Authors: Lexie Ray
“I think you’re forgetting who the boss is,” I said, my tone clipped and formal. “Right now is not the time to take issue with my management style, and certainly not with that tone. There are proper channels to go through for something like this.”
Milo stared at me for several long seconds. I was seeing that stare more and more lately, like he wasn’t sure who he was really looking at when he was looking at me. I hated it.
“April, I’m not questioning your leadership,” he said. “I’m telling you as a friend and lover that I’m concerned about the level of devotion you’re pouring into this case. Don’t you have other things to work on?”
“I won’t be questioned by the people I employ,” I stated coldly. “I thought I was very clear to you and to everyone else just how much this investigation means to me. I want it done right. I want it to be successful. And this noise right now is a huge distraction.”
I waved my hand in between Milo and me to make sure he understood my point. He was distracting me, and worse, he was distracting himself. I needed every person I had at my disposal to be the best they could be.
Milo was still giving me his very best hurt and confused stare, so I tried a different tack.
“If you think that being intimate is a distraction to this task, I think it would be better to end things between us,” I told him. I could find other men eager to get close to me. I could get anything I needed as long as I had someone willing to be loyal to me. Milo was perhaps too close. He was too nice and too concerned, a bucketful of superlatives that I couldn’t deal with right now.
I wished he were too cutthroat. Then maybe the Wharton Group would be on the chopping block, and I’d be ready to move forward emotionally and fully with my life, revenge exacted and happy again.
“I don’t want that,” Milo said finally.
“Don’t want what?”
“I don’t want for us not to make love anymore,” he said. “Seeing you outside this firm — though that has become rarer and rarer — is my greatest joy.”
He was so sensitive that it made my heart melt a little bit.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “Maybe I should take a little break. It’s easy to get obsessed over this case, I think. I’m just really passionate about it.”
Milo toyed with a pen on the boardroom table for a full minute before looking up.
“Why do you think you’re so passionate about it?” he asked.
That hadn’t been what I’d expected him to say at all. I’d expected him to say how happy he was that I’d realized the fact that I was becoming a little too involved. I thought he might have even suggested we go to Ganesh or some other restaurant of his he liked tonight instead of going through all the boxes and boxes of Wharton Group records we’d obtained.
“I’m passionate about anything that involves bringing criminals to justice,” I said. “You know. The tenets of what this entire firm was built upon. My parents’ values. I share them, too, you know, even if that’s so hard for people around here to believe.”
“I’m not trying to attack you,” Milo said, lifting his hands up in a way I was sure he hoped was placating. “It’s just that no one has ever heard even a whisper of wrongdoing from the Wharton Group until you came aboard and started redirecting our assets to pursue the investigation.”
“Are you saying that I’m making shit up?” I asked, my voice deadly quiet.
“April. Stop.” Milo put his hands over mine. “What reason would I have to attack you? I have none. I care deeply for you. I want the best for you. If investigating the Wharton Group brings you joy, then that’s what I want to help you do.”
“Don’t you patronize me,” I whispered, furious. “Don’t.”
Milo gave me that stare again, the one that made me want to slap him or tear out my own eyeballs or something. I hated him looking at me like that, like he couldn’t believe what I was doing or saying.
“Don’t you understand that I would do anything to please you?” he asked. “Didn’t I tell you from the start that pleasing you is my greatest pleasure?”
“I thought that was just for the bedroom,” I muttered, aware that we were in the boardroom of the company I helmed.
“No, April,” the lawyer said. “That is in all arenas of the existence we’re sharing right now. I want to please you in bed, of course, but I want to please you in our professional realm, as well. I want to please you in everything.”
“You can please me by not questioning my judgment on the Wharton Group investigation,” I said. “How’s that? Is that pleasing, Milo?”
“You know, I think I’m done for the evening,” he said. “I’d invite you to dinner or drinks, but I somehow doubt you’d take me up on it.”
“I have a lot of things to do here,” I said, sweeping my hand over all the stacks of papers and boxes currently occupying the boardroom. We couldn’t even fit meetings in here anymore.
“I can see that,” he said. I could tell that Milo was fighting himself, trying to keep himself from saying something he’d regret. Half of me wished he’d go on and say it so I could just flush him from my life. The other half of me wanted to leave the firm for the night, go out to dinner with Milo, and make sweet love with him until I fell asleep.
It was classic April and Michelle, at war as usual. I could rarely get my two personas to reconcile with each other. I always had to be one of the other, but I spent the majority of my time stuck somewhere in the middle, between them.
Milo got up from the boardroom table, and the Michelle side of me wanted to snag his hand, bring it to my lips, and kiss it before begging him to take me away from all of this. April wanted to sneer at him to fuck off.
Instead, it was Milo who spoke.
“Let me take your mind off of all of this,” he said, “if only for a little while. What do you say, April? You’d come back rested and with fresh eyes, ready to find that flaw that will bring the whole thing tumbling down.”
That was good enough, then. I let myself be hoisted to my feet and propelled out the door.
Escape, if only for tonight.
There were some days when the Michelle part of me won out. When she asserted herself, I left work like a normal person at five o’clock. Milo and I usually had a nice dinner together or did some other date activity. He sometimes got me to go to plays or movies or concerts. We always made love.
I sometimes felt like I should tell Milo to call me Michelle on those days, but I didn’t want him to freak out or worry. It was just a persona, a role I slipped into as a means to an end. Milo seemed to recognize when I was different, though he may have not known the particulars of it. I liked to think that he at least told himself to try to enjoy me on my Michelle days.
We even went to an art gallery, finally, on one of those carefree days, and I purchased my first painting. I loved the way it looked on my wall in the loft, and I looked forward to filling the rest of my space with the pieces I loved.
But when April won out over Michelle, I would sometimes stay all night at the firm. Milo would, at times, stay with me. He fell asleep some nights, too exhausted with all of the work. But I would stay driven, poring over correspondence and emails and notes and observations, sure that the next page would give me the information I needed to take Jonathan down, or the next page, or the next.
It was never enough. I could recognize that. It wouldn’t be enough until I found that match so I could burn the whole operation down. But I was never worried. That was the beautiful thing about having goals. I felt that once I reached my focus point, which was the dismantling of Wharton Group, I’d stop and move forward again, stepping into a new life.
Sometimes, I even fantasized about where I’d go when this nasty business was all said and done with. Maybe I’d travel somewhere exotic, start a new life on an island in the middle of a warm sea or something. Those fantasies were strange. Part of them would be just me on the island, me enjoying my own company, away from everyone else, even if I didn’t have anything to hide from anymore. Others would have me on the island with Milo. What good was paradise if you didn’t have someone to share it with? We’d make love beneath the palms and take so much joy in each other that we wouldn’t know what to do. We’d be sick of the richness of the coconuts and the bananas and the pineapples.
The worst fantasies of all — and they were my fantasies, which was why they were so confounding — were the ones that saw Jonathan on my island. In those fantasies, the weather wasn’t sunny or warm. Storms raged in the ocean around us, and waves pounded the shore. We were the only ones there, and all we could do was hold on to each other and try to remain upright in the face of the tempest.
I hated the fantasies. They dragged me away from reality far too often. I much preferred focusing on the tasks at hand, the endless boxes, the tips and clues and anonymous hints we occasionally received via secure email. Nobody could figure those out.
Time passed, and I grew more impatient. Anxiety began to consume me, and I allocated more and more resources and manpower to the Wharton Group investigation. I was so terrified of getting stuck in this like quicksand that I ended other cases for the sole purpose of having more assets to punt at the Wharton conundrum.
Morale had spiraled down so far that even I was starting to hear about it.
Finally, everything reached a fever point. I closed the last non-Wharton Group-related case and realized everything was being directed at my pet investigation. There was a twisted sort of victory at that. I felt like I was doing everything in my power to make a difference. At the same time, I felt like I was drowning in a stormy sea. Why couldn’t I stop this? Why didn’t I want to live a normal life?
I walked in to my office one day to find Felix sitting there, waiting for me.
“What can I do for you?” I asked as politely as I could muster. He was the last person on earth that I wanted to see right now. Everyone hated me, and I knew it. Even I hated myself for this entire snafu. All of this work, and not any of it had panned out. The Wharton Group was squeaky clean.
I sat down heavily in my desk chair, exhausted before the day had even properly started. There was a dossier with a sticky note slapped onto it resting over the mess of papers covering the surface of my desk.
“Thought you might like to take a look at this,” the note read.
“This Wharton Group thing needs to stop, Michelle,” Felix said, his jowls hanging low and loose. He looked like an unhappy bulldog.
“It’ll stop when Wharton Group has been taken down,” I said, opening the dossier. “And if you can’t remember that my name is April, Ms. Smith will suffice.”
I skimmed the papers contained inside the dossier while Felix sat in silence, contemplating me. I didn’t care what he contemplated. I was busy. They were tax returns from a couple of years ago, and several figures were highlighted. I was no tax expert, but whoever had left the folder on my desk had scrawled another helpful message on a sticky note beside the highlighted numbers.
“Doesn’t add up,” the note read. “Could be the in we need.”
I inhaled sharply. This could be it? This could help me exact my revenge? If the clue was within the tax returns, it could be bigger — much bigger — than I could’ve ever hoped for.
“Are you listening to me, Michelle?” Felix asked, and I realized that he hadn’t been sitting quietly in contemplation this whole time. I’d just been so focused on the pieces of paper that I’d tuned him right out.
“No,” I said. “I’m not listening to you. We just got a break in the Wharton Group case, so I’m definitely not stopping now. And neither are you. And neither is anyone else in this firm. If anyone has a problem with that, they are welcome to find gainful employment somewhere else.”
“Look, Michelle, or April, or whoever you are,” Felix said, peering at me. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing at with the Wharton Group, but I won’t let you run this company into the ground. This is your parents’ firm, and you’re letting it all go to shit.”
I bristled and stood up slowly, looming over the old man.
“How dare you,” I hissed. “How dare you talk about them. You are never to talk about them. Do you hear me? You never even breathe a word about them. I don’t care how close you were to them or how long you knew them for. You’ve lost the right to talk about them, especially to me.”
Felix looked impossibly old, and so sad that it turned my stomach. Maybe he was dead weight at this company. Maybe I should just jettison him and be done with it. If we were hemorrhaging money like he was saying, then every little bit saved would help — including the salary that I wouldn’t be paying him anymore.
“If you hate the way I’m running things so much, then why don’t you leave?” I demanded. “Nothing’s keeping you here. No one’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to work here.”
“It’s not a gun. It’s a promise,” he said tiredly, looking down at his hands. “I promised your — I promised some important people that I would see that this firm would continue to serve the people who needed it the most. I promised I would make sure this firm would be the voice that defended the defenseless. I promised that I would maintain this firm for you and make sure that it was always successful until you were ready to helm it yourself.”
“I am helming it myself,” I said. “You’ve done what you’ve promised.”