Chapter One

 

ZACH RICHARDSON stared at his reflection, hardly recognizing the face looking back at him from the brightly lit mirror. Gone was the riotous mop of dark brown curls he’d never been able to tame, replaced by a sleek cut that had cost almost five hundred dollars. But it made him look more like the thirty-year-old man he was than the teenage urchin he’d resembled before. Instead of soft brown eyes behind black-rimmed spectacles, colored contacts turned his eyes a bright blue, which was made all the more striking by his long dark lashes. He hadn’t shaved in two days, and dark stubble shadowed his jaw. He had to admit this new face was a lot more attractive than the old one.

A knock on the bathroom door broke the spell. “How’s it going in there?”

“It’s fine, Kev,” he called out to his waiting friend, then drew in a deep breath before opening the door. “What do you think?”

Kevin Anderson stared at Zach in amazement, then gave a low whistle. “Damn, son, you’re hot!” he said. “What I think is that I’m glad I snapped Erik up before you got here, or he wouldn’t have given me a second look.”

“Not true!” Erik Wilson, Kevin’s husband of just under a year, replied. He slid his arm around Kevin’s waist even as he gave Zach an appraising look from head to toe. “But I’ll echo the ‘damn,’ Zach. It’s like the difference between Clark Kent and Superman—very sexy. You’re going to have men drooling all over you.”

Zach’s cheeks heated, but he was pleased with the praise. After spending his entire life being called “cute” and “boyish,” it was gratifying to have someone tell him he looked sexy.

“It isn’t too much?” he asked, still a bit uncertain.

“No such thing!” Kevin and Erik spoke in unison, and all three of them laughed.

“All right, I’ll trust your judgment.”

“As well you should, given what brilliant attorneys we both are,” Erik drawled. “What do you have planned for the next step in this makeover, babe? Wardrobe?”

“Oh, yes.” Kevin motioned Zach to follow him into the master bedroom. “While you were getting shorn, I did some shopping.” He pointed to the bed. “What do you think?”

Zach looked at the clothes spread out on the bed. As one of the junior attorneys at Caldwell and Monroe, he was expected to dress in the conservative two-piece suits that served as an unofficial uniform at the firm. When he’d worked for the district attorney’s office, he could only afford off-the-rack store brands. Now his higher salary let him upgrade to Zegna and Ralph Lauren, but a suit was a suit was a suit. When he wasn’t at work, he wore khakis with polo shirts or pullover sweaters, depending on the weather; he paid more attention to comfort than style when it came to shopping for clothes.

But Kevin had picked out faded black denim jeans that looked two sizes too small. The shirt he’d selected was a button-down in some shimmering black fabric, and there was also a black leather jacket, something Zach had never owned in his life. A pair of lace-up leather boots, also in black, sat on the floor.

“I thought we were going to a dance club, not a leather bar,” Zach protested. “I have no idea how you think I’m going to fit in those jeans! Who were they made for, a beanpole?”

“Far from it.” Kevin chuckled. “Don’t worry, they stretch. They’re meant to show off your best assets. Which reminds me….”

Kevin reached into a bag on the nightstand and drew out a swatch of black fabric, which he handed to Zach. “Silk boxer briefs. Trust me, you’ll like them. Erik made a believer out of me.”

Zach was blushing again, but he couldn’t help it. “Wow. Okay, if you say so. When I asked you and Erik to help me remake my image, I didn’t realize how far you were going to go.”

“Baby steps are for babies,” Erik replied from where he lounged against the doorframe. “Might as well go all in, right?”

“I guess so.”

Zach reminded himself that any change had to be for the better, and he trusted Kevin not to steer him wrong, even if the pace of the transformation seemed a little overwhelming. He’d made a lot of them in the last six months. When he had turned thirty, he had assessed his life and realized he was in the same job, living in the same apartment, doing the same thing he’d been doing since graduating from law school. If he didn’t do something else soon, he never would. His social life was in a rut too. He didn’t have a boyfriend or even any prospects for one, and that realization had spurred him into action. Well, that, and seeing Asher Caldwell for the first time.

Working with the New York District Attorney’s office demanded long hours for low pay, but Zach had believed in what he was doing. Criminals needed to be brought to justice, and Zach had strong beliefs about right and wrong. But after almost five years, his shiny idealism had dulled, worn away by endless plea deals, political backbiting, and a glimpse into what modern justice really meant. He still fought the good fight, but too often he saw criminals skate on technicalities, or prosecutors bow to political and financial influence. Then he’d been part of a team prosecuting a high-profile case against a socialite for running a prostitution ring, and he’d had his eyes opened in more ways than one.

Zach hadn’t been the senior attorney on the case, but he’d been in court from the beginning. The DA had presented the facts: Mallory Winters, the former wife of Addison Arlington Winters, one of the richest men in New York, had been running a stable of high-priced call girls from her Madison Avenue apartment. On the surface, it was an open-and-shut case with the testimony of a private detective who had watched her residence and bank statements showing an account in Mallory’s name with large cash deposits made at regular intervals. There were Mallory’s phone records and a group of fifteen or so young women who were regularly seen coming and going from Mallory’s apartment. Only one of the girls had agreed to testify against Mallory; the others had clammed up and refused to point fingers at Mallory in exchange for immunity for themselves. But one was all they needed to prove what Mallory had been doing.

Then the defense had presented its case, and Zach had gotten to hear Asher Caldwell for the first time.

Asher had allowed the other members of his legal team to handle the cross-examination of the witnesses for the prosecution, but when he’d taken the floor, there’d been no doubt who the real mastermind behind the defense was. Tall, dark, and self-assured, Asher had demolished every argument and every piece of evidence presented, and he hadn’t hesitated to call Mallory Winters to the stand to testify in her own defense. He showed a different side of the story, that of a woman who’d been a secretly abused spouse who had set out to help other abused women build lives for themselves. He claimed that if the prosecution had done their jobs, they would have found Mallory was using her social contacts to help the women find work where they would be safe from the men they were trying to escape, not renting their bodies to whomever was willing to pay.

But Asher’s true brilliance had been in calling Daria Rand, the prosecution’s star witness, as a hostile witness for the defense. He’d eviscerated her story and revealed Daria had been the one depositing money to an account opened in Mallory’s name by none other than Addison Winters. The evidence had been trumped up because Addison wanted to get out of the generous financial settlement Mallory had been awarded in the divorce, and he’d twisted her penchant for “do-gooding” to look like something illegal.

The case had changed Zach’s life. He’d been so impressed by Asher’s masterful arguments that he hadn’t cared his team had lost. In fact, he was relieved an innocent woman wouldn’t be facing prison. But more than that, he was smitten by Asher Caldwell’s looks and charisma, and the self-assurance he wore with effortless ease.

No one had ever affected Zach so powerfully before, and it had shaken him out of his rut. He’d gone looking for change, starting with his college roommate, Kevin, who worked for Caldwell and Monroe, Asher Caldwell’s own firm. Within two weeks, Zach had secured a position with the firm; within two months, he’d moved from an apartment in a marginal neighborhood to an apartment in a much better one. At Kevin and Erik’s urging, he’d joined their gym, and now, six months later, his tall, lean frame boasted toned muscles.

He still didn’t have a boyfriend, but it had taken him longer to both work up the courage to go looking for one—and to admit to himself that no matter how much he wanted it, Asher Caldwell was never going to notice he was alive.