What an ugly four-letter word. The very idea was preposterous. He had been arrested for rape. Michael Ward shook his head, remembering the charges written under his mug shot. He did not have to take any woman by force. Look at him.
He was at the top of his game. He began as an architectural designer. Then he moved into real estate where he purchased, rebuilt, and resold properties. It took some time, but his name meant something in the hotel resort business. Patrons knew any building bearing the MJW sealsignified quality and topnotch service, for a price, of course. He had two MJW hotels in New York City, three in Atlanta, two in London, and one in Dubai. He had spa resorts sprinkled across Florida, Texas, and Chicago, all with the MJW stamp of approval.
Now, after all his hard work to build his empire, Michael could not imagine a nineteen-year-old bringing him to his knees.
Last week, he had been cracking open a bottle of champagne, celebrating his newest property acquisition in Colorado. This week, he was squatting in the corner of a four-foot cell, waiting on Verona “Tiger” Stachs to post his bail and negotiate the terms of his release.
How had he gotten here?
He had been booked on multiple sex and assault charges and had almost lost his cool at his arraignment. The fact that it was September 11 was not lost on him either.
Someone had set him up, and once he was out of here, he intended to find that person and make him pay. For the past few years of his life, Michael had become an expert at payback.
“It’s all set,” Verona stated from the more desirable side of the bars. “You’ll be home within the hour.”
“Took you long enough.” He did not say thank you. He paid her an annual salary to the tune of $700,000 and felt she should be thanking him. Michael walked to the entrance of the cell. “Did you bring it?”
Verona wrinkled her nose at his rudeness. She reached inside her briefcase and retrieved a handkerchief and wipes and thrust them at him. “As you ordered.”
Michael wiped his face and hands. He couldn’t wait to take a shower and let the water run for days. He doubted he’d ever feel clean again. The stench of jail would remain with him. “What about the press?”
“The hounds are barking,” came the wry reply.
He glared. “Is this amusing to you? Do you know what it’s like to sit in this squalor inhaling the stink of dried urine and other body fluids I refuse to dwell on?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. It was bad taste. It won’t happen again.”
Michael took pity on her. He was good-natured, but his reputation and life were on the line. This was no laughing matter. Verona had worked through the night to find a judge to grant his bail hearing. Thanks to her, he would spend the night in his own bed. He could cut her some slack. “I’m sure I’ll laugh about this at some point in my life,” he said in a gentler tone, “but for now, I want to get home.”
Verona yawned and stretched, but her eyes were still sharp. “Let me go over the terms of your release.”
The guard on duty unlocked his cell. Michael used the handkerchief to touch the iron door as he came out. His first stop was the restroom. Next, Verona led him to a small meeting room. On the table, he saw Chinese food, juice, and coffee. The aroma of chicken lo mein and beef with broccoli filled the room. His stomach growled and his mouth watered. Michael twirled some of the noodles around the small plastic fork and took a bite. He smiled. “Thank you.”
“With your estate, the judge sees you as a flight risk. Therefore, your business assets, bank accounts, and credit card accounts have all been frozen. You must surrender your passport.”
Michael munched as he processed Verona’s words. He felt like punching a wall but took another bite of his food instead. He was not a criminal. It was debasing to be treated as such, but what choice did he have?
He wiped his mouth. “Where do I sign the papers?”
“The press is camped outside the police station. You’re worldwide news. The chief of police agreed to shuttle you home in an unmarked police car. I’ve arranged for a stand-in to lead them off your trail.”
“I like the way you think.” Michael arched his eyebrow in appreciation. She was smart, cunning, and deserved every dollar he was paying her.
“There’s one other thing. I can’t represent you. I specialized in criminal trial in law school and I practiced for a short time so I was able to fill in tonight. But you need the best. I have some referrals.”
“No, I have someone in mind.” Michael tapped his fingers on the table. He knew the perfect person. It had been years since Michael had spoken to him. There was no time like the present.
“Great! Who is he? Give me his name. I need to brief him.”
“I’ll have to handle this one myself.” He did not relish begging, but he needed someone with tenacity and a proven track record of winning hard-to-prove cases. There was only one man who fit that bill.
“Do I know him?” Verona asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact you do.” Michael said. “Do you remember when you handled my paternity case?” He referred to the time when he had pursued custody of the two children from his previous marriage. Michael knew they were not his, but he had wanted them. It was selfish. In his defense, he had been on a different track then.
“Oh, yes, I remember. If memory serves me right, didn’t you drop that case? Wait a minute, wasn’t it against—”
He cut her off. “I sure did after I found out—”
“What happened? What aren’t you telling me?” Perched on the edge of the seat, Verona’s eyes shone with curiosity.
Michael clammed up when he saw the interest in Verona’s eyes. He knew she was curious to know why he had suddenly dropped the custody case three years ago. He had not told her then, and he did not intend to now.
Michael dropped the case when he learned he had fathered his own children. No one but his mother knew about his fraternal two-year-old twins. Twins he had never seen.
Old hurt surfaced. Michael hardened his heart. He did not share too much of himself anymore. Not after he had been burned by love.
He said, “What you may not remember is my ex-wife’s husband, Keith, is a former attorney. I plan to ask him to lead my defense if we go to trial. Note the word ‘if.’”
“The likelihood is one hundred percent,” she said. “Wait. Are you talking about the same Keith I’m thinking of? Minister and host of Second Chances you put on blast on national television, when you revealed he’d slept with your ex-wife and fathered her two children? That Keith?” She looked at him like he was crazy.
Michael dared her to say something. He had not gotten where he was in business by being a coward. When he wanted something, he went after it with dogged tenacity. Right now, he wanted—no, needed—Pastor Keith Ward.
The man who had stolen his wife.
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