Authors: Lexie Ray
“No,” Felix said, shaking his head slowly back and forth. “I haven’t delivered on that promise yet. The promise was to see the company successful under you, and the company isn’t at that point yet. I will happily retire once I see that day.”
Meddlesome old fool. I knew that if I tried to force Felix out, half of the lawyers in the firm — more than half, maybe — would rebel. They’d maybe even follow him out, leaving me without the resources I needed to cut Wharton Group’s jugular — and sever my ties to Jonathan forever.
“Once we get the Wharton Group, I’ll stop,” I said, trying to figure out some way to placate Felix. “I’ll disappear, and you can have this firm back.”
“I’m afraid that when we do get the Wharton Group, there won’t be any firm left,” he said. “Michelle …”
“I know he’s your husband.” Felix finally found the strength to lift his eyes up to meet mine. “I know you’re doing this because of Jonathan Wharton.”
“Let this be your friendly warning that even mentioning the word ‘husband’ around me is now as taboo as talking about my parents,” I said, having to grind each word out between gritted teeth.
“I don’t know what he did to you, though I suspect it’s bad, considering what you’re now doing to him,” the old man said.
“Not another word,” I shouted, slamming my hands against my desk. “I will shit can you right here, right now.”
Felix clammed up, never having seen this side of me before. Then, impossibly, he took a deep breath and started talking again.
“When you finally decide to come to your senses, I will be here,” he said. “I will answer any question you want to know, help you understand whatever you like, advise you on whatever you want to pursue. Until then, I won’t presume to bother you.”
Speechless, I watched him stand up with a surprising amount of dignity given the situation, straighten his suit jacket, and walk out of my office.
I wished he would just walk out of my life for good. I didn’t need some grumpy old father figure to guide me. I had a mission, I had ammunition, and I had the drive needed to make sure everything got done.
I didn’t need Felix telling me right from wrong. I had Wharton Group in my sights, and nothing had ever felt so good.
“I was thinking that maybe we could grab some dinner,” Milo was saying as I pored over the file he’d prepared on the preliminary findings. Based on the tax returns that he’d dug up, it looked like someone had been very naughty, indeed. We were closer than we’d ever been to uncovering all of the Wharton Group’s dirty laundry, but we weren’t there yet. And I was closer than I’d ever been to getting some closure, to making Jonathan feel like I’d been feeling.
“Maybe,” I murmured, all of my attention on the tax documents. I’d have to get someone to explain all of that to me. Maybe I could just get Milo to highlight the parts that could destroy Wharton Group. That would maybe dumb this down for me.
“You’ve been working too hard, April,” he said, covering my hand with his. His hands dwarfed mine, and I always enjoyed admiring the contrasts of our respective hues, but now wasn’t the time. I was at work, and I wanted to focus on the task at hand — ruining the Whartons’ lives just as they’d ruined mine.
“Enough, Milo,” I said, jerking my hand away from his. “Seriously.”
The Michelle in me cringed, but April was indignant. With Wharton Group her focus, she didn’t want to let any bit of information get away. There had to be something here. Nobody was perfect, and Wharton Group was too big for everyone to be blameless. By statistical truths, there had to be some person on some level committing some kind of crime. I wanted to know if there was a secretary somewhere stealing office supplies, if that would help build the case.
“April, I think you’re a little obsessed with Wharton Group,” Milo said slowly. “Like in an unhealthy way.”
“Nonsense,” I said, flipping the page. “My parents were passionate about bringing criminals to justice. I’m passionate about taking down Wharton Group.”
“But you don’t even know whether they’ve done anything wrong,” Milo pushed, closing the file in front of me and making me look into his green eyes. “What’s your beef with Wharton Group?”
“I just have a feeling something is going on, all right?” I lied. “I can’t explain it. I’d sound stupid if I did. But there’s something rotten at the core of the Wharton Group, and I need to let it see some sunshine.”
“I have to be honest with you,” Milo said. “I’ve been hearing some of the other guys talk, what with all the resources you’re aiming at the Wharton Group case right now.”
“People have mouths,” I said, shrugging. “People can talk about whatever they want to talk about. It’s a free country. I’m not going to stand in their way.”
“People think you’re on a personal vendetta,” Milo said. “People think you’re running this firm into the ground because you hate Wharton Group.”
“Who said that?” I asked sweetly, grinding a mental axe in my brain. I didn’t need any divisions in my firm, not when I felt we were getting close with things. Well, Milo told me we were getting close to the end of analyzing all of Wharton Group’s tax returns. I wasn’t sure if that would be the end of it.
“I don’t feel right repeating names,” he said.
“What?” I asked, spreading my arms. “I just said it was a free country, that people could talk.”
“Uh-huh,” Milo said, unimpressed. “I’ve also had a front row seat to that temper of yours, and I don’t want anyone getting fired just because I’ve repeated some office gossip to the CEO.”
I shook my head. That temper belonged completely to April. When she didn’t get what she wanted, or when something disappointed her, she blasted off no matter where she was. In my previous life, nothing was worth getting angry over and making a scene. All I wanted was to blend in, to not attract attention. But with my scar gone, I could fly off the handle, scream in a crowded room, or go dancing down Michigan Avenue for all I cared. I welcome everyone’s eyes on me. It had been too long since I’d been in the spotlight.
“How about you let me finish looking at that file?” I said, raising my eyebrows at Milo.
“How about you let me take your mind off of the Wharton Group for a little while instead?” Milo suggested, moving so that he stood behind me and putting his big hands on my shoulders. He squeezed, and I felt all of the tension vanish in a gush of warm relaxation. For a lawyer, he was stunningly good with his hands, and I had enjoyed the fruits of his skill many times.
But what Milo would never understand was that I would never turn my mind from Wharton Group — not until it was in ruins at my feet. Obsession? I preferred to call it a devotion to find the truth, to exact justice on the people who had ended all of my joy.
I didn’t think it was a bad thing that I took so much pleasure in it.
“Sir, you can’t go in there. Sir!”
Muffled voices on the other side of my office door and the sounds of a scuffle made Milo pause in the sensual massage he was giving my shoulders. I looked up, raising my eyebrows expectantly at the intrusion — whoever was about to interrupt me in my sanctum with Milo rubbing my tense muscles was going to get fired — and I almost fainted away dead, sitting right there at my desk.
My husband glowered at me from the door.
“April, I told him he couldn’t go in there,” my secretary said, poking her head in. “He doesn’t have an appointment or anything.”
“Have this man removed from the building,” Milo said, and the secretary trotted off to comply. “That’s quite an intrusion, Mr. Wharton.”
I was startled, at first, that Milo knew Jonathan, but with all of his work on the Wharton Group case, I realized he must’ve stumbled upon a photo of the company’s CEO at some point.
“Who the fuck are you?” Jonathan snarled at Milo. If my husband had been an animal, he would’ve been in full lather, growling and lunging at us. It was as if he were feral. I hadn’t had many dealings with Jonathan as a businessman, and I could honestly say I’d never seen him this angry before. It was as if he were a different person, which made my current incarnation even more ironic. Were we both different people? Jonathan hadn’t fallen to his knees in front of me, hadn’t asked what had happened to me or when I was going to rejoin him. He also hadn’t served me divorce papers, or told me that he’d gotten back with Violet.
Maybe he didn’t recognize me. Maybe my disguise had worked.
I thought that I felt relieved, at first, but the relief was rapidly disintegrating into utter desperation. My husband didn’t recognize me. Jonathan didn’t love me anymore. I was a stranger to him.
I didn’t want this. I wanted to be with him. I wanted to forgive everything and forget everything and just start fresh. I didn’t want to be April Smith anymore; I wanted to be Michelle Wharton. I wanted to be loved and adored, to be able to be with my best friend day in and day out. Hell, I’d even tolerate his family and his work and his busy schedule again.
Couldn’t I have all that back? Couldn’t I? What would be so hard about that?
Only, it wasn’t possible. I couldn’t turn back the hands of time, couldn’t make everything that had happened disappear. Jonathan had cheated on me with Violet, and Brock had convinced Jonathan that I’d cheated on him, too. We hated each other, and the last time we’d seen each other, I’d lost the only thing I cared about: my child.
I couldn’t go back to being Michelle Wharton. That was abundantly clear. I couldn’t go back, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to. I wanted it more than anything in the world. I wanted to stand up and embrace the snarling man in front of me and make him love me again.
Because, apparently, I’d never stopped loving him, not through my medical crisis, not through the rock bottom I’d found myself wallowing around in, not in my exhausting attempt to pull down the empire his family had built.
I still loved him, even now, even as he threw vicious curses at Milo, who had probably never even heard half the insults Jonathan was saying.
I tried to stay calm, tried not to burst into tears, tried to assert April in every way, shape, and form I could think of. I banished Michelle as far away as I could.
“Pardon me, but who the fuck are you?” I retorted, standing so suddenly that I threw Milo’s hands off my shoulders and sent him staggering backward. “You are trespassing. I employ lawyers, you know. I could have you thrown in jail — and make you stay there.”
“You’re not the only person with lawyers in their pockets,” he said. “I’m here for answers. I can apparently only get those in person, not over the phone.”
If Jonathan Wharton had been calling here, this was the first I’d heard about it. I’d have to make sure my secretary — and everyone else investigating the case — told me any time any member of the Wharton family tried to puzzle out the probe.
“My time is very valuable,” I said. “Tell me. Who are you? What do you want?”
“This is Jonathan Wharton, April,” Milo said, his eyes not leaving Jonathan. “CEO of Wharton Group.”
“Jonathan Wharton,” I said, trying to sound as if I’d never even said the name out loud. “It’s so nice to put a face to a name.”
“Don’t fuck with me,” he scoffed. “I’m sure you probably masturbate to my GQ cover.”
“That’s enough!” Milo exploded, coming at Jonathan from around the desk.
“Stop,” I said immediately. “Both of you.”
My heart was pounding so hard that I felt like I was going to pass out, like I’d just run a marathon. One positive note was that Jonathan would never speak to me like that, meaning he really didn’t recognize me. My transformation was complete, then. I was a stranger to the person who’d cared about me the most. It was a twisted victory, one that I’d never celebrate, but I’d take what I could get.
“Milo, leave us,” I commanded, just as security arrived.
“April, don’t be stupid,” he said. “Guys, escort Mr. Wharton out of here. Use as much force as needed.”
“Milo.” My voice was crisp, without even the slightest hint of affection. It wouldn’t do to let Jonathan know that we had more than a strictly professional relationship. Besides, it was a little surreal to be in the same room as my estranged husband and my current lover, neither knowing the other existed in that capacity.
Later, I would have a long cry and a strong drink to decompress from all of this. Right now, though, I had a situation to manage on my hands, and April Smith needed to assert herself.
“I will hear what Jonathan Wharton has to say,” I said, sitting back down dismissively. “You can stay outside the door, if it makes you feel better.”
Milo opened his mouth to protest again, but then seemed to think better of it, snapping it shut and turning on his heel before leaving my office, the confused security guards closing the door behind them.
“Feel free to have a seat,” I said, holding my hand out to indicate the chair on the other side of my desk. Jonathan eyed me suspiciously for a few long moments, and I held my breath. Maybe it was too much to hope for that he didn’t recognize me. We’d been married, after all, and we knew each other better than anyone. My hairstyle, face, and voice were all different. I needed to concentrate and make sure my personality was just as different.