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Wealth and Forbidden Love

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Crippled and orphaned at fourteen, Valerie Matthews was taken in by leather goods billionaire Theodore Sangster IV and treated like his own child. He had three other wards, but Val was not officially adopted like the rest. A decade later, the old man is found dead in his study. The suspects include everyone living in the isolated mansion called Briar Hill: his three adopted children and the servants. Only Val seems to be exonerated because she uses a wheelchair to get around. Unsurprisingly, Sangster’s will names Val and his three adopted children as his principal heirs – together with one other name. Janus Malcolm arrives at Briar Hill to claim his inheritance. His arrival comes at the most unfortunate moment, as investigators pry into the lives of the Sangster children. Janus claims to be Sangster’s only living biological child. As Sangster’s death seems to be quickly forgotten, Val suspects that money has changed hands between her siblings and the corrupt authorities in the small town of Raven Ville. She finds some hope in the presence of the handsome and brooding Janus Malcolm, who may be as interested in finding out who murdered his father. Janus is overwhelmed by the change in his wealth. While the ethereal beauty Valerie seems innocent enough, a glint in her eyes shows she is hiding something. Will they trust each other enough to work together?

CHAPTER 1

Val

1995

They said that memory had a way to protect you, cradle you in a shell. The mind could split, a part of which would become the defender. The rest would be tiny shards that it would try to put together. They could be shielded from the truth or shepherded into a safe space.?

Then, why? Why were the only things I remembered the ones that would hurt the most: the shattering of glass, the panic in my mother's eyes, my father's hands trying to steer the car into safety, and that moment when my spine gave?

I had no medical terms for it, but I just knew that my life would still be over even if I survived.?

It was in the way my body swayed backward and forward even as my seatbelt tried to hold me down. Swayed was probably too graceful a term for what happened. Tiny for my age, I was pummeled as the car tumbled down the hill. Every second was too real. There was no shortcut, a diversion towards the end of that fall. I had never felt a pain that excruciating, ripping through my torso and grinding through my bones.?

But I survived.?

The doctors were amazed that I was alive. I even heard them laugh when they thought I was under all the drugs they had to pump into me. To be fair, they were only amazed, celebratory. For me, nothing was fair. At least, not at that moment and the many moments that came afterward.

After I came through the surface, back to the unhappy world of the living, I was in even more pain. Submerged, I was in a heavy paradise. Weighed down but giddy, grasping for every jet stream of painkillers, it was a reprieve. For a moment there, I had lifted my arms to reach out to my mom and dad until they were gone – as they were.

When I woke up, a part of me already knew what the miserable-looking men in white would say, but I had to admit that I did not know everything in store for me.?

Not then.?

2005

It was a thud. It should not make me steer my wheelchair towards its direction. Not in the speed I was in. The large mansion called Briar Hill carried all kinds of eerie sounds – echoes and vibrations of an old house. So, why was I rushing towards the source of the noise?

It could be another leather tome from Mr. Sangter's study. It could be one of Rafael's weights, Emilie's hairdryer, or Joseph with another fling. It could be anything.?

But somehow, this thud made my heart go faster.?

It sounded louder than the usual, for one. When I first heard the disturbance, I hesitated, though. After all, I was in bed reading a book. It could have been one of my attacks, experienced whenever I was somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.?

Usually, my attacks would begin with the sound of a loud crash. At first, doctors thought it was the result of my trauma. Made sense. They thought it was because of the accident that I kept hearing crashing sounds. Funny, because I knew that my memories were only of pain and floating. There were no sounds. As if someone had pushed on the mute button. As if that was the only way to take away my pain. After the nightmare had stopped disturbing my nights, though, the phenomenon continued.?

They said I was stressed.?

Yeah, I supposed being cooped up in a mansion almost 24/7 could do that. When I was still in college, the stress of eyes following me as I steered my wheelchair around campus was too much.

I thought it was just that, explosive head syndrome, as they called it. However, the first thud was followed by another one, and I knew I was wide awake. I slid down from my bed to the waiting wheelchair on the side. It was a quick transition. My back and legs were not as numb as they used to be. Years of therapy had improved my movements.?

The sounds came from Mr. Sangster's study. I was sure of it. Although most of his children's bedrooms could be found on the same wing, my room was only three doors away from his study. I was the closest.

Where were the rest of them, anyway??

It was a weekend. Everyone should be home. It was a silent rule in the house. Even if they left at night, my "siblings" should be there during the day. There were also the servants, too many to mention, the most prominent of which were Hannah the head housekeeper and Randall the butler. Both were elderly and had served the family for at least two decades.?

It took me a few minutes before I got moving, I had to admit. What help would I be? Someone should have heard that. The baltic pine floor was only cushioned by light carpeting.?

Mr. Sangster's study was right next to his bedroom, right above Joseph's home office. The next room was a locked room nobody was allowed in, and then there was mine.?

Briar Hill had twenty bedrooms. The number did not include the spacious kitchen, the sizeable receiving area that could compete against hotels receptions, and other extra amenities. However, it had the personality of the era it was from – Victorian. For a house its age, it was pretty well-maintained.?

You could say that sixty-two-year-old Theodore Sangster IV was the same: old but well-maintained. He had always been rich, but he was not a wastrel. He took his parents' money and made them multiply. Smart guy. He also did not have any vices: did not drink, did not gamble, and had no woman on the side – not that we knew of, anyway. He acted as my dad and guardian for ten years but never adopted me.?

I had to admit I was hurt. I was fourteen when I arrived at Briar Hill, still young enough to be adopted. He did not. Not only that, he chose not to. He had adopted three children previously: Emilie, Joseph, and Rafael. He said I was a complicated case but that I did not have to worry. I would have everything and would inherit like the legally adopted ones. It was also clear that he had no plans to marry.?

Mr. Sangster waited for me to call him dad, but I never did. I continued raging over the perceived rejection. Deep in my heart, he was a father to me.?

As a few morbid possibilities dawned on me, however, I found myself crying out, "Dad! Dad!"

I wheeled my chair faster until I was right in front of his study. The door was slightly ajar. Even from a few feet away in front of it, anyone could see that something was wrong.??

I peeked in and saw his body, face down on the floor. I had not touched him yet, but I knew. He was gone.?

CHAPTER 2

Val

2005

Mr. Sangster – dad – laid in an intricately carved casket in Briar Hill's living room. It was burnished a dark brown, no doubt the most expensive the funeral home could offer. The usually large and airy room felt suffocated by white roses in their various arrangements.?

A framed photo showing him in his signature gentle smile was placed in front of a large wreath with tulips and orchids, aberrant flowers in the white rose world. I had stubbornly chosen the wreath, knowing what he liked best, but I did not want to fight the florist over all the other details. I hated how her face turned to pity whenever she looked at me.

What did she use to say, in her stage whisper, pity more venomous than outright hostility?

"What a beautiful girl, but wheelchair-bound. Who would marry her unless it is someone who wants her money?"

She did not care that what she said was offensive. She possibly meant to say every word and how every syllable reached me.?

Heroes

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