26-year-old Nellie Mortimer stepped out of the elevator and walked towards her office like she had all the time in the world. She was a tall, pretty blonde, a straight-A student her entire life. But her intelligence was purposely wasted, with Nellie’s life spent mostly frolicking in an endless stream of booze and clubbing.
Unlocking the door to her office, she entered breezily, saying, “I’m sorry I’m late.” But she wasn’t, really. The truth was, she had only accepted this pro bono case to appease her dad, who also happened to own the law firm where she worked.
As the door shut behind her silently, she continued, “Traffic was horrendous, and---” She stopped dead in her tracks, blinking. Nellie looked around her office. Where was her client?
A tiny scuffling sound---
Oh my God, some kind of rodent had gotten in her office, Nellie realized in a panic. She started backing away when she heard the scuffling sound again. Oh my God, she needed to walk slowly, not make any sudden movements or---
Something caught her eye.
Nellie stopped moving, frowning.
Were those shoes peeking from under the curtains?
Was that actually her client, Lane Petersen?
“Ms. Petersen, is that you hiding behind the curtains?”
The figure moved behind the curtains, followed by a small voice answering, “Y-yes.”
Oh, she knew it, Nellie mentally grouched. Pro bono cases were always a pain in the ass to deal with. They always involved the crazies. Should she get security –
Then Nellie remembered her dad’s warning. If she didn’t finish this to the end, he’d take away her credit cards. The thought had her shuddering in horror. The truth was, even though she had passed the bar and was indeed a full-fledged lawyer, she had never needed to work and didn’t really care to.
And you won’t have to, ever, she reminded herself. She just needed to have this pro bono case all wrapped up, and that was it. She would be back in her father’s good graces, and she’d be able to live happily ever after.
Turning to face the figure behind the curtains, she said in a sweetly cajoling voice, “Why don’t you come out of the curtains and let me see you, Ms. Petersen?”
There was another movement, which Nellie deciphered as her client shaking her head.
“Oh, but why not?”
“Because you’re rich.”
Nellie pretended to be surprised. “Who, me?” But in truth, she was pleased. It was always nice to be called ‘rich’. Turning away, she headed to her little-used office table, placed her Chanel handbag on top, and took the case folder. She quickly scanned the overview prepared by the paralegal.
Oh. There it was. Her client was suffering from an unusual form of plutophobia, possibly a symptom of PTSD. In other words, 18-year-old Lane Petersen was afraid of rich people.
She scanned the rest of the first-page summary. Okay, another sob story, ho-hum, and then---
Her eyes widened. Lane was positioned to inherit that much? Her mind raced through the necessary computations. If she got Lane to accept the inheritance, the terms of her work would have waived her professional fee but she would get to receive a commission percentage. And it was ten times more than her fee!
She glanced back at her client, hoping that the dollar signs weren’t shining in her eyes. Clearing her throat, Nellie said gently, “Would it make you feel safer if we talk while you stay there?”
“Y-you don’t mind?”
“Of course not,” Nellie answered readily. Considering how much she was slated to earn, she would not mind anything. “I’m your lawyer, and that means I’ll always be on your side.”
Pause, a longer one this time.
“How do I know if I can trust you?”
Good question, Nellie thought. She said slowly, “That’s the thing about trust. There’s no way to know until you take a risk.” She thought for a moment then moved forward, case folder still in her hands. When she was standing in front of the curtains, she bent to take off her Louboutin pumps.
“What are you doing?”
Instead of answering, she set her pumps aside and lowered herself to the carpeted floor, folding her legs under her. “Just making myself comfortable,” Nellie said. “Feel free to join me anytime.” But in truth, all she wanted was to make Lane stop seeing her as a rich person to fear, and she knew, considering her client’s age and history, Lane was likely to subscribe to all the stereotypes of wealthy individuals.
Nellie began to talk, not requiring her client to answer, and she discussed everything except the case. It took about forty-five minutes for her client to finally come out of the curtains, and when she did, Nellie tried not to show her surprise.
The girl was unbelievably pretty, her hair and eyes a rich shade of caramel brown. Her curves were also generously evident, despite her young age, and it made Nellie feel a bit envious. Oh, what she would do to have something bigger than A-cups.
As she continued talking, she watched her young client sit in front of her, pulling her knees up and tucking them under her chin. When she paused, she expected Lane Petersen to stay silent but the young girl surprised her by saying in a small voice, “We can talk about it now.”
Nellie hid her surprise at Lane’s unexpectedly straightforward attitude. This girl had guts, she thought, reluctantly impressed. But still, she asked, “Are you sure?”
A small nod.
Eyes that hid nothing met hers. “You’re not like the other rich people I know.”
Nellie fought to keep her smile even as her guilty conscience started to sting. Shut up, conscience. You’re going to cost me money. Looking back at Lane, she said quietly, “I’m glad you think that.” Her conscience stung even more painfully. “But first, I’d like to formally introduce myself.” She offered the girl her hand. “My name’s Nellie Mortimer, and I’ve been assigned to be your lawyer.”
The girl shook her hand gravely. “I’m Lane. Thank you for accepting my case even if you won’t get paid for it. The social worker explained it all to me. She says there are lawyers like you, who believe in doing the right thing.”
Nellie managed to hold on to her smile. “That’s right.” I hate you, Anonymous Social Worker. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Has someone discussed with you why you need a lawyer?”
Lane nodded. “It’s about the inheritance, right?”
“Yes.” Nellie picked up the case file and flipped it to the page where all the figures were. “After you’ve factored in taxes and other fees, you will still be left with an inheritance of over three million dollars.” She waited expectantly.
But the girl in front of her didn’t jump for joy or go into hysterics.
Thinking that Lane was left speechless by her good fortune, Nellie said with a smile, “You heard me right, you know. You’re a multimillionaire at your age, and after the necessary paperwork, I can make sure the funds are transferred to your account in a couple of days---”
Lane mumbled something.
I must have heard her wrong, Nellie thought. “Sorry, what was that again?” She watched Lane take a deep breath.
“I don’t want it.”
Her smile froze on her lips. “Excuse me?”
The girl’s voice became just a bit stronger. “I don’t want it.”
Nellie’s jaw dropped. “Are you insane?” She winced as soon as the words came out, knowing she had been utterly unprofessional. “I’m sorry for that.” But in her mind, Nellie could already see her two-percent cut slipping away from her hold. There goes my plan for a European cruise and a fling with a hot Greek stranger, Nellie thought morosely. She should have known there was a catch. Her father would never have given her a cut-and-dry case.
She looked back at Lane. “I just want to be clear here. You’re saying no to THREE MILLION DOLLARS.”
Her client nodded.
“But you’ve already turned eighteen,” Nellie pointed out. “You can no longer be a dependent of the state. You’re unemployed, homeless, and you have yet to finish high school. Your work experience is next to nothing. How do you profess to live if you say no to your inheritance?
There was a long pause before Lane answered jerkily, “I’ll get by.”
Nellie’s head started to pound. Three million dollars, she thought incredulously. And this girl was saying she didn’t want it? Her gaze slid back to the case folder. She read through it a little more comprehensively and when she looked up, she knew just enough to try a new tactic.
“May I be frank with you, Lane?” Nellie tried to keep the guilt from her voice as she spoke, aware of her less-than-selfless motivation for wanting to convince Lane Petersen to accept her inheritance.
She winced. “Please call me Nellie. That M-word makes me so old.” And how was it that there were still teenagers as shy and respectful as Lane, Nellie wondered absently. Sure, the girl suffered from kind of trauma. But Nellie had met a lot of young girls suffering from trauma through the law firm’s charity work, and the way most of them had cussed would make even Eminem sound like a choirboy.
Her teasing had made the tiniest smile appear on Lane’s lips. “O-okay.”
Nellie was privately surprised at how good it feel to make the young girl smile and the realization made her wince. Careful now, she warned herself. More of that and you’ll end up being a hatefully boring do-gooder.
Returning her attention to Lane, she clasped her hands on her lap and picked her next words with care. “As your lawyer, it’s my job to ensure you do what’s legally right but also what’s best for you.” She paused. “I’m not in any position to stop you from refusing your inheritance, of course, but I just want to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
In front of Nellie, the girl’s increased tension was palpable, and her movements jerky as she unfolded her legs then tucked them under her, fingers tapping restlessly on her knees.
Without looking at Nellie, Lane asked haltingly, “You know about my mother?”
“Are you referring to the rift between your mother and paternal grandfather?”
Lane nodded jerkily.
Nellie tried to be properly vague, saying, “According to the case file, your grandfather disapproved of her relationship with his only son, and this has led to your parents’ breakup and your mother raising you on your own. I understand that your mother’s subsequent nature of employment---”
The way Lane vehemently shook her head stopped Nellie from speaking.
“I’m sorry, N-Nellie…but I d-don’t think you understand anything.” But the girl’s voice was more pained than harsh, and it was the first time Nellie glimpsed any kind of strong emotion in her client.
Lips trembling, Lane said fiercely, “You might have heard all s-sorts of things about my mom, but I want you to know they’re all w-wrong about her. My mom’s a nice person, a kind person, and she’s the most wonderful, bravest person on earth. She never had anything bad to say about anyone, not even when he…”
Lane sucked her breath in, and her eyes suddenly squeezed shut as if she was trying to ward off a painful memory.
And Nellie had a sudden urge to run away and forget she ever knew someone named Lane Petersen.
So this was why her dad wanted her to handle this girl’s case.
She cleared her throat. “Umm, Ms. Petersen---” She didn’t do Hallmark scenes, ever. That was so cliché, not to mention unprofitable. “I don’t think---”
But it was too late.
“I was seven when I first met my grandfather, and that first time h-he told me that my mom was a s-slut.”
Nellie wanted to cover her ears. I’m just going to pretend I’m not hearing anything, she thought desperately.
“He wanted me t-to disown her and come live with him in his mansion.”
Lane’s voice was emptier than any teenager had a right to sound, and Nellie furiously blinked back tears. She had never cried over sappy movies, and she was not going to cry now.
La-la-la, Nellie mentally sang, frantic to distract herself.
“When I d-didn’t agree, my grandfather got in touch with my school and told them about my mom’s job.” Lane was pale-faced, her gaze faraway, and it was clear she was lost in a haze of despair and stolen innocence.
“We moved from town to town, but he would always find us, and he used his connections to ruin any chance of my mom finding a good job---”
The girl’s voice broke.
And Nellie’s heart of ice started to break with it.
Lane’s head swung to face her, and the young girl’s eyes sought Nellie’s in unconscious need.
“I just want you to understand,” Lane choked out, “that I don’t hate him. I r-really don’t b-because my mom taught me better than that.” She swallowed audibly, and the way the girl visibly fought not to cry ironically made Nellie want to bawl her own eyes out.
“I don’t hate my grandfather.” Lane whispered the words like a vow. “I don’t. But sometimes, I can’t help wondering, I can’t help asking God…how can a person be so cruel?”
A single tear trailed down her cheek, ruining her makeup and maybe the rest of her life as well.
Damn you, Dad. I see what you’ve done now.
Lane’s question was so damn simple, and yet for all the years Nellie had spent studying in the best schools, she realized then that none of it had prepared her to answer such a question.
Only people with good hearts like Lane, people who weren’t like herself, could ask…and answer such questions.
“Everyone told me that I should be ashamed of my mother because of what she did,” Lane whispered. “But you see, I knew that she had done it…” She was visibly struggling to breathe. “I knew she had done it for me. I knew she thought there was no other way to raise me but to s-sell her b-body, and my grandfather---”
The girl choked back a sob, and Nellie wanted to choke the life out of the girl’s grandfather, if the old man wasn’t already dead.
“He was supposed to be the smart one,” Lane finished brokenly. “He was supposed to be the educated one, so why---” The girl shook her head as if she was still unable to believe what she remembered…and lived through. “I begged him to help us pay for my mother’s bills, N-Nellie. I went down on my knees…”
Lane looked at Nellie with a gaze made dull by pain.
“But he said no. He said he would rather see my mother die than have his grandchild with him, and now…”
Nellie’s fingers dug deep into her palms, struggling to resist the urge to take the younger girl into her arms.
“My mother’s dead, and he’s dead, too.” Lane’s voice became toneless. “All that’s left is the money and I know it’s stupid, but I can’t s-stop thinking that if t-there wasn’t any money to begin with then m-maybe everyone would still be alive. Maybe e-everyone would still be a-alive…and happy.”
Norman Mortimer knocked on the door of his daughter’s office but didn’t wait for her to answer it, opening and thus catching Nellie unaware. She was seated behind her table, eyes swollen with tears and her makeup completely ruined.
“I hate you.” But his daughter sounded more weary than furious.
Norman looked around the office. “Where’s your client?”
“She’s gone.” Nellie’s normally sophisticatedly sweet voice was harsh. “You really think you’d get what you want? You’ll make me like you?” Nellie shook her head even as her heart cracked. “Someone who spends his entire life doing charity work, to the point of ignoring his own daughter’s existence?”
Norman’s heart sank. “You turned her away.”
“Because of you.” Nellie refused to acknowledge the way her heart kept breaking. “I told her I’m not the best person for her case and I’ll look for someone else to take over.”
Norman didn’t speak for a long time.
Nellie’s fists clenched and unclenched. She forced herself to remember all the nights she had cried herself to sleep, the way her dad kept breaking his promise to be there. On her birthdays. Her recitals. Or even just to read her a bedtime story. She had cried so much that in the end, all the tears inside her had dried.
Or so she had thought…until now.
Her father was still standing in front of her, and the way he gazed at Nellie made her sneer, “You didn’t win, Daddy. I’m still the bitch you made me to be.” She waited for him to yell at her, to fly into a rage like he always did.
But all he did was smile sadly.
“I never thought you were a bitch. Never will. You’ll always be Daddy’s little girl, and when I learned about Ms. Petersen’s case, I knew you were the only one who could help her.”
“Because she’s my ticket to heaven?” she asked snidely even as the urge to cry came back at her father’s unexpected words.
“Because I saw you in her, the way you were when you were young. Your mother kept telling you my work was more important than my family, but you refused to listen to her...even if back then she had been right. You still insisted on waiting up for me, until you fell asleep on the bottom of the stairs, and I’d come home to find your cheeks wet with your---”
“Shut up, Dad.” She stalked to the windows, turning her back to him, not wanting her dad to see her face.
“Laura Petersen may have been a prostitute her entire life, but she’s a damn better parent than I ever was. She succeeded where I failed.” Her dad’s voice became gruff. “But Laura’s gone and I think…”
Nellie knew Norman was waiting for her to speak, but she refused to acknowledge in any way that she had heard his words.
“I think only someone like you, someone who was hurt the same way, can make sure Lane’s alright.”
Hope was like the last drops of water in a nearly empty glass, but Lane Petersen fought to see it in another way. Hope still existed, the glass was still filled, and that was that mattered.
The rest of her life stretched before her, terrifying in its blankness.
But still, Lane refused to be defeated.
Her mother Laura was now her guardian angel, and she refused to believe that God and Laura would ever let her down. Together, those two were unbeatable---
An icy cold wind slapped her face as if Hell was challenging her, but Lane only pulled her thin coat around her more tightly.
Winter was coming, she though randomly, tempting Lane into hysterics.
She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. It’s not going to be the end of the world. I’m going to be okay. I---
Someone tapped her from behind.
---ended up jumping three feet in the air.
Lane spun around.
A guy in a suit was standing behind her, looking harried. “Lane Petersen?”
She didn’t answer, suspicious and wary.
“You are Lane Petersen, right? Ms. Mortimer wanted me to give you this.” He handed her an envelope.
She accepted it with suddenly trembling hands, and the trembling only worsened as she opened the envelope and took out the note inside of it.
Dear Ms. Petersen,
Forgive my lapse of judgment. But also allow me a moment to speak the unvarnished truth with you. I’m just about the most cynical and selfish woman in the world. I don’t do affection and I don’t even like rainbows or the Care Bears.
If, after knowing this, you still think I’m a good fit then it would be my honor to represent your case and regardless of the result, I would like to give you my personal assurance that you have nothing to worry about. I will do my utmost best to ensure that you have the means to start over.
It is the least I can do for someone whose courage, naiveté – oh, sorry I mean, optimism – is an inspiration.
And if I may, I would like you to know that I think you are absolutely lucky to have someone like Laura Petersen as a mother.
I only wish I had the privilege of meeting her in this lifetime.
“Ms. Petersen?” Jeff, the paralegal sent to go after Lane Petersen, was dumbfounded when he saw the younger girl’s tear-stained face. “I w-was asked to w-wait for your reply,” he stammered uneasily, all the while thinking that the owner’s daughter, Nellie Mortimer, was really the selfish bitch everyone thought she was, to make a pro bono client cry.
But he ended up confused when the girl choked out, “Please tell Ms. Mortimer t-that she j-just made me believe in unicorns. And Care Bears.”
“Riiiiiiight.” Jeff slowly turned around as the girl behind him started laughing and crying.
Crazy girl, he thought. Maybe she was a good match for Nellie Mortimer, after all.
Two Years Later
His laughter was the first thing Lane noticed.
It was unlike anything she had heard of, and she had been doing inventory when she heard it. At first, she had thought her mind was playing tricks on her. Surely, no one could laugh with such shameless iniquity? Surely, no one could be so blatantly wicked, so defiantly immoral?
But then she had heard it again, and Lane realized that she hadn’t imagined it at all. She looked up, heart beating madly as she scanned the sea of faces across the road. It had to be one of those students coming out of Christopoulos University, which was opposite the convenience store where she worked.
But try as she might, none of the guys she saw seemed to fit the bill. None of them seemed to be powerful or strong enough to sound like a fallen angel, laughing so beautifully even in the face of eternal damnation.
Oh, if Nellie could hear her now, Lane thought absently as she scrutinized the men’s faces. The thought made her smile and wince at the same time. Nellie would probably threaten to hit her on the head for being so foolishly romantic.
Moments passed, and hope started to fade. She turned away, thinking that maybe tomorrow would be better---
And that was when she heard it again, this time so, so close it was almost like he was right behind her---
Wait, what if he was right behind her?
Lane whirled around so fast she lost her balance, and she fell flat on her butt with a tiny cry.
A shadow fell over her world, and then she found herself staring straight into a pair of silvery gray eyes.
Almost like a fallen angel, she thought dazedly, dropping from the sky.
“Are you okay?” His voice was faintly accented. Italian, she guessed dizzily as she took the hand offered to her. It was warm and electrifying, and the shock of it had Lane stiffening.
“Just static electricity,” the stranger said easily as he released her hand.
No, Lane thought, even more dazed now. It wasn’t. But she was too much in awe to argue. On her feet, she found him even taller than he appeared initially. Slowly, her gaze met his eyes again, and this time Lane took the rest of him in. This time, it finally dawned on her just how beautiful the man before her was.
Words like ‘handsome’ and ‘good-looking’ wouldn’t cut it.
He was beautiful.
It was the only way to describe him.
It was also one thing she was not.
She suddenly remembered how she looked. Hair twisted up in a careless bun, her old pair of eyeglasses perched on her too-small nose, her face without a touch of makeup.
She also remembered what she had been and what she was supposed to be doing. She was in the middle of delivery inventories, and she was dressed for it, too, faded apron over her shirt and jeans.
She nodded dumbly.
And I’m infatuated.
Lane didn’t care if the thought made her foolish and insane.
All she knew was that this beautiful stranger made her blood sing like no other man could.
She had the biggest crush on this fallen angel of hers, and that was that.
She remembered Laura telling her stories about how she had fallen in love with Lane’s father. She remembered asking her mother, when she was a little older and wiser, how Laura could still cherish the memory even when her father had proven to be anything prince-like. And she remembered how Laura had blinked at her like she shouldn’t have asked the question at all.
“Just because we didn’t end up together doesn’t mean we weren’t really in love. We were the ones who made mistakes, but love…” And Laura’s smile had been of undimmed hope and dreams. “Choosing to love is always a gloriously right thing to do.”
Lane looked back at her fallen angel.
His concerned gaze made her heart skip a beat, and his voice was like the most darkly seductive melody as he murmured, “If you’re sure you’re okay…”
“I think I hurt my ankle,” she blurted out. God forgive me. “M-maybe you can check on me later?” She could feel a blush stealing over her cheeks at how unnaturally forward she was being. “I’m out in an hour.” Lane’s words had the stranger raising a brow, but even as her cheeks turned redder, she just couldn’t make herself take the words back.
“I see.” The stranger’s lips curved in the sexiest little smile, and his silvery gray eyes settled on her contemplatively.
His sudden scrutiny was unnerving, but Lane forced herself to meet his gaze. She had nothing to hide. She was just crushing on him, and now she was, well, flirting outrageously with him. Other girls did it all the time. So it wasn’t bad…right?
“You’re…different,” the stranger murmured.
“In a good way…right?” Lane clarified worriedly.
His smile widened, but he didn’t say anything.
Her heart slammed hard against her chest. Oh, Looooord. It was just a smile, but she felt hot all over.
When he took a step back from her, Lane caught her breath, the pain of the increased distance surprising her.
“I’m keeping you, aren’t I?”
Her heart sank. “You’re meeting with someone?” Please say no, please say---
“I see.” Her heart had sped up its descent at his response, and she struggled to paste a smile on her trembling lips. Infatuation and heartbreak at first sight, Lane thought numbly. Who could’ve imagined it would happen this way?
Slowly, she made herself take a step back as well. Not meeting his gaze, she mumbled, “Sorry for keeping you.”
“I’ll check up on you later---”
“You don’t have to---”
The stranger cupped her chin and forced her to look up. “Why not?”
She refused to be excited, frowning unhappily at him. “Because.”
“Because…what?” Again, his lips curved in that sexy little smirk, which even in her pain didn’t fail to make her body tingle all over.
“Because you’re meeting with someone,” Lane snapped in a rare display of annoyance. “Happy now?” The words were supposed to come out a snarl, but she ended all choked up with hurt disappointment.
The stranger released her chin. “See you later.” And just like that, he turned and started to walk away.
“I said you don’t have to,” she muttered resentfully.
“Even when I tell you I’m only meeting up with a college dean for work?” the stranger answered without looking back.
Her eyes widened.
“And have I mentioned the dean also happens to be fifty years old, bald, and male?” But he was getting further and further away from her now, and she barely heard his next words, spoken in a musing tone. “But then, if you think I shouldn’t be checking up on you---”
“NO!” Lane clapped her hands over her mouth, shocked that she had actually ended up yelling the word out.
The stranger stopped walking.
She didn’t hesitate.
She hurried after him, and by the time she reached the stranger he had already turned to face her, a familiar smirk on his strong, beautiful face.
“You don’t seem to have a hurt ankle---”
She didn’t hesitate, pretending to limp on the last few steps.
His laughter rang out, and this time she realized what made it so different, what made her want to hear it again and again.
Lane stumbled to a stop.
She was suddenly perilously close to tears.
His laughter…reminded her of Laura.
Her brazen sense of joy, her indomitable spirit, her fierce love---
Against all odds.
“Are you okay?” Her fallen angel was in front of her again, his tone a mixture of wariness and worry, and she couldn’t blame him at all. She had to look crazy in his eyes right now, with the way she would be flirting outrageously with him one moment and then fighting back tears the next.
“I’m not crazy, I promise,” she told him, trying but failing to repress her smile.
“If I weren’t a gentleman, I’d admit to unconvinced.”
“You already said it,” she pointed out helplessly.
“Then I guess I’m not a gentleman.” And his silvery eyes gleamed in a way that told her there were other ungentlemanly things he wanted to do.
And she heard herself ask breathlessly, “You’ll check on me later?”
“Please?” She had never flirted her entire life until now, but somehow the words came so easily to her, never mind if she couldn’t help blushing while she said them.
“We’ll see,” he repeated firmly. And it was clear in the way wickedness flashed in his silvery gaze that he liked hearing her beg, liked keeping her on her toes.
Lane watched him go, and not once did he look back even though he had to be aware of how her gaze followed his every movement.
Sadist, she thought absently, but for some reason, this didn’t displease her at all.
P.S. FOR ANGELO IS A STANDALONE ROMANCE. Its release will be shortly followed by a number of paranormal romances set in Chalys (The Demon Duke and I), my Radish Fiction serial (If you love Drawn, you'll love this as well), and Prince of Darkness.