The judge pushed her small, wire-rimmed glasses up her nose. She sat at the head of a conference room table for the informal, preliminary meeting, but she still made an imposing figure as she addressed my lawyer. “It appears, Mr. Saniger, your client’s father left her before preparing her to run Asche Publishing.” She peered down her nose at me, over the top of her frames.
“She deserves a chance to try, Your Honor.” Charles, my lawyer, turned and nodded, encouraging me to make my statement.
My stomach roiled at Charles’s urging, but I stood up, spine straight and head held high. I kept my voice even as I responded. She needed to believe me an adult, not a petulant child. My stepmother painted her statements, given moments before, in such a way I almost questioned my own ability. I took a deep breath to steady myself and gave my prepared speech.
“This company has been in my family for three generations. My parents raised me to take over.” A single tear rolled down my cheek as I gripped the side of the table.
“Unfortunately, my father died before I could complete my degree. I have two years left. I’m asking to be afforded time to finish school as I run my company.” My voice strengthened as I continued. “My stepmother doesn’t have the best interests of the company or the Asche legacy in mind. I’m content to work with the board to appoint an interim CEO, but I should be a deciding vote. The interim CEO isn’t a man my father or I would’ve chosen.” My voice broke. “I have dreams for this company, and there is plenty of support already there to help me achieve those dreams.” I let out the last of the air in my lungs, thankful to be finished.
“Mrs. Asche, do you have anything to add?” The judge eyed my stepmother, sitting adjacent to me, with disapproval. I hoped it was disapproval.
“As a matter of fact, I do. I am an Asche now. I’m a part of the legacy. I worked alongside William for seven years before he died. I want the company to gr—”
“You didn’t! He created a fake job for you so you’d get out of his hair,” I cried out. Her superior tone and blatant lies got to me. Six months had passed since my father died, six months since I’d seen her, but the sight of my stepmother’s face and the sound of her voice made the pain fresh. Charles grabbed my arm and shushed me as the judge directed her gaze to me, unquestionably with disapproval. She didn’t say a word. I shrank under her glare.
The judge remained silent for a few moments as she rifled through some papers. “Mr. Saniger, I need to review all of the documents the plaintiff provided. There are several testimonies from your board about why she’s more fit to run the company. And you need time to speak to your client’s professors and further prepare your arguments.” She paused and pursed her lips. “I’m going to adjourn this meeting until after the first of the year. I want to see both parties present their statements then.” She stopped and addressed the lawyers on both sides. “Please prepare your briefs and send them to my clerk. Keep in mind, we’ll be closed all of next week for Thanksgiving.”
My chest expanded as I drew in one more deep breath and released it slowly. I could handle it. I had until the new year to get my act—and my case—together. As I gathered my purse and other belongings, the judge’s reedy voice rang in my ears. “Miss Asche, if I could have a word with you.”
I glanced around the conference room in surprise. Charles and I were the only ones left. My stepmother and her team had hightailed it out of there. A moment of fear caused my voice to warble. “Yes, Your Honor?”
She paused a moment and cocked her head at me. “I wanted to talk to both you and your lawyer for a moment.” Her kindly smile relieved a bit of the churning in my gut. A little, not all. “In the interest of this case and to make sure the trial runs as fairly as possible, I wondered if you’d given any consideration to your counsel situation.”
Her question threw me. “My counsel situation?” I asked, giving Charles a side-long glance.
“Yes.” She smiled at Charles fondly. “Charles and I go way back. We’ve been friends for many years, and until now, we’ve been fortunate enough to make arrangements to avoid overlapping cases. But with his unexpected return to the courtroom, this one slipped through.”
Charles smiled. “It was a surprise to see you on the other side today, Jean. A nice surprise.” I grinned at Charles. Was he flirting?
The judge, Jean, eyeballed me. “Yes, ah, that’s the reason for my conversation. I’m going to have to recuse myself if this matter goes to trial. I can stand in for the preliminary hearings and basic decisions. But when it comes to a court case, I’m too closely associated with your lawyer.”
My jaw dropped as I floundered over how to respond. Charles, bless his heart, took over. He succeeded in further astonishing me with his words.
“It was a surprise to see you, but as soon as I did, I knew this would occur. I’ve already made a mental list of trusted firms who might be willing to take on her case. I’ll get on that tonight.” I sighed in relief. Charles would take care of me, even if he couldn’t be my lawyer.
Jean gave Charles a bright smile. “You always were quick to adjust, Charles. Very well then.” She turned to me, her face impassive once again. “I’ll expect clear and convincing evidence from both sides. Prepare your representation.” With a friendly nod and goodbye to Charles, she left the conference room.
“Charles,” I asked my friend and mentor, “why would you not let her recuse? Why pull yourself out instead?” I didn’t want to lose my case over something silly.
“You beautiful child. I’ve been retired too long to take on such an important case. But I’ve kept up with who’s who in the city. We’ll get you the best.” He reached over and squeezed my shoulder with a gnarled hand.
Before we headed to the parking garage, I took a moment and hugged him close, grateful for his humility. As we walked down the hall toward our vehicle, someone behind me let out an irritated huff.
It was a sound I had been intimately familiar with during my childhood. Most often brought out anytime I entered a room without my father present; it would then be followed by a litany of my transgressions, usually pertaining to my appearance.
I pivoted to find my stepmother and her abhorrent son and daughter staring a hole through me. You’re an adult. You don’t have to subject yourself to her vitriol! I gently tugged on Charles’s arm. “Let’s go. We’ve much to discuss.”
“Of course, Ellie. You can drop me off at home, and I’ll give you those names,” Charles replied sweetly, acknowledging my hope of taking the high road. We turned toward my car with every intention of ignoring my stepmother, but she wouldn’t let us go.
“You’ll never get this company from me, little girl.” Her nasal voice grated on my nerves, and I flinched as bile rose in my throat. I’d hoped to never cross her path again.
“Not one word to her, Ellie.” Charles put his arm around me and pushed past the biggest mistake my father ever made. “Raquel, I urge you to stop speaking to my client. Anything you have to say can go through your lawyer,” Charles spoke over his shoulder.
“You old fool. You’ll never win!” Raquel’s voice sent me straight to my thirteen-year-old self’s emotions—anger, betrayal, and eventually, defeat. Raquel made my life miserable for five years. Her interruption reminded me of the day my father delivered the worst news since my mother died.
“Ellie!” My father called up the stairs. “Can you come down here a minute?” I tossed my blanket aside and uncurled from my spot in my window seat, setting my mom’s copy of Little Women down before trotting downstairs.
I stopped short at the entrance to his study. His girlfriend sat in the room, perched stiffly in his wingback chair. “Yes, Dad?” I asked, voice as polite as I could muster. “Hello, Raquel.” She nodded at me with a waspish smile.
I wasn’t thrilled he had a girlfriend, especially that particular girlfriend. She acted as sweet as syrup to me when he was around, but as soon as he wasn’t, she changed. She hadn’t said or done anything rude, more an overall feeling she projected toward me.
My dad gave me a blistering smile. “Ellie-Bellie, I have great news!”
“Dad,” I whispered urgently. “I asked you not to call me that.” When mom died, I wanted him to stop calling me names she also called me. He never gave up, though. I didn’t usually mind, but I hated it in front of her.
“Sorry, sorry. Raquel and I have news!” He grabbed her hand and flipped it over. I stared at the huge rock on her left ring finger, and my world crashed down around me as he said the words. “We are getting married!”
My first instinct, screaming and storming out of the room, would get me grounded. I couldn’t bring myself to smile though. I settled for a grin. “Congratulations.” I tried to adjust my features to grin without grimacing.
The excited expression on Dad’s face faded. “It’s a surprise, and we haven’t dated long. But Raquel has two children around your age, and I think you need more feminine influences in your life.” He released her hand and walked to the doorway to take mine. “You can be friends with her daughter, Michelle. And, I care deeply for Raquel. I ask that you give our new family a chance.” His eyes pleaded with me; He wanted it to work and wanted me to get on board.
I glanced at Raquel and dropped my voice to a whisper. “But, Dad. What about mom?” I spoke as softly as I could.
Pain slashed through my father’s eyes, and I regretted mentioning her. He coughed once. “Ellie, Mom’s been gone for five years. You need someone to teach you the ins and outs of being a woman. I can’t do that.” He pulled me in for a bear hug. “I wish I could.”
“Of course, Daddy. I’ll give it a chance. Congratulations.” Tears prickled my eyes as I pulled out of my father’s arms. I needed to escape before Raquel saw me cry. The whole time I’d been in the room she hadn’t said one word to me.
“Excuse me; I have to go get…” I trailed off and hoped they didn’t question me. I whirled and ran out of the room.
How could he consider remarrying? Only five years had passed since I stood between my father and my best friend, and watched my mother’s body being lowered into the ground.
A few minutes after I threw myself onto my bed to sob, I heard a knock at my door. “Come in, Daddy,” I called, wiping the tears off of my face.
Raquel pushed my bedroom door open and stepped inside. She shut the door with her heel as she glanced around the room. Her upper lip curled at the small pile of clothes in the corner of the room beside my bathroom door.
“Cynthia,” she said severely. “We should talk.” I jerked off the bed and hastily neatened my hair.
“I don’t go by Cynthia. I go by Ellie.” She’d called me Cynthia since my dad told her my full name. I couldn’t imagine why she came to my room.
“Yes, well. I wanted to make sure we’re on the same page.” I didn’t say a word at first, but my expression said every thought running through my mind—mainly her craziness. What page did she mean?
“I don’t know what you mean, Raquel.” I’d never been rude or mean to her, but she appeared to be angry with me. “Did I do something to upset you?” Something about her demeanor, her stiff, cold posture, made me a little afraid of her answer.
“You made it perfectly clear that you have no intention of respecting the marriage between your father and me.” She sniffed delicately, eyeballing my messy bed. She walked in her high heels over to my bookcase and glanced at the titles.
“I didn’t mean to do that. It was a surprise. I’m sure we’ll all get along fine.” I didn’t believe for a red-hot second we’d get along, but I knew I must be respectful. My mother would’ve been upset if I spoke impolitely to my elders. I fought tears as I considered what my mother would think about Raquel.
She ran a finger over one of the shelves then studied the dust on her finger. I hadn’t done a deep cleaning in several weeks, and I never let the cleaning lady in my room. It was my space, and I’d keep it clean—except during summer break I’d been a bit lazy.
“I won’t allow lies in my home.” She turned to me and brushed the dust off of her finger. “You’ll follow my rules, or you’ll regret it. As long as you do, you’ll have no problems.” She made her way to the door. I stood in front of my bed, wide-eyed and terrified of the impeccably dressed woman. “Am I clear?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. I didn’t know what else I could say. My dad obviously thought she was awesome. I’d already told him she gave me the creeps, and he rolled his eyes and told me not to be melodramatic.
She walked out of the room and shut the door behind her. The closing of the door had finality to it, like she closed off my life as I knew it. I grabbed the phone by my bed and dialed my best friend. He’d help me figure out how to deal with this new development.
I was so shocked in the beginning of their marriage that I didn’t say anything to my father—a decision I’d later come to regret.
Charles’s hand warmed my arm as he led me away from Raquel. His presence comforted me a bit. We soon reached the car, and I continued to seethe as I lowered myself into the driver’s seat. After a few moments of attempting and failing to collect myself, Charles reached over and loosened my bruising grip from the steering wheel.
“She’s a horrible woman!” I flapped my hands in an attempt to dissipate my anger. “What did he ever see in her?” The years I’d been out of the house hadn’t tampered my repressed emotions as well as I hoped. Waves of anger cascaded over my body, causing my stomach to be upset. My neck burned, and the flames crept up my cheeks.
Charles snorted. “She was different with him. She’s a charming, alluring woman when she has her sights set on marrying a rich, lonely widower.” He let out a long sigh and motioned me to put the car in drive. “They seemed to be in love, but any woman devoted to your father would’ve loved you. As far as I’m concerned, that’s how true love works, and I have a fair bit of experience in that area. You’ll experience it one day, Ellie.” He sighed and gazed out the window, lost in his memories. “Your mother and father had it. A more perfect couple I’ve rarely seen. If it’s possible, they might’ve been even more compatible than my dear, late wife and me.”
When upset, Charles rambled. I smiled at him and let him run his steam until we hit the road.
“That woman would run your company into the ground. But we’re not going to let her. I’ve got several options for names that I’d let run my own trial. I’ll call some of them tonight and have them get in touch with you to set up a meeting.”
I pulled up to Charles’s apartment building. As the concierge approached, I leaned in for a hug. “I love you, Charles. Thank you for everything. Let me know when you get the meeting. I’ll clear my schedule to go whenever they want to meet.”
“Love you, too, girly. I’m so proud of you, and I know your father would be.”
I waved to him as he walked into his building and headed home. The ten-minute drive to my own downtown building wasn’t enough time to let my stomach ease. It knotted up again when I pulled up to my building and spotted a society reporter lurking near the front entrance. “Ha,” I muttered. “You won’t get any pictures of me today.” I pulled my car into the underground garage, far from prying eyes.
My father’s death and the succession of his company was a hot story in the society pages, as my stepbeast and her hell spawn were frequently featured. I, thankfully, wasn’t—usually.
I opened the side door to find the doorman waiting on me. “It’s getting worse, miss.” Roger worried excessively and watched constantly for reporters.
“Yes, it is. And I’m afraid this is only the beginning.” I peered out the tinted windows at the cameraman. “I hope when the case settles they stop sniffing around me. I don’t do anything exciting enough for them to want to write about me.”
“Miss? I can’t imagine they wouldn’t want to know about you. The beautiful, orphaned daughter of the richest man in the city?”
Uncomfortable with compliments, his comment made me laugh nervously. My stepmother made it clear I was the ugly step sister, not the belle of the ball. “Oh, poo.” I waved him off. “I’m frumpy and boring. But anyway, how is that new grandbaby of yours?”
His face lit up with pride only a grandparent could possess. “He’s a stinker, Miss Asche! Growing like a weed. He’ll be passing to the end zone in no time.” Typical of Texas to be planning a child’s gridiron career from birth.
Grinning a goodbye to the endearing man, I took the elevator. I brushed a little lint off of my pin-striped skirt and admired the shape of my ankles in the high heels picked out to match the ensemble.
I dug around in my purse until I found a clip for my blond hair and pinned it up. I appreciated the air on my still-heated neck. I couldn’t wait to grab my latest romance novel and try to forget the ridiculous day. I’d deal with choosing new lawyers tomorrow.
The elevator reached the fifth floor, and I scurried to my unit. My building, converted into luxury apartments from an old warehouse, was a trendy place to live; though, I didn’t care a bit about its trendiness factor.
Mine was one of two apartments on my floor. A suave, confident, classically handsome bachelor lived in the other. I’d embarrassed myself around him every time I encountered him, usually by saying something stupid. Something about him and his two best friends put me off-kilter. My dad would say I was twitterpated.
His short brown hair and chiseled features captured my eye and left me speechless. A little taller than me, his muscles proved he hit the gym on a regular basis. Even though I avoided him, my eyes drifted to his apartment door, hoping to catch a glimpse.
Think of the devil and damn if he doesn’t appear. The soft snick of a knob turning snapped my focus to his door as he stepped out of his apartment before I reached for my keys to enter my own. “Ma’am. Doing all right today?” His deep voice purred, like a well-tuned muscle car. I trembled at the sound and regretted not having my keys ready when I exited the elevator.
“Hello. I’m fine, thank you for asking.” I avoided eye contact and fumbled for my keys. I finally slipped inside before I stumbled through any further conversation. I wasn’t shy, but he threw me straight out of my element. It didn’t help he tried to talk to me every time we passed in the hall.
I slipped one heel off and jumped when a knock rang through my silent apartment. I whirled around. “Ma’am, it’s me,” my neighbor’s voice was muffled by the thick door. I pressed my hands against my abdomen as butterflies attacked my stomach. Slipping my heel back on, I took a deep breath and promised myself I wouldn’t act like a total dork.
I flung open the door forcefully. “Yes, hi, uh… can I help you?” My voice was high and nervous. I couldn’t remember his name. I couldn’t remember my name as I ogled his broad chest covered in a flannel shirt. My throat dried out when I caught sight of his snug jeans. His five o’clock shadow and short cropped hair topped off his cowboy ensemble. The only thing he needed was a Stetson and some cowboy boots.
He chuckled. “I’m Arch,” he reminded me. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You’re Ellie, right?”
“No, you didn’t startle me. I have a lot on my mind.” Don’t blurt out your woes; he doesn’t want to hear that. “And yes, I’m Ellie.”
“I wanted to invite you over. I’m having a small party tonight. Nothing major, a few cocktails and some music. We’d love to see you there.” My mouth gaped. He wanted me to come to a party at his house. What a perfect end to the day. Embarrass myself in front of all his friends. I’d find a way to do it.
“I’ll try. I, uh, made plans with my friend, Todd, tonight,” I lied.
“Bring him along. He’s the rather… uh, colorful guy you hang around with?” He put one hand on my doorframe and leaned.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that’s Todd. Colorful is an understatement. He’s my best friend, has been for years.” I couldn’t think fast enough to come up with another excuse not to go to the party. If truth be told, part of me did want to go. “Do you mind if I bring his husband, Rick, as well?”
“Of course not! See you between seven and eight.” He flashed me a charming smile and sauntered down the hall toward the elevators.
A grin spread across my face as I stood in my doorway and watched him walk away. Even though I’d likely embarrass myself in front of everyone, it was still bound to be fun. I ran inside to get ready.
My phone chirped in my purse as I kicked off my pinching heels. To the closet with those feet-eaters. I grabbed my phone and glanced at the screen. Charles moved quickly.
Charles: Ellie, I spoke to one of the senior partners at Beaumont, Morales, and Lawson. They’re willing to take your case.
Ellie: That’s wonderful! Were they your first choice?
Charles: Yes. They’re one of the best firms in town.
He explained they were finishing up paperwork from their last successful case, and they’d meet with me in one week, the day before Thanksgiving. I thanked him for the fast work, wrote down the details for the office, and then called Todd about the party.
The call went to voicemail, so I tried texting.
Ellie: Todd, I need you! My oh-my-god neighbor…
Todd: WHAT DID HE DO?
The phone started ringing before I could reply. “Took you long enough,” I said with relief.
“Wear This, Not That is on a marathon. I can’t be bothered when I’m watching my show.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know, I know, but you know what a big day this was for me.”
“I was never worried, the bitch has no case. Your dad left you the company. End of story.”
I sighed. “It’s not that simple.”
“Why the hell not?” His voice was indignant.
“She implied the judge has statements from members of the board saying she’s more fit to run the company and still keep it in the family.” I grimaced but made my response non-committal. “Hopefully, they decide she can’t be considered a real Asche.”
“Did you tell the judge she’s a fake whore who wanted your dad for his money?”
I laughed at his bold attitude. “The opportunity didn’t present itself.”
“Did you do your hair today?” I could picture him pursing his lips.
“I left it down.” He didn’t respond for a full five seconds. “Hello? Earth to Todd.”
“I’ll be right over. You’re hopeless. I know you’ve already ripped off half of what you wore. Don’t take off any more, I want to see you.”
I sighed and hung the phone up. I knew better than to argue. I plopped down onto my couch and waited. Within five minutes, a key rattled in the doorknob. I didn’t bother changing positions. I’d known Todd since elementary school; he’d seen me in far more embarrassing situations, including the first time I tried alcohol and every breakup since Chad Tuttle said I had girl germs in the second grade.
Todd entered the room in a flourish of gardenia perfume and a silk house robe. “Nice of you to dress for me,” I said.
“Oh, please. You interrupted my show, and I came up anyway. I love you, and you damn well know it. Rick and I were snuggling.” Todd lived two floors down with his husband. They’d only dated about a month before getting married, but that was two years ago. Their love was sweet and a little gag-worthy, even if they did get some flack from their parents for getting married freshman year of college. I adored them together.
I sat up a little. “I know. Now, give it to me so I can tell you about the unbelievable afternoon I’ve had.”
He eyed me critically. “You wore a seven hundred dollar suit and three hundred dollar shoes.” He eyeballed my heels lying on the floor beside my suit jacket. “You wore all these nice things I painstakingly picked out for you, but you didn’t even wear makeup or blow out your hair?” His voice rose in pitch with his irritation.
“Todd! That isn’t me! I’m a bookworm! I’m a pudgy, bespectacled nerd! I don’t wear makeup.” He plopped down beside me with a sigh.
“You’re beautiful. What do I have to do to convince you? Raquel spent so much time and attention on how gorgeous her kids were, it made you feel invisible.” He pulled me into his side. “You’re not invisible, and there’s nothing wrong with gussying up every once in a while.”
“I know. I do. I’m not invisible. I’m smart and fully capable of running the publishing company I grew up in. The board will teach me whatever I don’t already know.” I wanted to change the subject and needed him to understand.
“Of course they’ll teach you. So tell me what all happened today, and don’t think I’ve forgotten about the mysterious something your neighbor did.” He began brushing his fingers through my hair.
“Raquel got to the board, that’s what happened.” Todd stiffened. “Not all of them.” I reassured him. “But, enough of them that the judge wants me to prove I can handle the company. She could take this company from me.” I fought the tears gathering in my eyes. I didn’t want to let my father down by allowing our legacy to go to the most horrible woman I knew.
“Well, we won’t let that happen.” He squeezed me.
“I have to get a new lawyer.” I stuck my lip out. “Charles said it would be best. He says he’s been out of the game a little too long.”
“Is he handling the choosing of the new lawyer?”
“Yeah. He’s already lined someone up.” I threw my head back, suddenly exhausted.
“Too bad.” He turned his head, nose in the air. He was hiding something and wanted me to ask him about it.
“What’s too bad?” I gave him what he wanted.
“I happened to run into that hunky neighbor of yours a few days ago and pried a little. Turns out he’s a lawyer—a successful one if my quick Internet search is to be believed.”
I gasped. “You’re joking!”
“Nope. Now, what juicy dish do you have about him?” He leaned back to stare me down until I talked. I took a moment to contemplate the new information. Maybe I shouldn’t go to the party. If he was a good lawyer, I might want him to help me, and that could be a conflict of interest.
My mouth curled up. I knew he’d be excited about this news. “I gave in.” He blinked at me. “So, Arch has been inviting me to parties for months, you know?” He nodded his head vigorously. “You, Rick, and I have an invitation for a small party at Arch’s apartment tonight at seven-ish.” He blinked a few more times as his mouth dropped open. “And I said yes.”
He jumped up, clapping his hands. “We have three hours!”
I put my hands up. “No, Todd. I’m dressing in jeans and a t-shirt. This thing is low key.”
Todd deflated. “Makeup?”
“No,” I said.
He eyeballed my head. “Let me play with your hair.”
I sighed. “I’ll let you do that, but only because it feels so good to have you brushing and twisting and whatever else you do.”
“Okay. I’m going home. You take a nap; recover a little from your day.” He stood and headed for my front door. “I’ll be back in two hours to play with your hair and talk you into wearing mascara.” I rolled my eyes at him as he made his exit. He was a mess, but I loved him dearly.