“We managed to resuscitate your father,” the doctor said, his voice grave. “Stroke victims are susceptible to heart attacks in the first twenty-four hours after the stroke. We’re keeping a close eye on him and will continue to run tests to see what we can do.” The way he said it made it sound like he wasn’t confident there’d be much.
“Thank you, doctor,” Lucas said.
The doctor nodded and left us alone.
“How long is dad going to have to be here?” I asked in a small voice. “It doesn’t look like he’s in any shape to go home.”
“We might not have a choice,” Danny said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
My brothers looked at each other. My heart pounded in my chest. I could sense the bad news coming. Finally, Lucas turned to me.
“We can’t afford him being here, Angie.”
I blinked. “What?”
Danny ran his hands through his hair, his face haggard. “We’re broke.”
“How? The restaurant…” The restaurant had been my dad’s life when we were growing up. Mom had worked there too, until she got sick. My brothers took over as soon as they finished college.
“It’s been struggling for a couple of years. The recession took its toll. Dad put a second mortgage on the house to try and see us through.” Lucas sighed. He looked defeated.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “I have my interview soon, so maybe…”
But Danny was shaking his head.
“The hospital bills are coming soon…”
I couldn’t be there anymore—in the hallway, in the hospital. It was too claustrophobic. I pushed away from my brothers. My shaking legs carried me through halls and down stairs until I found myself standing outside, in front of the hospital.
The night sky loomed above me. I glared upwards, the light pollution was still too strong to see any stars. Not even a passing airplane so I could pretend. How naive I had been to wish upon a star. No, not even a star. A stupid airplane. I should have known better.
I needed ~to do well in my interview. If I got the job, maybe I could ask for an advance so I could keep Dad in the hospital.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I could do this. I had no other choice.
Weirdly enough, I liked cemeteries.
There was something about the quiet atmosphere, the carefully manicured lawns, the polished headstones that made me feel at peace. A quiet serenity that everyone, no matter who you were, respected. You could be rich, poor, famous or a nobody, but everyone had the same understanding.
We were all going to end up in the dirt anyway. That fact tended to make everyone quiet, solemn, and best of all, made them mind their own damn business.
I couldn’t say the same for my dad.
He was already there, standing over Mom’s headstone, a bouquet of lilies at his feet. I walked up beside him, but he didn’t acknowledge me. We stayed like that for a while, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
“Do you know where I got those flowers from?” he finally asked, breaking the silence.
I looked down at the lilies. They were Mom’s favorite flowers.
“Some flower shop?” I guessed. What did it matter?
“A kind young woman offered them to me after you left me in the park yesterday.” He turned to look at me, his eyes full of hope. “She noticed how pained I looked and she tried to comfort me. With your mother’s favorite flowers, on her favorite bench.”
“That’s nice,” I said absently. So what?
“Do you believe in fate, son?”
“Fate?” I scoffed. “No. You want me to believe that something purposefully planned for all the bullshit that happened to me? Fuck that.”
“I know things were hard after what happened with—”
“Don’t even mention her name,” I warned him, voice hard. “I don’t want to think about that bitch.”
Dad’s frown deepened, but he nodded, dropping it. We lapsed into silence again, and I felt my patience running thin.
“Listen, my plane is going to leave soon, so if there’s nothing else—”
“I was like you once, Xavier,” Dad said suddenly. “Angry at the world. Lashing out at anything and anyone. Pushing everything away, chasing one empty pleasure after another until I felt nothing left inside of me.”
I was stunned into silence. Dad never spoke about things like this with me. He was Brad Knight, genius CEO and billionaire, a near mythological figure. There were business courses in universities all across the world that studied his rise to power. He was always more of a figurehead to me than a father.
“Do you know what changed me? What saved me?” he asked softly.
I looked down at the headstone at our feet. I could guess.
He nodded. “I met your mother. Amelia saved me…and so did you, Son. The two of you were the light that pulled me out of the darkness.” Dad looked at me then, that infamous determination plain on his face. “I want the same for you.”
I was instantly on my guard. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You need someone to balance you out. To be what your mother was for me. You need to find your other half.”
My jaw practically hit the ground after I connected the dots. “You can’t be serious.”
“It’ll keep you responsible. And it’ll clean up your public image. I don’t want to kick you out of the company, Son. We need a way for the stakeholders to see that you’ve grown and matured enough to take over once I step down.”
“So you want me to date some random girl off the street because she gave you flowers?” I ask, incredulous.
“Not just date, Xavier.” He turned to me, and he was no longer my dad. Now he was Brad Knight, the unstoppable patriarch of Knight Enterprises. The man who always got his way. “I want you to marry her…and eventually, produce an heir.”
Emily frowned as she watched me dig into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in my pajamas, my hair tied up in a messy bun.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Super,” I said through a mouthful of chocolate.
She sighed, grabbing her own tub of ice cream from the freezer. She sat next to me, stuffing a spoonful of vanilla into her mouth.
“Spill,” she demanded.
“I’m just really stressed out,” I admitted. “My dad’s in the hospital, and we’re going to have trouble paying the bills. I just had my interview with Curixon, and I’m afraid that I messed it up, and…” My voice faltered.
Too many things.
“You didn’t mess it up,” Em assured me. “You killed it, right? You told me yourself.”
“I thought I did,” I said. “Now I’m not so sure.”
It was true; I’d really hit it off with the interviewer. Curixon was a great company, and I was hoping I could finally put my engineering degree from Harvard to good use. I’d spent the last few months working part-time at Em’s flower shop.
She even let me live with her in her apartment.
I’d be totally screwed if it wasn’t for her.
“You’re a lifesaver, Em,” I began. “If it weren’t for you letting me stay here—”
“Kill the dramatics,” she said before I could thank her again. “You know you’re allowed to stay as long as you want. I just don’t want to see you waste your life sweeping the floor of my flower shop when you could be working somewhere like Curixon. You’re too smart for that, Angie.”
Oh, Em. Where would I be without her?
“Anyway, I’m off.” Em got up, throwing her spoon into the sink and the empty tub of ice cream in the trash. “Don’t mope around too much.” She slipped on her shoes, and before I knew it, she was gone.
I was alone. I hopped up from the couch and busied myself with cleaning the apartment. I knew I’d only mope and worry myself to death if I sat still.
I was in the middle of scrubbing the sink when my phone rang. I practically jumped over the couch to reach my phone, scrambling to check the caller ID.
My heart kicked into overdrive.
Okay, okay, okay, okay.
I took a deep breath.
“Hello?” I said, willing my voice not to shake.
“Hi, is this Angela Carson?” a female voice said on the other end of the line.
“Hi, Angela. I’m just calling to inform you that unfortunately we’ve decided to move on with other applicants for this job.”
“Oh.” My heart sank.
“We’ll be sure to keep your application on file should another position become available.”
“Uh, okay. Thanks.”
What else could I say?
After another few seconds of painful exchanges, I collapsed into my pillow, face first.
So much for killing the interview.
I felt tears of frustration spring to my eyes, and I let them soak into my pillow. There was so much more on the line than just paying the bills and having some spending cash.
My dad’s life was at stake.
But what could I do now?
Unsure of what to do, I grabbed my things and ran out the door, desperate to get to the hospital. I needed to see my dad. Maybe I could talk to the doctors if they could somehow extend his stay, if they had any other options…
I ran out onto the street and almost slammed into someone in my rush.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, walking by. I need to call Lucas and Danny. Maybe they’ll know what we could—
“Angela?” a kind voice called. “Angela Carson?”
I paused and looked back at the man I’d almost slammed into. It was the older gentleman I’d given flowers to at the park the other day.
“Oh, hello,” I said, distracted. “Sorry, I’m in a rush, but it was nice seeing you…”
“I can help your father,” the man said.
I froze in place.
“Excuse me?” I asked. Did I hear that right?
“Your father is in the hospital right now, right? And forgive me for saying, but you and your brothers can’t afford to keep him there.” He talked slowly, trying to calm me down.
“Uh, yes, but how did you know that?” Alarm bells were ringing in my head. Who was this man?
“I fear I’ve gotten ahead of myself.” He smiled reassuringly at me. “My name is Brad Knight.”
I gasped. Brad Knight? The Brad Knight? The billionaire behind Knight Enterprises?
“Um,” I stuttered.
“I must confess that after our fateful meeting at the park I looked into your situation. Please forgive my intrusion on your privacy, but I believe we can help each other, Angela.”
My head spun.
What does he want from me?
“I’ll pay for everything. I’ll make sure your father is taken care of. You just have to do one thing for me.” He sounded so genuine, but a hint of desperation crept into his voice. He gathered himself, staring right into my eyes.
“I need you to marry my son.”
“What?!” I scrambled away from Brad, putting some space between us. “Is this some sort of joke?” Should I scream for help? Run back inside? Was the famous businessman some kind of freak?
He watched me, shaking his head. “I assure you I’m completely serious. I’m aware of how strange my request is, and I know you’re uncomfortable right now. I’ll leave if you want me to, but please, hear me out. I promise I have nothing but noble intentions in mind.”
I hesitated, unsure of what to do. Normally if some stranger came up to me and asked me to marry his son I’d try to get as far away as I could as quickly as possible. But there was something about Brad that made me want to trust him…something in his eyes that was just so genuine and kind.
And if what he was saying was true…if he really could help Dad…
Well, I didn’t really have any other options.
I nodded cautiously, gesturing for him to continue.
“Thank you.” Brad took a breath, and he seemed genuinely relieved. “We can help each other,” He smiled, his eyes disappearing in a crinkle of crow’s feet. “If you marry my son, I swear to you that your father will have the best all around care money can buy. You’ve actually already met him.”
My eyes went wide. “I have?”
“At the park.” Brad said. “You bumped into him and he handed you the bouquet of lilies you’d dropped.”
That was Xavier? ~My mind spun. I thought he’d looked familiar…someone I’d seen on the front page of magazines right in front of me. Wow, how oblivious could I get?
I knew of him, of course. How could I not? He was a celebrity. Filthy rich and drop dead gorgeous. I’d seen the headlines and articles about him, on and off for the past few months.
He was wild.
A shiver ran down my spine, but I couldn’t tell if it was from fear or excitement.
“But why me?” I asked. “I’m sure you could find a million girls that are more beautiful and more successful than I am. A better fit for your son.” They’d all be tripping over themselves for the chance that Brad was offering me.
“You’re a pure soul, my dear. You may not know it, but you’re rare. I want the best for my son, as any father would. I think you can help him. I trust my instinct, and my instinct now says this will work.”
A pure soul? What does that even mean?
“But marriage isn’t just a piece of paper,” I argued. “You can’t just sign a contract and fall in love.”
“That may be true, but love is patient.”
“How do you know I won’t marry your son and then divorce him the next day?” I was playing devil’s advocate, but I needed answers to this confusing hypothetical.
Instead of getting his back up, he stepped closer to me and took my hand. His touch was warm and strangely comforting. “I don’t believe you’d do that, Angela. Like I said, your soul is pure. But if you need some sort of insurance plan, think about your father.”
Dad’s face came to my mind. Not as he usually was, so boisterous and full of life, but of the last time I saw him in the hospital bed. He looked so fragile, so broken…
“Medical bills are no joke. Treatments, rehab, around-the-clock care. It all costs money, darling. If you hold up your end of the deal, I promise you, on my life, that I’ll hold up my end, too.”
My mind was racing. There had to be a different way.
“Maybe I can get a second job. Work double shifts…”
“Angela,” he said, stopping me. “Do you know how much an overnight stay in the hospital costs? Seven-hundred dollars each night. A routine blood test is two-hundred-fifty dollars. If they, God forbid, have to use the defibrillator, that’s another fifteen-hundred dollars.”
I closed my eyes.
“Please. Please, stop. Just give me a minute to think.” I tried to organize my scrambled thoughts.
Years of debt.
How could I marry a man I didn’t love, much less even met?
“Why are you even helping me?” I asked.
“When you came to me this afternoon,” he began, “you answered a prayer I’d sent up to the sky. You gave me strength when I needed it. So, now I’m here to answer your prayers. I’m here to give you strength, and this is how I can do it.”
I thought about it, my breath coming in shallow gasps.
Was I seriously considering this?
“Angela?” Brad asked softly. “I truly believe that this will work, Angela. I truly, truly do.”
It’s not like I have much of a choice.
I took a deep breath. I felt like I would be crushed underneath the weight of the words forming in my mouth.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
I felt something inside of my heart curl up and die.
“I’ll marry your son.”
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