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I feel it is in the best interest of the child if full custody of the juvenile goes to the mother. I also approve her request for the increase in child support. The father will be allowed supervised visits overseen by a representative of the court. We will revisit the issue in a year."
At that statement, an animalistic growl sounded from the table across from me.
The former Mrs. Lawton dug her manicured fingers into my forearm hard enough to draw blood, and I fought back a wince. I hated her more now than I did in high school. If that was even possible, because I really, really hated her back then.
"We won. Aspen, we actually won. You're amazing. Worth every penny." Becca's voice was breathy and high. It matched her very blond hair, huge blue eyes, and very fake breasts. She looked like a Barbie doll, but she was far from a plastic, useless toy. The woman was a viper. Cunning and poisonous. I loathed representing her, hadn't wanted to do it, but the alternative was so much worse. She was practically a lethal weapon where her ex-husband was concerned, and I seemed to be the only one willing to keep this woman from completely destroying him out of spite.
Unfortunately, her ex-husband and father of her child made a lot of mistakes in court. And I was very, very good at my job. So, while I'd managed to rein in Becca's thirst for vengence for the most part, there was no denying her ex still got annihilated in the courtroom. I'd gotten everything my client asked for, which included her ex-husband losing all parental rights to their nine-year-old son. The reason I resented having to represent her was because it was obvious Becca Lawton wasn't the best parent in the world, or actually concerned about her kid in the slightest. The little boy was the only thing her ex had shown any interest in fighting for during their contentious split. So, she'd latched on and thrown everything into keeping father and son apart for revenge, plain and simple. Like I said, she was a snake, which I already knew, because I'd often been her target when we were younger. If my father-in-law and boss hadn't insisted I be the one to represent the woman, I would've told her to take a hike months ago.
Right now I was wondering if I was any better than she was. I felt dirty and guilty as hell. I cast a look out of the corner of my eye to the man silently seething on the other side of the courtroom. Our eyes met briefly, and I had to look away almost immediately. If looks could kill, he'd have to arrest himself for murder. His hatred for me was as crystal clear as my hatred for my client was.
The seething animosity shouldn't hurt, but it did.
Because Case Lawton had always been that guy.
The guy who was always taller, bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and more handsome than any other. He was the guy who made it impossible to see all the other available, possibly interested guys. Well, he blinded my starry teenage eyes to any other possible option at least. As the new girl in high school, it'd been hard to fit in, but Case was the first one to welcome me and try to put me at ease. He was the one who showed me around the school, introduced me to his friends, and assured me people would warm up eventually. He invited me to a football game, even though it was beyond obvious I didn't know anything about sports. He extended an invitation to my first high school party, when everyone else acted like I was invisible or carrying some infectious disease. He was nice to everybody, but the fact he took time to be nice to me, when no one else had ever made that effort before, meant I was a goner from the first time he smiled at me. I could never get over the fact he seemed to genuinely like having me around.
He was witty, unfailingly polite, and full of good ole southern charm. He seemed utterly untouchable, unstoppable. He never had a problem getting whatever it was he wanted, be it a football championship, a nearly perfect score on his SATs, or the prettiest girl in the entire county. His constant good fortune and the ease with which he had the entire small town of Loveless, Texas, eating out of the palm of his hand should've been annoying. It should have built up loads of bitterness in the rest of us who didn't have the same kind of unwavering charm.
No one ever disliked Case Lawton, or let their jealousy of him turn them bitter. Because it was no secret that, as perfect as Case's life looked on the outside, on the inside, it was far from flawless. Case's father was the sheriff of Loveless. He was also a big bully who used his position and his badge to abuse the locals. He had a very loose definition of law and order. Rumors had floated around for years that Sheriff Lawton was a bigger criminal than half the people he put away. No one could miss how desperately Case tried to make up for all of his father's glaring shortcomings. It was almost as if he was trying to save the entire Lawton name from disgrace.
Everyone, including me, knew Case wanted to leave Loveless right after graduation. We were rooting for him. He had a football scholarship locked down for a Big Ten school up north, and he didn't hide he was ready to leave Texas, and his father's tainted legacy, far behind. Of course, I selfishly didn't want him to go but secretly hoped he made it out, because he deserved better than being known as Sheriff Lawton's son.
It was right before graduation when the precarious house of cards he had built came tumbling down around him. Case fell from grace in the way only idols and gods can.
His mother passed away suddenly. He broke his leg in two places during the last game of the season. His father lost all the restraint he pretended to have, and all the Lawton siblings started showing up to school with obvious bruises all over them. And last but not least, the prettiest girl in the county, the one who nagged him constantly and begged him not to leave after graduation, conviently ended up pregnant.
There would be no escape, no bigger and better things for Case Lawton. No avoiding the long, dark shadow his father cast in this town. He joined the military days after graduation and minutes after putting a ring on the finger of the girl who'd effectively trapped him. He served his four years and returned to Loveless harder, colder, and so much angrier than before. He was no longer nice, easygoing, charming, and thoughtful. He came back to a very young wife who was practically a stranger and to a son who hardly recognized him. The rushed marriage was not one anyone would call happy.
Instead of being the town's favored son and biggest success story, he was no different from any of the other young men who couldn't find their way out of the city limits. Soon, Case gave up all pretense of ever wanting more for his life and went to work as a deputy for his father in the sheriff's department. And the townspeople who had always rooted for him suddenly saw him as a failure. Their collective "told you so" could be heard as far away as the moon.
I didn't have a logical reason, beyond Case being my first real crush, as to why his giving up on his dreams affected me so deeply. All I knew was that it did. I'd harbored a passionate infatuation for Case from the first moment I saw him. My family moved to Loveless from Chicago my freshman year of high school. To say I was a fish out of water in the small Texas town was an understatement. I stood out like a sore thumb, had trouble making friends and fitting in. I mostly kept to myself, watching the new people and the world around me. Case made himself impossible to miss by being friendly and kind, so he immediately became the center of all my focus. It didn't matter that he treated everyone as if they were his best friend. All I cared about was the way he welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged, when everyone else made sure to make me feel like I didn't.
Obviously, he never knew of or returned my infatuation, but I didn't mind as long as I got a smile or a wave when he passed me in the hall. I was so used to being ignored; his attention, no matter how minimal, meant everything.
After high school, while Case followed his father's footsteps, I moved away for college. I graduated from law school and decided to move back to Loveless, even though my parents had long since gotten tired of small-town life and moved to Florida. When I went away to college, my father fully expected me to go into environmental law, the way he had. But I wanted to help the less fortunate, families and kids in a tough spot, those who felt left behind and discarded. I planned to be a voice for the underdogs, not the winners.
However, much like Case Lawton, I eventually ended up lost inside my own status quo. Instead of being an altruistic do-gooder, I found myself working for a legal firm that operated as a business, not as a charity, getting married, and trying to start a family. It took marrying someone with the right last name and history with the town for me to finally be fully accepted by everyone in Loveless. No one ignored me or pretended like I didn't exist anymore, but I always remembered that Case went out of his way to include me before I married up. He liked me for me, not my new last name.
My return home and new life was all going pretty smoothly, if not boringly and predictably, until the day I happened to be at the wrong place at the right time.
I was walking into the sheriff's department to speak with one of my clients. She was a young woman who was a victim of domestic violence. Case's father had arrested her instead of her husband, even though she was the one with black eyes and a broken nose. It just so happened I was walking up the steps and Case was walking down when a process server shoved a set of familiar documents into a surprised Case's hands. I hadn't seen him up close in years. Occasionally our paths crossed in the courthouse or the sheriff's office, but he never acted like he remembered who I was, and all of his previous approachability was long gone. He was not the devastatingly handsome teenager I had a crush on anymore. No. He was a very angry, restless man now. One I tended to give a wide berth to because the changes in him made me nervous.
"You've been served, Deputy Lawton."
I knew they were divorce papers before Case did. I'd sent plenty of them out in my few years practicing family law. I should've kept moving, my client needed me, but I couldn't get my feet to cooperate. Instead, I was frozen on the spot as Case read through the pages and pages of documents, pale blue eyes widening as he learned exactly how done with him his wife was.
When he got to the last page, he lifted his head and looked right at me. I doubted he even realized I was there, but then he whispered, "She wants to take my boy."
I couldn't stop myself from reaching out and putting a hand on his tense forearm. It was the first time I'd ever been brave enough to touch him, even back when he acted like he was my friend, I was too shy to ever touch him.
"It'll be fine. Get a good lawyer." It was the advice I would give to anyone in his shoes. And, by a good lawyer, I obviously meant myself, but we didn't know each other well enough anymore for me to be that bold. If we'd stayed friendly, or even in touch after high school, I would've offered on the spot. But he still intimidated the hell out of me, and I had to admit I questioned his sincerity and trustworthiness, since he knowingly went to work for a blatant crook like his father.
In a split second, the man morphed from a confused spouse and scared father to a fire-breathing dragon. He shook my hand off his arm and glowered at me from underneath lowered, dark brows. This was the Case who'd had his entire life stolen and was looking at losing it all once again. The friendly congenial mask he wore when he was younger was nowhere to be found.
"Do I know you?" His tone was as icy as every line in his big body locked as if he was ready for a fight.
I fell back a step. He didn't even recognize me. It was like a physical blow to all my tender, youthful fantasies. Again, it shouldn't hurt to be so forgettable and unremarkable, but it did. Even more so coming from the one person who always made me feel like I was seen, like I mattered and deserved to be included. "I'm Aspen Barlow, used to be Aspen Keating. We went to high school together. We met my first day of school. You showed me around." And pretended to be my friend. I couldn't get those sour words out.
His eyebrows twitched, and his mouth shifted to an emotionless line. "The weird girl who moved here from New York?" His gaze raked over me, seemingly unimpressed.
I bristled and locked down any scrap of emotion that might betray how badly his words stung. I'd lived here for years, built up a solid reputation. I thought I was finally fitting in and had shaken the "weird girl" reputation his bitchy wife had helped spread around when we were younger.
"Yep. That's me, the weird girl, but I moved here from Chicago, not New York." I nodded to the papers in his hand. "Trust me. Don't fight her without a good attorney. Courts always tend to give mothers the benefit of the doubt." I was speaking from experience.
"What do you know about it?" Case sounded confused and pissed enough to spit nails. I felt for the guy, he was clueless, and that was bad, especially considering his marriage was about to implode.
"More than I want to. I practice family law. Divorces and custody agreements make up the about eighty percent of my case list." I jumped down a full step when he let out a bark of disbelieving laughter.
"People actually let you represent them?" His gaze raked over my tailored black pantsuit and spiked heels. He made a face and twisted the papers in his hands. "Most of the lawyers in town grew up here. I'll go with one of them. They have to know there's no way Becca is a better parent to Hayes than I am. Thanks for your advice, but I've got this." He rolled the papers into a tight tube and stuck them in the back pocket of his tan uniform. Face set in a scowl, he walked away without another word, dismissing me as inconsequential, and my advice as empty words.
He was going to regret that choice.
I forcibly pushed the encounter out of my mind. Occasionally, at night when it was dark and quiet, I would let embarrassment and disappointment over the encounter sneak past my defenses, but mostly I put Case firmly in a "do not touch" box in the back of my mind. I thought my run-in with him was all said and done until a senior partner at my practice, who also happened to be my father-in-law, walked into my office and informed me I would be representing Becca Lawton, Case's soon to be ex, in her divorce.
Before I could tell him there was a conflict of interest, and that I was not a good fit to represent my high school nemesis, Becca Lawton was sitting in front of me airing years of dirty laundry between her and Case. She wanted to bury the poor man. She wanted everything he had. And she really, really wanted to break his heart by taking away his son. She did have some valid points. Case worked too much. Drank too much. He had an unpredictable temper, and his immediate family was a volatile mess. She also insisted he was unfaithful, but there was no proof of it. Mostly, she was tired of pretending to be happily married when she was anything but. She claimed she wasted her youth on Case, and her resentment was evident.
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her I couldn't represent her. Sure, Case had issues, but nothing worthy of separating a father and son permanently. But then she looked me dead in the eye and told me she was willing to ruin him in court. She was willing to tell the judge that one night after binge drinking, Case admitted to her that he knew for a fact his father manipulated evidence in many of the cases that passed through the sheriff's office. She claimed Case was racked with guilt over one particular case, involving a young married couple that eventually led to tragedy. The young wife came to the sheriff to report long-term abuse. She was battered, had a broken arm, and was terrified. Case arrested the husband, but his father let the man go the same day, claiming there wasn't enough evidence to hold him. Not long after his release, the husband, who also happened to be a highly visible member of the local church, went on to stalk his young wife. He kidnapped her, assaulted her, and then killed himself right in front of her, all because Sheriff Conrad Lawton didn't do right by her.
Becca claimed that everything that happened to the woman weighed heavily on Case. He was feeling helpless, angry at the world. But one night, when he was drunk, he admitted to knowing that his father "misplaced" the damning photos of the woman's injuries and the doctor's statement that her physical examination showed signs of long-term abuse. According to Becca, Case caught his father in the middle of manipulating the facts and evidence, and he knew Conrad accepted a payment in order to protect the churchgoing husband. But Case never said a word, never told the town or the young woman's family the truth.
The story made my blood run cold. I was almost sure she was lying, but she was vindictive, and the story sounded believable. Everyone knew Conrad Lawton was a dirty cop, and if what she said came out in court, Case would not only lose custody, but also his job and possibly his freedom. He would be guilty of being part of a cover-up. A less scrupulous attorney would take Becca and her story and run with it, because all an attorney needed was suspicion. Just the hint of Case doing something illegal would be enough to derail his custody plea. I couldn't let that happen. I remembered how much Case hated his father, and I knew deep down that Case would never cover for him, particularly in a case this horrific.
Reluctantly, I pushed every reservation I had down and promised Becca I would get her everything she wanted. I told myself I could do it without completely ruining Case's image and dragging his name through the mud, because without implacable proof, I refused to believe he was following in his father's footsteps. Becca agreed to keep Case's drunken confession quiet as long as I stripped Case of literally everything he held dear. I think she liked the idea of forcing me to ruin my former crush's life, almost as much as she delighted in watching him squirm before the judge.
By the time we went to trial, Case foolishly had hired an old football buddy, an attorney I knew relied more on charm and flashy theatrics, rather than on any actual skill. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. If he hadn't smirked at me like his victory was guaranteed the first day. Instead, we battled it out for months and months, and in the end, it was Case's father who finally swayed the judge to give Becca everything she asked for.
It seemed Sheriff Lawton thought he could use his usual intimidation tactics on the presiding judge. Threats were made, weight was thrown around, and for once, the patriarch of the Lawton clan ran up against someone who wasn't scared of him. The judge was concerned about young Hayes being under the influence of such a morally questionable man. He advised Case to take a good hard look at his life choices over the next year, and the case was closed.
At least it was supposed to be.
I should've known a guy like Case Lawton wasn't going to let such a catastrophic loss go without a word.
When I noticed he was waiting in the hallway, I foolishly hoped it was for his former spouse. When Becca breezed by him with a tiny wave and a wink, his entire face flushed and his back went ramrod straight. I ordered myself to keep moving, my job here was done. He didn't remember me, and now I was sure he really wanted to forget all about me.
His massive arms crossed over his wide chest, and his eyes cut through me like twin lasers.
"Are you happy? Do you feel good about what just happened, weird girl?" His words were cutting and blunt. I wanted to kick him in the shins for once again throwing out the taunt Becca had used in high school to alienate me. Back then he had told her to knock it off, but now he was using the words as a weapon against me.
I cleared my throat, tightened my hand on the handle of my briefcase, and refused to flinch away from the absolutely murderous look in his eyes.
"I told you to get a good lawyer, Mr. Lawton." I kept my voice calm, but the sarcasm in my tone was unmistakable. In court I wasn't a woman prone to sass, but outside of the courthouse, I wasn't afraid to speak my mind, and I no longer let others' opinions make me feel badly about myself. He was the one who initially made me realize I should matter, and it was a lesson I had taken to heart.
Case growled an ugly string of swear words in my direction and leaned forward. With his towering height, he loomed over me, and I had to suppress a full body shiver and the urge to shrink away.
"You ruined my life, Aspen Barlow. Everything that matters to me you've just ripped away. I would give what little I have left for you to have never stepped foot in this town. You better hope to God our paths don't cross anytime soon." He gave me one last scathing look before marching off down the hall, rage evident in his stride, completely unfazed that he openly threatened me.
I obviously no longer knew who Case Lawton was, and I didn't want anything to do with the angry, shortsighted man who just stormed away from me. Because I was suddenly having no problem seeing him as a person who would look the other way while his father tampered with evidence—even though he wore a badge and claimed to hate everything his father stood for.
After that day, it was common knowledge that Case and I were enemies, adversaries, rivals. I went out of my way to avoid him, and he made it a point to make my life a living hell whenever the opportunity arose.
If there was anyone I didn't expect to lean on when my own house of cards went up in flames a few years later, it was the newly appointed sheriff of Loveless, Texas, Case Lawton.
Nine years later
Do you have any enemies who would do something like this?" The question was practically snarled at me as I repressed an eye roll.
My office was trashed. Every drawer in my desk was open and the contents flung from one wall to the next. Both of my filing cabinets were tipped over and had dents where it looked like someone had tried to pry them open. All the pictures and degrees that decorated the walls had the frames smashed and the inside contents shredded. My computer was now only a mangled husk of wires and broken glass, and there was scarlet red paint splattered all over the plush Berber carpet and white walls. Ugly words were scrawled across all the windows, and again I wondered how no one passing by on the street had noticed anything amiss when the destruction was occurring. My office was right in the middle of Main Street. Granted, Loveless was no bustling metropolis, but Main Street always had a steady flow of foot traffic coming and going, and I was pretty close with the young couple who ran the coffee shop across the street. How had no one seen anything?
I crossed my arms defensively over my chest and narrowed my eyes at Case Lawton. When it came time to elect a new sheriff, I didn't regret casting my vote for him—anyone was better than his father—until right this moment. In all the years following his explosive divorce, and rude, threatening behavior afterward, we'd managed to maintain a proprietary distance from one another. It was a delicate dance we both knew all the steps to, but tonight, he was the one who showed up when I hysterically called to report the break-in and vandalism. When I first caught sight of him, I wondered if he'd shown up just so he could gloat.
My heart and my head had always had a very complicated battle going on when it came to Case Lawton.
My head liked to remind me that he was the only person who'd ever made me waffle in my convictions—and look the other way when the law was possibly compromised. I'd never done anything with the information his ex-wife handed over, not just because I couldn't prove it, but also because deep down I didn't believe it. Since taking over the sheriff's job from his father, Case had been nothing but law abiding. He was a stern yet fair enforcer of the law.
But my heart—the squishy, too soft thing—begged for me to make the first move, to mend fences and shift the dynamic between us if he ever gave me an opening. My heart never seemed able to fully let go of the memory of the young man who made such a difference when I was so alone.
"Aside from you? No. I don't have any specific enemies I can think of off the top of my head." But I was an attorney, and I did handle a lot of divorces and custody cases. Unfortunately, that meant there were often spouses and parents who felt like they were getting a raw deal on the other side of the courtroom. Not unlike the large man prowling around my office. Why was it still hard to breathe when I was this close to him? Shouldn't I have shaken that particular quirk loose by now? It'd been almost a decade since we'd said a civil word to each other.
"What about your husband? I heard you were separated. Is it an amicable split?" Case moved toward a particularly large puddle of paint on the floor. Crouching down he touched it with a tip of his finger. His hand came away smeared with red. "It looks like you just missed whoever was in here. The paint didn't even have time to get tacky."
I huffed out a sigh that sent my dark fringe of bangs dancing across my forehead. Case was the last person on the planet I wanted to discuss my impending divorce with. In fact, I didn't want to talk about my failed relationship with him at all but realized my soon-to-be ex-husband was bound to be a suspect. Sadly, David was not a man prone to acts of passion or rage. He was unfailingly calm, wholeheartedly steady, endlessly kind, and the divorce had been all my idea, not his. He was still stalling over signing the papers, even though I'd filed for divorce over eight months ago and moved out of our shared home in Loveless's only gated community over a year ago. David was still holding out hope I'd have a change of heart, even though I knew all the way down to my bones I wouldn't. We were done, but that didn't mean he would trash my office.
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- On Sale
- Jun 25, 2019
- Page Count
- 432 pages