Copyright 2011 Nina Cordoba

This is a copyrighted work:

With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author at www.ninacordoba.com.

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

This book is a work of fiction and the resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

Cover Design: Sierra Acy, Cover Art: Madison Duque and Sierra Acy
To the ones who never stopped trying.


 

 

 

Mia Like Crazy

By Nina Cordoba


Chapter One

June, 1988

I’d never been startled by a ringing phone before. And I’d never done anything as crazy as I had two weeks earlier, but that didn’t mean I was losing it. I never lost it.

I hopped over the stack of books, left indefinitely on my living room floor, and picked up the phone from the kitchen counter. Back then, my tiny New York apartment was always cluttered with newspapers and law books, but it didn’t matter much since I never had anyone over.

“Hello?” I said into the receiver.

“Hi, um...Mia? This is Josh.” The voice was tentative and vaguely familiar.

“Who?”

“Josh…Samuels.” Now, it sounded annoyed.

“Oh.” Did he expect me to remember the first name of every lawyer I’d met in court? Why was he calling me, anyway? I opened the refrigerator and grabbed the bottle of orange juice. “Hi, Josh.”

“I heard you were leaving your firm.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” I stifled a tired sigh and prepared to defend my bizarre decision—yet again.

“Well, if you’re looking for clients, I have a referral for you. My firm can’t represent him...um...conflict of interest, but I told him about you, and he said he’d call you at nine.”

I looked at the clock. Eight-fifty. Thanks for the notice, Josh.

“Who is it?” I set the bottle down on the counter and glanced around for a notepad.

“His name’s Drew Larson. He’s an heir to the Herbert Vaughn Estate. You’ve heard of the Vaughns, right?” As Josh spoke, I thought I detected a strange tone in his voice, but I didn’t know him very well, and it was hard to focus on anything after the word “heir.”

“Don’t they have a town named after them?” I asked, as my heart beat a hole in my chest.

“Yeah, upstate—anyway, there are some corporate interests. He wasn’t very specific, but the value of his part of the inheritance is supposed to be at least ninety mil.”

“Ninety million?” Wow, I felt like a kid at Christmas—a normal kid’s Christmas, not like the ones I had.

As I hung up the phone a few minutes later, I stared at the name on the scrap of paper in my hand without blinking, afraid if I took my eyes off of it, it might prove to be a hallucination.

A multimillionaire client! If this panned out, it might prove to everyone I hadn’t lost my mind when I quit my prestigious law firm job—the one I’d dreamed of since I was a kid. But the familiar sick feeling was creeping into my stomach as pain crawled up the back of my neck.

I needed a fix. Where was it? I hurried over to the file cabinet and yanked out a bright red folder. As usual, I wanted to sit down for this, so I stepped over to the couch and used my foot to slide the books out of my way.

The file contained only one sheet of paper, single-spaced, every line filled from top to bottom. I read through it, item by item, as I had thousands of times before. “Spelling Bee Champ three consecutive years. Honor Roll first through twelfth grades, Captain of Debate Team, First Place in district track meet”—that was really a coup, since I wasn’t even close to being the best runner, but as usual, I had motivation on my side—“Valedictorian, Dean’s List...”

I felt a sense of calm wash over me. My confidence quickly followed. Like an old friend, the red folder was there to remind me I wasn’t a product of my chaotic childhood. Working at being the best had been my life—my whole life—as long as I could remember. If there was ever a Mia who preferred jumping on beds or watching cartoons to getting a first place ribbon, she must have left with her father twenty years ago.

Regardless, I, Mia Medina was a success story, achieving every milestone on my own merits. I deserved to have everything I wanted out of life, which was mostly money, with a healthy dose of respect, of course.

The phone rang and I looked up at the clock again. Nine on the dot.

“Hello?”

“Mia Medina?” The voice on the other end of the phone said.

“Yes, this is she.”

“Drew Larson.” Then dead silence. What lovely phone manners.

“This is Mia Medina.” I reiterated in my most professional attorney voice. I’d practiced with the commitment of a concert violinist for years until I was sure it had lost all traces of housing-project. “I understand Josh Samuels refer—”

“So you’ve talked to Samuels personally?”

Why did he emphasize that word? “Yes. He told me you were in need of legal counsel.”

“I guess I am,” he said apathetically. “Can you come tomorrow?”

Hmm…first apathy, then immediacy.

I tried adding some extra warmth to my voice to coax a little out of him. “I’m sorry.” I really was, under the circumstances. “Tomorrow’s the last day at my old firm, but I’ll be happy to come Monday.”

“Okay. Did Samuels give you my address?”

He was apparently unaffected by my best June Cleaver imitation. This guy had to be a real geek. “Yes. I have it.”

“I’m probably going to need a lot of your time. There are some legal problems with the estate. Whatever is normal for a retainer is no problem. You should plan to stay in town for a few days, this trip.”

“That’s fine. I’ll get a hotel room.”

“If you can’t fly out Sunday night, there’s an early flight from New York Monday morning. Be here at ten. Don’t be late.” Make that geek-slash-control freak.

“I look forward to meeting you.” The only answer on the other end was a snort, followed by a dial tone.

Big deal. A little attitude. I could handle it. That was one thing my childhood had prepared me well for.

When I hung up, I ogled the telephone receiver like it was an Academy Award.

Yes! A multi-millionaire. And I’d scheduled a face-to-face meeting with him! I kicked ass at face-to-face meetings, which is why the firm had put me into the courtroom so fast, while other associates were stuck in the office with their noses in law books—often doing research for cases I was litigating.

I realized I’d been holding my breath, so I blew it out in one relieved blast. When the subject of my leaving came up at the office again tomorrow, I could say I was going into practice for myself and had a meeting with a very important potential client the next day.

Now, my decision made perfect sense. I certainly wasn’t losing it. I hadn’t done anything crazy.

But you didn’t know about Drew Larson when you quit your job.

I pushed the renegade thought out of my brain, and headed for my treadmill.

~

I had a few loose ends to tie up at the firm the next day. My last big case had settled two weeks before, which was why it had been the perfect time to give notice. All I had to do was reorganize the files so there would be a smooth transition for the attorneys of Barclay, Marshall and Associates who would take over my other clients.

I glanced into the plush lobby as I walked to the office lounge for a Coke. One of the partners, Rob Barclay, stood near the door with his wife and daughter.

It was “family lunch day.” They had it every week if his schedule allowed. As his little girl threw herself into his arms, he smiled, and I got the usual vague aching sensation in my chest I preferred to attribute to heartburn. I refocused my eyes on the more interesting potted plant behind them.

Though Rob was the nicest lawyer I’d ever met, I knew I wouldn’t miss him. Wouldn’t a normal person be able to find something—someone—they would miss?

People usually complained about the stress of their jobs, or the hours, or the boss. None of those things ever bothered me. I tried not to let myself think about why I’d really quit. I was afraid if I replayed the day I walked into Rob Barclay’s office and put in my notice, I might have to admit that I hadn’t pulled myself up by my emotional bootstraps with all my achievements and education, which, of course, I had. Because now I was going to be in practice for myself. It was simply a matter of fate, which I normally didn’t believe in, but I’d make an exception this once.

Jefferson was coming down the hall toward me, smiling cordially. I knew it was no coincidence that our only black attorney and the only Mexi-rican—me—were hired into this large, yet all white, law firm in the same month, but it wasn’t like we hadn’t both earned the opportunity.

“Hey, Mia, how are you?” Jefferson asked as he walked by.

Why did they always ask me that? Did other people know the answer? All I knew was the one I was supposed to give. “Fine,” I replied. And I was fine, at least by any standard measurements. I wore nice clothes, had a good education, was great at my job…

Coke in hand, I walked back by the lobby toward my office. I was surprised to see one of the legal assistants, Lauren, waiting there for me.

“I got you a little going away present.” She handed me a gift-wrapped box with a bright pink bow on the top. She gazed at me with sincere blue eyes.

Tears threatened to come up from some long-forgotten location, but I took in a deep breath and they evaporated. I didn’t have a lot of experience with this. Was I supposed to take it with me wrapped, or open it now?

“Thank you,” I said. “What a nice surprise.” That’s what people always said on TV.

“Go ahead and open it,” she nodded encouragingly. “It’s nothing fancy. You might think it’s silly, but it’s the truth.”

I hated to destroy the fancy ribbon, so I worked it off the edges of the box, then carefully removed the paper. Inside, I found a white coffee mug withWorld’s Greatest Lawyer” gracing the side in big block letters.

“I know everyone’s acted like you’re crazy, leaving a place like this, but you’re smarter than most of them put together,” Lauren said earnestly. “I think you’re going to do great.”

There was that feeling again. My breath caught in my chest as I gazed down at the mug. “Thanks. It’s really…nice.” I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve anything whatsoever from Lauren.

“Well, it’s actually a thank you gift, for the advice you gave me.”

“Advice?”

“Yeah, remember that morning we talked? We both ended up here before anyone else, and I was really freaked out. I gave you an earful.”

“Oh, yeah.” It all came back to me. Thirty of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life. Much too personal for office acquaintances.

“Well, you gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. You said, ‘If the street’s so full of trash you’re tripping over it, sometimes you’ve got to go through it with a street sweeper.’ I went home and sent my boyfriend packing that day. Best thing I ever did.”

“I’m glad it worked out for you.” I smoothed the ribbon with my fingers, trying to pretend this conversation wasn’t making me nervous.

I rarely gave guidance that wasn’t of the legal nature. I’d worded Lauren’s vaguely, so it wouldn’t seem like we were getting too personal. In fact, if she’d thought about it, it was more like a fortune cookie message than actual advice.

“To be honest…” She leaned in closer and dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “When I first saw you, I thought you were hired because…well, because men were the ones doing the hiring.”

Maybe I should have been annoyed at that, but I was just relieved it wasn’t the Hispanic thing.

“You know, I used to be jealous of you when you first came,” she continued. “The guys were all talking about you. They said you were ‘exotic looking’ and watched you when you walked by.”

I found it ironic that in my lawyer clothes, I was considered “exotic.” I could still remember how people looked at me when I was just another brown little girl in housing project clothes. I forced the memory away, reminding myself I wasn’t that person anymore. I tried to focus on what Lauren was saying.

“Well, anyway, you turned out to be really great. I know everything will work out for you. Here’s my home number in case you ever need anything.” She held a small yellow square of paper out toward me.

I accepted the Post-it, even though I knew I’d never use it. I never needed anyone, not when I was a kid and not now. But for some reason I couldn’t seem to take another breath until Lauren left my office.

Sometimes you’ve got to go through with a street sweeper.

That’s what I’d done with my own life. Since I finished high school, I hadn’t confided in a soul about my childhood. I’d made a clean sweep and invented a brand new person. Except for the red file, it was almost as if I didn’t exist before my freshman year in college.

I looked around my bare office. In the movies, people always carried a box or two out with them when they left a job, perhaps filled with framed photos of family or mementos of the time they spent there.

I picked up my briefcase and my coffee mug and walked out.


Chapter Two

Three long days after speaking to him on the phone, I climbed out of the freshest cab I’d ever ridden in and peered up at Drew Larson’s apartment building. It was one of only a few high rises I’d seen on the ride over, and none of them were any match for what I was used to in the Big Apple. Most people seemed to live in houses in this town. I wondered why millionaires would choose to live in Vaughndale, New York at all, although the air definitely smelled better and the trees were kind of nice too.

Even the elevator music on the ride to the penthouse was pleasant. After looking at my watch to triple-check that I was on time, but not too early, I rang the doorbell.

“Who is it?” a voice yelled from inside.

“Mia Medina,” I answered, noticing the door had a peephole. Surely he wasn’t mistaking me for a home-invasion robber.

The man who opened the door looked at me like I was a used toothbrush salesman. Everything about him scowled at me, including his bleak coal-black suit. Instead of a greeting, he gave me a blatant examination, from my nearly black, below-the-shoulder-length hair to my favorite high-heeled pumps.

My eyes suddenly had a mind of their own. They flicked from his hand on the door to his white tieless dress shirt, which was buttoned from the third button down. I felt strangely uncomfortable and couldn’t seem to focus on his face.

However, after seeing how he dressed for a meeting in his own home, I was glad I’d worn a conservative gray suit. I glanced down to make sure my blouse was still buttoned all the way and wished I could check my pantyhose for runs, wondering the whole time why I was so self-conscious.

“Um…sorry,” he finally said. His shrug said he wasn’t. “I guess I should use the peephole. Come in.”

I pulled myself together and tried to meet his gaze, but he’d stepped back several feet into his dimly lit apartment.

Despite his initial inspection, his dark eyes now focused on anything in the room, but me. As I watched him, I noticed his medium brown hair stopped below his collar, as though he hadn’t had a haircut in a while. But somehow it looked right on him.

He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but I knew he was Drew Larson because he sounded exactly the same as on the phone.

“Your apartment is beautiful.” I looked around at the warm furnishings, which bore no resemblance to the man who occupied them. But whoever decorated had managed to mix masculine items, like the leather couch and square wooden end tables, with soft throws and decorative pillows, to perfection.

“Yeah, my sister Meridith got all this after she came over the first time. She said my stuff was cold. Go figure.”

“Meridith Vaughn?” I asked, putting two and two together.

“You know her?”

“Her name’s very familiar.”

“To a lot of people,” Larson replied blandly. “She’s involved in all that high society charity stuff. You know ‘Save the This.’ ‘Feed the That.’”

I ignored his cynical tone. “Your sister must really care about you to go to so much trouble.” I wished I had a sister—a really rich sister with really good taste.

“I guess. Too bad I didn’t know her most of my life, maybe I’d have more—” He stopped abruptly before his meaning was clear.

It was an odd comment for a multimillionaire. How could anyone want more than he had at his fingertips? And inherited, no less. How lucky could he be?

I felt the familiar pang of envy I experienced whenever I thought of how much some people got so easily.

Wondering why his sister had the Vaughn name and he didn’t, I asked, “So, who is it you’re inheriting from?”

“Herbert Vaughn. My father.” When he said it, it sounded like a four-letter word.

He led me over to a dining area adjoining the living room. The small, yet expensive-looking, square table and four chairs were positioned next to a window with a pleasant view of homes, some businesses, and a tree-lined park. A stream of light from the window cast a pleasant glow over most of the dining area.

Larson stopped just short of the light. I looked around and noticed none of his lamps or ceiling lights were turned on. “Here are the papers.” He motioned carelessly toward a file, as I sat down in front of it. “I don’t know anything about it. Some kind of investments and companies, and there’s the will and other stuff from his lawyer.”

So, he stood to inherit a fortune, but was too lazy to learn the first thing about his father’s lucrative business interests? I was disgusted by his lack of appreciation for the empire being handed to him on a silver platter. I was also sure that if my father had been Herbert Vaughn, even as a child, I would have been at his knee, pestering him with questions.

I shuffled through the documents, noting that Larson stood a good distance away, staring out the window. “So your dad never taught you anything about his business interests?”

“My ‘dad’? You mean Pops, my old man, Daddy Dearest?”

“Uh-huh,” I murmured, pretending to be too distracted to notice the adamant tone in his voice. I continued to glance over the will. “You weren’t very close, then?”

“Are you asking as a lawyer, or as a shrink? Because the last ambulance chaser I had started getting his job mixed up.”

“Well, if you don’t think it’s pertinent—”

“Oh, it’s pertinent all right. It’s also about four of those made-for-TV movies rolled into one.” As he spoke, he began pacing the length of the room. “My biological ‘dad,’ as you call him—the illustrious Herbert Vaughn—had an affair with a pathetic, lonely housewife with a real creep for a husband. She got knocked up, but Vaughn preferred to pretend it never happened, leaving his bastard kid in the care of his lover and her husband Jack Larson, who I like to call ‘Satan.’ She got more unstable after she found out the baby wasn’t going to make Vaughn save her from her husband and marry her.”

Larson looked down, seemingly distracted by a tiny speck of something on his otherwise immaculate, black shoe. His voice dropped to a murmur. “She killed herself when I was seven.”

Okay, so his blandness on the phone the day before had been misleading. He had plenty of emotions. Unfortunately, they were all negative.

The attitude made a lot more sense now, but this was starting to seem more like a “session” than a meeting, and I felt immensely under-qualified. Besides, I wasn’t sure he still knew I was in the room.

But he propped his foot on a chair, flicked off the offending piece of fuzz, and started talking again.

“Satan knew I wasn’t his kid, but he didn’t want to risk the humiliation of the truth.” He projected his voice like he was in the middle of a stage performance. “Instead, he decided to make my life a living hell while pretending to be my father. So, I guess you know what that makes me?”

He paused as though expecting an answer, but didn’t look at me. Instead, he straightened the painting that hung several yards away on the living room wall. I got the feeling this was his version of a pop quiz.

“The son of Satan?” I answered skeptically.

Was I on Candid Camera? This guy seemed to be taking his act from some gothic novel. In his black clothes, averting his eyes as he did most of the time, I was starting to feel like I’d stepped into a nouveau version of Phantom of the Opera.

I’d always prided myself on my ability to read people and, although I believed the facts he’d given, something in his manner didn’t ring true. He wanted me to find him distant, rude…scary?

I thought about the boys in my old neighborhood who managed to fake tough guy personas pretty well when they needed to. But that was self-preservation. Why would Drew Larson need the act here? He was tall, rich, and good looking.

He stared out the window as if it were some portal into his past life. I suspected he was in danger of falling through it permanently. It disturbed me that I had an inkling of how he felt, and I had the urge to reach out and pull him back into the present.

I cleared my throat. “Well, I’m sorry about the whole father-Satan thing.” The statement sounded ridiculous to my own ears after I said it. “If you thought you were Jack Larson’s son, how did you end up an heir to the Herbert Vaughn fortune?”

“I don’t know. The old creep didn’t give a rat’s ass about me all those years, but put me in his will. It was a surprise to my half-sister Meridith too. She took it well, though, considering she’s only inheriting about ninety million instead of a hundred-eighty.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, using “only” and “ninety million” in the same sentence, since he sounded sarcastic most of the time.

“She turned out better than I did, even though Herbert Vaughn could’ve easily been elected Satan himself, if my ‘dad’ hadn’t been able to fulfill his term in office. I guess it didn’t really matter. I was out of the frying pan into the fire. Mom had great taste in men.”

More than ready for that conversation to be over, I went back to skimming through the documents, until something caught my eye.

“Wait. This says, to collect the money, you have to be legitimately ‘married to and cohabitating with a woman for at least six months.’”

“Yeah, that’s the catch. I get a monthly allowance, now—more than he gave me when I was a kid for sure—but I can’t collect the mega-bucks without a wife. From what I hear, that’s how he liked to operate. The carrot’s dangled in front of you, but then there’s the obstacle, preferably an insurmountable one—except for Meridith, but she paid up front for hers.”

I chose to ignore the last remark because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it meant. “Surely, getting a temporary wife can’t be difficult for a multi-millionaire.” I knew the marriage clause could be contested, but the path of least resistance was usually the quickest.

“No one wants to marry Satan.” He’d gone back to staring out the window again.

“I thought you were the son of Satan.”

“Not to everyone else around here. They don’t even know about him, but they all know about me.”

I had a sinking feeling this wasn’t the lucky break I’d thought it was. I swallowed hard and asked the question, “What’s so terrible about you?”

“So, when you agreed to be my lawyer, you didn’t know?” I thought I saw disappointment register briefly on his features, then, disappear behind a mask of indifference. But he was still several yards away, so I could have been wrong. “Did you have an enemy at Harper and Barnes?”

“Well, no.” I started to wonder. “I mean, I only knew Josh Samuels from court... He’s the one you spoke to. He gave me the referral.”

“Did you beat him in a court case or turn him down for a date?” He paused as he stared right through me. Was the Son of Satan psychic too?

“Both.”

He chuckled—well, it was really more of a snort.

“I guess the joke’s on you. Look, bill me for today and some extra for your trouble. This was a mistake. Let yourself out.”

Look at me.

I wanted to see if I could read the expression in his eyes, but most of his face was in shadows, with only one stream of light from the window angled across his chin and jaw. Then, he turned and began inspecting the leaves of a potted plant next to the stairs, so I was looking at his back.

I felt abandoned. Strange, considering I’d just met him an hour ago, and he hadn’t exactly been a warm, snuggly guy.

But I didn’t want to leave. In fact, I couldn’t afford to leave. The truth was that the day after I gave notice at the firm, I regretted it and considered begging for my job back. I still had a mountain of college and law school loans to pay off.

It had been so out of character—and downright scary—that I’d given up an ostrich in the hand on a whim. But then Josh called with this referral and I’d been so desperate I hadn’t even questioned his motives. What kind of lawyer was I anyway?

A damn good one for the past three years.

I’d worked so hard. This was my big chance. How bad could it be?

Still staring at his back, I summoned up my courage and said in my most assertive attorney voice, “Mr. Larson—”

“Don’t call me that,” he said without turning around.

“Isn’t that your name?”

He walked back over to the wall and readjusted the same painting he’d corrected previously. “It was my dad’s name. I’m just Drew.”

Drew

I couldn’t get my lips to form the word. Without the last name to guard it, it felt softer, and definitely too intimate.

“Regardless, I’m not leaving. You led me to believe you would need a great deal of my time. I passed up other opportunities to be here for you.”

“For you” sounded too personal to me, but I kept talking, hoping something persuasive would come to me. “You can’t promise me a lucrative retainer and renege on the offer for no reason...I’ll...sue you.” My finish was silly, but I figured, since he wasn’t any great legal scholar, maybe he’d buy it.

“‘I’ll sue you,’” he repeated. “I like that.”

He turned toward me and smiled. Even from across the room it was dazzling—not only because it was beautiful, but because I was sure he didn’t do it often.

But his expression quickly darkened, as though he remembered he wasn’t allowed to enjoy himself.

“As I said, I’ll pay for your trouble, but you’re in way over your head, and you have no idea who you’re dealing with. Go back to the city.” He turned abruptly toward the staircase and took the steps two at a time.

I wanted to chase him up there and ask what he meant by “in way over your head,” but that was too undignified. I spent a few minutes reorganizing his papers, hoping he would reappear, but the apartment had gone as still as if he’d left it completely.

Feeling defeated, I picked up my briefcase and walked toward the door. I recognized the tightness crawling up the back of my neck. Suddenly, all I wanted was to escape Drew Larson’s penthouse underworld, have some pizza delivered, and climb into my uncomfortable bed at the hotel.

I opened the door and gasped when I came face to face with a blonde woman who was about to knock.

“Oh! I’m sorry I startled you,” the woman said.

“No, that’s okay, I was lost in my own thoughts. You took me by surprise.” I noticed the high quality—yet understated—clothing and short, perfectly maintained hair.

Her friendly blue eyes were wide, her brows arched with obvious interest. “I’m Drew’s sister Meridith. Are you a friend of Drew’s?”

That was wishful thinking if I’d ever heard it. “No, I’m his lawyer—well, I was going to be his lawyer, but he’s, sort of throwing me out on my ear.” I was surprised at my own bluntness.

“Do you have to leave right away?” Meridith asked.

“He didn’t say, exactly.”

“No, I mean, do you have to be somewhere else right now?”

“Well, actually, I’d set aside the whole day for your brother. I thought he needed a great deal of legal assistance, but—”

“Oh, he needs a lot more than that, I assure you.” In spite of the nature of the comment, Drew’s sister never lost the well-meaning look on her features. Her speech and mannerisms were so cultured I could almost smell the money on her.

I tried to detect a resemblance between the two half-siblings but hadn’t gotten a close enough look at Larson to make a detailed comparison.

“Can I take you out for coffee?” Meridith asked hopefully.

“Sure, um, I don’t know the area very well...” but I’ll go wherever you want because you’ve got the other ninety million.

“Why don’t you ride with me,” she said. “I need to come back here anyway.”

I don’t, but—“That sounds great,” I replied.


Chapter Three

I thought the diner was a surprisingly quaint—a.k.a. tacky—place for a multi-millionaire to have coffee or anything else. Not to mention the fact that Meridith raved about the peach cobbler like it was a delicacy. Why was money always wasted on the wrong people?

Tired of pie talk, I complimented her on the décor in Drew’s apartment.

Meridith took in a deep breath and sighed. “Anything would have been an improvement over what he had in there. Don’t get me wrong. It was good furniture, but everything was black and white and so square and symmetrical—like walking into some weird painting.”

She shook her head as if trying to dislodge the image. “It’s hard to describe, but if you get a peek at Drew’s bedroom, you’ll know what I mean. He wouldn’t let me touch it.”

I tried to imagine the circumstances under which I would get a “peek” at Drew’s bedroom, and they didn’t seem likely.

Meridith pushed her plate away and, finally, got to the point. “Mia,” she said. “I want you to give Drew another chance. I’m sure his past was very shocking to you, and he probably got angry at your reaction…”

I shook my head at her. “Meridith, I have no idea what your brother is so notorious for. He seemed to think I knew before I came, and he got upset when he realized I didn’t have a clue. He wouldn’t tell me anything, and he practically threw me out.”

“That’s strange—not that he threw you out, he used to do that to me all the time—but he’s usually too forthcoming with that information. I’ve told him to stop advertising it and give people a chance to forget.”

She appeared lost in thought for a moment. “He must have taken a liking to you and couldn’t stand to tell you himself. I was there the day he talked to Josh Samuels on the phone. Mr. Samuels told Drew he wouldn’t take his case, but he thought he knew a woman attorney who might. Drew said if Samuels was going to refer a woman, he’d better tell her the whole story before Drew had any contact with her, but I guess Mr. Samuels didn’t follow his instructions.”

“And I guess Drew hates it when his instructions aren’t followed.” I took another bite of my cobbler and had to admit to myself she was right about this place, even if it did have the ambience of a hospital cafeteria.

“Oh, it’s much more than that.” Meridith paused, as if trying to find the right words. “Mia, Drew and I didn’t grow up together, but what I know about his childhood is horrifying, somewhat like my own. He was abused, mentally and physically, by a man who had no love for him. That kind of upbringing fills a person with rage. From a young age, I learned to cover up my own abuse and act as though everything was normalwhen I wasn’t trying to overdose on prescription pills.”

There it was. The same feeling I’d had that day when Lauren asked for my advice. This felt like too much information considering I’d only met this woman an hour ago.

Yet, I found I wanted to know more. I laid my fork down on my plate and gave her my full attention.

“I turned the anger I felt in on myself,” she continued. “But Drew’s anger turned outward. I like to think things would have been better if we’d met sooner. You know, kindred spirits and all—I’ve really only known he was my brother for less than a year. Before that, he was just ‘the infamous Drew Larson.’”

“So, he was infamous before you knew him?” I prodded, although I suspected I didn’t want any part of what was coming.

“Yes. There was...an...incident, a really horrible incident. I guess there’s no good way to say it. He won’t go into any detail about it. In fact, he only mentions it, in general, when he’s trying to scare people off. Anyway, this is what I’ve gleaned from the newspaper articles and gossip.” She cleared her throat. “When Drew was eighteen, and a senior in high school, he was rejected by a girl he was interested in, and she was very harsh when she turned him down. In fact, she publicly humiliated him at school.” Meridith’s face held a sad, far-away look, as though she was picturing what she was describing.

“A few weeks later, Drew and the girl both ended up at the same party. She’d had a lot to drink, and she led him to believe she’d changed her mind about him. They went off by themselves, and perhaps she sobered up or maybe she wanted to taunt him again. I don’t know.”

Meridith paused, making it clear the most distressful information was still to come. “In the police report, she said that she told him to stop, and he didn’t. At least that’s what the court decided. He went to prison for two years.”

“He’s a convicted rapist?” I asked incredulously.

“And everyone around here believes it, but it’s never rung true to me,” Meridith said. “It takes a while to get to know Drew at all, but the more I do, the less I can believe he would hurt anyone—I don’t want to mislead you, though. He’s never denied it.”

I took a sip of my tea so I wouldn’t have to say anything for a moment. I had no idea what the appropriate reply was to information like this.

Despite his rudeness, and the odd behavior I’d witnessed, I was having a difficult time thinking of Drew Larson as a rapist. All my life, I’d relied on my built-in “creep radar.” It had always served me well, even in my days as an unsupervised child in the housing projects. Why didn’t I feel it when I was with him?

There was still cobbler on my plate, but I pushed it aside. I was queasy. Was I more sickened by the abuse Drew and Meridith had suffered or the fact that the man I’d met an hour ago had been convicted of sexual assault?

After a few moments of silence, I asked, “And what does he do now?”

“He spends most of his time alone in his apartment as though he doesn’t want to interact with anyone. I talked him into going to counseling, and he acts as if it’s a big joke, but I think it’s helping.”

“Oh, yeah, I can tell,” I said sarcastically, then instantly regretted my words. Meridith had been nothing but nice to me, and Drew was her brother.

But she kept talking as though she hadn’t noticed. “He’s never gotten a break of any kind until inheriting this money. Unfortunately, the biological father we share had a cruel sense of humor. He was aware of Drew’s situation all along, even though he never came forward to claim him or help him. I learned from my father’s lawyer that after Drew was convicted, my father added the ‘marriage clause,’ knowing it would be the hardest condition to fulfill as an inmate or convicted rapist.”

“Does Drew know that marriage clauses are invalid?”

She nodded. “I tried to get him to challenge the will. He refused at first, and when I looked into it further, I was told there’s a no-challenge clause. But something’s changed Drew’s mind now and that’s why he needs you—to figure all this out. My attorneys wouldn’t be appropriate because of possible conflict of interest.”

Meridith sipped her coffee before she continued. “Anyway, my father died a year ago, and that’s when I learned there was another heir, and that Drew was my brother. I wish I’d known sooner.” Her eyes were filled with sadness, regret.

What was I supposed to do with all this emotion? “I don’t know what to say,” I replied. “I’m really sorry for everything you’ve both been through.”

She laid her hand on my arm and peered into my eyes with such intensity, I thought she was trying to read my soul. I wondered if I had one.

“Mia, would you please come back with me and give it another try?” I opened my mouth to object, but Meridith hurried on. “Perhaps you could find a loophole or contest the will. I’ll pay you whatever retainer you want myself. I think he needs this as some sort of closure on his past. There’s a good heart in there, although Jack Larson tried his best to cut it out.”

“Are you sure it’s still in there?” It struck me as darkly funny— a soulless woman and a heartless man. I was sure someone could write us into one of those country western songs.

“Well, it’s punctured, mutilated maybe, but yes, I believe it’s still there.”

I hadn’t had anything but my own gut feelings to rely on for the past twenty-eight years. They’d never steered me wrong before.

Besides, there was something about Meridith, caring so intensely for a brother she barely knew, that was compelling in a way I’d never experienced…and the money. That would be the main reason, of course.

“Okay, I’ll try,” I said.

~

During the drive back to the apartment, Meridith gave instructions as though I was on my way to baby-sit an unruly child. “Drew is prone to throwing tantrums, but he rarely means them. If he likes you, he may act annoyed with you much of the time. If he starts to feel he’s making a connection, he’ll turn on you and try to scare you away. Just refuse to leave.”

“And if he throws me out bodily?”

“Dust yourself off and go right back in.” Meridith laughed. “Actually, it’s unlikely he’ll touch you at all. In the time I’ve known him he hasn’t wanted to touch anyone, although when my kids insist on piggyback rides, he won’t disappoint them.”

I had to chuckle at the idea of Drew Larson being forced to give piggyback rides. I couldn’t imagine it, though. “Does he have any friends, girlfriends?”

“He tries to be an island.” Meridith had stopped at a red light. She looked over at me and said, “You know your brown eyes are really lovely.” She was studying me intensely again, and I was sure she had more on her mind than compliments. She seemed to notice my expression. “Oh, it’s just that I always admired that exotic look—you know, growing up with blonde hair and freckles like I did.” For some reason, the exotic thing didn’t bother me when Meridith said it.

Still, I knew she was covering for whatever she’d been thinking before. There was definitely more going on in Meridith’s brain than she was allowing out of her mouth.

She suddenly jumped back to her original subject. “Anyway, he leaves the apartment as little as possible. I guess he believes if he’s alone, no one can hurt him and vice versa. I think you’ll be good for him, though.”

I couldn’t fathom what kind of help—other than the legal kind—she thought someone like me could give her weird hermit brother, or anyone else, for that matter. I thought of Lauren. It still made me nervous that she actually took my advice that day.

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, Meridith,” I said. “I came because I need the money.”

“Yes, but that’s not why you’re staying. I have a good feeling about you.”

How annoying.

For as long as I could remember, I’d worked at being opaque, carefully picking and choosing what I wanted people to know. How could this woman know anything at all about me?

But she was right. I needed the money, but I wasn’t staying for the money.

What was I staying for? Meridith? Drew? Because I felt something when I was around them and maybe feeling something was better than feeling nothing at all?

As we passed through downtown Vaughndale, I stared out the window at the nice-looking shops, the movie theater, and the moms with their kids at the park. None of this was the stuff of my dreams. I missed New York.

When I quit my job, I wasn’t even thinking of leaving the city. Not that this was a one-horse town, by any means. It was a small city of a hundred thousand, or so. It had the usual chain stores and fast food restaurants, but it didn’t have Time Square and all those hurried, well-dressed people on the sidewalks. People who were going somewhere, like to their good jobs at their well-respected law firms.

What had I done?

I pushed the pointless thoughts away and tried to focus on Meridith’s pleasant tour chatter.

The ride was way too short, and before I knew it I was standing outside Drew’s door, bracing myself for embarrassment. Meridith knocked and he opened the door, staring at us like we’d just stepped out of our space capsules.

I found I was having trouble making eye-contact again. And I wasn’t about to start this conversation, so I waited for Meridith to speak.

“Hi, Drew. I ran into your lawyer when I came by earlier, and I liked her so much I took her out for coffee,” she said cheerfully, as she stepped past him into the apartment.

“Not to that dive you always go to,” he replied. “She probably likes her pie without the cockroaches. She’s from the city.” Despite the sarcastic tone, I was glad to know there was something we could agree on.

“Mrs. Farley keeps a very clean kitchen. I’ve been back there several times myself.” Meridith patted him on the side of his face. “You just don’t like the friendly atmosphere.”

He took a step back to avoid any more patting, walked to the wooden table behind the couch and adjusted the antique clock until it was positioned directly in the middle. He turned abruptly toward me.

“What are you doing back here, Medina?”

Meridith jumped in again. “She came to work on your case…for your inheritance, like you asked her to.”

Drew didn’t look at his sister as she spoke. Although he was several yards away, his dark eyes stared intently at me, as though he was looking for evidence I knew the truth.

He wants to know if I’m judging him, or afraid of him. He’s wondering what Meridith said to get me back here.

His gaze left mine and his manner became overly casual. “Whatever. Hey Sis, you want some popcorn? I just popped it. It’s the real kind, not that microwave crap.” He strolled toward the kitchen as Meridith trailed behind him.

“That would be nice,” she answered.

I was left standing in the doorway wondering whether to stay or go. Meridith turned around briefly and nodded her head toward the table where the papers still waited.

She wants me to start working like nothing happened.

I stood motionless for a few seconds after they disappeared into the kitchen. For the first time in my life, I felt utterly indecisive.

I tried to tell myself this was only a decision to stay or go for a few hours today, but it felt like a lot more than that. Becoming part of a trio in which I was the one with the most stable childhood seemed ill-advised, but something drew me to them.

Pushing my emotions aside, I tried to think through the problem logically. I was still in debt and had no other way to support myself at the moment, and I already knew I was unhappy working at a law firm...

I shrugged away the negative thoughts and walked over to the table. As I flipped the file open, it slid over a bit, revealing a slim note pad underneath. I picked up the pad and examined the scrawled notes written in black ink.

“Harper and Barnes” and “Josh Samuels” were there with a phone number, as were my name and number.

But my name appeared again, lower on the page, standing alone. Only, it looked very different. Though in the same ink, and possibly the same handwriting, this time it was done in flowing script as though the writer had wanted to recreate it with more care.

I’d never seen my name written so beautifully before. It was like a work of art. I traced over the letters with my index finger and wondered if Drew Larson had done it.

Before we met or after?

Although my stress level had dropped since he left, I found myself wishing he’d return. I’d been in the same room with him twice, but his manner was so allusive, I still didn’t feel as though I’d really seen him.

I slid the notepad back underneath, opened the file, and started working. There was a healthy pile of legal documents in front of me. Some pages pertained to the ten thousand dollar per month allowance Drew was getting since the death of his father. Others involved the disbursement of funds and investments upon his “legitimate marriage,” and who would decide whether or not the marriage was legitimate—some old friend of Vaughn’s, although I wondered how a man like that could have an old friend.

There were financial papers revealing how much money was in what type of investment and who was overseeing all of it. Perhaps these were there to make the inheritance possibility even more enticing…or more depressing, if the “heir” felt the terms were impossible for him to fulfill.

I was lost in my reading, so it didn’t seem long before Meridith reappeared with Drew behind her. She explained that she had a meeting to go to and she was sorry she couldn’t stay longer.

“Bummer,” Drew said sarcastically. He didn’t bother to show Meridith out.

She breezed to the door, said her good-byes and left, completely overlooking her brother’s rude behavior.

As soon as the door closed behind her, he turned and asked, “What are you still doing here?”

I felt the tension race up my spine and into the base of my skull all at once. I stood to face him. “I’m here because your sister convinced me to come back. She’s a very kind pers—”

“But I’m not, and I’m the one you’d be working for.”

“That’s irrelevant. It’s just a job and—”

“Is it irrelevant? This is all irrelevant to you?” He began pacing like a caged animal, and I could feel a rave coming on. “Why are you here, Ms. Medina?” His voice grew louder. “Why would a beautiful, smart woman with so many other options, choose to stay here?”

“How do you know I’m smart? We only met today.”

“You think I’m an idiot? I had you checked out. You graduated fifth in your class at Columbia Law. You’re perfect. Any law firm would want you to work for them. Any man would want to—” He stopped speaking abruptly.

“Why did you have me come here?”

“I wasn’t expecting you. I was expecting some egghead reject with thick glasses and a bun in her hair. You don’t belong here. You should be in a plush office, or lying by a swimming pool.”

“I don’t enjoy working in a large firm. I can’t help how I look.” That was a little bit of a lie because I knew how men saw me and certainly didn’t do anything to detract from it. “The fact is I’m a lawyer. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be your lawyer.”

“No reason? No reason?” The rage was back in his voice. “Did you say enjoy?” He threw my words back at me with such force, I gripped the edge of the table next to me. “Do you think you’re going to enjoy working for me?” He paused only briefly for an answer and when none came, he resumed his erratic strolling. “Did my sister tell you?”

“Yes.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“You aren’t afraid of me?” He paused and looked at me, and for a moment I thought I saw something other than rage in his eyes. The look was almost pleading, then hopeful, but he quickly turned and began pacing away from me.

“No, I’m not.”

He was across the room, but as soon as I answered his last question, he turned and charged toward me like an angry rhino.

I was startled, and began walking backwards, but after only two steps I felt the wall at my back.

His hands slammed into it on either side of my shoulders, giving the illusion that I was pinned there without him actually touching me. His face was only a few inches from mine, and he stared directly into my eyes.

Although the sound of his palms hitting the wall jarred me, when I looked into his face, all fear dissipated.

As I peered up at him, curiosity took over, since I realized this was the first good look I’d gotten since we met. His brown eyes were framed by surprisingly lush lashes, which softened his features when viewed up close. His skin had a nice tone, halfway between my deep olive and Meridith’s peaches and cream. And, he was tall enough to make me feel small, though I was a respectable five foot six.

The jaded attitude had thrown me off before. Drew was younger than I’d thought, maybe not even thirty. His face was slim—not gaunt—but considering the harsh expression he wore, if I’d added a goatee and horns he truly might look like Lucifer’s son.

Yet, my mind wouldn’t let go of the snapshot it had taken when he smiled.

I remembered to breathe.

Odd. He didn’t smell like any of the normal things—cologne, soap, fabric softener. It was a clean, pleasant scent, though. The term “lemon fresh” came to mind.

Furniture polish? I glanced over at the gleaming end table by the sofa.

Since Drew was still leaning over me with his hands propped on the wall, I could feel his warm breath on my forehead. I didn’t have the slightest urge to flee my imaginary confinement. I looked up at him and held his gaze for several long seconds.

His eyes shifted down to my mouth, and I got that feeling I always did, right before a man tried to kiss me. Although kissing him was surely the last thing I needed to do, my lips parted automatically in anticipation.

His breathing was suddenly very shallow. His mouth opened. The slight movement of his face toward mine was almost imperceptible.

He spoke to me in a whisper. “This is a very dangerous place.”

When I didn’t reply, his eyes drifted to a section of my hair that hung down past my shoulder. I sucked in a deep breath, inadvertently causing it to move up and down, with the rise and fall of my breasts.

He turned his head away, squeezed his eyes shut, and took in a deep breath.