Unfortunately, Hero De Facto will not be out on Friday, April 13th, as I'd originally planned. Some personal things hit the proverbial fan. No, I can't give you an exact date at this time, though I will be working on editing, etc., in an effort to release it by the end of the month.
As my Bloodlines character Tiffany Stephens would say, Murphy is the one true God. LOL
I'll continue posting chapters to keep you entertained in the meantime.
Thanks for your patience.
The intercom on Aisha’s phone set buzzed as she tried to concentrate on the licensing contract for a Seismic Shift hair product line. The interruption saved her from wondering if that was his real hair above his Lycra cowl. He wouldn’t be the first superhero to wear a hairpiece. She jabbed the button. “Yes?”
“Um, Ms. Franklin, your two o’clock is here.” The new receptionist’s voice shook.
“Thank you. I’ll be right there.” Aisha always tried to address people by their name, but she never bothered to learn the names of the young receptionists. If Stuart’s antics didn’t drive the support personnel out of the firm within two months, the office manager’s crap did. And this girl sounded so nervous already, she might be leave before the week was out.
And this was only her third day.
Curiosity over Harri’s super quickened Aisha’s steps, but she wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted her.
The man who towered over Harri could have stepped out of a magazine. Thick blue-black hair, conservatively cut but with enough on top to run your fingers through. His grey suit fit perfectly, leaving just enough to the imagination. Square jaw. Perfect nose. White, white teeth against caramel skin. This sure as hell wasn’t the barrio waif Harri had described on the phone last night.
It was his eyes that made Aisha stop breathing. They were a warm golden hazel, and they locked onto her with the intensity of a laser beam.
She became acutely aware of a pain in her chest, and she drew a giant lungful of air. Nearly every female in the firm, and a couple of males, stood in the reception area or peered around corridor corners, all staring open-mouthed at her potential client.
Just like she was.
“Hi. You must be El Pájaro.” Aisha held out her palm.
When he took it, an electric charge shot across her skin and down into her belly. She hadn’t responded like this to a man since before her divorce. We don’t sleep with clients. She chanted Harri’s words in her head. We don’t sleep with clients.
Even worse was the smirk on Harri’s face.
Belatedly, Aisha realized she still held El Pájaro’s hand and quickly dropped it. “Why don’t we go back to my office?”
El Pájaro gestured toward the hallway behind her. “After you, ma’am.”
Ma’am. She swallowed her wince and forced a smile. “This way.” At the rate she was hiding her real emotions today, she’d tear a facial muscle or crack a tooth.
Harri and her super followed Aisha to her office. Once they were seated, she closed the door, grabbed a clean legal pad, and dropped onto her office chair.
Pulling out her attorney objectivity took some effort, but if she seriously wanted that corner office, El Pájaro was definitely her ticket. She looked at Harri. “Jeremy?”
She shrugged. “We needed the best.”
Aisha nodded. Jeremy could pull off miracles and had since they were kids. She turned back to El Pájaro. “Harri tells me you’re not registered.”
He shook his head. “I don’t have the money for the fee. Much less the required insurance.”
Aisha looked at Harri, who also shook her head. “Haven’t had the chance to start the paperwork yet. Ted Meadowfield showed up on my doorstep first thing this morning.”
Grabbing a pen, Aisha started her to-do list. “Did he get any film of—” She turned back to the superhero/GQ model seated across her desk and tried to keep her composure. “Can I call you by something other than ‘The Sparrow’?”
“It’s ‘The Bird’,” Harri said.
“Only in Mexico,” Aisha shot back.
Harri obviously started to say something about Aisha’s semester in Spain, then realized they were in front of a client. She gave the slightest of nods to El Pájaro.
When he opened his mouth, Aisha held up a hand. “I don’t want to know your full name since you’re not technically my client yet.”
“Rey.” His sweet, sexy grin would be her undoing. “With an ‘e’.”
Aisha swallowed hard. “Okay, Rey, with an ‘e’. From what Harri told me, you don’t have regular employment either.”
She waved her pen at him. “It’s not ‘ma’am’. Call me ‘Aisha’.”
“Okay, Aisha.” His pearly whites flashed again.
Another one of his smiles and she’d have to change her panties. Her fingers clenched around her pen. Please, God, don’t let him be a telepath.
She cleared her throat. “Powers?”
“Flight, strength, speed. My senses are better than most people, but I don’t have x-ray vision or anything like that.”
“Indestructibility,” Harri added.
Aisha glanced up from her notes, and Rey’s cheeks were flushed. “Is that true?” she asked.
His expression as he turned toward Harri bordered on desperate. She laid her hand on his forearm. “You can trust Aisha. Just like you trust me.”
His gaze locked on the floor, and he tugged a leather thong with a tiny carved stone from beneath his shirt.
Aisha leaned over her desk to examine it. This close he smelled as good as he looked. She wondered for a moment what his skin would taste like if she kissed his neck and felt her face heat again. Sitting back, she said, “It looks like jade. Is it some sort of talisman?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. My mother said never to take it off, but the one time I did—”
Harri patted his shoulder. “If you’re in trouble, Rey, we need to know.”
His words came out in fits and pauses. “That flooding near the causeway a couple of years ago. I rescued some trapped people. I was so filthy, covered in mud, afterwards I . . . I snuck into the Whitechapel Country Club to shower. Someone had left a locker room window cracked open.” He grasped the amulet tightly in his fist. “I had this on a longer thong then, and accidentally pulled it off with my shirt.”
He blew out a harsh breath. “Something attacked me in there. A few minutes later. Something with claws. I’ve never met anyone as strong as me until that . . . thing. The claws sliced right through my skin. It’s the only time I’ve ever been hurt that I remember. I managed to get away from it, but only barely.” He shook his head as if to clear the memory. “I shortened the thong so I couldn’t take it off by accident again.” He tucked the stone back beneath his shirt and straightened his tie.
Guilt niggled at Aisha for forcing him to relive the obvious trauma, but she had to know what she was dealing with. In a soft voice, she asked, “Do you have any idea who it was? Was it some supervillain? Or a superhero who thought you were cutting in on his action?”
That disconcerting gaze of his bore into her. “It was more of a what than a who. I don’t think it was human. But I’ve kept the stone on, and I haven’t seen the creature or anything like it since that night.”
She’d been dealing with supers all her professional life, but an alleged non-human assailant hit the top of her freak-o-meter. That was comic book stuff. It didn’t happen in real life. Especially not by taking off a magic necklace. There had to be something about the stone. Or maybe a device inside it.
A glance at Harri revealed a frown on her best friend’s face. So it wasn’t just her.
“We need to keep that a secret,” Harri said. “No need to advertise that you’ve got your own flavor of kryptonite.”
Forcing yet another smile, Aisha tried to project reassurance. “No problem. For anything I line up that requires a photo, we’ll stipulate that the shirt stays on.” A pity because she really wanted an excuse to see him topless.
“Are you crazy?” Harri exclaimed. “His poster alone will break all of Farrah Fawcett’s sales records.”
Aisha tapped her pen on the legal pad. “What about a clause that if the necklace is visible, it has to be edited out in the final product?”
Harri frowned. “Then they’ll know it’s significant.”
Aisha shook her head. “Not if I tell them it’s a copyrighted image and they’ll have to pay a huge extra licensing fee if they leave it in. But discretion is huge in the side markets if you want to work with supers, and it’s all word of mouth recommendations. All it takes is one unauthorized leaked photo and you’re out. Plus, if we design his outfit properly it should only be an issue in shirtless photos.” She felt her face get even hotter.
His eyes widened. “Does this mean you’ll help Harri represent me?”
Her genuine smile at his earnestness lifted her mood for the first time today. “I’m definitely leaning that way. Let’s get through the rest of my questions first.”
After another half hour, excitement of another kind tingled along Aisha’s nerves. Harri was right. This super was a literal gold mine. She’d never represented a super with this much potential. A rags-to-riches back story, a range of superpowers, intelligence, physical beauty—he had it all.
Aisha set down her pen and pad. “Now for the hard part. I’m all for cultural heritage. One set of my grandparents met on the Selma march. The other on the Freedom Rides. But I want to make you accessible to more than the Hispanic demographic. Which from a marketing perspective is not a bad place to be. Don’t get me wrong. With a few tweaks, you could have much broader appeal. We need to change your moniker to something a little more mainstream.”
She waited for the inevitable blow-up. And waited. And waited.
“What exactly did you have in mind?” he asked.
Good. He wasn’t going to fight her on this. At least not yet. Harry on the other hand . . . the stubborn scowl Aisha knew far too well appeared on her friend’s face.
“He doesn’t need to—” Harri began.
Aisha cut her off. “That’s something we need to brainstorm. We don’t need to make any decisions right now. How about the three of us meet for dinner?”
“We were going to cook for Harri. You’re more than welcome to join us.” Color flared in his cheeks as he turned to Harri. “If that’s all right.”
She grinned. “Yes, it’s fine.” She winked at Aisha. “What did I tell you?”
“No wine tonight. This is business.” Aisha waggled her index finger at Harri. “We also need to design a proper uniform for him.”
Harri frowned. “Something that will hold up. I don’t want him hit with an indecency charge because a flame thrower burned off his unitard like that poor schmuck a couple of years ago.” She bit her lip thinking. “You know . . . what’s-his-name—”
“Skyball,” Aisha said dryly. Thank goodness, he hadn’t been her client.
Harri snapped her fingers. “Exactly. Everyone called him Freeball after that. And that’s my point. In this business, one unplanned wardrobe malfunction and nobody takes you seriously anymore.”
Aisha shut down the image Harri’s words painted in her mind. She needed to get her libido under control if she was going to represent the man in front of her. “There’s a couple of specialists I can contact who’ve designed for Cobblestone. I’ll make some calls.”
Harri climbed to her feet. “Sounds like a plan.” She leaned closer. “And my offer still stands if you want to get out of this mausoleum. Think how much fun we’d have.”
Aisha chuckled. After her encounter with Stuart this morning, the idea was tempting as hell. But reeling in Rey would definitely change the minds of the partners about her contributions to the firm. Not to mention starting a new firm when she had all the debt Cal had helped her wrack up and then dropped on her during the divorce meant she needed a more stable source of income.
For now anyway.
She waggled her index finger at Harri. “I know how much trouble you’d get me into. My mom is right. You are a bad influence.”
Harri smiled. “Aw, Betty meant that as a compliment. Dinner’s at seven.” She looked at Rey for confirmation.
He nodded, then flashed Aisha one more beautiful smile and held out his hand. “Thank you so much, Aisha. I feel really good about this.”
She took his hand and again felt that electric spark. “So do I.” They gazed in each other’s eyes for a moment longer than socially acceptable and she saw his cheeks flush.
So she wasn’t the only one who felt the heat between them. Which would make resisting temptation even harder. Damn it. I finally get my golden ticket to partnership and it’s attached to the first guy I’ve wanted to sleep with since Cal left me. Wonderful.
As Aisha walked her guests to the reception area, sounds of arguing echoed down the hall. She rounded the corner to find two uniforms flanking a plainclothed officer who waved his badge in the face of Howard Dewey, the senior partner.
The second the detective spotted Aisha, he pulled out his handcuffs. “You’re under arrest.”
No, not her.
Aisha stepped between the detective and her best friend. “Wait just a minute. Where’s your warrant?”
“What’s the charge?” Harri added.
The detective dug into the pocket of his cheap suit and flung the paperwork at Aisha. “Harriet Winters is wanted for domestic terrorism under the 1947 Supervillainy Act. Specifically, the arson at city hall yesterday.”
Aisha snagged the wadded form before it struck her. A quick skim sent a sinking feeling through her stomach.
Harri shoved past her. “That’s a bunch of goddamn—”
Aisha pinched her arm. “Shut up, girl. Don’t say another word.”
Common sense must have landed in Harri’s brain because she clamped her jaw shut.
The detective stepped closer, and the smell of garlic and meat made Aisha’s eyes water. “Get out of my way before I arrest you for obstruction of justice.”
Aisha stood nose-to-nose with the officer despite his rank odor. “I better not see a mark on my client when I reach the station, or I’ll slap a police brutality suit on you so fast it’ll make your grandbabies’ heads spin.”
She turned to Harri as the metal snicked shut around her friend’s wrists. “Let me know if he doesn’t Mirandize you.”
“Oh, believe me, I will.” From the evil look on Harri’s face, it was good thing she was cuffed. Otherwise, the cops wouldn’t know what hit them.
Rey started to follow Harri and the policemen, but Aisha grabbed his arm. “Stay with me. You can’t help her right now.”
The expression on his face was a mix of fury and sorrow. “But she—”
The firm’s doors swung shut. Even with the initial excitement over, half the staff and attorneys remained in reception and stared at her and Rey. Aisha lowered her voice, too aware of their audience. “You can’t help her,” she repeated. “Let me do my job. Please. Trust me.” When the tension didn’t leave his body. “For her sake, do it my way.”
His curt nod only reassured her a tiny bit.
“Franklin,” Dewey spat out. He was a big man, in his early sixties, and he tried to tower over her, but it didn’t work when she had on her stilettos. His balding head shone under the overhead inset lights. “Why are you representing a supervillain?”
Aisha struggled to maintain her composure, but she was as pissed as Rey. “Harri Winters isn’t a supervillain any more than I am.”
“I will not have this firm’s name sullied. We only represent heroes.” Dewey stared at her, his gaze cold and reptilian for a moment. He was friendly and warm when the situation required, but calculating and ruthless when it didn’t. Aisha steeled herself. She possessed a similar ability to quickly shift emotional gears, allowing her to navigate Howard’s moods more easily than her colleagues, but she never took their surface cordiality for granted.
Until Dewey poked the top of her sternum.
Howard Dewey actually poked her. With a terrible realization, she knew who had alerted the cops to Harri’s location. This wasn’t just Stuart’s bullshit, and the argument here in reception had been for show. She was never going to make partner, no matter how much money she brought in.
A decade’s worth of rage boiled to the surface of her psyche. “We represent people fighting the good fight. Isn’t that what you told me when I interviewed here?”
He must have realized he’d used the wrong tactic. A charming smile appeared on his face. “Why don’t you come to my office? We can discuss this unfortunate incident like civilized people.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. I need to get down to the police station and see about freeing my client.” She turned on her heel and headed toward her office for her purse and keys.
She only made it two steps before Dewey said, “Don’ make a decision you’ll regret, Aisha.”
Her rage turned to ice as she pivoted to face him again. “Harri Winters is a good person who’s being framed for Quentin Samuels’s political gain. I am going to represent her whether you approve or not.”
Dewey’s face turned a brilliant shade of crimson. “If you take her on, you’ll never make partner.”
A bitter laugh erupted from her throat. “You were never going to make me partner, and we both know it.”
“Maybe it’s because you don’t have the balls for this job,” he sneered.
“Thank god for that!” She swung her arm to indicate the entire office. “It means I’m not thinking with them. And I’m damn tired of licking yours.”
There was a collective gasp from their audience.
The snake Dewey truly was appeared in his eyes. “You’re fired, Franklin.”
“Don’t bother exerting yourself on the paperwork. I quit.”
She whirled and marched back to her office. A quick rip and the notes about Rey were shoved into her purse along with her reading glassing and her flashdrive with her ongoing cases. She circled her office. No pictures. No mementos. Nothing to show she had any life at all outside of this godforsaken law firm.
Returning to the reception area, Stuart and Travis stood in front of the doors. Both men had their arms crossed.
“Hand over your purse, Aisha. We have to search you before you leave.” Stuart’s smarmy smile said how much he was enjoying this. Travis had the grace to look slightly disturbed. Dewey stood to the side and watched the proceedings. The bastard never did his own dirty work.
“You’re not touching, Ms. Franklin.” Rey’s smooth voice reassured her as much as his body heat against her back.
“And who’s going to stop us?” Stuart taunted.
For the first time in years, her old self-confidence surged through her. “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet our city’s newest superhero, Captain Justice.” She took a step closer to the two attorneys. “If I were you, I wouldn’t get between him and his falsely accused foster mom.”
Stuart paled, and Travis turned a sickly avocado.
“We-we-we still can’t let you leave with firm property.” Sweat beaded on Stuart balding pate.
“I don’t have any firm property. My computer’s on my desk. Have fun figuring out the password” When they didn’t move, she smiled. “You have until I count to three to get out of my way before Captain Justice moves you for me. One…”
Both Stuart and Travis shot worried looks at Dewey.
The sound from Rey sounded suspiciously like a jaguar growling.
Both attorneys bolted for the right hallway. Doors slamming echoed against the drywall.
With Rey at her back, Aisha strode out the doors of Dewey & Cheatham, feeling free for the first time in years.