Authors: Lexie Ray
But as much as I tried to tell myself the same things now, that there was never any way for my life as Michelle Wharton to just pick up and resume, it was difficult to believe. I’d never seen my daughter, the baby I’d lost inside my body. And Jonathan, the man responsible for that truth, was still alive. As big a city as Chicago was, I was in danger of running into him completely randomly. I still couldn’t forget the time I’d first consulted with Ash about fixing my face and then promptly saw Jonathan outside the doctor’s office.
Only this time, maybe Jonathan would walk right past me after seeing me, without realizing that he actually knew me.
If I colored my hair, maybe, if I altered the way I wore makeup and dressed, the illusion would be even more perfect. I’d never been particularly bulky, but I’d lost a lot of weight during my stint at the hospital. I needed practically a whole new wardrobe.
Of course, there was the pesky problem of my name — Michelle Wharton. Even if I decided to go back to Michelle Smith, it would still probably raise red flags. I didn’t want to be anywhere near Jonathan or his family.
Now, if I went by April, my middle name …
I bit my lip and continued to study my reflection in the bathroom mirror, taking another long sip of my drink. April Smith. She could be anything she needed to be. She could be a strong woman, a businesswoman, a woman who understood power and mobility and drive.
I could be April Smith as a camouflage until I was ready to exact revenge.
Blinking a couple of times, I stared into my own eyes. Exact revenge? Where did that come from?
Wondering if I was drink-addled or nightmare-addled, I searched my thoughts and feelings. Revenge? What could that even hope to accomplish? When I lost my baby and my marriage in one fell swoop, that was everything. I’d had everything taken away from me. How could there ever be a way to get back at anyone on that scale?
Unless I took away from Jonathan and his family the thing they valued the most: the Wharton Group. Their livelihood. Their pride.
The thought was interesting enough for me to want to sleep on it, but I was too afraid of my dreams to want to try. Instead, I drained my drink and poured another, waited for the sun to come up, made appointments with salons and spas and boutiques, tried to eat breakfast and gave up, poured another drink.
By evening, I was April Smith, waxed and primped and with a dark brown pixie cut that was apparently all the rage and suited my new angular cheek bones and sharp chin. April Smith wore Louboutin and Dior and Jimmy Choo. She had a closet full of designer labels. She wore her makeup like it was war paint and belonged to the city’s most luxurious gym. She’d inherited a hell of a lot of money from her parents’ deaths, but she was about to earn even more as soon as she assumed their old roles at their advocacy firm.
April Smith was absolutely nothing like Michelle Wharton. The only thing they had in common was that April Smith was going to bring the family that had destroyed Michelle Wharton’s life to justice.
If I’d ever realized how easy it was to hide in plain sight, to construct an entirely different identity for myself, maybe I wouldn’t have hidden out at the cottage for so long after my parents died. Of course, it was easier, now that I didn’t have the scar —easier than I would’ve ever imagined. It didn’t matter that I didn’t recognize my own reflection in a mirror. What mattered was what people saw: beauty and power.
By the next day, I was ready to begin everything. I was ready to take back what had been lost — or, at the very least, make certain people realize just how much they could lose.
“Michelle Smith. I never thought I’d see you again.”
I folded my hands in front of me and smiled blandly at the two men sitting across from me.
The one on my left was Felix Blomfeld, a chair member of my parents’ advocacy firm, the one that had made them their fortune — and, by extension, mine. Felix was a dour-looking fellow with thinning hair and wrinkles who looked like he rarely even thought about smiling. He looked the same way as I remembered him from when I was younger — like a mean old man. The years that had passed between then and now hadn’t been kind to him. The responsibility of shouldering the firm looked like it wore on him, making him haggard.
“It’s April Smith now,” I informed him, then turned my attention to the man sitting across the table to my right. He was young, perhaps only a few years older than me, and had cinnamon colored skin. His head was shaved and gleamed in the lighting of the boardroom. His eyes, if I wasn’t above paying attention to those kinds of things, were an arresting shade of green, as if they were a sample of some tropical sea somewhere.
He smiled politely at me and I lowered my eyes, aware that I was probably staring.
“April, then,” Felix sighed. “This is Milo Singh. He’s one of the firm’s many lawyers. They’re a dime a dozen, really.”
I looked back at Milo to see how he’d take this slight, but he only shook his head and frowned in a way that looked slightly mocking.
“Be nice, old man,” he chided, and Felix huffed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, April.”
Milo held out his hand, and I leaned forward to shake it. I was surprised by how firm his handshake was. Most of the people at the firm I’d been meeting seemed to think my hand was made out of glass. The more accurate assumption was that they were equal parts terrified, fascinated, and curious about just what I was doing back at the firm. Felix’s face was one of the only ones I recognized anymore, and I wondered what my parents would think about all the changes in personnel.
Maybe they’d been the only reason a lot of the old employees were there in the first place.
Advocacy wasn’t glamorous, but it was rewarding. I remembered my parents taking on anyone and everything, even if the issues in question didn’t fall in their areas of expertise. All they ever wanted to do was the right thing, whether it was raking someone over the coals for misdeeds, exposing waste and fraud, or any number of injustices.
“So, you’re back,” Felix said, leveling a no-nonsense look at me. I recalled an event when his bluntness — there wasn’t a frill on the man — made me cry when I was young, and my parents telling me that he had a heart of gold. I always imagined him as a gnarled tree with something beautiful inside him after that — if only to comfort myself from his gruffness.
“That’s right,” I said. “Birthright, and all of that.”
“You weren’t doing very well the last time I saw you,” he said, studying my face thoughtfully.
Without thinking, I ducked to the right — my old tick for protecting myself from strangers gazing upon my scar. I straightened again and smiled. Scar? What scar? My face was fixed, and I was marching forward with a new look, new identity, and new lease on life.
“You saw me right after the accident,” I said. “I only barely remember seeing you in the hospital.”
The old man had been shooed out of the room after he’d tried to broach legal topics with me while I was hazy on pain medication and still unable to grasp the full extent of my loss. I’d been of age — eighteen — when my parents had died, but I hadn’t been able to make the decisions required of me. Would I helm my parents’ firm? Would I assume their roles in the cases that were still open under their names? Would I take on the mantle that they had always wanted for me, that had been mine for the taking after college? What were my plans?
At that point, I had just wanted to sleep. When I had my fill of slumber and learned that my parents were dead and gone and my face was ravaged by fire, all I wanted to do was disappear, not ascend to my birthright to wield justice for the oppressed.
“Accident?” Milo repeated. “Hospital?”
“Come on, kid,” Felix groaned. “April here is the heir apparent to this firm. Tell me you read the docket I gave you.”
“I skimmed it,” he said, his face darkening in a very attractive flush. I frowned inwardly and banished whatever fluttering feeling was happening inside of me. I’d be a fool to deny that the lawyer was sexy, but I was here for an entirely different purpose: to give my life meaning.
“That’s all right,” I said. “I’ve been floating along for a while now, and I figured it was time for me to take a little responsibility in this place.”
“I’ve gone over your parents’ will,” Milo said, sounding more confident. “The firm is yours to do with as you wish, as are all of their assets. A house — and a summer cottage? — are also yours. I have a listing here for you.”
He made a move to push it toward me, but I held my hand up. “Liquidate it all,” I said, then something inside of me pulled terribly, so painfully that I winced.
“Ms. Smith?” Milo leaned forward, concerned, and took my hand. “Are you all right?”
I withdrew my hand from his as if I’d been burned and shook my head. “Just a cramp,” I said, glancing at Felix. The old man looked unconvinced. “Liquidate all of it except for the cottage. I spent quite a few years out there. I’m living in the city in a loft now, but I’d like to keep the cottage for nostalgia, if anything.”
I wasn’t convinced that I could ever go back to the cottage, but something in me wouldn’t let it go. It would always be there, the scene of the happiest and most devastating moments of my life, like two sides to a coin. It was a coin I couldn’t flip away.
“Of course,” Milo said quickly. “Anything you want. Felix has given me all of the appropriate documents. You just have to tell me what, where, and when, and I’ll make it all happen.”
“Thank you,” I said, looking at the lawyer appraisingly. He was going to be a valuable asset to me, if that was true. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the legal soup. That wouldn’t be something April Smith would do. “So, what kinds of cases has the firm taken on lately?”
Felix launched into a description of everything that had been opened recently, and I took the opportunity to observe my surroundings surreptitiously. The boardroom was very nice — a long, dark, wooden table with a polished, satiny finish was the centerpiece, with several comfortable leather chairs circling it. The lighting was very flattering — not that I had to be concerned about that kind of thing anymore — and a row of windows looked out onto an expanse of workers. Most of them kept stealing curious stares into the room, probably wondering just what my purpose was there. I didn’t look like either of my parents anymore. I was a stranger to them, April Smith, there to shake things up.
“Do you have a pet project in mind, April?” Felix asked after he’d given me the rundown.
I hoped my smile wasn’t too unnerving. “I do, in fact.”
“Do tell.” The old man uncapped a pen and held it over his pad of paper.
My smile faded a little when I didn’t see Felix’s pen scratching away. I looked up at his face, which was a mask of disbelief.
“What did Wharton Group do?” he asked, nonplussed.
Ruined my life, I could’ve said. It robbed me of my happiness, very nearly of my sanity, and it plunged me into a state of despair. Wharton Group had been the start and finish of everything. Jonathan’s feeling like he needed to lead his family’s company had dragged us to Chicago in the first place. His continuing desire to prove himself as the CEO had taken him from me on our wedding night. How was I supposed to sit there and take it? Wharton Group had to go.
“Felix, I’m going to say something, and I hope you won’t get offended,” I said, studying my hands before looking back at his wrinkled old face.
“I’m very hard to offend, April.”
“I know that you have been in charge of the firm — in an interim capacity — ever since my parents died. But now I’m the CEO.”
He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, and there was a part of me that regretted whatever feeling I had inspired inside of him, the one he was trying so hard to hide. Was it contempt? Fear? Dread?
But the rest of me celebrated. This was April Smith now, and she got what she wanted and did what she wanted. If April Smith desired a course of action, everyone around her was going to make that happen for her.
God, it was empowering to slip into this persona, to stop being myself, to turn my back on the hurt and assume this new life.
“I want a full investigation into Wharton Group,” I said, speaking calmly and clearly. “If there has been any fraud, any waste, any misdoing, any tax law flubbed, I want a report of it. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, of course,” Felix said, still looking at me with that strange expression on his face.
“Is that going to be easy to remember?” I asked. “Are you sure you don’t want to write anything down?”
“I think I will definitely remember that you want a full investigation into Wharton Group,” Felix said, his face a careful mask. “It’s just going to take some time. It’s a big company, spread out across the world.”
“I know it is,” I said. “That’s why we’re going to devote all of our time and resources to this one.”
I had both men gaping at me now, but it was my prerogative to remain unflustered, to keep plunging forward.
“Did I mumble?” I asked sweetly.
“We’re working a lot of cases right now,” Felix said. “A lot of worthy causes being championed right now.”
“Are you implying that the Wharton Group investigation is not a worthy cause?”