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Love Unmasked -- Linda Steinberg

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Love Unmasked

He's learned to live in the shadows.  She lures him into the light.

Ambitious attorney Christine Lawson has landed a controversial court case which can launch her career as a litigator—or kill it. A week before trial, the hardworking but reserved rookie is desperate to learn the secrets of courtroom presence. But the only one who can help her is a disfigured recluse with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Astrodome.

Yet as she looks past the scars and rudeness, she sees the brilliant mind and dry humor of the charismatic litigator who once charmed a nation with his passion for human rights. Intense and demanding, the phantom of the courtroom draws Christine into his world and challenges her to give her whole heart to the law…and to him.

Once handsome and successful, RJ Parker had his world shattered when a gang who objected to his political activism sliced his face to shreds. Now he lives life in the shadows, going out only at night and trying cases vicariously as a legal consultant.

Until he meets the beautiful Christine. For her he braves the daylight and mentors her through a momentous courtroom trial. Through her eyes he sees the better man his disfigurement has made him. He wants her to stay with him in his world of shadows, but ultimately, to be worthy of her love, he must accept the challenge she offers and learn to live in the light.

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Christine Dawson snatched the crystal turtle off her desk and hurled it across the office. The delicate sculpture shattered against the wall with a satisfying crash, along with her hopeful ambitions. Frustrating tears stung her eyes. If she couldn’t manage her own client, how was she going to handle opposing witnesses?

Get control. Don’t let week-before-trial jitters play games with your mind.

Crossing the room, she stepped over the debris.  From her fourteenth floor window she stared out at the jagged Houston skyline, inhaling deep breaths. You can’t blow this one.

She was lucky to get a second chance. And not just any chance. Walden vs. O’Connor was the meaty, in-your-face lawsuit even seasoned litigators salivated over. The break that could catapult her stalled career into the big leagues.

Or kill it. If she froze again...

A knock sounded on her half-open office door. “Christine?” Her boss’s voice floated in from the hallway. “Everything okay?”

“Fine.” Shifting away from the window, she returned to her desk, and with a carefully orchestrated side step, swept the broken glass under it and out of sight. “Everything’s great.”

“Glad to hear it.” Bill Elliott, the firm’s senior partner, stepped in. Angling his glasses over his freckled nose, he cleared his throat. “I know you didn’t want help. But I’ve decided to put someone with you on the O’Connor case.”

No! She clenched her fists behind her back, willing oxygen into her lungs. “I can handle this, Bill. The Miller case was--”

“Everyone gets nervous on their first trial.” His kindly blue eyes swept her face. “But--” He leaned toward her and lowered his voice. “It can’t happen again.”

“It won’t.” She fought to keep her eyes level with his.

The azure blue of his gaze turned icy gray. “Walden vs. O’Connor is a critical case for the firm. Once the media gets hold of it, every gay rights activist in Houston will be out on Montrose demonstrating. I’d like someone on your team with more experience, someone who knows the territory.”

He’d lost confidence in her. Stomach churning, she grasped at a thin hope. “As second chair?”


She didn’t even try to hide her relieved sigh. He wasn’t taking her case away from her! Her hands fell to her sides, brushing her linen skirt. “I won’t disappoint you, Bill.”

“No, you won’t. I’ve seen to that.” He motioned to a shadowy figure outside the doorway. “Christine, I believe you know--”

Oh my God. As the man stepped in, she froze in shock.

"RJ Parker," he said, extending his hand.

Parker? This couldn’t be the famous trial lawyer. The scarred flesh masquerading as a human face twisted the man’s features into a Halloween mask. Narrow white lines crisscrossed his forehead like a tic-tac-toe board, disappearing into pockets of discolored skin.

She couldn’t look away.

“I’ve set up the east conference room for you two this week.” Her boss’s voice seemed to come from another world. “Let me know if you need anything.” Muttering something about a meeting, Bill edged out of her office.

Christine only heard his exit. Her eyes riveted in macabre fascination on the jagged creases in RJ Parker's cheeks, his distorted mouth, the nose that was slightly off-center. 

"It's not contagious," he said.

"I...I'm sorry.” She broke her gaze and watched him lower his extended hand. Her own hand was...still behind her back. What must he think of her? "I've...been extremely rude. I don't usually--”

"Forget it," he said coldly. "I'm used to it.” He tossed a rumpled jacket over a well-worn briefcase, releasing the musty odor of stale cigarette smoke. "If you can't resist a `Phantom of the Courtroom' remark, spit it out. You can't hurt my feelings. I've heard them all.”

He’d obviously expected her insensitive reaction. And you didn’t disappoint him.

“I’m honored to meet you.” She scrambled to recover her professional mien. “I’ve read all your cases. Your trial summations are brilliant.” He’d tried hundreds of lawsuits in the San Francisco area and won most of them. “Almost every landmark case I studied was litigated by RJ Parker.”

"Thank you," he said stiffly. "I used to be him."

Strike two. In less than two minutes. If she were deliberately trying to offend him, she couldn't have done a better job. "I haven't even introduced myself," she blathered on. "I'm Christine Dawson.” Too little, too late, she offered her hand.

He shoved both of his into his pants pockets. "I know who you are.”

She pulled back her hand and pretended to brush lint from her suit jacket. “Oh?”

"I saw you at the A.C.L.U. reception last March. You were wearing a red dress with a long gold necklace. You were drinking champagne and talking to Arthur Martinez."

An uneasy chill passed through her. How could she not have noticed a face like that? Had he lurked behind a pillar or a palm, observing her in secret like some...phantom? Christine twitched under his steady gaze, wondering how long he'd watched her--and why.

"You have a good memory,” she said guardedly. “I’d just moved here." After six long, dead-end years filing wills and probate documents. "Arthur and I worked together in Minneapolis. Is he a ‘friend’ of yours?" she asked delicately. An outspoken proponent of Hispanic rights, Arthur Martinez was also an open homosexual.

"We are good friends," he hedged. "We've worked on several cases together." He rounded the corner of her desk and frowned at the floor, where the scattered shards of the crystal turtle’s remains glinted in the strands of the corporate beige carpet. “Been throwing things at your clients?"

Was he jesting or jeering? That catatonic face gave no clue. "Not usually. I just had a rather stressful client meeting.” She flashed a sheepish grin.

He didn't return her smile. "Well, if you treat your clients the way you do consultants, it's a wonder you have any."

I said I was sorry, dammit. After sweeping up the glass slivers and dumping the debris into the metal trashcan, she rose to meet RJ Parker’s incisive brown eyes. "I've never worked with a consultant before," she admitted, questioning the wisdom of the confession as soon as she spoke. "How do we do this?"

"You're the boss.” The impudent twinkle in his eyes negated the humble words. "I'll file briefs if that's what you want me to do. But since I was hired for my expertise, it would be to your advantage to let me manage the case up to trial."

"Fine.” Did he expect her to argue? His experience in this one issue outweighed her whole résumé. And he obviously knew it.

He pulled the low-backed visitor’s chair away from the wall and planted himself in it, legs outstretched, arms folded across his chest. “Tell me about the case.”

“Didn’t Bill brief you?”

His frown seemed even more intimidating because it moved so few muscles in his petrified face. “I’d like to hear it from you.”