Authors: Lexie Ray
Worthy Series, Book 3 of 3
L E X I E R A Y
Published by: Rascal Hearts
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Cover Art: Rosy England Fisher
Table of Contents
I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror. My face was perfectly symmetrical. It was the face I had when I still had my whole life, when I still had a bright future and parents who loved me and nothing but hope for my future.
I hadn’t seen that face in a long time. The face I had become accustomed to cringing away from was half of what I used to be and half a monster. The monstrous side drooped and puckered, blistered and folded. It was a horrible scar, one that I could only barely cover with makeup. Even then, anyone who took a second glance at me would see everything I tried to hide.
I never wanted to put another drop of makeup on my face ever again. There was nothing I wanted to hide about me anymore.
Which wasn’t true, of course. It seemed that just as soon as I’d escaped my most obvious secret, I’d accumulated a handbag full of other, less obvious, but much more insidious ones.
Would I have kept my scar to keep myself from this kind of pain? It was pointless to think about. Life didn’t offer those kinds of trades, and it was a waste of time to ponder them.
All I needed to ponder right now was the fact that my face was whole again. It was the first step to making my life whole again. If this could happen, getting rid of my horrible scar, after all this time, I had to have some small amount of hope that I’d eventually make my life whole again, too.
“Now, I hope you didn’t get your hopes up too much,” said Ash Martin, the man who had worked this apparent miracle. “I don’t know if you remember our first appointment. I explained that I could do the surgery on your scar, but I could never fully remove it. Now, for better or worse, the damage you did to it actually helped a little bit. I can’t really give you the reasoning behind that. I think we had some really good results, don’t you?”
“I think we had some better than good results,” I said, my voice a little huskier than usual. They told me that was permanent, too. On that horrible night, the one I could barely think about, the one that made me cling to my sanity in fear that it would desert me once again, I’d apparently screamed so loud and for so long that I’d done lasting damage to my vocal cords.
Ash had been a doll through all this, though. He’d been the right choice, the right person to call when I’d found myself in a totaled car, my life’s blood gushing out from between my legs and the life I’d created inside of myself slowly extinguishing.
Of course, he’d been the only person I could call.
The person I should’ve been able to call, the co-creator of the life I used to have inside of myself, the man I thought I loved and my husband, Jonathan, had made himself emotionally unavailable.
I had started wondering if it wasn’t the hateful sex we’d had with each other that had killed our child, not the tumble I’d taken off a cliff in the woods, fleeing from the stunning reality that everything I thought was real simply wasn’t.
Jonathan and I didn’t love each other. He was convinced that I’d slept with his best friend, and at the same time, wouldn’t own up to a slew of photos taken of him and Violet, his former fiancée, while he was traveling the world.
His travels had paid off, of course. He’d kept his post as CEO of Wharton Group, just like he’d wanted to do. It was a cold victory for both of us, for the distance had been too great.
We’d somehow decided we were able to be away from each other during the time apart. He’d proven himself, just as I knew he was capable of doing, but it had come at too great a cost.
“What are you thinking?” Ash asked, dragging me from my dark thoughts. He was a life preserver in more ways than one. “If you’re upset — see that kind of light feathering over your cheek? That’s pretty minor, considering what we were working with before, wouldn’t you agree?”
“No, I’m only marveling at your handiwork,” I said. “This is really, truly gifted stuff, Ash. I can never thank you enough.”
“You say that now, but just wait until you see the bill,” he said, laughing nervously. “My services don’t come cheap, sweetie, and I’m sorry for that. Thankfully, the insurance you get from Wharton Group will help a lot.”
“I won’t need that,” I said dismissively. I was done with all things Wharton. One of the top items on my to do list was to sever that name from my own. I was more than ready to be Michelle Smith again — even with everything that entailed.
“Michelle, you’ve been in the hospital for about a month, now,” Ash said, wringing his hands a little. “I know I don’t have to tell you how expensive that’s going to be. This is the most expensive hotel in the world, you know. Not to mention the procedures and treatments.”
I knew that the “procedures and treatments” he was talking about involved my broken ribs, the concussion, my nearly broken ankle, and the psychologist I’d been seeing after the little incident when I’d screamed enough to forever alter my own voice.
Oh, and tried to tear my face off.
Then, of course, there was the matter of my recovery following my miscarriage. That had been the darkest time of my life — darker, even than losing my parents. Even though the child had been Jonathan’s, and even though I knew that my relationship with its father was ending, I had so much hope for that baby.
We were going to be together, just us two. It was going to be a little girl, Ash had told me, and I was going to protect her from every single thing that had happened to me. We’d live in the woods, in our cottage, and we’d never come out. Not for anything.
Because if I’d never left that cottage, none of this would’ve happened. I’d never gaze at myself in a mirror and wonder what could’ve been. I would’ve lived from one day to the next, always preparing for the inevitable rigors of winter, and I wouldn’t trouble myself with such things as scars and husbands and betrayal and heartbreak.
“Do you want me to call the psychologist?” Ash asked, sounding anxious again. I wondered if I had that expression again, the one I’d dubbed “the girl at the bottom of the well.” I became that girl whenever all of my raging emotions became too much for me to cope with. I became unfeeling, just a lump of flesh and bone, operating only on the most basic of levels.
I didn’t like being that girl. It was always so hard to climb out of the well.
“I’m fine, Ash,” I said lightly, meeting his eyes briefly before looking back into the mirror. It was remarkable, really. Sure, there was just a little residual scarring, but he’d really done an incredible job.
“If you want, you can get another surgery in a couple of months,” he said. “I can probably clear the last of those blemishes.”
“Then I don’t think I’d even recognize myself,” I said, turning from side to side in the mirror. “And you’re probably just pumping me for money at this point.”
“Take the help from the insurance,” Ash urged. “You don’t have that money to burn, sweetie, especially if you’re thinking of divorcing Jonathan.”
“I don’t need his money,” I said, putting the mirror down, finally settling back into my own skin. I’d spent whole years avoiding my reflection. Seeing it whole again was hypnotic and addictive. It seemed like anything was possible, now.
Anything and nothing.
“I know that you feel like you’ve been betrayed,” Ash said, choosing his words carefully. “And you know that I’ve been nothing but supportive, right?”
“Of course I know that,” I said, looking up at the normally much more cheerful doctor. I’d been fascinated with the way he dressed when I first met him. He always kept an electric color of eyeliner on, decorating the lower rim of his eye with a surprising pop of color. I’d even met his fiancé, Hans, during my recuperation at the hospital.
Ash had been extremely helpful in keeping the Whartons out of here. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them — not my husband, not Jane, his sister, and definitely not his mother, Amelia. I’d felt a little guilty at ordering Ash to include Collier, my father-in-law, on the list I was drawing up for security, but I wanted a clean break with the Whartons. This was the way to do it.
I hadn’t wanted them to know I was here, let alone why I was here. Privacy and security at the hospital were pretty remarkable, but I didn’t want any mistakes. If Amelia wandered in here for one of her endless benefits, or if Wharton Group had any business with the facility, or if Jane had decided to augment something else on her body, they probably would’ve ended up here.
This was the premier hospital of Chicago. But if any member of the Wharton family had business here, they’d find themselves inexplicably turned away. That was the kind of influence that Ash Martin could wield, and I was lucky to have him in my corner.
Brock, Jonathan’s best friend, also found himself on that list. Brock had told me that we’d slept together on a drunken night, but I seriously doubted it. I knew what my body felt like after sex. My husband and I had it enough for me to understand it intimately. And I’d been so hungover the next morning that I’d wished for my own death, but I hadn’t felt like I’d had sex the night before.
I didn’t believe Brock’s claims, but Jonathan sure did. I didn’t understand why he took Brock’s word over my own. In terms of Jonathan’s memory loss, he’d known me for longer than he’d known Brock. By whole months, even.
It didn’t matter, though. None of it mattered. That part of my life was over, and I was in the middle of making strides forward. Everyone just needed to stay out of my way.
“My advice is, whether you want to hear it or not, to take the insurance money,” Ash said. “There’s no reason to go into serious debt over this stint in the hospital.”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I wouldn’t be going into debt. I actually have a very, very sizeable inheritance. I mean, I won’t be on a Wharton level of richness. But I will be pretty close.”
Ash gaped at this revelation for so long that I felt like I had to say something.
“That means I can take you out to lunch now and then,” I joked gently. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t like to think about it, really.”
“Don’t like to think about being taken care of for the rest of your life?” Ash said, still clearly dumbfounded. “Don’t like to think about never being beholden to anyone ever again?”
“Don’t like to think about my parents dying to make it happen,” I said. My face was so smooth. I would never be stared at because of my scar again. I still didn’t believe it.
“I’m sorry,” Ash said quickly. “I am worried about you, Michelle.”
“You’ve been great,” I said. “Really. But now I suppose I’d better figure out where to stay. How to move forward.”
Even as I said the words, and even as Ash formulated platitudes and responses, I knew exactly what I was going to do. Sometimes, to go forward, I had to go backwards first. It was becoming more and more apparent to me that I was going to have to tap in to my past in order to try to make it out of this thing.
I was riding in the backseat of my parents’ car, embroiled in a heated fight with them. What was even more infuriating was that they were not nearly as outraged as I was.
“It’s nepotism,” I argued, crossing my arms and legs stubbornly, firmly ensconced in the backseat of the car. A single white kitten heel pump dangled off my foot, and I stared at it.
“It’s not nepotism,” my mother said tiredly, swiveling around from the passenger seat to give me the eye. That eye was always so effective at imparting what she wanted to emphasize. Right now, it was telling me to drop it, but I wouldn’t.
“I don’t see how I could’ve competed for the Smith Institute annual scholarship if I’m a member of this family,” I persisted. “The prison offers a scholarship, you know, and I’m sure they don’t allow family members of employees to compete for it.”
“Michelle, we’ve been over this,” my father said, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror. He was using his patient voice, but I could tell he was right at the end of his rope. I’d brought him here myself. I knew what it sounded like.