Read an Excerpt Below!
Bliss Fenton took a sip of champagne as she glared across the room at the obnoxiously happy couple. They indeed made a striking pair. Their slim, toned bodies draped in designer wear and expensive jewelry. So trendy. So California chic.
Setting her champagne glass on the tray of a passing waiter, Bliss snaked her way through the crowd, hoping to get a better view. As she moved, her blonde curls bounced as if lifted by a cool breeze. At 5’8” and 120 pounds, her delicate frame was all slopes and curves. A body specifically designed for exhibition.
The partygoers were packed like human matchsticks inside the gaudy Hollywood Hills mansion. The home, if you could call it that, was a testament to excess. Just like the couple. Too much of everything. Too many art deco chairs, too much bronze and glass, and so much artwork the walls could barely breathe.
Only a few feet away from the couple now, Bliss found herself shoulder-to-shoulder with a too-tanned man with greasy hair. He winked at her. She sneered back at him and moved on.
A devious smile fractured Bliss’ face as she returned her attention to the couple. She imagined the angst they would experience the minute they spotted her among the partygoers. Fletcher’s lips would contort into an ugly grimace, but then coolly transition to a barely perceptible smirk. He was not the kind of man who was easily rankled. That was the reason he was a millionaire several times over.
Mia, however, would not be able to hide her emotions. Fletcher’s prissy little black princess would toss Bliss a snarl that bellowed, What the hell are you doing here?
It was Mia she wanted to punish most. Bliss had pleaded with God to curse her former friend with a pain ten times more intense than her own. She wanted Mia to live it. Breathe it. Curl up in bed with it. Just as she had.
Bliss refused to blame Fletcher for the poor choices he’d made. He was a man. And men, by nature, were weak. Still, he too would pay just the same.
The call of vengeance tugged hard at Bliss’ soul, urging her, daring her, to march right up to the couple and confront them. But she held back. For the moment. Patience had always been her most virtuous trait.
Fletcher hustled to the front of the room and began singing the praises of the newest songstress to be added to his stable of artists, LaReena Jarreau. Bliss remembered cuddling in bed with Fletcher and listening to him brag about creating her stage name, since Janice Harris had no pizzazz.
“The first time I heard her voice,” Fletcher said, throwing his arm around the bony twenty-something dressed in hooker gear, “I knew she was going to hit the music world by storm. You have to agree that what we heard tonight was—as the youngsters say—off the chain.”
Everyone applauded as the hip, dark-haired CEO of Karma Entertainment grinned, happy to be on show. The only thing Fletcher enjoyed more than being rich was having everyone know it.
Mia remained off to the side, perfecting the look of the coy, supportive fiancée. That had been Bliss’ mistake. Accepting her at face value. While Mia’s visual package was quite alluring—all charm and beauty—on the inside, she was pure evil. Truth be told, Mia wasn’t all that different from her.
Bliss Fenton, not Mia Richardson, should have been on the arm of the music industry mogul tonight. It had never occurred to Bliss that her long-time yoga buddy could walk into a party and take her new guy’s breath away. Literally.
At the time, Bliss had been dating Fletcher for a short six months. She’d invited Mia to the party at Fletcher’s Beverly Hills home for the sole purpose of showing off her new man to her smart, uppity faux-friend. Bliss could still remember Mia waving as she glided into the party, the crowd parting so effortlessly it almost seemed choreographed.
Seconds before, Fletcher had been talking nonstop about his label’s next release, but the sight of Mia had caused him to lose his train of thought. When Bliss had formally introduced them, the lust in Fletcher’s eyes further telegraphed the gravity of her mistake.
Only days after the party, Bliss’ time with Fletcher began to dwindle, explained away by late night meetings that couldn’t be avoided or last-minute business trips to New York. Mia, too, had started cancelling their after-yoga coffee chats and finally stopped coming to yoga class altogether.
It was a month later, when Bliss saw Fletcher and Mia pictured together in Billboard, that she first learned of their betrayal. Her subsequent rage-filled calls to both of them had been ignored. And now, Mia was at Fletcher’s side, while Bliss had been pushed right out of his life.
A burst of applause snapped Bliss back to the present. As Fletcher seemed to be wrapping up his speech, Bliss moved closer, stopping inches behind Mia. She leaned in, her lips almost grazing Mia’s right ear.
“Congratulations on your engagement.”
Mia’s head whipped around, her dark brown skin now ashen gray. “You … you shouldn’t be here.”
Bliss spoke in a firm whisper. “Neither should you. You backstabbing bitch.”
Mia took a step back. “This is not the place to make a scene.”
“Okay, then,” Bliss said, moving into the space Mia had abandoned. “Shall we step outside?”
A second later, Fletcher wedged himself between them. “You walk yourself out of here right now,” he said through clenched teeth, “or I’ll have security carry you out.”
Although no voices had been raised, all heads turned in their direction.
Mia didn’t move.
Fletcher, always cognizant of appearances, wore a stiff smile as he spat into Bliss’ face. “If you don’t leave, I swear I’ll have you arrested.”
After three long beats, Bliss winked. “You’ll both be hearing from me.”
Bliss couldn’t help smiling as she sashayed through the buzzing crowd.
Fletcher and Mia would suffer for their disloyalty. Bliss only wished she could be there to see their stunned faces when they learned what she had done and realized there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.
I should have shown Fletcher McClain to the door 30 minutes ago, but the words seem to be stuck in my throat. I hate to admit it—even to myself—but I like having him in my space again.
“So will you take care of this for me, Vernetta?”
He’s been pacing the length of my office for several minutes now. When he first stormed in and slapped the Petition to Establish Parental Relationship on my desk, he was so wound up I thought he might be on the verge of a stroke.
“I’m not a family law attorney, Fletcher.”
Employment law and some occasional criminal work are more up my alley.
“I don’t need an expert in family law,” Fletcher insists. “What I need is a good negotiator. Someone who can talk some sense into this nutcase and make her go away. And I’m confident you can do the job.”
The issue isn’t whether I could handle his case, but whether I should. They say a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Perhaps a lawyer who goes to battle on behalf of an ex-lover is just as foolish. Especially if the old flame hasn’t quite flickered out yet.
According to the petition, Fletcher’s ex-girlfriend Bliss Fenton has named him as the father of her three-month-old daughter, Harmony. Fletcher, however, claims the petition is all lies. Even though he hasn’t taken the court-ordered paternity test yet, he wants me to set up a meeting with Bliss and offer her some “chump change,” as he puts it, to go away.
“It looks like she filed that petition herself. I need this nonsense over and done with before she gets an attorney involved.”
I take another look at the petition. Bliss has indeed filed it in pro per, which is easy enough to do. The petition is a simple two-page form that requires checking a few boxes.
Falling into one of the chairs in front of my desk, Fletcher fixes me with a look so intense I almost shudder.
“I really need you, Vernetta.”
His lips angle upward, just slightly, and I feel a warm tingle in a place where my happily married self definitely should not be tingling. I break his gaze and fiddle with my cuticle.
Classically handsome, Fletcher has sandy hair, strong cheekbones and wide brown eyes with lashes too long and thick for Mother Nature to have wasted on a guy. He’s still the only white guy who ever stole my heart.
“Fletcher, you could find a million attorneys to handle this. Why don’t you let me recommend a friend who has expertise in family law?”
“See, that’s what I love about you, Vernetta. I don’t know many lawyers who would turn away a paying client with my kind of dough. You’re the real deal.”
“Unbelievable.” I stare across the desk at him, shaking my head. “You’re still as cocky as you were when we were know-nothing sophomores back at USC. It’s not always about money, Fletcher.”
“It’s always about money, my sweetness.”
Damn him. Hearing his pet name for me after all these years has me tingling again.
A quiet chirp interrupts his subtle flirting. He pulls the phone from the inside pocket of his jacket. Glancing at the screen, he frowns and sets it on the corner of my desk.
“How can you be so sure it’s not your kid?” I ask.
“Because we broke up almost a year before that kid was born.”
“Shouldn’t you wait for the results of the paternity test?”
“Don’t need to. It’s not my kid.”
“I’m confused. If it’s not your kid, once you have the results, it’s over. Why pay her anything?”
“You don’t know Bliss Fenton. Even after the results come back, she’ll have something else up her sleeve. I need this thing buttoned up once and for all. Paying her off will accomplish that.”
My gut and years of legal experience tell me there’s more to the story. “You certainly seem awfully stressed over an allegation that has no merit. What’s the real deal?”
Fletcher repositions himself in the chair.
“I’m getting married in three months and this whole thing has my fiancée climbing the walls. Bliss timed this to embarrass Mia right before our wedding. I need it resolved as soon as possible.”
The news that Fletcher is getting married surprises me. I’ve followed his career for years and figured he was a confirmed bachelor.
“So what’s Bliss got against Mia?”
“Well … um … they used to be friends.”
I squint. “Oh, so we’re dealing with a woman scorned.”
It’s one thing to lose your man to another woman. It’s quite another to lose a charming, high roller like Fletcher McClain to someone you considered a friend.
He shrugs. “That’s basically the crux of it.”
“But it still doesn’t make sense. Bliss wouldn’t serve you with a paternity suit if there were no chance you could be the father.”
“You haven’t been listening. This woman is extremely conniving. She probably read that Forbes article and came up with this scheme to shake me down.” He pauses. “Did you happen to see it?”
Fletcher landed the number three spot on Forbes’ list of the top music industry moguls. He’s the only one on the list under 40. His net worth is estimated at $450 million, just behind Clive Davis and JayZ.
“Of course I saw it. Very impressive.”
He points a finger at me. “You haven’t done too bad yourself, counselor. You’ve handled some pretty high-profile cases.”
Over the years, Fletcher sent me handwritten notes, congratulating me when one of my trials hit the press. Keeping up with his achievements is the only reason I read Billboard.
“So how much do you plan to offer her?”
“A hundred grand should do it. I’m willing to go higher if I have to. Maybe two-fifty. And I want a written agreement with an ironclad confidentiality provision.”
I’m about to say he’s putting up a lot of cash to get rid of a bogus claim, but for a man with Fletcher’s bank account, we’re talking peanuts.
“We may have to play dirty to force her into a settlement. I want you to retain a private investigator to dig up some dirt on her in case we need it. And trust me, it’s out there.”
“Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack. Once you meet her, you’ll understand.”
“How’d you even end up with this woman?”
“It’s your fault,” he quips. “After you broke my heart, I was so devastated, I opened up my heart to whoever came along.”
“Yeah, right.” I scan the petition again. “It says here the child was born in January of this year and she’s three months old.” I glance skyward and do the math in my head. “Let’s see … Assuming a nine-month pregnancy, that would place conception sometime in April of last year.”
“Exactly. The kid can’t be mine. We broke up in February, eleven months before she was born. I remember because it was two weeks before Valentine’s Day.”
“Maybe your timing is off.”
“And there were no hookups after that?”
“Nope.” He brushes the lapel of his Canali suit, then raises his right hand. “Scout’s honor.”
“I still don’t understand why you don’t want to wait for the test results before approaching her. You’d be in a much better negotiating position.”
“I’m taking the test tomorrow, but it could be a couple of weeks before I get the results. I want this thing resolved yesterday.”
His cell phone chirps again. He grunts and picks it up. “Excuse me a second.”
His long fingers awkwardly tap the screen. I assume he’s sending an email or text message. Another minute or so passes before he looks up, his face full of annoyance.
“Uh, that was Mia calling from the lobby.” He scratches his jaw. “She’s on her way up.”
“Hmmm. So it’s your fiancée who’s running this show.”
“Not really. Well, I mean—”
I’m not used to seeing the smooth-talking Fletcher McClain at a loss for words. He moves to the edge of the chair. The relaxed air we’d been basking in has been sapped from the room.
“The real deal is Mia wants me to sue Bliss for defamation. She thinks I’m meeting with you to talk about the defamation case. But I think it makes more sense to give Bliss a few dollars to disappear.”
“Okay, now I get it.”
“Let’s keep that under our hat. And, um,” he rubs his chin, “Mia’s a bit on the jealous side. Let’s not mention that we used to be an item, okay?”
Fletcher was never the type of guy who’d let his woman call the shots. This alpha dog has turned into a poodle.
“No problem. Our conversations are attorney-client privileged.”
Fletcher straightens in his chair. “Oh, so I’m your client? Great!”
I raise both hands, palms out. “I haven’t committed yet. But your fiancée can’t—”
“Just flow with me on this, okay? I’ll handle Mia. You just play along.” His confident charm reminds me of the first time we met over a decade ago.
I was walking across campus when Fletcher stopped me with a corny pick-up line.
“Do you believe in love at first sight? Or should I walk by again?”
I’d never met a white guy—certainly not one as gorgeous as Fletcher McClain—who had the swagger of a brother. After a bit of prodding, I agreed to meet him for lunch.
And here he is still charming me more than a decade later.
My assistant pokes her head in the door. “I have a lady out here who says she—”
The door flies open and a woman bustles past Deena into my office.
A perfectly coiffed, black beauty marches right up to my desk and peers down at me. I have to push my chair back to get her out of my personal space.
“You better be a barracuda,” she says, firing her words at me. “Because that’s the kind of attorney we need to show that scandalous slut Bliss Fenton that she’s playing with fire.”
Bliss swung her silver Audi into the parking lot of the Ralph’s supermarket on Lincoln Boulevard, cut off the engine, then held up her hand in an appeal for silence.
“No lecture this time, okay?” Bliss turned to face her best and only friend sitting in the passenger seat.
Jessica Winthrop took in a long breath. “Only if you agree to act like a civilized human being today.”
For three months now, Bliss and her ex-boyfriend, Dr. Joseph Franco, had been meeting in this public location to transfer their six-year-old son Aiden from one parent to the other. Their relationship was so antagonistic that a judge had declared their respective homes off limits.
“Aren’t you tired of all the drama?” Jessica asked.
“I really wish you would criticize that asshole as much as you do me.”
“He’s not my friend. You are. Just let it go.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
Though she was nothing short of a plain Jane—long, reddish-brown hair, an unremarkable face and the physique of an undernourished pear—Jessica had snagged the kind of man Bliss had spent her whole life maneuvering to marry. Paul Winthrop was a successful venture capitalist. After marrying him, Jessica gave up her career as a bank manager.
“You two have a beautiful son together,” Jessica said, glancing toward the backseat at her sleeping godson. “You need to think about Aiden’s best interests.”
Bliss pointed at the clock on the dashboard. “The asshole is seven minutes late.”
“How about we use his name today? Just for practice.”
Bliss rolled her eyes.
Jessica was the only constant in Bliss’ sad life. Their friendship dated back to freshman year in high school. While every other girl at Winchester High had shunned the gorgeous blonde newcomer with the sexy name, Jessica had reached out to her, never concerned that her own light didn’t shine nearly as brightly as Bliss’.
Jessica pressed her hands together in a prayer pose. “Promise me this’ll be a drama-free exchange. Pretty please.”
Bliss spotted Joseph pulling into the lot and slapped her hand against the dashboard. “I can’t believe it! That asshole has a new car!”
Jessica cupped her forehead. “Bliss, please don’t—”
“That Benz had to cost almost a hundred grand. That’s probably why he was three days late with my child support last month. And why is she with him again? I’ll never understand what he sees in her. She has the face of a rodent.”
Jessica got out and unbuckled Aiden from his car seat. “Just behave yourself.”
Once Aiden was out of the car, Bliss squatted so they were at eye level. “You be a good boy, okay? You scream for Mommy if Daddy does anything bad to you.”
Jessica exhaled. “Please stop putting that nonsense in his head.”
“And you make sure you don’t let anybody touch you down there. You scream if they—”
“That’s enough.” Jessica grabbed Aiden’s hand and started marching him across the parking lot. When they were a yard away, he squirmed free and jumped into his father’s arms.
Dr. Joseph Franco was an orthopedic surgeon whose patients included an impressive list of professional athletes. He was a tall, gregarious man with bushy blonde hair. Today, anxiety contorted his face.
“Hey, Jessica. Thanks for being our go-between again. I’ll have him back on Sunday by five. I’ll call you if I’m running late.”
“No you won’t!” Bliss stood just a few feet away. “If you’re late, I’m calling the cops.”
“I’m not biting today,” Joseph said, mostly to himself. He finished securing Aiden into his car seat and closed the door.
“And why is that cunt here?” Bliss shouted.
“I’ve asked you before to watch your language around Aiden. And if you call Lena out of her name one more time, I’ll be the one calling the cops.”
Jessica gripped Bliss by the forearm and started tugging her toward the car. “Okay, everybody, let’s all go to our respective corners.”
“By the way,” Bliss yelled back at him, “since you can afford to buy a new car, Mr. Successful Orthopedic Surgeon, I’m going back to court to ask for more child support. You’re obviously doing a lot better than you claimed the last time we were in court.”
The threat stopped Joseph in place. He stormed up to her.
“If you need more money, get a job,” he seethed. “I’m already paying you ten grand a month and I’m struggling like hell to do that.”
“From the looks of your new ride, you don’t seem to be struggling at all.”
“Can you act like a decent human being for five seconds? Just five measly seconds.”
“Just tell your attorney I’ll be asking the court to amend our child support order.” Bliss flashed him a smug smile.
Joseph reflexively balled his fists. “I’ll kill you before I pay you another dime.”
“Did you hear that, Jessica? He just threatened my life!”
Joseph shook his head and slowly backed away. “Get her away from me.”
As Joseph climbed into his car and sped off, Jessica chastised Bliss with a frown.
“I should be the one in that car with him,” Bliss sniffed, her voice cracking. “I’m the fabulous one.”
Jessica threw an arm around her friend.
“Nothing good is going to come into your life until you change the way you treat people,” Jessica said, trying to be gentle. “Kindness attracts kindness.”
“I don’t want to hear that crap!” Bliss snapped, pulling away from her. “When people screw over me, I screw them back. And speaking of getting screwed, Mia and Fletcher are about to get theirs.”
Jessica threw up her hands. “Why are you constantly causing drama?”
Bliss laughed wickedly. “Because I’m good at it.”
It takes me a tad under two seconds to realize that I don’t like the soon-to-be Mrs. Fletcher McClain. I will never understand how the greatest guys end up with the bitchiest women.
After grudgingly shaking my hand, Mia sits down in the chair next to Fletcher and starts calling the shots.
“I’m sure Fletcher told you I’m a corporate attorney,” Mia says. “I plan on being very involved in the case. How soon can we see a draft of the complaint?”
Mia does not give me time to answer her first question before firing off another one.
“And what kind of experience do you have litigating defamation cases?”
I wait for Fletcher to shut her down, but to my surprise, the big music mogul doesn’t open his mouth.
“As I was just telling Fletcher,” I begin, “since he’s my client, it’s best that I deal only with him. If you—”
“Fletcher doesn’t have a problem with my being involved.” She reaches over and pats his thigh. “I have a stake in this too.”
“Well, I’ll make sure you’re involved when it’s appropriate to do so.”
Mia’s head tilts sideways at the same time her lips flat-line. “You don’t seem to understand. I’m here to help. You’ll need all the firepower you can get against Bliss. She’s a very vicious woman.”
And apparently so are you.
I clear my throat. “Let me discuss this with my client and—”
“We’re both you’re clients. I’m about to be his wife.”
Fletcher finally finds his voice. “C’mon, babe.” He takes Mia’s hand. “We have to let Vernetta handle this her way. If she needs your help, she’ll ask.”
I don’t like this little farce, but I continue to play along. For now.
“I’d like to refer you to a friend who has extensive experience defending high-profile child support cases.”
I hit a few keys on my computer, searching for the attorney’s name. “You’ll need to understand your rights and obligations if it turns out the child is yours.”
Mia’s eyes bug out like a startled cartoon character.
“Excuse me? If? There’s no way Fletcher is the father of Bliss’ bastard baby. She’s just trying to wreck my life. If you don’t believe in this case, maybe you aren’t the right lawyer for us.”
I wait for Fletcher to calm her down, but once again, he remains mute.
Who is this man?
“Maybe you and Fletcher should discuss what you’d like to do and get back to me.”
Fletcher pulls Mia close. “Honey, we’ve already discussed this. I want Vernetta to handle this for us. She’s a brilliant lawyer and, on top of that, I trust her. She’s just doing her job. Covering all the bases.”
Mia starts to tear up. “Nobody understands what I’m going through. Bliss has to pay for this. You don’t know how manipulative she is. This isn’t the first time she’s pulled something like this.”
“Really? It could be helpful to the defamation case if she set up another guy.” I smile over at Fletcher. I hope he appreciates the way I’m playing my role.
“This is her M-O.” Mia pats away her tears with two manicured fingers. “She has a six-year-old son she’s getting child support payments for. Ten thousand dollars a month. She also has a three-year-old son. No telling how much money she’s getting for him.”
I’m baffled that the prissy Mia would even have a friend like Bliss.
“How did you two become friends?” I ask.
She clasps her hands and sets them in her lap. “We were never close. We just started hanging out after yoga class. I still can’t believe she’s doing this.”
Fletcher kisses Mia on the cheek. “We’re going to work this all out and our wedding is going to be fabulous.”
“We’re getting married in the South of France,” Mia brags. “In the same village where Brad and Angelina tied the knot.”
Good for you.
They both get to their feet.
“Fletcher,” I say, “I need a quick second with you. Alone.”
Mia opens her mouth to object, but Fletcher leads her to the door. “We’ll only be a minute.”
Once she’s gone, I stand so that I can look Fletcher in the eyes.
“I just want to be sure you’re being honest with me. Is there any way that kid could be yours?”
He responds with a bad imitation of Bill Clinton. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
I don’t crack a smile. “Please answer my question.”
“I’ve been one-hundred percent straight with you, counselor. Bliss Fenton is simply out for revenge.”
I stare at him long and hard. “Can I ask you one more thing?”
“What in the hell do you see in her? She’s cute and all, but she’s a bit high strung.”
Fletcher chuckled. “Mia came off a little hard just now, but she really has a heart of gold. You’ll see that once you get to know her. Maybe you and your husband can join us for dinner sometime. As a matter of fact, I’m having a shindig at the house Thursday night. You should come.”
He gives me a hug that lasts way too long and feels way too good.
“I hope your husband is as good to you as I would’ve been.”
“Sorry to hear that.” There’s a long awkward patch of silence. “You ever wonder what it would’ve been like if we’d made it?”
I smile, but don’t otherwise respond to his question.
“Thanks for taking my case.”
Just before he grabs the doorknob, I stop him.
“I have some free legal advice for you.”
“Get a pre-nup.”
He winks. “It’s already drafted.”
“That’s good to hear. Just make sure you get it signed.”