An enemy does not plunge the dagger into your back. You don’t embrace them close enough to offer that chance. Lessons like that are best learned fast. And Maise knew it was best to protect her walls. Especially built against the eyes she didn’t expect to find. Not on the other side of the door in the almost empty and dull office. She certainly didn’t expect her heart to hammer against her chest after 12 years since she last saw him in that dark high school uniform.
“You–” Maise whispered, clutching onto the doorknob, half ready to flee.
Ryan Price, the man Maise swore to hate for the rest of her life, stood stiffer than a log. His glistening eyes took her form in one quick sweep, brows raised as a grin spread on his face. “Maise Blackwell,” Ryan said, shaking his head, “Who would’ve thought you’d walk into my office one day?”
Hand tightening around the doorknob, Maise spoke through her gritted teeth, “It’s Hayes now.” Against the wooden floor, her black heels clicked as she purposefully placed her left hand over her right, in front of her torso, and stepped in.
The shining diamond on her finger caught Ryan’s attention. Watching the smile wither from his face was too gratifying. “You’re married,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice.
The words that pierced her heart 14 years ago didn’t matter anymore. Even if they were the last words you’d want to hear from the boy you gave your heart to, it should be long enough to forget. But it had been 14 years, yet they still mattered. And while never even in her wildest imaginations did she think, Maise would prove him wrong this way, it was satisfying nonetheless.
Puffing her chest out, Maise raised a brow. “That comes as a surprise to you?”
“Not at all,” Ryan replied, the corner of his lips tweaked up in what seemed like a well-rehearsed smile. “Not when the entire city knows.”
“Of course,” Maise replied, peering at her ring. His words did not surprise her either. For once, it painted a smile on her face. The city ought to know. After all, Sitciny was their city. “Wayne and my wedding did make the papers.”
“For good reasons,” Ryan replied, his jaw tightened. “What brings you here, Mrs. Hayes?”
With a sharp jab in her heart, Maise felt the air leave her lungs. He was drawing a line. Her heart leapt as she found herself wanting to cross it. Shaking her head, her hands clutched onto her purse. “Can I talk to someone else in this firm?”
“You can talk to my receptionist,” Ryan replied, gesturing towards the door of his office, “but if you’re looking for an attorney, it would have to be me.”
Inhaling sharply, Maise averted her gaze from Ryan’s face. Though feeling his intense eyes watch her move made heat rise to her ears. Oddly enough, the chipping wall paint seemed more interesting.
A mirthless chuckle echoed in the almost empty office. “Are you here to check what else your husband can take away from me?” Ryan asked, stepping closer to Maise.
Scoffing, Maise rolled her eyes. As if she was ever interested in Wayne’s games. “I don’t think you have anything other than your neck to offer,” she replied, locking her gaze with his. Her first mistake. Gulping in, she took a step forward and craned her neck. “It’s a pity everything here looks like it’s about to crumble.” Then her lips stretched in a smile. “You shouldn’t have tried to defame my husband, you bit off more than you could chew.”
“It’s only defamation because I lost the case.”
“Something tells me you’re not a good enough attorney.”
Ryan snapped his lips shut in a hard line. “I wouldn’t be so confident, Mrs. Hayes.”
“Why is that?”
“Your husband will soon have more enemies than he can pay off–” he replied, as the muscles in his jaw bunched, “–more than he can vanish. Arrogance will bite him to shreds.”
“You’re one to talk,” Maise said, furrowing her brows. “What did you build this upon?” her fingers pointed towards the office that was ready to fall apart. “The truth?” She wondered what it looked like in all its glory.
“At least it wasn’t murder.”
“That bar you’ve set is a tripping hazard. You ought to be careful.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Ryan asked, “Are you here to mock me, then?”
“No,” Maise replied, sweat trickling down her back. “I’m here to ask who would be audacious enough to go against Wayne after what he did to you?”
“Me,” Ryan replied, raising his chin. His eyes were brightening as seconds ticked by. Walking back to his desk, he sat down in his chair with a thump. Leaning back, he flashed another smile in Maise’s direction. “Tell me, what is it I can help you with?”
“You’re not good enough.”
“People learn from their mistakes, don’t you agree?”
“Do you know what Wayne is doing to you?” Maise asked, pursing her lips. “He loves hunting.” The smile on her lips slipped, watching Ryan straighten in his chair. “Animals, humans… they’re all the same.”
“He’s making sure I’ve no fight left in me, so when he kills me, I don’t lash out in self-defence and cause him injury,” Ryan replied, placing his hand flat on the table. “But Mrs. Hayes, I have a lot of fight left in me and I will go down causing maximum damage.”
“Or he’ll strike you out first.”
“He still thinks I can cause him damage, then I must be worth something?”
She’d judge his worth and honesty herself. “What was the case you took against my husband?”
A legal liability for the sale of a faulty product was least of Wayne's worries. Yet he caught Dice Firm neatly in his trap. “Why did you lose?”
“Because he’s better at manipulating facts and has enough money to buy off people.”
“Then why did you take the case in the first place?”
“Why would you hear me out?”
“Because you’ll add please after the request?” Ryan questioned back with a shrug.
She pressed her lips together to swallow back the profanities, trying to make their way out. The only request Maise could make that would end in please was for Ryan to disappear off the face of the earth.
Ryan grinned. “As long as it’s not murder.”
Ryan’s Dice Firm was famous for being notorious. Not just against Wayne, against too many people. In the morning they were playing Robin Hood. By night, they reeled in the big fishes. Brick by brick it turned into a firm almost untouchable. No one assumed it was notorious enough to gamble with their life on line. Of course, it never ended well to go against Hayes Enterprise. Wayne made sure Dice Firm suffered the blow after losing the case. What was once a growing empire had turned to dust.
Then all this while, when did Ryan decide murder was beneath him? But again, a man has got to have some morals or there’d be too many Wayne Hayes walking on the earth.
“You’re dying to tell me. Let’s just hear it out. You’re already here, don’t waste your efforts.” Ryan’s wide eyes shimmered with joy. “For the sake of our long-standing mutual irritation for each other.”
Tapping her feet against the floor, Maise allowed herself to join Ryan. Pulling the chair open, she settled in. Maybe this could be his chance to save himself. If he was smart enough to take it. “Since it’s no secret, I suppose I can say this much,” she said, leaning forward. It was all over the news already. He must know. Watching Ryan mirror her with his bright eyes fixed on her face almost made her chuckle. “I want to give you a chance to help yourself, get my husband convicted for the death of the man in the hit-and-run case he was involved in. I’ll arrange for the victim’s family to reach out for you,” she whispered, pursing her lips, “the harsher his punishment, the better. For justice.”
As if a marble statue had replaced the man, Ryan remained unmoved for almost too long. Then his eyes lit up like the sun, and relief washed over his face. She watched him close his eyes and smile. The information was right then. He was desperate enough to take this case. Fluttering his eyes open, he asked, “Are you having an affair?”
No matter how much she tried, Maise just couldn’t get herself to tolerate him. Letting out an exasperated sigh, she leaned back in her seat. “You’ve always been impudent,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “I assumed you must’ve learned to watch your tongue now that you’ve grown up.” Pushing a lock of her tresses out of her face, Maise continued, “Then again, to build something like this requires a certain degree of brazen assurance.” Pointing around to the crumbling office, she flashed a tight-lipped smile, “It’s a shame everything collapsed.”
Gasping, Ryan tried to suppress the smile forming on his lips. “Ouch!” he said, springing from his seat. Walking around the desk, he sat on the edge of the table, positioning himself in front of Maise. He spoke with his head cocked, “You could’ve extended the courtesy of being polite as your first kiss.”
Ignoring the erratic beating of her heart, Maise looked away. Taking quick, shallow breaths, Maise pressed the back of her icy fingers against her hot cheeks. “I’ve had many kisses after yours. They washed away the taste of your lips.”
Ryan’s fingertips tightened around the edge of the desk. With a sigh, he replied, “It almost sounded like you wanted me to remind you again.”
Maise jerked her head upwards, meeting Ryan’s eyes. It was as if the entire room was spinning and only he was the stability holding her to the ground. She watched his gaze linger on her lips. But his face lacked the usual signs of amusement.
Leaning closer, Ryan kept his gaze locked with hers. Almost a moment too late, Maise clutched her purse against her chest and sprang from her seat. The brazen jerk had some audacity!
With quick strides, Maise made her way towards the door. As desperate as her situation was, she was no fool. She was already thinking of places to bury the dashcam footage. A way to erase everything. It was a shame Ryan would miss the only opportunity to save his life. But what did she care?
“You’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart?” Ryan asked the moment her hands touched the doorknob of the half-closed door. “Something you don’t have.”
Whirling around, Maise raised her brows. “Unlike you, I’m a morally upstanding citizen,” she said, pressing her lips in a straight line. “I think of how much the victim’s family must be suffering.”
“You think of other’s sufferings?” Ryan muttered under his breath. She didn’t care if he was still salty about the way she insulted him in that high school cafeteria. He deserved it. Raising from the desk, Ryan jerked his head towards the door. “No one else out there is going to help you.”
Maise held her index finger up. “Let’s get this clear: you’re not saving my life, but I can save yours.” The reason she specifically came to Dice Firm was that she heard of a crazy attorney with his head ready to be chopped off. The attorney needed this more than she did. She was practically throwing a life vest at him. He just didn’t know it would work a little differently than he was thinking. “I know your predicament,” she said, furrowing her brows. “I also know there are plenty of attorneys in the country.”
Narrowing his eyes, Ryan replied, “For all I know you’re a decoy to distract me as your husband makes me vanish without a trace.” Crossing his arms over his chest once again, he asked, “And plenty of attorneys there might be, but do you have plenty of time and money?”
Maise snapped her mouth shut. Money. That was an issue she was hoping to avoid for as long as possible. She needed someone desperate enough to go against Wayne without demanding money first. “I can help you vanish with enough money,” she whispered, raising her brows, “Away from Wayne.”
Not immediately. But eventually. Once Wayne was back to his senses and the only roadblock out of the way. Ryan could flee with his share, or if the plan went as she wanted, not even have the need to flee anymore. Though if he chose to stay and fight even after all of that, it’ll be between Wayne and him.
“I wasn’t born yesterday, you’re not doing this for me. I’ll die either way,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Why are you doing this?” he tilted his head. “A better question. How are you planning to do this?”
If he thought he could sprinkle a few flirtatious remarks and look at her in that stupid love-struck way, to fool her, he was wrong. Maybe if he admitted he needed this and thanked her for her help, she would drop the evidence on his lap. But he shouldn’t try to turn the tables around. “Do you think I’m still that high school girl you used to mess around with?”
“I messed around with you?” Ryan questioned back, raising his brows.
“Didn’t you enjoy it since I was too timid?”
“Isn’t it the other way round?”
“First, you were never timid –”
“Yeah, I was a fool.”
“You were a fool?” Maise scoffed. “At least I didn’t go around telling people pity was the only feeling I had for you.”
Realisation dawned upon Ryan’s face, and his expressions fell faster than a cemented block. That was right. Maise had overheard the conversation he had about her behind her back. Massaging his temples, Ryan whispered, “Maise…”
Maise held up her index finger. “Can you take this case?”
“The case is more complicated than being just a civil case. He’d face criminal charges as well.” Ryan clapped his hands together and rested them against his chin. “As Wayne’s wife you must know that the local government bodies are not going to do anything. If I do press civil charges on behalf of the victim’s family, I’d still need proof. Without proof, I’m setting us all up for whatever Wayne would do with us.” Ryan raised his brows. “Though if a proof shows it’s a criminal case, criminal charges will be pressed against him. That makes it dangerous for a lot of people. But the list also includes him.”
She flung open the flap of her purse and produced the SD card. “Almost halfway through you’ll see the car hitting that man,” she whispered, walking over to Ryan and dropping the SD card on the desk. “Consider this your lifeline.”
As much as he tried to act indifferent, the greed in his eyes didn’t go amiss. Neither did his hasty fingers reaching out for the evidence. He was a drowning man alright. He needed this. A smirk slipped onto Maise’s lips. She wished it wasn’t Ryan. Then again, it was for the best, since she knew him well enough.
After 15 long minutes of silence, Ryan shut his laptop with a thud. His darkened eyes fixed on Maise’s face. “Who really killed the man?”
Gulping in, Maise stroked the edge of her nose. “Didn’t you just see that clip?” Shifting in her seat, she tried to avoid Ryan’s gaze.
“A part of it is obviously missing. Did you think I’d overlook that?” Ryan asked, placing his hand over his laptop. “My guess is someone else got in the car. If we’re doing this, I need to know what really happened. I can’t have holes in my story.” Balling his hands into fists, he continued, “Being his wife, you must know this isn’t the first legal charges your husband is facing, and you also know that he has a way of getting back at those who stand against him. As his wife are you that confident in your marriage?”
“Maybe it has escaped you, so I’ll remind you again, I don’t trust you, it won’t be your first betrayal,” Maise replied, holding onto the purse that had the actual evidence. She could feel her chest tighten.
“Is it about what you heard on the rooftop with Cory?” Ryan asked, raising his brows. “Are you that childish?” Jamming his fingers on the laptop, he continued, “This man will hurt you for turning him in.”
“Don’t confuse me for a witness,” Maise replied, shaking her head. She wasn’t an idiot. But if she didn’t trust Wayne, she trusted Ryan even less. “I’m only dropping off the evidence. I will not be a part of the case. But you are as good as dead, might as well do something good before you vanish,” she continued, jerking her head towards the laptop. “Or save yourself altogether that is if you’re able to pull this off.”
“For that I need you to trust me –”
“I know what happened back in high school –”
“This isn’t about high school and I don’t wanna talk about it!”
“You know damn well it is about high school. Because I hurt your feelings.”
“Don’t give yourself so much credit.”
“You walked in here ready to cause some actual damage to your husband as soon as you saw me that changed.”
“You don’t touch a scalding pot twice unless you’re an idiot.”
“It is about our history.”
“That taught me to stay away from you.”
“Walk out then, but the damage was done from both sides, and you know it!” Ryan tossed the SD card across the table in one swift motion.
Picking it off before Ryan had the chance to take it back, Maise yelled, “You played me, I didn’t play you!”
“You can question everything, but not my feelings for you. I won’t have that. Especially not from you. I was immature!” Ryan snapped, slamming his hand against the desk as he sprung from his seat. “Maybe if I didn’t love you as much as I do, I would’ve handled my feelings better. But this isn’t high school Maise and we aren’t dealing with a back-alley bully!” almost leaning over the desk with his hand outstretched towards her face, Ryan’s voice softened, “Tell me what happened so I can protect you.”
Love her? The tightness in her throat didn’t go away when she gulped. Turning her head away, she tried to blink away the tears that shimmered in her eyes. His tricks were meaningless. It was too late. She didn’t need him, anyway. She would protect herself. And he had no idea how far she was willing to go. “How will you protect me when you can’t even protect yourself?”
“Do you know if you’re going to be safe?” Ryan asked, dropping his hand by his side. “It’s a matter of time before he figures out you turned him in. What about your life then?”
“My life?” Maise replied, scoffing. Glaring at the tall man as tears trickled down her chin, she continued, “Why do you care about my life?” Grounding her jaw, she spoke from between her teeth. “Or do you just want the evidence back and you think this is going to work? Whatever game you’re trying to play.” Every muscle in her face tensed up as she fought back tears.
Of all the people in the world, Wayne Hayes loved her. But not enough. So, she’d show him the wife he needed and she’d go back to being his only choice. Just why did the collateral damage have to be Ryan? Then again, maybe it was justice. If only he knew, she was playing the same wicked game he played on her 14 years ago. And Ryan was pulled in with every words she uttered and every tear that shimmered in her eyes.
“There is something obviously wrong going on–”
“And how’s that any of your concern now?” Taking in a sharp breath, she watched Ryan’s widened eyes and furrowed brows. She watched his grounded jaw, and she wanted to see none of it. She didn’t need anyone. He needed her. “You ought to be more careful with your temper.”
Ryan recomposed his face, settling into a stoic stillness. The muscles in his jaw bunched, and he said, “Trust me just once.”
Staring into his narrowing eyes, Maise felt her rigid body slump. The man standing in front of her wasn’t Ryan Price, the attorney from Dice Firm. No, this was the gaze of the high school boy who sat on his knees in the crowded cafeteria when Maise’s heart had turned cold. The high school boy who held her tight the first time he saw her cry. Somehow, she knew he would keep his word. Even if he didn’t know what he was promising her.
A/N: Hey Readers!
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