Sheila Harrison Grant is the first African American woman ever nominated to the federal bench in Cleveland. But when her thirteen-year-old daughter Olivia shares a family secret with a well-meaning guidance counselor, she sets the wheels in motion to feed a partisan senate’s opposition, threatening her mother’s position…and both of their lives.
Once an ambitious young law student with promise, Casey Cort made the mistake of crossing a classmate from a prominent and influential family. Now she works as an unfulfilled, faceless cog in a broken legal system.
When fate gives Casey a second chance, she has to set aside her lack of faith in justice and find the strength to fight for those with nowhere else to turn.
In this first novel of the Casey Cort series, Sylvie Fox—a former trial lawyer in Cleveland—weaves a tale that blends the best of today’s top legal thrillers with the heart and soul of women’s fiction, in a story ripped from real-world headlines.
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*Warning: These scenes contain spoilers.*
*Don't read if you aren't ready for the unvarnished truth.*
Peyton & Sheila: The True Story
Sheila had first met Peyton over twenty years ago, in nineteen eighty. He was ten years her senior. When working at the firm during the summer of her second year of law school, Peyton had been assigned to be her advisor—the firm’s plan to pair a young summer associate with a more senior associate.
Although they had very different backgrounds, they’d hit it off right away. Peyton Bennett was the grandson of one of the firm’s founders, and had always been groomed to be an attorney. The grandfather/founder was long dead, and his father had retired from the firm. Despite the assurance his legacy provided, that he would always have a job, Peyton felt ostracized from the other associates who didn’t think he had to try as hard—that he was getting a free ride, while they had to slave away in the library.
Peyton had confided to Sheila early on that practicing law was what his father had willed him to do. He didn’t get any great pleasure from being scrutinized by his father’s friends, his every misstep reported to his father.
His rebellion had been twofold. He had taken some money he inherited, and bought an abandoned factory building on West Sixth Street in the Flats. For five years with his precious free time, he gutted and remodeled the building. Peyton leased the first floor to a boutique the likes of which had started to populate the Flats as the downtown renaissance started. The top three floors he’s turned into a home. His parents had only come to visit once, preferring to see him in their stuffy Fairmount Boulevard home in Cleveland Heights.
His other rebellion had been his relationship with Sheila. Looking back, Sheila thought, half of her attraction to Peyton—and probably his attraction to her had been the taboo of their relationship, partner versus associate, rich versus poor, black versus white. Not to mention the inviolable vows of her marriage to Keith.
Sheila had not set out to ensnare Peyton. That first summer, Sheila was just relieved to have someone to talk to. The older partners, just thought it novel to have hired a black woman—and generally avoided her. The other summer associates thought she was an affirmative action hire—and didn’t include her in their nightly drinking sessions. Instead, when she wanted to go for coffee, or lunch, or had a question about law, or even just about the way things worked at Bennett Friehof, she went to Peyton.
When Sheila started at the firm, full time, in the fall of the following year, she and Peyton renewed their acquaintance,. It was during her sixth year at the firm, when she was first up for partner, that her relationship with Keith started to deteriorate. Sheila was working between ten and twelve hours a day and Keith wanted her to quit and start a family. He’d waited long enough he said, almost ten years while she went to law school, and worked at the firm.
One Friday night, during that sixth grueling year, Sheila was in her office, ostensibly working, but really avoiding going home. Sheila was feeling, and probably looking fatigued, when Peyton stopped by her office, and asked her to dinner. Glad for the distraction, Sheila made a quick call to Keith, telling him that she needed to attend a last minute firm function.
When Peyton suggested they have dinner in his loft, Sheila didn’t think anything of it. Peyton had beamed with pride when talking about the work he was doing on his loft, and she was eager to see it for herself They walked the five blocks to his house which worked out some of the stress that she’d built up over the first few months with the firm.
Outside of work, Peyton was more himself, and more fun. To this day, she remembered that first dinner. Peyton cooked—and made a pasta dish he called bucatini all’Amatriciana, which they enjoyed with a Chianti Classico he’d brought from his last trip to Italy—a touch she remembered to this day. All the while, they talked, about work, about politics, religion—she was surprised that she admired his insight. He was more thoughtful than his upbringing would have led her to believe.
When eleven o’clock came and went, Sheila stopped looking at her watch. She eased off her heels, and decided to enjoy herself. They talked, had more wine, and listened to jazz—the first time she’d heard music on compact disc. Sheila didn’t know how much time had passed when the lull in their conversation became companionable silence. What happened next appeared neither planned, nor calculated, but at once they went from sitting, to kissing, to making love—and Sheila did nothing to stop it.
She stayed the night, and Peyton dropped her off at home first thing Saturday morning. Though Keith didn’t inquire—he’d stopped asking at that point—she volunteered that she’d put in an all-nighter at the request of a senior lawyer.
Their relationship continued for almost four years. They’d have dinner, and sometimes, but not always made love in his loft. When Sheila went off the pill, and became pregnant with Olivia, Keith never suspected, Peyton never asked, and Sheila never spoke of the possibility that someone other than Keith could be her father. When Olivia was born, Keith was so proud, that Sheila didn’t say a word.
Peyton and Sheila’s relationship ended when he met and married his wife, a new associate at the firm, Kimberleigh Sadler. Their wedding had been a big firm event, and Sheila had gone alone, and smiled, and danced. It was the first night she drank herself to sleep.
(deleted) Chapter 8
The Buck Stops Here
October 21, 2001
As she sat down at her vanity, in her white on white bedroom, to pay this month’s bills, Sheila was amazed as always at the paltry size of her checking and savings accounts. For someone who had been working professionally for almost twenty years, she hadn’t gotten very far.
As soon as she had gotten her first lucrative job as a summer associate at Bennett Friehof, she had spent the money on helping her sister. Deirdre was two years older than her, and had gotten married just out of high school. By the time Sheila was working, Deirdre was divorced, with three children, a deadbeat ex-husband, and struggling to make ends meet. Keith was working, and they were able to live better than most students on his salary alone.
So that summer, and fall, Sheila helped her sister buy a used Toyota when her old Oldsmobile died. She helped Deirdre put a security deposit on an new apartment after she and her kids had been evicted from the old one. And during that winter, while Sheila was in her last year of law school, she had helped Deirdre pay the heating bill on the drafty old house she was renting.
The requests for help kept coming, a cousin in jail, another in trouble in her parents’ home state of Georgia. By the time her father became sick, everyone expected Sheila to step in, and she did.
All her life, Sheila envisioned her father a strong man who could fix anything that broke around their house, who did the maintenance on their series of used family cars, a man who always seemed larger than life. It was only when he got sick, that she realized how hard his life had been. Her mother and father had come up from Georgia in their early twenties, seeking the prosperity of the north. It was not as easy as they had hoped.
With only an eighth grade education, her mother had never gotten work other than as a domestic—cleaning the large homes of the city’s wealthy in Shaker and Cleveland Heights. Her father, after a series of odd jobs, had finally gotten hired on during the war, at the shipyard on Lake Erie. Her father worked hard, year after year, surviving many rounds of layoffs—always hoping that his hard work and loyalty would earn him a coveted place in the boilermaker’s union. He was never admitted to the union, and one year before his pension would have vested—he was laid off.
At the time, Sheila thought him lethargic and depressed because of the devastation brought by the lay off, but when he started coughing, at first a dry cough that never seemed to dissipate, then repeated bouts of pneumonia, she and her mother started to worry. Because he didn’t have health insurance, he was reluctant to go to the doctor—but Sheila offered to pay. The diagnosis of Mesothelioma was a long time coming, especially in the early eighties before the effects of asbestos were widely known. By the time, Sheila knew her father was dying, she’d already exhausted her savings on radiation and chemotherapy treatment, and she hadn’t been able to save her father.
Her mother’s death of a heart attack quickly followed—although Sheila believed that her mother died of a broken heart. Her father’s illness and her parent’s funeral expenses really set Sheila back. She was divorced not soon after and then she didn’t have even Keith’s sporadic income to help her out. Now that her parent’s debts had been paid off, Sheila was hoping to save for a home of their own. A place where Olivia could play in the yard, and invite her friends over, and play loud music without disturbing the landlord.
Throwing her checkbook down in disgust, Sheila picked up her drink from the vanity, sank to the bed and switched the TV on with its remote. The first sip she took was the best of the night.
March 23, 2002
Sheila left work and drove the ten minutes from her office at 16th and Arch streets to the Old Pine Presbyterian Church in the Philadelphia’s historic downtown area. Sheila parked her car on Pine Street and marveled at the church’s beautiful Greek Revival edifice. Though she had been coming here for about a month, this was going to be her first time speaking.
When she got to the church basement, Sheila poured herself a cup of liquid courage, ate a cookie, and smiled tentatively at a couple of the faces around her that she recognized. When everyone had taken their seats and the meeting came to order, Sheila walked up to the dais. She smoothed her skirt, and spoke:
“My name is Sheila Grant, and I am an alcoholic.”