen floors of Bacon Payne were set to a freezing sixty- eight degrees.
“Uh-oh. Are you scaring the new kid?” Crisp lawyer glided into the booth and smiled at me. “Don’t get caught up in any of this drama. But definitely let us know if you have any questions along the way. I’m Hope,” she said, extending her hand.
Liz raised one eyebrow and sipped at the straw of her soda. “And that’s your advice? So too- cool- for- school. Hey, listen. I need to brainstorm with you guys about the Landing case. Did you get my e-mail? How much support would you offer if the husband has made one million eight for the last two years but is on track for two million three this year? The wife has a medical degree but quit to raise the kids—”
“Which really means supervise the nanny.” Hope directed this to me.
“Hey, there’s a lot of coordination involved in supervising a nanny,” Rachel said, and they all nodded seriously for a minute before bursting into laughter.
“Anyway,” said Liz, “the kids are ten and thirteen. . . .”
And then they were off, heatedly discussing alimony scenarios for the rest of lunch as I tried to follow along.
“Hi.” I picked up on the first ring.“Molly,” my dad whispered. “We just wanted to say good luck.”
“Thanks.” I lowered my voice to match his. “Are you whispering because you’re finally going to tell me where you buried the gold?”
There was a pause that I correctly interpreted as my mom pulling the phone away from him.
“Sorry if we’re interrupting, but we waited until lunchtime so we wouldn’t get you in trouble by calling.” No dramatic whispering from her; her voice was standard “business brisk,” as it always was when she was at their shop.
“I won’t get in trouble for talking on the phone, Mom. Lawyers are supposed to talk on the phone.”
“So, how’s day one?”
“Great.” From years of receiving that same answer to this question, my parents thought Bacon Payne was the Best! Place! To Work! Ever! Such were the implicit terms of our family arrangement: my parents had gone above and beyond to provide me with opportunity beyond their means, and in exchange, I did not squander, eschew or complain (to them) about same opportunity. Today, though, I felt a little more honest than I usually did.
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