Authors: Lexie Ray
Jonathan finally sat down in the chair, though he continued to study me.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” I said. “My name is April Smith. I’m the CEO of the Smith Institute. And you, apparently, are Jonathan Wharton, CEO of Wharton Group. What can I do for you?”
“I knew a girl with the last name of Smith, once,” Jonathan said a little glumly, toying with the pen in front of him. I watched him carefully, still not believing that he didn’t recognize me.
“It’s a pretty common name, Mr. Wharton,” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“It is.” He didn’t stop fidgeting with the pen, didn’t look me in the eyes. The more I studied him, the more intrigued I became. He was a different man from whom I’d known. This wasn’t the Jonathan he’d been trying to become. This was someone who was distracted and broken. This was exactly what I’d been aiming to cause, but I didn’t feel an ounce of satisfaction in my pounding heart.
“Didn’t you lose your memory?” I asked, peering at him in what I hoped was a quizzical way.
“Look, lady, I gave all the interviews,” he said, trying to balance the pen on its flattish cap. “If you want to know the story, look it up in ‘Us Weekly’ or something.”
I waited for him to explain, remained silent for so long that anyone with any sort of sense should’ve said something to try and dispel the discomfort.
Instead, Jonathan successfully balanced the pen and watched it intently, his blue eyes staring at it as if it were the most important thing in the world. Feeling more like a vindictive little girl than the powerful head of an advocacy firm, I discreetly bumped the desk, causing the pen to tumble.
The corners of Jonathan’s mouth turned downward in a sour expression.
“Yes, I lost my memory,” he said. “And yes, I got it back. Are you happy? Did you want to hear it from my very own mouth so you could tell all your friends you spoke to the idiot Wharton heir who tried to throw his whole life away? Fucking hell.”
He looked at me in the eyes for the first time since he sat down, and I tried to keep stoic, tried to not show the shock that made me thankful to be sitting down myself. He had his memories back. He was Jonathan Wharton, a man made whole, the moment I’d dreaded for our entire relationship.
Well, here he was, the CEO of Wharton Group, playing with a pen and staring at me with his blue eyes. His attitude didn’t impress me much, but I was still interested in him, still concerned about him. Still attracted to him. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.
“Was it hard to reconcile your new memories with your old memories?” I asked, and he blinked.
“I told you to read the interviews,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I said, feigning disinterest as I lied through my teeth. “I read them, and I wasn’t satisfied in the slightest. They all talked about how hot you were, how desirable you were, but they didn’t really dig very deep, did they?”
“It was ‘Us Weekly,’” Jonathan said flatly. “What do you expect?”
“When someone with a little more substance than ‘Us Weekly’ asks you a question, I expect you to answer it,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Especially when that someone is in a position to end your family’s company as you know it.”
“You want the company?” he demanded, his temper flaring suddenly as he flung the pen across the table. “Fine. Take it. Take it down brick by brick if you have to. I give zero shits, Ms. Smith, do you hear me? I don’t give a single flying fuck as to what happens to Wharton Group.”
That surprised me even more, and I figured it was appropriate for April Smith to register her shock, too.
“I thought that being the CEO was very important to you,” I said. “Didn’t you travel for several months, hopscotching from country to country, trying to convince the trustees of Wharton Group to keep you on as their leader?”
Jonathan glowered at me, and I couldn’t help but be a little turned on. He could definitely smolder when he wanted to. As angry as he was, the man I had fallen in love with was still in there somewhere. I tried to brush off that desire. April Smith didn’t want this man. She wanted justice. When she wanted a little intimacy, she went out on a date with Milo. That was it. The man sitting in front of her was nothing to her.
“It was one of the most painful moments of my life, and it continues to cause me pain,” he said, his voice low and dark.
“What was, Mr. Wharton?”
“When I got my memories back,” he said, the line I knew so well bisecting his forehead. “It was painful. Spiritually, emotionally. Not physically.”
“What do you care?” he asked, then sighed. “Painful because I didn’t like the man I used to be. I didn’t want to have him in my life, and he didn’t like what I’d become, either. It felt like I was trying to reconcile two opposites and neither one of them wanted to help.”
“That’s very interesting,” I said, my heart and mind racing.
“So, if this goddamn freak show is over yet, can we get down to business?” he asked, leaning back in his chair. “I’ve been sent to see if there’s anything the Wharton Group can do to get you to consider to cease and desist with this ridiculous investigation.”
“If it’s so ridiculous, I don’t think you would’ve come to get us to stop,” I observed. “If Wharton Group really doesn’t have anything to hide, Mr. Wharton, then what’s the harm of letting the investigation run its course? It’d be a great marketing tool. See how transparent Wharton Group is, potential clients and vendors and accounts?”
Jonathan waved that idea away. “It’s affecting morale and the partnerships we already maintain,” he said. “And what does the Smith Institute care, anyway? You guys have been around for years. Why now? Why Wharton Group?”
“We’re an advocacy firm, as I’m sure you well know, Mr. Wharton,” I said. “Why we choose our investigation depends on our own board of trustees, and me, of course. As CEO, I always have the last say. And we root out corruption and fraud and waste wherever we can. The investigation will continue, Mr. Wharton.”
“Fuck you,” he snapped.
“No, fuck you,” I snarled back, taking us both aback. I’d been reliving our last and most painful encounter, the one at the cottage when we’d had hateful sex, clawing at ourselves and each other, both coming to realize that what we had was over, that we couldn’t trust each other, that there was just too many obstacles to overcome. I couldn’t let him see. I couldn’t let him see what I was thinking about. He was already looking at me with a funny little expression, like he was trying to puzzle something out.
“Get out of my office,” I whispered, pointing at the door. I couldn’t hold this façade much longer, not with all the memories pouring through my brain. “Go, now, or security will be pleased to help show you the way.”
“I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I’ll find out,” he said, leaning forward menacingly. It was all I could do to maintain my expression of careful disassociation in place. If I had to invite the girl in the well to help me pinch-hit right now, I’d do it. Becoming that girl always exacted a terrible price on me, usually in the form of debilitating medication, but I couldn’t let him know how he was affecting me, how scared I was of him, how devastating it was to see him, how much I still wanted him. I definitely didn’t want him to know that.
“Goodbye, Mr. Wharton,” I said as calmly as I could manage. “I hope you can remember the way out. You did manage to remember your whole life, after all. An exit can’t be that difficult.”
He gave me a long, angry stare before turning on his heel and marching out the door. I let a long breath out, my shoulders shaking as the tears started falling down my cheeks. I’d been glad that he hadn’t recognized me — smooth face, new hair color, ravaged voice and all — but it had still been hard.
I realized that part of me had wanted him to recognize me, wanted him to realize that it was his estranged wife who was mounting this attack against his family. I didn’t know if I wanted to be punished or stopped — or simply just acknowledged — but the most shocking revelation of this brief meeting was the one that was most painful of all: Jonathan had his memories back.
I remembered once wishing with all my might for him to never remember. We’d been finding disturbing clues for months as to the quality of his character when his mind had been completely intact. He had been a womanizer, apparently, and a slacker. He hadn’t cared about anyone but himself. I dreaded meeting that man, the person he’d transform back into if he ever regained his memories. I knew that I just had, and it was heart breaking. Was he back to sharing women with Brock? Partying every night? Was he back with Violet, too?
I shook myself from those thoughts. They were pointlessly painful. It was more interesting to ponder the point that when Jonathan’s mind was wiped clean and he was given a blank slate, he unwittingly made himself into something completely different from what he had been.
I would’ve liked to think that I had something to do with that, helping him to recover in the cottage, putting him to work and letting time — and, yes, eventually my love — heal him.
There was a strong case for nurture versus nature here. I had nurtured him, given him a loving environment, and even though he was frustrated with not being able to remember so much as his last name or where he lived, he was never cruel or lazy.
We had loved each other so deeply then, so sure that fate had somehow plopped us in each other’s paths, so certain that we’d spend the rest of our lives together. Jonathan had even tried to encourage me to start a culinary business with him, selling our homemade baked goods straight out of the cottage.
I should’ve recognized the businessman in him back then, but I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. All I cared was that I loved him and he loved me.
And then the private investigators had found him and dragged us back into his world in Chicago — his world as the CEO of a pharmaceutical conglomerate that I was fighting to take down just so that he could hurt as much as I was hurting.
I sobbed once and crushed a tissue against my face. I needed to stop crying. April Smith didn’t cry. It was something Michelle Wharton would do. April Smith went after whatever she wanted no matter what the cost.
April Smith had never been married to Jonathan Wharton, had never had her heart broken by him, had never born and lost his child. Those were all things that Michelle Wharton had done and been shattered by.
I clung to the persona I’d invented out of necessity, wrapping my arms around myself and fighting against my tears. That Jonathan was now as much of a stranger to me as I was to him. We were on an even playing ground, and that meant I was going to win. I knew things were competitive, and he had no clue.
I knew just where to kick.
And yet, even as I tried to shove myself back into the mindset of April Smith, CEO extraordinaire, I had an even more troubling insight into the worst part of this whole encounter.
I was still in love with Jonathan Wharton. I was still in love with my husband.
After Jonathan left, I practically chased Milo down in the parking lot.
“Where are you going?” I asked breathlessly as I trotted toward him in my heels. Jimmy Choos were definitely not for running.
“It’s five o’clock,” Milo said, not turning around as he jammed the key in the convertible’s door. “Don’t normal people go home at five o’clock — home to their families, home to the wife cooking dinner, home to watch the game and have a beer and maybe, just maybe, if they’re lucky, home to have a little sex?”
I blinked at his back, scowling a little. Why was Milo being so petulant?
“Is this because I talked to Jonathan Wharton?” I asked. “Why are you acting like this?”
“You say that I’m your team leader for the Wharton Group investigation,” Milo said, wheeling on me. “But do you really trust me with it?”
“Of course I trust you,” I said. But I trusted myself more. That was the truth of it. I wanted to act as a filter for everything that happened in that investigation. Was that so hard for him to understand?
“I don’t feel like you do,” Milo said, giving me his hurt look. “CEOs aren’t supposed to be this involved in cases, April, even pet cases.”
“Do you think this is a pet case to me?” I asked. “This isn’t a hobby, Milo. It’s a passion. Something is rotten at the Wharton Group, and I can smell it. I want to root it out and air it out.”
“It wasn’t smart to talk to Jonathan Wharton at all,” Milo said. “Least of all alone in your office. He’s not a good person, April. What if something would’ve happened?”
I wanted to laugh at him, to tell him that my husband would never hurt me physically, but that would be admitting too much. Way too much. The last thing I wanted Milo to know was that I was still married to the man we were looking into so thoroughly. At the same time, if Felix knew, I had to wonder who else at least suspected. It was a troubling thought and one I didn’t want to spend too much time on.
“You’re right,” I allowed, unwilling to push the issue any further. “It was idiotic to talk to Jonathan Wharton. I guess I wanted to try and see if I could sniff anything out, detect anything from the way he spoke or what he said that would give us any insight on the case.”
Milo was silent for a few seconds, looking at me, before something seemed to cave inside of him.