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The Past that Haunts You Part 5

Chapter I

 

She looks at herself in the mirror and sees the past… She remembers his embrace and his kisses. Would she ever feel that way again? Would she allow herself to be vulnerable and take the plunge?

She’s been in Paris for more than a week. After James’ funeral, she and Barret flew the next night to Paris and went straight to one of the properties of James in the province of Etretat, Normandy, just about two and a half hours from Paris. She guessed James had a penchant for the beach and the wide-open seas for most of his houses and properties are in coastal areas and fishing towns, which, understandably, are convenient locations for his shipping line.

James Tudor Wilson was the sole owner and proprietor of T.W. Industries, which consisted of three major companies – T.W. Merchandising, T.W. European Shipping Lines, and T.W. Corp. All these companies are operating mainly from Paris, France and servicing the European sector. James had just started branching out into the US market when he found out he had cancer, ten years ago, and when he found out about Julie’s death and Cornelia’s disappearance, he never really pushed conquering the US business market because he wanted to focus on finding his only granddaughter, Cornelia Lewis Wilson.

Julie had run away from their home in Buffalo when she was just nineteen and pregnant with Cornelia. She had disowned James because he wouldn’t let her be with Nick McElroy, the hotshot businessman who was married to a distinguished Southern household name, Linda Ellis McElroy. He knew that Nick would never have divorced Linda for his daughter or any woman for that matter because of Linda’s money and influence in the business world. Nick was still a young lad in the cutthroat world of business and politics and he knew that without Linda and her father, he would have never made it big.

Nick and Julie had a relationship that was wrong from the start but the two had admitted to him that they were in love. But he didn’t believe them then and made sure that they never saw each other again. Linda McElroy, on the other hand, also knew of the affair but chose to remain silent because James was already doing what he could to separate the two. So when Julie couldn’t take the words that Nick had supposedly told James – all of which were fabricated by James in hopes that Julie would forget him – she slipped away in the middle of the night and never set foot in that house again. James’ plan of destroying Nick’s credibility in front of Julie had backfired and he was left shut out from Julie’s and her daughter’s life until she finally met her death during a car crash.

Cornelia could still remember her mother being distraught over something a few days before she died but she couldn’t bring herself to ask her what bothered Julie. Instead, she just let her deal with it and hoped that her mother would get over what was bothering her. What can she do anyway? She was ten at that time… But she will never forget that day when she could have simply asked her what was going on and just stayed home that day instead of having to force her mother to drive her to school and to eventually pick her up again. That was when she had the accident that cost her life – on her way to pick her up. She was then turned over to the care of the state of New Jersey and placed in an orphanage where she spent six dismal years of her youth. She was beaten many times and bullied while she was at the girl’s home. But she grew tough and was left alone after a few years. Even with her renewed toughness and independence, she never let herself be talked into joining the gangs in the girl’s orphanage, instead, she ran away when she turned sixteen. She wandered around for a week and, luckily, was found by James when she was loitering around the streets near the train stop. Naturally, she didn’t trust James at first even though he said he was a friend of her mother’s. She never saw him in her life or anywhere around Julie, so she was suspicious but she didn’t have a choice but to accept his help or else, she would have starved to death.

Over time, James had proved that he was to be trusted. He provided for her, fed her, gave her shelter, and gave her information about the man she thought was her father, Nick McElroy. She came to know of the man when she saw an old photograph of her mother and Nick, locked in each other’s arms. He was the only man she saw her with so she always suspected he was her biological father.

When Cornelia entered the offices of McElroy and Burns after plotting her revenge, she met Morrison. He became a huge part of her life and is still is, but not as present as she wants him to be. Morrison was a breath of fresh air… Someone who brought back meaning to her life and who have gone through the rollercoaster ride of battling the odds and their enemies like Gia de Grassi, a heiress, who even went as far as ordering Cornelia to be abducted so that Morrison would give up the evidence in their possession against Gia. Gia had concocted a grand scheme of pinning a money laundering case against Nick McElroy, who had once broken her heart but most of all, against Linda, his wife – who destroyed Gia’s life by starting a lawsuit of negligence against the said heiress because she had an affair with Nick.

It was all a big scandal, Gia’s lawsuit, and the ending was her having to give up the company her father had worked for all his life, and going back to Tuscany, a defeated woman. But she vowed vengeance which she had ultimately exacted by pinning Nick with a money laundering case that threatened the whole existence of his bank, Missions Bank, and all other companies he owned.

Meanwhile, Morrison, having rescued Cornelia from Gia’s thugs, took James’ advise to leave her alone for her own safety and tried pushing her away with his words… But as soon as he learned about James’ passing, he quickly raced back to Cornelia’s side to give her comfort and take back the hurtful words he said. However, she had turned her heart to stone yet again. She was hurt by Morrison’s fleeting faith in their relationship and didn’t believe they could face all odds, so she, herself, turned him away, claiming that she no longer loved him and that he was right in saying that they should just go their separate ways. Despite not agreeing adamantly to Cornelia’s decision of not taking him back, he had to respect what she wanted and decided to give her the space and time she needed to think things through. Besides, she had just lost the only family she ever had… She deserved to grieve and deal with her emotions her own way.

As Cornelia learned from James himself as he confessed before he died that Nick McElroy iss truly her biological father and that Morrison is her stepbrother, she launched her own investigation on the case against Nick. She eventually found out, through the help of James’ right hand, Kevin, that Gia de Grassi was behind all of it.

She then decided to help the McElroys and struck a deal with Gia. The agreement was that she would help her get her company up and running again and to stay that way, with the help of T.W. Industries. Thankfully, Gia agreed to backing, off in the hopes of seeing her father’s company rise from the ground and again see its glory.

Morrison never knew that it was Cornelia who saved his family… The one who thought about what was best for him even if they were apart. Cornelia didn’t want anybody to know either so she had asked Gia to keep quiet if she was ever asked by Nick or Morrison.

Nick, on the other hand, overheard the conversation between Barret and Cornelia back in the funeral that she was, indeed, the missing grandchild of the old man and in his haste of confronting Morrison first and to find out if he knew that Cornelia was, in fact, his stepsister, met a nasty car accident. He and Morrison – who rushed to the scene and was the one who pulled Nick out of the flames – were both rushed to the hospital where Nick slipped into a comma. His son, Morrison, only had minor injuries but as soon as Cornelia heard what had happened, she rushed to Morrison’s side when he was still unconscious and admitted to herself that she still loves him. But even with her intense love for the young man, she had to part from him and discover her own self. To find out her own capabilities and what she can do for others. So she left the hospital and didn’t show herself to either McElroy until Linda came and whisked her family back to New York.

The night that Cornelia and Barret were to depart for Paris, Morrison had the sudden feeling of seeing Cornelia’s old apartment and he saw her sitting on one of the benches in the park where they first met. He wanted to go to her and take her in her arms, confess that he missed her terribly and that he loved her more than his own life… but he didn’t. He supposed that he would have plenty of time to woo her back to him since she was back in New York. Little did he know that she only went there to get her stuff.

She and Barret flew to Paris that very same night and spent the next few days in another one of James’ houses.

She remembers how enchanted both she and Barret were of the place when they got there after grueling hours in the air. Kevin went ahead of them for about five or six hours so he could prepare the place and give instructions to the help about the arrival of their new employer.

“Whoa! This place is just majestic!” Barret exclaimed as they climbed down the car. “Can you imagine how big it is inside? I mean, it’s humungous out here! I can probably fit half of a football field inside that thing!” he kept ogling at the house as Cornelia stared at it as well.

She never knew that James had so many houses overseas. Well, she never really knew the real him until he told her the truth about him being her grandfather.

“I don’t have any words… I- I have never seen anything more grand this house and… oh, the view is breathtaking, Barret! You must come and see!” She pointed to the crashing waves just beyond the tops of the properties outer gates. The house literally stood on a cliff and the waves that kept crashing on the rocks beneath the house were gigantic.

“Miss W, please come inside when you’re ready. The staff is awaiting your arrival,” were Kevin’s curt words when he saw them gawking at the place outside the doors.

“Okay, Kevin, we’ll be there in a few minutes,” she responded and ignored Barret’s annoyed look at Kevin. “Relax, Barret. He’s probably tired from all the travelling and the arrangements he had to make before we got here. Give the guy a break, okay?” she said calmly to Barret.

“Yeah, we’re all tired but I just don’t like his tone. He shouldn’t be talking to you like that. After all, you’re his employer now. If he doesn’t like it then he could just leave.” Barret had noticed a slight change in Kevin like he became very irritable all of a sudden. “I don’t know… He was all right when James was still alive but now, I get this feeling that there’s something more to him that we don’t know… But hey, you’re right. I’ll give the guy a break and get off his case,” he said when she gave him a look of disapproval and then finally smiled when he promised to give the guy a break.

“Thanks. I know you’re just looking out for me but I also appreciate a little leniency for people who have been with James as long as Kevin had… I owe him a lot… We had better get inside. I’m excited to see the staff.” Cornelia giggled like an excited girl and Barret couldn’t help but smile at her quirky side.

She’s beginning to lighten up and to embrace her future and Barret could see that she will not be wasting what James had left her.

They met with the staff of the house, which was a total of fifteen people who came from the same village. Joaquin is the butler or the head of the household staff. He’s younger than Jim, who was the butler in the Wilson’s ancestral home back in Buffalo, maybe around his late thirties or early forties, but he looks wiser than his years. He was the one who introduced the rest of the staff to her and Barret while Kevin excused himself for another errand.

She has two drivers at her beck and call to, basically, take her wherever she needed to go using several cars in the parking lot. Then there was the cook and his assistant as well as several maids in-charge of the household chores for maintaining the house and keeping things in order. Most of them had worked there for most of their lives. When they greeted her in English with heavy European accents, they had so many good things to say about James and how generous he was whenever he was there and even when he was not. He made sure that they have secured jobs and even their children as long as they remained in his employ and gained his trust.

Cornelia was teary-eyed after she had shaken their hands and heard so many good memories they’ve hd with James.

“T-Thank you, everyone. It means a lot to me that you have so many treasured memories with my grandfather. I- I wish I had as many as yours but I had enough to remind me everyday how such a good person he was…,” she said with pride as she turned to Joaquin and asked if they could see their rooms and have a little rest before diner.

“Oui, mademoiselle. Pleezz vallow me,” he said with a heavy French accent.

“Wow! I love his accent,” Barret said behind her as they walked up the stairs.

She shsssd him and whispered not to be so loud for Joaquin might hear them.

“Sorry, its my first time in this country and I don’t get out often. This is really exciting,” he answered as they both giggled like school kids going on a field trip.

“Me too! I have never been anywhere else except Jersey and New York… I feel like we’re on an excursion of some sort.” She looked around the grand hallway as Joaquin continued to walk towards the end of the hall of the second floor.

“Here you are, mademoiselle. Pleez let me know vat elz you need,” Joaquin said with a friendly smile.

“There’s nothing else tonight, Joaquin. Merci beaucoup! I appreciate your warm welcome and please tell the staff that I thank them as well.” She smiled at him as he nodded and left them at their doors. They slept soundly that night and the following nights thereafter.

Cornelia woke up in the middle of the night. They’ve been at that house for three days now and so far, she and Barret had been enjoying the open ocean that was, practically, laid out on her backyard and even went sailing that afternoon with Joaquin, who was, as they learned, a former boat captain who worked for James. He was operated a small boat for fishing. He used to sell the fish he caught to James who frequented that house years ago. James, seeing how hard it was for Joaquin to fish for there were many other boats and ships that fished in those waters, offered him a job of becoming his butler instead. He told Cornelia and Barret how lucky he was to have been hired by James and he, in turn, hired the other members of the staff in the house.

“Mizter Jemz waz very good to uz… Ee deed ees best to elp us, ee did…” said the somber butler. “Well, pleez enjoy the view…”

They sailed for the rest of the day with Joaquin dazzling both Cornelia and Barret about his early adventures across the seas and his days serving as James’ butler, interpreter, chess mate, and most of all, friend. Cornelia was so grateful for his stories because she got to see a glimpse of his grandfather yet again from another person whose life was touched because of his kindness. Sometimes, it was hard for her to imagine him being angry with her mother and even wedging the gap between her parents. But as she realized, people do change and maybe, James had grown to know his mistakes and turned himself around when he lost Julie.

Those days were blissful and short for her. Even though only Barret and her shared a wonderful meal at Christmas Eve, it was still a great night shared by true friends. Kevin said he wanted to visit a friend and of course, Cornelia gave her staff a few days off.

“Did you ever see yourself spending Christmas eve with me? In this paradise, no less?” Barret asked all of a sudden as they were finishing their meal.

She looked at him and seemed to think about what he said, “Actually, no. I never even pictured myself spending the holidays with anyone… Well, except James, of course, if he didn’t have to be somewhere else important. But yeah, this is just so surreal… I still pinch myself to see if I am really in this beautiful house with this breathtaking view… And that James was really my grandfather and that he left me all of this,” she said gesturing all around her. “I am not someone who had everything while growing up, I mean, I barely had anything, especially when Mom died… But I never expected such a pouring of blessings… I have James to thank and I just hope that I would do him proud when I take over his companies,” she finished with a sad voice.

“Ah, don’t doubt yourself, Cornelia. I am one hundred percent sure that you will do your mom and grandfather proud of what you will be doing for the future of T.W. Industries. I can’t wait to see you get started with your plans. And I’m glad you’ve brought me along for the ride… eventhough I’ll be leaving in a couple of months.” Barret winked at her and she smiled back.

“I know… I just hope you could stay longer but I can’t ask that of you any longer. You have a life back in New York. You can’t pause your entire life just for me. Thank you for coming here with me in the first place. It gives me strength knowing you’re by my side as I take over. I do hope that the board members are as hospitable as the staff here.” They enjoyed the rest of the night and the following few more days.

Soon enough, they had to go back to Paris to take care of the legalities of her claiming her right to her family’s group of companies. They said their good byes to Joaquin and all the other members of the household and she promised to come back as soon as she got everything straightened out.

 

The air is cold and the breeze grazes her hair like a lover’s caress. She breathes in the air of the New Year as the remnants of the Christmas season still lingers on the radio near the spot she stands on. She used to hate the holidays simply because she never saw the need for it… Or she never had anyone to share it with, is more like it.

The one chance that she would have someone to call family, had slipped off her fingers for he was taken just too soon. She didn’t have a chance to share any time with him and she will forever regret that but she knows that James is now reunited with her mother, Julie, who had left her ten years ago.

“Hey, you two! How are you there? I’m sure you’re enjoying your time together there. I’ll come along when I’m able. But for now, I’d like to see what good I can still do for this world.” She looks at her surroundings and smiles at the children’s expectant faces as they run around the park in the middle of the romantic city of Paris.

Barret is back at the penthouse of the hotel they are currently staying at while they are in Paris. It was another of James’ residences when he was in the city and the hotel staff were so gracious and accommodating the moment they arrived a day before. She decided to take a stroll through the city and find somewhere to sit and think to herself. Luckily, she found a small park around the corner and she’s been sitting on that wooden bench for a near half hour when someone suddenly sits beside her.

“Excusez-moi, mademoiselle. Est quelqu’un assis ici?” a deep male voice asks and she turns to see who it is.

He has dark long hair that reaches above his shoulders, wavy and soft looking and his eyes look like twin black pools that seem to suck her in an endless abyss. She shakes her head to get back to reality and says politely that she doesn’t speak French.

“Je ne parle pas français, monsieur,” she responds, or more like squeals, and shakes her head again.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were French. Please forgive me. I asked if somebody was sitting here?” he says again, this time with a British accent.

Come on! She thinks to herself as she tries to hide her blush. She has always admired men with accents, especially the British accent. It was one of the seldom things she liked about men in general.

“It’s fine, sir, you don’t have to apologize. And no, there is no one sitting here. Please,” she offers the space beside her, which is still very spacious for she’s siting near the edge of the bench. “knock yourself out,” she says goodheartedly.

He chuckles and responds, “Don’t mind if I do, then. But please tell me if I’m bothering you so I could scoot off somewhere else. I do tend to murmur to myself and make weird ticking sounds…” He looks seriously at her.

“Oh no, you can’t possibly bother me, err, even if you make ticking sounds…” she starts saying then stops as she sees his lip curl up. “Ah, you’re messing with me. Ha ha ha!” she laughs sarcastically then rolls her eyes at him.

“Aha! Gotcha!” he laughs then says, “I’m sorry, miss… You looked absolutely serious and you seem to stare at the grass so hard that I was afraid you were trying to cut them with your stare. I had to do something. Poor little grass, they are. They don’t mean to annoy you, you know.”

She bursts out laughing after trying not to listen to his joke. He looked so serious while he was making his jokes, which made his jokes actually even funnier than they seemed. He joins her in laughing and he even told her even funnier thoughts that he had as he was looking at her staring stoically at the ground.

“Wow! That was a good laugh… Thank you… I needed that,” she says after laughing for a good two minutes. She doesn’t know why she is suddenly being honest to this man whom she just met a few minutes ago.

Well, at least he would know that I really needed a good laugh and that he gave me that. And besides, it’s not as if he knows me. I had better just enjoy these moments instead of overanalyzing things, she thought to herself as her face returned to her normal expression.

“I’m glad I’ve put a smile on that lovely face. Now, you’re even more beautiful than you were five minutes ago,” he winks and she feels a little self-conscious.

It’s not that she has low self-esteem, she’s just used to ducking her head most of the time to avoid being on the spotlight. When she was still plotting against Nick McElroy, she loved a double life, being an amiable and friendly employee to her colleagues and bosses, and the other side of her, which was a life of self-inflicted isolation from people. She was scared of being close to anyone because they will eventually leave her alone. She had hurt so much during the early years of her life to the point of her being afraid of relationships… except with Morrison. He was the only one who broke through her walls and made her hope for a better future with someone who would be there all through out. But as it turned out, he wasn’t up for the task. He did try convincing her to go back to him before she left but she was deeply hurt the first time he rejected him that she cannot trust him now… she doesn’t know if she will ever trust him again.

“Umm, excuse me, I should go,” she says all of a sudden, her expression turning serious and she turns inward again.

The handsome stranger looks surprised and quickly apologizes for his forward behavior. “My apologies miss. I was just making conversation… I mean, you really are pretty, but not in that creepy kind of way… Not that I am a creep but -,” he stops and scratches his head. “I’m sorry, I get so tongue-tied when I’m nervous and I just speak these stupid words to cover up how nervous I am… I- I’m truly sorry. I’ll leave… I don’t want you to leave your spot because of my moronic words. Please,” he starts to stand up and gather his things.

She suddenly feels guilty for making him feel that way when she didn’t take any offense with his jokes. “Oh, no, please sit down, sir. It’s not that. I just really have to go. You can take my spot, really.” She stands and starts to walk towards the hotel.

“Hey, wait!” the guy exclaims, following her. “I don’t even know your name, miss…”

She turns to him and tells him. “My name is Cornelia. Have a good day.” And with that, she continues walking and never looks back until she arrives at the hotel just a few blocks from where the park is.

The man stands on the path, taking in the scene and mentally memorizing her face. His employer has given him a picture of her but he never thought that she was that beautiful up close. This is going to be his last job and then he would finally flee that kind of life. It’s his way out. His last ditch effort to a comfortable and guilt-free life. He’s been doing that kind of business all his life and now, at thirty, he’s decided to leave that kind of life and start living for himself. The only reason he got into that kind of practice was that he needed to survive, having been orphaned at the age of seventeen after his parents were trapped inside their home when a fire happened. They were already poor before, living in the less friendly neighborhood in the city of Roubaix, which is already considered the ground zero for France’s poverty-stricken families.

Theo’s phone rings and he flicks it open to see who’s calling him.

It’s my employer. I need to answer. Damn…

“Yes. I saw her. I will let you know what else I can find out. If you could let me know what you are looking for specifically, it would make my job a lot easier-,” he starts sounding annoyed but then the other speaker cuts him off and tells him to just follow the instructions given to him.

This is going to be an easy job for him if only he knew what the hell his employer wants him to do. He is a gun for hire so he assumes that it’s what his client would ask him to do. He is highly regarded amongst his peers in that kind of industry, which is pretty much, prevalent in the world of politics and business. They were all just using one another. Nobody is innocent anymore and he figured that out at the early age of seventeen when he was left alone in the world and stashed in the system. He got passed around from one foster family to another then finally, after being beaten half to death by his foster father, he sprang free and just lived in the streets for a couple of years where he learned to kill rather than be killed. It was an unfair lot that life had gotten him in. And there was no escape… unless you’ve killed enough people that they begin haunting you in your dreams and you suddenly grow a conscience.

That’s what happened to Theo only a few months ago, after making his last client happy, protecting a family of innocents from a businessman who hired his own thugs to kill the family off just because he wanted them off his back and stop investigating him for his racketeering and other illegal activities. The last shot he fired had shaken him so badly that he vomited on the floor after shooting the masked guy who attempted to kill the wife of the District Attorney. From that night on, he decided to quit and start a new life, if he still could… He figured he could still live peacefully if he only had enough cash to get him by in the next few years and then he would look for a normal job afterwards. He was good in tinkering with things and he even assembled his own car a few years ago. That’s what he wanted to do. He wants to be a mechanic – not a very good one, but just a normal handy man who could earn an honest pay from an honest kind of work. He was through putting himself on the line for people he didn’t even know and killing their enemies for them. He wants out.

So when he got a call from his cellphone from an old client, who wanted to refer a new one who could pay a huge amount of cash, he took the chance to do one last job. This last job is his ticket to freedom and he wouldn’t let anything or anyone screw it up for him.

So far, his client just wants him to tail the girl – not do anything drastic like what he just did, introducing himself and having a chat.

Just follow her around and let me know where she’s going at all times,” his client said to him the first time they talked on the phone. “I’ll tell you what else you need to do when you need to do it. Don’t let her see you or suspect anything.”

He just responded “Yes” to everything because he knew that it’s what you say to the person who’s money is going to feed you for the next several years of your life. But what he didn’t expect was that he would be drawn to this mysterious and innocnet lady-child.

She must be in her early twenties… She’s beautiful…, was his first thought when he saw her sitting on the bench by herself, looking at the grass, and the trees like it was her first time seeing them.

He follows suit, making sure he puts a good enough distance between them. He put on his jacket and also tied his hair back so she won’t recognize him right away if she happened to glance back… but she never did. She went straight to her hotel and he is left gazing up at the tall building.

“I wonder what secrets you hold…,” he whispers to himself as he turns up the lapels of his jacket t ward off the cold breeze of that afternoon.

 

 

 

Chapter II

 

“I can’t believe she’s gone there without even telling me!” Morrison slams his fist on the table in his office. The sound resonates outwards and his secretary immediately looks in his direction with a questioning look.

“It’s nothing Jan. Please ignore me,” he calls out to Jan, who has been his secretary since he got there.

He’s been on an emotional roller coaster for the past few weeks. First, with rescuing Cornelia – from what he surmises, was from Gia’s group of thugs – then to breaking Cornelia’s heart because he thought it was the best thing to do to keep her out of danger. Then James dies and he tried getting Cornelia back after realizing what a dick he was for even thinking that hurting her might save her from any danger associated to him and his family… only to get rejected back by her. It was the most devastating rejection by any girl he has ever experienced, only because she was and still is the only girl he loved that much. He was willing to give up everything for her but he realized too that she had just learned her real identity and lost her only family. He respected her need to grieve and to move on… but he couldn’t help but be mad with jealousy over the fact that she had gone to Paris with Barret – of all people! – after he thought she was going to move back to New York when he saw her sitting on the park bench near her old apartment.

“Well, if that’s what you want, then fine! Stay away from me then, I don’t care… You could even go traipsing with Barret across the European towns if you want, I don’t care…,” he hisses to himself but knowing deep inside that it was the total opposite of what he’s feeling right at that moment. He cares very much about her and what she does without him. He wants so bad to be the one with her while they travel along the provincial towns of Europe. He was sure that she would stay in New York after he saw her sitting on a park bench in her old neighborhood nearly two weeks ago. The only reason why he didn’t contact her or go to her old apartment was her last plea for him to stay away from her. He thought he was just giving her space and time to think things through and then when she eventually grieved over James and returned to her normal self, then maybe she would mellow down and let him talk to her again. He was going to give it another week before he went over to her apartment complex, thinking that it would be ample enough time for her anger at him to abate… But he never thought that she was actually going to fly to Europe on that exact night and that it was probably the last time he would see her again… at least for a long time.

A thought suddenly strikes him and in an effort to stem his jealous nature and to make sure she’ll be all right on her own in a faraway place, he calls a number that he was given in confidence – to be used in times that he needed someone reliable to do a very important job. He makes the transaction with the person and hopes that Cornelia stays out of trouble or else the man he talked to would have to take care of the situation.

He feels the pang of longing he’s always felt whenever Cornelia was away from him and he feels it even more since she left the country. He thought of going after her but with the situation at home, he couldn’t leave his family behind at that moment. Nick is still in a coma and his mother has been functioning mostly on cocktails and medication. Most days, she just looks at him with helplessness and all he could do was to hug her to him and tell her encouraging words while he tries to cope with the stress of it all. So he just did what he thought would be the best in that situation.

One good thing that he was thankful for was that the lawsuit against his father and his bank, Missions Bank, was completely dismissed by the judge due to the lack of compelling evidence have been brought forth to support the claims of the opposition. That and the fact that the opposition themselves wanted to drop the case entirely. It was like having a huge weight lifted off his shoulders and he didn’t press on finding Gia de Grassi anymore. He was just thankful that all of that mess was past them but it also stresses the fact that he and his family had to face a much bigger problem, Nick’s health and his life…

He walks to the big window that has the view of the Manhattan streets and skyscrapers. He sighs and remembers the saddest Christmas Eve he’s ever had just a few days ago.

He went to the hospital to celebrate the occasion along with his mother where they had a somber diner, sitting beside Nick’s hospital bed while all the nurses, doctors, and other staff members, sang Christmas carols outside Nick’s room. He looked over to Linda and smiled at her while she finished her diner.

“Merry Christmas mom,” he whispered and went to her to give her a warm hug.  Linda’s voice broke as she thanked him.

“I’m sorry, Morrison. I can’t help but feel sad on this happy occasion. I’ve never had this kind of Christmas and your dad always made sure to come home during the holidays no matter how busy he was with his work. You used to love it when you hear his car come up the driveway because you knew that he would be spending the next couple of days with us, at the house, and left his work behind at the office.”

All he could do was nod and tell her that he understood perfectly, which he did, but he wished he could have done more than comfort his mother. He wished he could have woken his father back to his old self and they would continue on with life. Then, only then, will he be able to pursue Cornelia and win her back in every way possible… But until then, he would have to be there for his father and his mother. After sharing a meal with Linda, he had to say goodnight for he would have an early morning the next day. Of course, the office had some time off for the holidays but he didn’t have anywhere better to go so he wanted to just spend another day at the office to go through the books and get himself more acquainted with his father’s affairs for he would be continuing them until Nick comes back.

He sat cross-legged in the middle of his apartment just a few blocks from his office, and stared at the take-out food he purchased before going home. He ate at the hospital but he wanted to buy something for his breakfast the next day. He wouldn’t have time to whip something up for himself and he would surely not have a second to spare going through the lines of early birds who want their take-out breakfast as well.

He stared at the carpet and saw nothing. His mind was back with Cornelia and what she could possibly be doing at that very moment. How he wished he could be with her and just hold her in his arms. Morrison suddenly felt a renewed passion of helping others as a way to divert his misery over missing someone who does not or cannot be with him at that point in his life. It has been a while since he had done any charitable works even without using his family’s companies.

He suddenly sprang to his feet and got his laptop. He started searching through different sites in and around the city where many people needed the most help. He couldn’t get out of the city, let alone the country, for he had to take care of his parents and the companies that were left without a leader. He was suddenly thrust into the frontlines and he has to get used to being there and learn as much as he could for the sake of his family’s legacy.

The next morning, he cruised by his office but before that, he went to the slum area near his office and talked with the members of the church that provides daily food programs to the homeless and needy. He pledged a huge sum of money to pay for the provisions in order for the people to be fed but more than that, he pledged to be there every Saturday to participate and to help them out in any way he could. The church members and pastor were so thankful to him as he also asked them not to publicize whatever he would be doing when he starts to help out. He explained that he didn’t want to be put on the spotlight especially after his father was just cleared of all the charges against him. He didn’t want it to come off as a publicity stunt to give attention to the company’s philanthropic works.

The pastor assured him that it would not get out and they would respect his wishes. So the following Saturday, after he went to visit Nick in the hospital, he dressed in his normal and simple clothes and used his bike to go to the community church where the feeding program happens every weekend. He also didn’t bring his driver to avoid questions and stares from other people. He can’t very well go there in his sports car and start doling out trays of food, now can he? He spent the whole day and it was the most enjoyable experience he’s ever had ever since he went to Africa. He was very engaged with the people who went there looking for a momentary relief from their harsh situations, even sitting with them and talking to them. He wanted to know the real situation in his community and he wanted to do more. He wouldn’t be satisfied with just giving out food to the homeless and needy. He wants to do so much more. So for the next couple of days, he contracted some members of the church he was helping to go out to the places where the homeless usually stayed and create reports about it – what the terrain was, is there a source of water, locations of these temporary shacks or makeshift houses, and also to scout the best possible place where he could have something built to provide shelter to them.

He didn’t expect it to be done right away so he busied himself with office matters and found out that Cornelia had gone to Paris with Barret. Kevin had called him on his phone just to see how he was doing all of a sudden then just offhandedly mentioned that he was in Paris with Cornelia and Barret.

“What?!” he exclaimed.

“Umm, yeah, they flew out here the day after the funeral. Well, they went to James’ old house in Etretat first for about a week. They spent the holidays there actually and right now they’re in Paris. Would you want me to deliver a message?” Kevin asks, knowing full well that the two had a recent fall out but wanted to make sure that the two were not communicating. Kevin needs to make sure that Morrison is out of the way in protecting Cornelia so he would have only Barret to deal with.

“Ah…,” Morrison starts to say “Yes” but thinks better of it, “No. That’s okay. She doesn’t want to hear from me or see me so I best leave her alone for now. But, ah, thanks for calling, Kevin. I wish you the best of luck on your next endeavor,” he says politely, meaning what he said about Cornelia and in wishing Kevin luck.

“Okay then. Thanks Morrison. Best of luck to you too!” Kevin clicks off and picks up a different phone to call somebody else.

“Where is she now?” he asks over the phone then waits for the response. “Just keep tracking her. I don’t want her making extra powerful friends in the city.” The person on the other line answers and they click off.

I have to convince the board that she is not entitled for the position and that whatever James had given her should be taken away. I deserve all of that. It should have been given to me!

He slams his fist on the car’s steering wheel but decides to drive away before somebody sees him lurking around the T.W. Shipping Lines’ building. He was looking for data about how the business was going. He just copied the files on the computer in James’ old office where his secretary in that part of the continent keeps all the updated reports and inventory in and out of the shipping company, not to mention all the partnerships the company has with other corporations. He needs to look at it and see where he can get leverage on the following week’s board meeting. He will be accompanying Cornelia in the conference room and he knows how the members of the board of directors ask and question the company’s status in all things. Of course, he won’t tell Cornelia any of it.

His plan is to let them humiliate and drill her to the ground, and then, like a hero waiting on the wings, he would swoop down and save the day by answering each and every question they would have.

Then, and only then, would they see that I know more than her and I would be the best person to handle the affairs of the company, or at least, make me her top advisor – and when I become the advisor, I’m practically the one holding the reigns of the operation. I would see to it that she screws up and run the business to the ground, he thinks to himself, smiling and feeling good about the way things are going.

 

Meanwhile, Morrison just got off the phone with his man in Paris, who flew out there the next day after their conversation. He learned that she liked taking walks and exploring the city, sometimes with Barret, but most of the time, alone. It got him so mad that she would be stupid enough not to bring someone with her in her trips outside but he was firm in telling Theo not to show himself or make himself known. She’s a clever woman and she might suspect something if Theo gets careless and she sees him several times.

But he didn’t know that Theo had already made his introductions to the young woman and, like Morrison himself, is entranced by her beauty and innocence.

Morrison wanted to make sure that Cornelia is protected and who better to do it than an ex-marine who had turned his military skills into a job and who had served as a bodyguard for powerful people. Of course the jobs he had consisted of defending the client by making sure to eliminate the threats. Morrison didn’t want to take chances with just a simple bodyguard, he wanted the best to protect her so eventhough him hiring a secret bodyguard for her is going behind her back, he still did it. He didn’t care if she got angry with him. He cares about her safety and her life, plus the fact that he is not the one with her, makes him feel a lot more scared for her. If only it were him that’s with her in Paris, he wouldn’t have to go to the extremes of hiring a man to protect her.

Well, she might think she didn’t need to tell me anything because I’m not her boyfriend and she doesn’t want to see me or talk to me… But I still care for her and I still love her…, he thinks to himself as he settles back in his chair.

He places both hands to his face and sighs deeply.

“Looks like you’re having a bad day, son,” Linda says from out of nowhere, which startles him.

“Mom! What are you doing here? Is Dad okay? I mean, is there something wrong?” he starts asking, worried that something might have happened in the hospital that’s why Linda came to his office.

“No, no. Everything’s fine… well, your dad’s not awake yet, so that’s not fine at all… but all other else are normal,” she responds, taking a seat in front of him.

“Okay…,” he clutches his chest and breathes deeply. “I thought there was something serious that happened while I was gone… Well, what brings you here, mother? Do you need anything? A drink?” he stands up and goes to the bar beside the door.

“Oh no, son. I want to be sober today, thank you very much. Please sit down. I just want to talk to you, that’s all. I get so cooped up in the hospital that I needed some air. How are you, son?” she asks seriously.

He is taken aback by her question but he answers it as best as could. “I’m swamped with work but I’m hanging on. It’s better to be this preoccupied with the tasks that was thrust to me rather than worrying about dad in the hospital… which I know you do each and every day… I wish I could do more but I can’t stand seeing him that way. He was always so strong and confident that sometimes I forget that he’s pushing sixty. I – I guess I’m not used to seeing him broken and helpless…”

Linda nods but looks at him with a firm stare, “Listen, Morrison,” she starts, “he will be strong and confident about himself again… But right now, he needs us to be strong and confident for me. He’s taking his time, which is how he is always, and I’m sure he’ll come around soon… one of these days. But until then, let’s continue to be resilient. I am not giving up on him as you should be and you couldn’t do anything else right now, even if you tried your hardest. No one can tell when he’ll come back to us… I refuse to say “If” because I know he will.” Linda says with conviction and Morrison believes her.

She stands up and faces the window, “You know, son, I was never the perfect wife for your father. I have done lots of things that I am not proud of and most of them, I regret now… But life has a way of catching up on you and now, it has. You and your father are the most important things in my life and without both of you, I would be like an empty shell. The riches and fortune that we have are but bonuses to what we have… a family, which I have fought for all my life and I will still continue fighting for, for the rest of my days…,” she says then turns to him. “Remember, son, you might go all over the world to search for meaning but you will always come back to your family… They might not be your own flesh and blood, but they are the ones who love you unconditionally. I want you to make sure that you understand that.”

He joins her as they gaze out towards the busy streets of Manhattan. “I know mother, and I will make sure that I, too, when I finally have my own family, will heed your words and do everything I can to keep them. Why are you telling all this, mother?”

“I don’t know… I just feel nostalgic and I want to tell you something about my past and things I have done before. Do you have time?” she asks, hoping he would say “yes” to her sudden request.

“Well, mother, actually, I have a meeting in a few minutes,” he checks his watch, “in about five minutes, to be exact, but after that, I could make time for us to grab lunch or just have coffee somewhere, it’s up to you. Is that okay?” he looks apologetically at his mother and feels like a little boy apologizing for something.

“Of course, Morrison. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your responsibilities. I know Nick is very proud of what you have accomplished here so far.” She smiles up at her son and she feels the same pride in her heart for Morrison stepping up and taking charge of the situation. She was afraid that he wouldn’t cope with his father’s coma and seclude himself or go off somewhere and do some good works, eventually leaving her alone to deal with company and their assets. She was afraid that she would be given the huge responsibility, something that she has never done on such a large scale. She, herself, is good at transactions and handling her father’s business before but she was always on the background and never the on the limelight. She liked working from the back end and hated being put up front, not because she was shy or scared of huge responsibilities, but because she just didn’t want to waste time in socializing and putting up a positive façade just because she had to. She wanted to be her own woman and do things the way she wants them and not feel ashamed or guilty into doing them. She knew that if you are the face of a particular company or business venture, you would have to be constantly seen in public doing good things as people expect from you. No, didn’t want to be like that. She doesn’t want to be burdened by the demands of society’s definition of good conduct. She likes to indulge herself in all kinds of things and being the silent operator on the sidelines is the best position one could give her.

“Thanks for understanding, mother, but I do have to go. Will you be going back to the hospital or would you rather wait for me and go out after my meeting?” he asks.

“I’ll go to your father while you’re in the meeting. I’ll just wait for your call then,” she responds, wishing she could have talked to him right there. She feels compelled to tell him the truth behind the reasons why their family remained intact all those years. She wanted to tell him that she had plotted against the women in his father’s life and adopted him for the primary purpose of keeping Nick by her side, and that he was truly a gift because he is the glue that keeps the McElroys together through whatever they had to go through. Maybe it was because of Nick’s deteriorating condition or the fact that all of the mishaps and problems they’ve been having was because of her previous acts of spite and revenge against those women. Morrison only knows that Gia de Grassi was an old acquaintance and had previously arranged a deal with the McElroy’s but that it never went through because Gia was then involved in a huge case causing international scandal, which Nick and the company, couldn’t afford to be associated with.

Linda has reached a point where she doesn’t care anymore what happens to her or what her son would think of her when she tells him about her secret. She feels that Nick being in a coma is all her fault and that she has to come clean to her son about it. She’s been trying to dull her senses with pills and alcohol but even those wouldn’t let her have peace when she closes her eyes. She always dreams about Nick – Nick in his best tuxedo when they got married, Nick beaming at her when they finally adopted Morrison, Nick being happy and content as they cruised around with his yacht… She dreams about Nick before he changed completely and looked at other women. Before she became the monstrous woman who was clawing her way into keeping her wandering husband by her side, when she just needed to be still and could’ve just asked for divorce instead of bribing and manipulating people behind Nick’s back. She admitted to herself that she kind of, became obsessed with Nick and in building the family he always wanted but due to her problems with conceiving. She had gotten past the boundaries and did almost everything to keep Nick by her side. And now, it is not women or other things that’s keeping Nick away from her, it’s much bigger than her and any of his mistresses combined. Now, Linda has to fight tooth and nail to keep her husband from the clutches of death.

She went down the building having made up her mind that on the lunch date they would be having later that day, she would be telling Morrison about the girl who died ten years ago because of her taunts. With Nick being in a coma, she has come to terms with all her sins and she is now ready to lay it all out there and do what she can do possibly reverse whatever she had done in the past.

“Yes, I will tell him about Julie and that poor little girl, whom I had condemned to a life that she didn’t deserve all because of my jealous nature… Oh, Nick… I am so sorry about everything…” She whispers to herself as her car comes driving outside the building lobby. She goes out of the building and the guard opened the door for her. She immediately gets in and leans her head on the chair headrest and closes her eyes.

“Just take me to the hospital, Roger. But we would have to come back here later to pick up Morrison for lunch. Thank you,” she says without opening her eyes.

The driver doesn’t say a word but drives on towards the main road.

After several minutes, Linda is jerked awake. She wonders where she is then remembers that she is inside her car, driving towards the hospital where her husband still lies in bed in a coma from his near-fatal accident when he was in Buffalo.

She knew that Nick went there to see if Gia would be at the funeral of James T. Wilson, one formidable businessman who mainly had operations in Europe. She also knew that James was the very same man whom Nick went to before when he was trying to see James’ daughter, Julie. Linda knows everything about Nick and Julie and is now starting to regret what she did to their daughter. She often wondered where that little went after she ran away at the age of sixteen. She must be around twenty or twenty-one that very year but she never saw the girl. She just let her hired help do all the transactions – where she was brought after Julie died, how the poor girl’s name never entered the registry and the system that’s why no one could find her, even Nick, how she remained in that orphanage where she was thrust into. Frankly, she didn’t care before what would have become of the ten-year-old girl because she was the testament of Nick and Julie’s treacherous love affair. She was glad that the girl ran away instead of getting adopted of remaining there until she was emancipated by the state. She had had a hard time covering the whereabouts of the child and for paying people to block anyone who wanted to search through the records for her.

But now… with all that’s happened with Gia getting into the mix of craving revenge from her and her family and Nick’s present state, she begins to think that all things she had done before is coming around and she’s starting to pay for her evil deeds.

She sighs, closes her eyes again, and thinks to herself, I am old and tired. I guess this is karma… I just wish that my family was spared from all of these… I would have gladly sacrificed myself instead of Nick getting hurt over that accident. If I could only take his place, I would do it in a heartbeat…

With a big jerk of the car, they come to a stop all of sudden. She sighs and decides that there was no other way to face the circumstances of their lives now but to face it head on. She heaves herself up right and looks towards the car window.

It’s suddenly dark outside and she’s in an unfamiliar place. There were sparse buildings around the car as she turns her head a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees to inspect the place.

Oh God, I must have been drugged or something… But I never took anything before I went inside this car? Think, Linda! What happened after you got into the car? She wracks her brain for any kind of clue that might serve as a plausible answer as to how she came to that place. Wait, I told my driver to drive to the hospital and then leaned my head back on the car seats and closed my eyes… I must have passed out… Is it something in the air conditioning of the car? And why didn’t my driver answer me? Is he my driver in the first place?

Someone looks into the inside the vehicle as she pretends to still be knocked out from whatever she inhaled.

“She’s still out cold. What’s the next directive? We can’t keep her inside the car for long. She might wake up and escape…” one man said. Her eyes are still closed and she’s trying very hard to keep her breathing normal so they won’t suspect that she’s already awake.

“I don’t know man… You were the one who talked with the boss. What’s the next order? A second man with a much bigger voice asks nonchalantly. He couldn’t care less what happened to the old person they’ve got inside the car. All he cared about is getting the job done and getting paid then get some more easy jobs. Disposing the old woman would be an easy enough job, assuming she won’t put up a fight. She must be around her sixties so she won’t be that much of a bother, he thought to himself when he saw Linda still knocked out inside the car.

“I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. The directions were to keep her here until the boss comes. No other specifics. I guess the killing would come after the boss comes. I just want to get this over with, if you ask me. If it wasn’t for the money, I wouldn’t take this on. I don’t like killing the elderly,” the first man, who she supposes was the one who drove her there, spoke with a little bit of regret.

But then the second guy laughs at the first guy’s sentiments. “Hah! Yeah, right! You didn’t have problems taking care of that couple just a few months ago. I heard what you did, quite heartless, Mike… So you just left them at the car to drown at that lake you tossed them into?” he asks with a smirk on his face.

Mike snorts and smiles back at Kurt, wanting to wipe the smirk off his face. He doesn’t particularly like the guy, especially since he was such a blabbermouth, always talking up things and making conversation. Mike doesn’t want to talk much and he definitely does not want to talk about the things that Gia makes him do. If only Maria were better, he would be free of his obligation and just tell Gia to fuck off and leave him in peace… but alas! Maria is still at the hospital and looked even more sullen and pale the last time he visited her just that weekend.

Gia has gone back to Paris after she met up with that girl – the very same one she had them abduct just before the funeral she went to New York for. She must have gone crazy for agreeing to that girl’s proposal! What the hell were those heinous acts for if she just agreed to let those McElroys off that easily?! He thought when he found out that Gia made an agreement with that Wilson heir. But he was surprised when Gia contacted him again and told him to somehow be the old McElroy lady’s driver and to take her on that secluded place along the outskirts of Brooklyn. He was given instructions not to harm the old lady… yet, he assumed, and to drug her and take her to the place she would be telling him when the time comes. And that time had come that morning. He had the lady’s driver knocked out with some concoction he came up with and took his place when he was going to work that morning to fetch the old lady at her house. It was a good thing that Linda McElroy is a stuck up rich old bitch that she doesn’t pay attention to those under her employ, especially the more lowly ones like her driver. He learned that she changes drivers every other month so it wasn’t a problem if his face was new to her. She gave out orders like she had done it all her life, which she has, being rich and all. Mike detested her even more when she talked to him like he was some common peasant and didn’t even spare a single look his way. It was as if her lowly servants doesn’t deserve an ounce of her time.

Well, serves her right to get what she’s getting, he thinks to himself. Maybe Kurt was right, he does enjoy killing now… It wasn’t always the case but over the years that he has served Gia, it had started to finally sink in that it was the only way he could ever make a living for his wife and himself. The money was no longer an issue… He wanted to turn over a new leaf even before they abducted the girl but after seeing Mary so weak and decrepit, he began thinking of what he would do when she finally dies. It pains him to even think about her passing but it was an inevitable truth that he would need to swallow.

And so, here he is again. Doing yet another bidding from her highness, Gia de Grassi. And he is truly starting to enjoy his job…

Oh my God! Would they really kill me? I have to warn Morrison… somebody… Linda gropes around the seat carefully, only moving her hands inch by tiny inch to check if her bag is still beside her. And it was. Thank God! She exclaims in her head and sneaks a tiny peek at the men outside the car. They are still talking, something about getting the next hit, so she makes her move and shifts closer to her handbag. She had callously tossed her bag when she got inside the car, as she always does. It had all her things like her wallet and other stuff but the most important thing she needs to get is her phone. Morrison is on speed dial so she only needs to press the number one digit and it would automatically call him.

I hope he picks up. Please… Morrison, please be there…

She gets a hold of her phone on the outside pocket of her small handbag and presses number one on the keypad. It’s a good thing that her phone was on silent mode so the thugs won’t hear her making a call. She can feel it vibrate as Morrison’s phone rings on the other side.

Morrison hears his phone ringing and starts looking for it. He quickly takes it out of pant pocket and frantically glances at who’s calling and sees his mother’s number.

“Oh thank God! Hello, mother? Where are you?” he asks right away upon pressing the “answer” button. “Mom? Mom? Are you there? Are you all right? Mom, answer me!” he exclaims, feeling frustrated because she wasn’t answering him.

He’s been looking for her all day after she stood him up with their lunch date, which was about seven hours ago. At first, he didn’t think any of it until he couldn’t reach her. He called her many times but no one was picking up, it just kept ringing. He called the police, who were of no help whatsoever, telling him that forty-eight hours must elapse before they can even declare her missing. He just grew tired and frustrated that he finally gave up after an hour of pleading them. He contacted his personal investigators and had them scour the city of her whereabouts. Then one of his private investigators reported that his mother’s driver had just turned up at their house, saying that he was drugged somehow and was knocked out for hours. He couldn’t do anything else but to wait for any word from her. He cancelled his affairs at the office for the whole day and also for the rest of the month, knowing that he would need to focus on his family before their businesses. He assigned some people he trusted and whom Nick trusted to oversee the affairs as he takes a hiatus from work.

He drove back and forth from the hospital and their house and to their other properties to look for her. He had also called in a favor from a friend at the DMV’s office who owed him and had him look out for his mother’s car. So far, for the next seven hours, nothing had turned up that would lead them to his mother’s current whereabouts or where she had been until she, herself, called him.

“Mom! If you can’t talk, do something… make a sound, a cough, anything!” he says to the receiver but still, Linda does not respond. Then he listens carefully and hears people talking indistinctly. He gets his other phone and dials 911. While he listens in to his mother’s line, he tells the police that his mother might be in potential danger and needed someone to track the call and pinpoint the location of her phone.

Thankfully, the person on the other line follows his instructions and proceeds to getting Linda’s number. The minutes tick by as the person on the 911-hotline waits for the trace while Linda’s phone is still on. Then the unfortunate thing happens when Linda’s phone suddenly dies. The call drops to Morrison’s horror.

“Wait lady, my mom’s phone disconnected! Shit! Hold on, I’ll try to get her back. Shit! I hope she answers,” he says to the 911 responder and the lady agrees to his actions and patiently waits for him to tell her any update.

He dials the number again for the fourth time but the phone’s battery must have drained from all the missed calls she had gotten from him.

“Damn it! I can’t- I can’t get back… What do I do now? Have you traced where the call came from?” he asks the operator as she asks the same thing from a person on another line, which must have been the police who started tracing the call.

“I’m sorry sir, the call was too short for us to track and pinpoint its exact location,” she answers regrettably.

“Fuck! What am I supposed to do now? Will you finally send out an APB on her? She’s clearly in danger and not in good condition, that’s why she couldn’t talk. Have someone come to my house now and report that I want a manhunt done. I can’t have my mother missing out there somewhere! She’s sixty-one for crying out loud!” he shouts over the phone, feeling guilty afterwards for he knows that it wasn’t the operators fault but he also knows that he needs to have a show of force and use his influence to get his mother back.

“Right away, Mr. McElroy,” answers the operator.

After about ten minutes, a patrol car comes around his building and proceeds to his suite. They discuss among themselves some strategies in finding his mother and to know what might be the motive for her kidnapping, which is what they are considering although no demands have been made yet to Morrison or to the police.

“Do you know of someone who might be an enemy to your mother, specifically?” one of the officers, Officer Ford, asks him while scribbling something in his notepad.

“Well, Officer Ford, I’m sure you all know that in the world of business, we have enemies on all sides… that being said, I can think of several who might have a motive but if my suspicions are correct, they would have to target my father for it or me, for that matter… Not my mother. She has lots of charitable institutions that she advocates and supports… I can’t possibly think of -,” he pauses then realizes how stupid he has become. “Of course! Shit! How could I have not seen this sooner!” he exclaims to himself as the two officers look at each other.

“What couldn’t you have seen sooner, Mr. McElroy?” Officer Ford asks.

“Gia… Gia de Grassi. If there were someone who would be that mad at my mother, it would be her. I’m sure of it!” he bangs his fist on the table and looks at the officers with angry eyes. “Find out what she’s been up to and you’ll know that she is the culprit here. Please, officers, you have to find out where that woman hid my mother.”

“We will, Mr. McElroy. Do you know the whereabouts of this Gia de Grassi?” the other officer asks, poising his pen on the notepad to take down whatever Morrison would tell him.

“Umm… Well, as far as I know, she left for Europe a few weeks ago… But I know its her. She must have come back or had some men take my mother. She is still rich as far as I know so she wouldn’t have any problems getting people desperate for money, do her bidding.”

“Okay, we will find out more about this de Grassi woman and let you know as soon as we have anything. In the meantime, we must advise you to stay at your home or office and always keep your phone open. If your mother was really kidnapped or held against her will, then we assume that they would be making some calls soon. We need you to be by your phone at all times. Here,” Officer Ford takes out a device and places it on the table. “This will allow you to trace any calls that would go through your home phone line. We’ll set it up for you right now and test it so we could make sure that it records and traces any calls that will come in.”

Morrison thanks them and allows them to set up the tracking device in his study. He also wants another one installed in his office to ensure that they cover all bases. He walks around while the officers install and test the device then sees a report on the television about a bombing in Paris, France. He takes a double look at the television and sees the Eiffel Tower in the background of the American reporter making his nighttime update on the terrorist bombing in France.

“There is no news yet as to who and what group of terrorists had ordered the attack. The death toll has risen to a hundred and twelve people while three hundred and fifty-nine people are still injured. There are also around fifty people more missing according to their families. The police are doing their best to take control of the situation and rescue all the victims of this heinous crime against humanity. Bob Norton, Nightly News,” the reporter finishes.

“What the hell…,” he gasps, taking a sit on the chair beside the television. “What happened in Paris?” he asks no one in particular but Officer number two answers him.

“There was a terrorist bombing at one of the busy streets in Paris, Mr. McElroy. We were alerted an hour ago about it and the whole police department and other agencies are on high alert as we speak. It is suspected that ISIS members were the ones who blew the street up. The situation there is devastating… The street was lined with coffee shops and other stores that are frequented by locals and tourists alike…,” Officer number two shakes his head slightly and sighs. “It’s just a sad day for France and for all of us really…”

Morrison is still in shock and his head is reeling from the thought that Cornelia is in Paris at that very moment… Then he tries to recall his conversation with his man in Paris, who said that Cornelia and Barret are staying at a hotel in the city but he doesn’t know exactly the location of the hotel or if it is within the proximity of the blast.

I have to contact Theo. I have to know where she is at this moment. I can’t risk her getting hurt too, especially now that I am halfway around the world…, he thinks to himself, momentarily forgetting why the officers were there in the first place then remembers that they are also looking for his mother. He looks around and asks outloud.

“Are you done with the tracker? I need to place a call myself,” he politely says.

“Of course, Mr. McElroy. Yes, we are done here. We’ll let you know what we dig up about Gia de Grassi and please let us know if you receive a call from anybody suspicious. It would help us greatly if we are able to know what they want.”

“I will officers. Thank you for your time.” He politely closes the door after them and proceeds to call Theo. “What the hell is the time there anyway?” he asks himself outloud then checks his watch. It’s just close to eight in the evening. He tries to think about the time difference then gives up and calls up Theo    anyway. He doesn’t care if he’s sleeping or in the toilet. He needs to know where Cornelia is and how she’s doing.

“Oh God! Why are these things happening right now?” he exclaims, looking up at the ceiling as if he is looking up at the skies above. He remembers what he said to Nick only a few hours ago, before he went off looking for Linda.

“Dad… please wake up… Please come back to us. I need you… we need you. I can’t find mom yet but I swear I will. I will move heaven and earth to find her and also so that you would wake up. I – I don’t know if I…,” he paused and swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know if I can do this alone, dad. I need your help. I’m in quite a pickle here and it would be of great help if you could wake up from your, ah, vacation, and help me out,” he chuckled, trying to make light of the dismal situation.

Only the beeping of the monitors with tubes attached to Nick’s body made a sound in the room. Morrison was almost out of options but he was hopeful that Linda would turn up at the end of the day, talking incessantly at how she  forgot about the luncheon and that she got lost in her shopping frenzy, then flopping on the sofa and finally smiling up at him and shushing him for worrying about her. She was always like that and it comforts Morrison for a while that she might have just really gone out and forgot about their date… But knowing his mother, she would always call after an hour or so after a missed engagement and apologize profusely for it. And she didn’t do any of that in the last few hours. So Morrison said goodbye to his father and drove around city then driving home in frustration. He wanted to take a shower and get something to eat before setting out again when he got the call from Linda’s phone.

As he waits for Theo to pick up the phone, he feels all the more worried and scared for Cornelia’s safety as well as his mother’s. He feels as if the world is just crumbling all around him that it’s suffocating him. He holds on to his composure and finally hears a “Hello” from the other side of the line.

Theo’s sleepy voice comes on the line with a weak greeting and Morrison could almost picture him just waking up from his deep sleep.

“Theo! Thank God you’re there. Is Cornelia still in… what’s the name of the hotel… is it anywhere near of Paris? Is she still at the hotel that James always stayed at in Paris? What’s the name of the hotel?” he asks frantically as Theo’s sleepy voice echoes from the other line, seemingly confused and still half asleep. Theo looks at his bedside clock and sees the time.

“Morrison?” he asks then yawns. “It’s two in the morning. Why- Why are you calling this early man?”

“Theo, it’s important to tell me where Cornelia is right now at this very moment! For the love of God, just please answer my question!” Morrison’s frustrated voice resonates and jolts Theo to full wakefulness.

He clears his throat and answers, “Yes, she’s still in that hotel. As I told you this morning… oh right, yesterday I mean. What is this about? Why are you asking all of these questions all of a sudden when you sounded like you didn’t even care where she was earlier?” he asks, suddenly thinking why Morrison could possibly be asking for her again. He thought that Morrison just wanted her to be followed but to not interfere or watch so closely, just enough that he knows that she’s safe from whoever wanted to hurt her. Morrison told him about her abduction a few weeks ago and the near miss on her life. And that was the whole reason why Morrison hired him, to protect her and to dispose any of those who might make an attempt on her life again.

I need to know what he wants or I’ll never get any sleep, he sits up and rubs his eyes to ward off sleep.

“Haven’t you heard of the bombing in Paris? Quick, watch the news and find out, and Theo,” Morrison pauses and waits for Theo’s response.

“Yes?” he answers.

“No matter what happens, don’t let Cornelia go near that bombing site, at least until its safe that is. Go on, watch the news. I’ll be calling you again in the morning, well, around midday for you. Keep me posted. I have to go. Thanks, Theo,” Morrison doesn’t wait for Theo’s response and clicks off.

“What the hell is he talking about?” Theo looks for the remote control underneath the covers and turns on the flat screen television in his hotel room, a luxury that Morrison had afforded him for watching over Cornelia. She is staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, just a few blocks from where he is staying himself and it just takes him a ten-minute walk to get to the hotel.

The news comes on and Theo’s attention stays with that television news show until the wee hours of the morning. He couldn’t believe what he is seeing. The whole city is in chaos because of what happened in the streets of Boulevard Saint Germain. He has just gone to that part of the city last Monday, when the girl wanted to have a little bit of the flavors of the city and she found herself wandering in those parts. It’s usually crowded, especially by tourists and locals alike because of the many food varieties offered to the public and one could really feel the culture of the city in those parts.

He sees people, young and old, being carried off in stretchers and to ambulances as the reporter keeps on detailing some of the events that happened. They don’t know for sure yet where the bomb had originated because the police are concentrating their efforts on the search and rescue operations that they have deployed. Almost all police and medical personel were ordered to go to the scene as the bomb experts continue to search for the origin of the bomb. There have been no other explosion from the first one but the police are afraid that there might be a secondary one, as was one of the tactics of terrorist groups.

Theo grabs his pants and his sweater. He puts on his bonnet and coat and heads off towards the boulevard. He rushes to the scene, running instead of getting a cab because he knows for sure that traffic would be terrible and cars would be at a standstill because of the massive explosion. He pants as he recalls the reporter’s words about the radius of the blast. It explosion took out a quarter of the boulevard but thankfully, the blast did not reach the bridge of the River Siene. If it did, it would be catastrophic. The death toll continues to rise as the night wears on and the injured and missing are also continuously rising, turning the city into a state of panic.

Theo passed some people loading their cars and driving out of the neighboring streets but he continues to run towards the scene. It takes him a few minutes but he finally sees the firetrucks and ambulances lining the road. The military man in him won’t let him just be an expectator but be a participant in the search and rescue efforts of the police. They don’t seem to mind as many of the residents are lending their hands in helping the injured and looking for their loved ones. He lifts the yellow tape lining the edge of the scene and proceeds to helping lift and move heavy objects from the buildings. They pull out a man from underneath a rubble of cement and sees that he’s still breathing.

“Medic here! There’s a man injured here,” he shouts then as soon as he sees an EMT responder spot them and is running towards them, he focuses his eyes on another part of the street where lots of people have gathered in lifting a huge chunk of steel that had covered one part of an establishment, probably a café or shopping store. They heave in unison and grunts can be heard from the men who are trying to get the huge barrier off the space below. When they finally lift the steel bar, they see around five or six people buried underneath a pile of rocks and other materials that have come off from the roof. The steel bar was holding up the roof and prevented it from completely collapsing. The steel bar had actually saved the people underneath it as the firemen secures the collapsing roof and the medical team rushes in to check the vitals of those hunched on the ground.

Theo wipes a trickle of sweat from his brow and feels relieved that all the people underneath are alive with just minor injuries.

“M-merci Monsieur…,” one of the people who were buried says to him in French. He looks about fifty years old and has graying hair.

He looks at him, stunned at his show of gratitude and just nods in response. He just did what anyone would do, save those that he could. No man left behind… Then his memory shifts to a different place and time when  he was younger and still in the military. It was a harsh life and he had so many friends… brothers… who fell and died during the early battles in Afghanistan. He had three trips there and after the last one, he vowed never to go back again. He couldn’t take it anymore… But his killing nature had never totally gone away and so he channeled it into something more productive and lucrative. During his early retirement months, he suffered PTSD and never got any decent sleep for months. He went to several psychologists but they never really helped with anything. Until he accidentally shot a would-be assassin of a prominent politician in his hometown. He felt good in protecting people and it also somehow fulfilled the inexplicable instinct he still carried even after the war. The feeling of always looking over his shoulder, he presumed, will never leave him. There was also the feeling of always keeping his gun near at all times. They say, one can never take away the training and ruthlessness that was instilled in a person during their military days and it is true to that day for Theo. He will never get rid of his killing nature but he can always kill those who are not worthy of the lives they have.

He moves on to the next block and starts assisting storeowners salvage what they can from their shops. It’s a dismal sight but the looks of gratitude from the people around him fill him with another kind of feeling, content.

 

 

 

Chapter III

 

There was a loud bang from outside as Cornelia sits up in her bed, startled and confused. She looks around and remembers that she’s in her hotel suite at the Four Seasons Hotel.

This particular suite was the very same one that James always stayed in whenever he was in Paris. The hotel was gracious enough to still honor his memory and gave her the suite as well vowing that they would always have it reserved for a Wilson. She was very thankful and got a little teary eyed when she got inside the hotel suite. She noticed pictures that lined the shelves as she  went inside the big room. All the pictures were of her – a picture that they took during the first few times he took her out to diner in not-so-fancy restaurants because he knew that she was not comfortable in crowded places, another photo of her laughing over something they saw during one of their walks in Central Park, and other photographs of her that she didn’t even know existed. He had kept it all…

She lovingly touched the photographs and proceeded further into the suite. It consisted of two bedrooms, a spacious living room equipped with a fireplace and a small study, and finally, a grand terrace with a wonderful view of the city below. It was breathtaking that she had to pinch herself to know that everything was real. She had never imagined herself standing on a terrace of a five-star hotel, breathing in the cold air and feeling it surround her body as if it was welcoming her into another abode that James had always considered a home. She closed her eyes then and thought of him – of his warm smile and his ever-ready words of comfort. She had never let him be close enough to her that she would spill all her fears and thoughts to, but she wasn’t aloof as well. She had trusted him fully with her life even during the time that they had just known each other for a few weeks. But she couldn’t bring herself to be totally open to him, she always held back, she always kept bits and pieces to herself. Not because she didn’t trust him to know her whole personality and character, but because she was afraid that she didn’t even know who she really was. She didn’t even know then that Nick was her father and due to Julie being secluded, she didn’t have anybody else close to her apart from her mother. It was one of her regrets, in the end… That she never told James what she really felt about him taking her in and treating her like she was his own family, because, as it turned out, she really was. She wasn’t angry at him even after she knew what happened to her mother and James when she wasn’t born yet. She had difficulty during the first week, settling in because the excitement of being at a different country and a different time zone was still keeping her awake at night. She talked to Barret about their plans while they were there and he agreed that they should inform the board of directors right away that she wanted to meet them. So they scheduled a conference meeting the week after they arrived in Paris. And it was a total disaster…

“So do you think you can run three major companies at your age, Ms. Wilson?” asked Mr. Jacques, one of the members of the board of the umbrella company, T.W. Industries, after they had the formalities of introductions and condolences that went around the room.

She was taken aback by his straightforward question and looked to Barret for strength. She knew that it would not be easy to convince the board that she was more than capable of running her grandfather’s companies but she always thought that the board members might not be too hard on her given that she just lost her only family. But she was greatly mistaken.

“Um, I, ah,” she started stammering.

“Well, as far as Mr. Wilson’s opinion, the young miss can be capable of running his companies smoothly given that she gets proper guidance and direction from capable people such as you, kind sirs, meaning the board of the different companies.” Kevin spoke up all of a sudden with so much confidence that the board members actually looked at him and listened.

Cornelia and Barret looked at each other with a puzzled expression but both kept quiet as Kevin went on. He began with telling the board what he thought about James all the years that they’ve been together, which was more than ten years. It was more than any of the board members simply because the members have changed over the years – some replacing their fathers and mothers to continue their legacy.

Surprisingly, the board did listen to him ramble on. There were even instances that some nodded in agreement over what James thought about his company and whenever Kevin highlighted the boss’ leadership styles.

Barret came closer to Cornelia and whispered, “Wow. Are you sure he’s not vying to be James’ adopted son?” then snorted sarcastically.

She shssd him and went back to listening to Kevin.

“… and that is why we are here today, to welcome Miss. Cornelia Lewis Wilson, the heir and only living relative of the late Mr. James Tudor Wilson. He has spent almost half of his life looking for her and now that she is with us, he would expect us to treat her with utmost respect that she deserves, just like how we respected Mr. W himself,” Kevin finished then turned to Cornelia with a smile and clapping his hands as he did so.

The others followed suit with the clapping and smiles. She looked at the members and nodded to them as a form of her thanks.

“I appreciate all of your hospitality and I understand your apprehensions and reservations about me and how I would impact the companies that my grandfather had built. I confidently tell you now that I will do my very best in continuing his legacy and, hopefully, give even more honor and contributions to these great ventures. I may not be old enough to have garnered all the experiences and training that you’re looking for, but I have the heart and the determination to learn them in a very short span of time… with your teachings, of course,” she said to them, addressing each and every member of that conference table.

One of the members, the one right next to Mr. Jacques, Mr. Han she thought his name was, spoke up and said, “Well, I think Kevin, here, has known James the longest so it would be wise to have him in your counsel, Ms. Wilson. He knows all the comings and goings in all these three companies for he has been James’ right hand ever since I could remember. I think he would be a good addition to your team, don’t you think?” he addressed the whole room and they all agreed with his suggestion.

She smiled to all of them and back to Kevin. “Of course, Mr. Han. I would be very lucky indeed to have Kevin instruct me apart from being my constant companion. I know that he is very knowledgeable with the business details and the daily routine James had when he was here overseeing everything. Kevin? If you would do me the honor of being my advisor, I would very much appreciate it,” she directed her statement at Kevin who beamed with pride at her asking him formally in front of everybody. His plan was panning out. He’s convinced the board that he was a man to be trusted with that kind of job. Just a little bit more of failure on Cornelia’s side and he would very well be the head of the board.

“Oh! You can’t possibly ask me to be YOUR right-hand, Miss W?” he asked.

Barret was beginning to get annoyed at James’ driver who managed to deceive the people inside the room. He looked Kevin and he knew for sure that he was playing coy and wanted Cornelia to ask him again.

“Oh you-!” he began but Cornelia spoke up at the same time and used her arm to stop him from advancing towards Kevin.

“Kevin,” she started, “you are an invaluable person to be around because of your knowledge in James’ business and most importantly, because of your deep relationship with my grandfather. I can never thank you enough for keeping him company all these years that he didn’t have his own family beside him. I am happy to know that he spent all those years with a trusted and a dear friend. Please, be there for me too so we can both continue his work.”

Everybody in the room grew silent, one could almost hear a pin drop, and then Kevin cleared his throat and graciously accepted what Cornelia offered.

After the meeting was adjourned, Kevin excused himself and proceeded to his errand while Barret and Cornelia went back to the hotel. She wanted to take a bit of rest before they went out to diner like what they have been doing for the past few weeks. They were dinner buddies – not a date of lovers, but of two friends.

Barret warned her one more time before they went in their respective rooms, “Cornelia, listen to me, I think it’s a big mistake to let Kevin dictate what you do. I don’t trust that guy anymore. I thought I knew him before… when James was still alive, but now, I am not sure what he wants. I do know that he wants to be more than just your driver or right-hand. Sooner or later, he might be the one taking over your companies. You have to be careful.”

She just looked at him with tired eyes and said softly, “Maybe he is better at this than I am, Barret… I mean, let’s face it, I never wanted this in the first place but since James trusted me to see this through, I am trying my best to see it through. Besides, Kevin did help Morrison in saving my life so that’s gotta account to something, right? He could have chosen to let me die at the hands of those thugs so he could just take advantage of James in the end… But he didn’t. Whatever is with Kevin’s intentions, I know he is not a bad person. Maybe he’s just driven by money or whatever it is that’s twisting his mind. But I’ll make him change his mind about going against me. I won’t fight him with the same strategy he is using against me. I’ll just be who I am… who is a person that James had trusted and would make sure that his legacy lives on, which is, by the way, is not only his string of companies… It’s his kindness,” she finished saying and her words got Barret to look at her in awe and just nod.

“You have an old soul, Cornelia. Even though you’re young and inexperienced in many things, you are more than capable of showing compassion. I admire you for that kid,” he said, smiling and giving her a bear hug. “Now, off with you. Go and rest. And if you want, we could just get room service so we don’t have to go out. We could watch movies you like,” he beamed.

“Oh, Barret, that would be wonderful!” she sighed, feeling relieved that Barret suggested the very thing she wanted the most, curl up in bed and watch old movies with a good friend.

They agreed to have their movie night in her room after a couple of hours of rest. Barret wanted to check up on his apartment and furniture business back in the US so he surmised that his phone calls would keep him busy for at least an hour.

After their talk in the hallway, she happily waltzed in her suite and as soon as she closed the door, almost ran to her bed and plopped herself on it like a little girl.

“Ahhh… I just want to lie down the whole day and eat lots of the delicious hotel food,” she said outloud. Something, which, of course, she berates herself in doing because she wants to stay healthy and fit… But that doesn’t mean she can’t have a cheat day or days…

She took a long bath and relished in the luxurious bathroom of her suite. She closed her eyes and thought about the days she didn’t even shower because she didn’t want to get beat up again by those mean kids in her orphanage. She had come a long way since then. And if it wasn’t for James, she would still be roaming the streets and might have ended up living in the streets or worse, dying in it.

James, I’m sorry I didn’t even tell you how much you meant to me. All those years that you’ve held yourself back from telling me the truth… I wish you could have… I would have had more time with you as a proper grandchild and I would have opened up more to you instead of keeping myself back. Now, you’ve gone too soon and I’m left alone once again…

Then a thought entered her mind and she allowed herself to look back at her lost love as well. She misses him everyday. She longed to see him and she might have gone to see him on her last night in New York if she gave into her feelings but she decided to sit on that park bench and while away the time. She wondered what he might be doing at that very moment, if he was thinking of her as well or going about his busy days.

And Nick, her father… from the last she’s heard about him through her old boss, Joana, he was still in a coma but they are positive that he’ll make a full recovery. Her heart aches for not being there for her father. Eventhough he doesn’t know that she is his daughter, she still wanted to be by his side and help him pull through, but the circumstances they were in wasn’t making it possible for them to be together as a family. Also, Morrison doesn’t know the truth as well. She wasn’t sure what his reaction would be if he knew that they are actually step-siblings. Not that it mattered to her since they are not really blood relatives, but still, their relationship might take a turn for the better or worse, once he finds out about their connection.

After another hour, Barret came and brought lots of junk food that they munched while watching Casablanca and then Gone With The Wind. It must have taken them the whole night to watch both movies and Barret ended up sleeping on the comfortable couch on the corner of Cornelia’s bedroom.

She tiptoed to him and brought him a blanket as she turned off the television. She went to her terrace and looked out to the cold Parisian skyline. The view was breathtaking and she couldn’t be more thankful for her life and where she was at that moment. She vowed that she would make things work with the companies and with Kevin as well. She wasn’t a naïve little girl that she doesn’t feel and see Kevin’s plans in bringing her down. She knew that he was hatching a plan to possibly jeopardize her claim on T.W. Industries but instead of taking him out and plotting her own revenge on him, she decided to be the better person and forget all about getting back at him for what he was trying to do to her. She would watch his plans unfold but she won’t let herself be vulnerable and unprotected. Once Kevin sees that what he’s trying to do would never work, she would give him another chance to change and work for her still… But if he doesn’t change his ways, she would have to let him go.

She went back inside and thought about the next steps she would need to make in their game of getting ahead. Kevin won the first battle that day, but she would make sure to win the next one. And with that thought, she turned in for the night and dreamt of faraway places and a hand that reached out to her… it was Morrison.

The next morning, she went straight to the other offices, first to the shipping line and talked with the people in-charge. She had Kevin drive her to the places where they need to meet with other personnel regarding the status of the shipping line. She made it a point to be open with the heads of the different committees and told them that she was very new in that kind of role and would need all their help to make things work for all of them. She had impressed most of the people she met with at the shipping line and gained their support in her quest to be better at overseeing them. She promised to address their concerns and also make sure to tell the whole board about their struggles.

“I believe that you are the foundation of this company,” she said, addressing the workers and officers, “and I know that my grandfather knew this and recognized your hard work. You can rest assure that I will follow his footsteps and ensure that you are all taken care of, especially your families.” She paused and decided to be very honest with them. “James was the only family I had left but I didn’t know it until his very last moments on this earth. If I could do it all over again, I would have spent more time with him even if I hadn’t known the truth. Family doesn’t always mean blood, most of the time, they are those who are completely unrelated to you but treats you as one. I hope that I have made my point that I am your family and you are mine…”

A thunderous applause ensued as the workers all cheered for her. She smiled and thanked them again for their support and appreciation. Even Kevin was impressed with her speech and her conviction in the things she said. He couldn’t help but admire the young woman who was turning out to be much like her grandfather. But little did Cornelia know, he was not buying her talk.

But I bet she’s just saying that for show, Kevin smirked. Let’s see how long you can put up with your charade…

“That was a great speech! They totally believed every single word you said!” Kevin jeered at her as they made their way to the car.

Barret couldn’t accompany her that day because he had a meeting with a prospective client who was also one of the board members whom he met at the meeting. She was glad that someone was interested with doing business with him even if they are literally thousands of miles apart when Barret goes back to the states. He was so excited that he didn’t even finish breakfast in his haste to meet the businessman.

“It’s not just a speech, Kevin, it’s the truth. I fully intend to honor what I have said here and in all the places that we have gone and would still be going to. I am not doing this just for show, Kevin. I hope that you sincerely believe and understand what I’m trying to do. And I sincerely hope that you join me in on this. Do I have your back, Kevin? Can I count on you?” she asked sincerely, not knowing what his answer would be and she doesn’t also know if he would honor his reply to her question. She just wanted to be open to Kevin and show him that she’s just being real.

“Of course, Ms. W. I had James’ back before and I surely have yours,” he answered and smiled but she saw that the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“Okay then. Thank you. Shall we go to the next office? I want to finish all the locations of the shipping lines in the next few days and then, we can move on to the other two companies next week. I do plan to hold a gathering of some sort, you know, to bring all of us together in one party, let’s just say. I want to hold this at James’ house in Etretat, if that’s okay. Do you think many would come?” she asked. She actually thought of doing the gathering first before going to each satellite office but decided to do the visits first to get to know them more intimately at the start and then bring them all together after she has made her rounds.

“That would be a great idea, Ms. W. I would gladly inform the heads of the departments to require everyone to attend at your request,” he answered quickly. Yeah, make them all come. Inconvenience them and show them how luxurious your life is while they slave each day to make a living. That’ll greatly tip the scale in my favor. He laughed inside and kept a straight face while she thought about what he said.

“I don’t want to require them to come. I want this all to be voluntary. If they can’t come then I would understand. Tell you what. Let’s not do the party in Etretat, why not do it in one of our warehouses in the city? It would be a great money-saver for them because they don’t have to travel that far, plus, we’re utilizing the empty warehouses, you know, putting them in good use. Maybe if people saw that I’m trying to save up for them, not spending extravagantly on this party and put those funds into their salaries instead, they would trust me more. What do you think?”

Damn it! Why does this girl have a brain in the first place?

“That’s up to you Ms. W. Whatever suits you is fine by me,” he responded less enthusiastically.

“I want your opinion, Kevin. What’s the point of appointing you as my advisor if I hear your advice, right? Please,” she came closer and placed her palm on his crossed arms, “help me out. I don’t know what they want me to be as their leader and this gathering would bring me closer to them and them to each other. I am not sure if they even know the people they work with or for. The board members are not really the forthcoming type and this would be a great avenue for them to interact with the workers and vice versa. I think we need this.”

Kevin sighs and shakes his head. I hate that she’s right! If I ever want this company to thrive the moment I get it from her hands, then I guess I should back her up in her plans to make things better between the workers and shareholders.

“Okay, fine. I think that doing it in the warehouse would be better than holding it in Etretat. I think that the people, especially the workers, would appreciate you trying to reach out to them and connect with  them personally, aside from work stuff. And the shareholders would have a better perspective about the business if they hear real issues and stories from the workers themselves. But you have to be careful that this doesn’t turn out to be an open discussion of issues and solutions. You have to stress out to them that this is a social gathering and not a platform for complaints. Assure them that there would be a better and different time for that.”

Wow, he really does know what he’s saying. I just hope that he’s not walking me into a trap with this one. But I can’t to anything but to trust him on this. With a sigh, she nodded in agreement and went inside the car. They were to make two more stops for that day  and then she can go back to the hotel.

After a few hours, they finally drove back to the hotel but she asked to be dropped by the park near the hotel. “I’d like to take a few minutes and just take a stroll at the park, Kevin, if that’s all right. I’ll be along shortly.”

Kevin dropped her off and drove to the hotel where he was also staying at. Since Kevin was officially promoted to her counsel, he didn’t have to drive her around himself but during the first week, he insisted on doing so until they find a replacement for him.

She took her time going through the path that the park had and looked at the runners making their way across the man-made pond in the middle of the park. She missed running and feeling the wind in her hair. She hasn’t gone running since the time she went with Morrison to his family’s old house in the Hamptons. She promised to run for at least a few days each week after that but with everything that’s happened since then, she never got the time to do it.

“I must get back to my routine. I miss running so much…,” she whispered to herself as she sat on a wooden bench facing the green grass where children were playing and laughing about.

An unfamiliar male voice asked her something in French. She looked at him, puzzled but then he gestured to the bench and she understood what he wanted. She told him she didn’t speak French and thankfully, the guy switched to English with a British accent. She was pleasantly surprised for she always admired people sporting a British accent. She wished she had one but she couldn’t even imitate one if she tried.

The guy made her laugh by pointing out what he saw her do as she was sitting there, looking so lot in thought and disconnected from the world. She indulged herself a few laughs and then proceeded to leave. The man apologized for being forward but she assured him that she just needed to go. For the life of her, she actually gave him her first name when he asked because he looked like someone who wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose. She developed the habit of observing people in the past and having her first impressions on them, which were usually right. And her first impression of the guy was that he had had a hard life but looked like he wanted to have another shot at life. He definitely had a sense of humor, which he used on her, but she felt like it was scripted somehow or planned just to use it for her enjoyment. Whatever his reason or purpose was, she liked that he got her to laugh.

A complete stranger, imagine that… she thought as she walked back to the hotel. But something tells me that there is something more with him looking for a park bench when there were dozens of them surrounding the park, she thought to herself as she spotted an empty one just a few feet from where she sat. I better be more careful around people. Not everyone can be trusted, no matter how charming and funny they may be.

The moment she reached the hotel, Barret was there to greet her in the hallway towards her suite.

“There you are! I was thinking of going to the park myself when I saw you get out of the elevator. So, how was your day?” he asked looking happy more than the usual.

“How did you know I was in the park? Oh, did you see Kevin. He must have told you then.” He nodded and followed her into her suite.

“Yeah, I saw him at the lobby earlier. What were you doing in the park anyway? You know its not safe to go off by yourself. I’m not being your fatherly-type friend, but I am your friend and I need to be sure you’re safe at all times.”

“Okay, okay, Dad,” she chided, rolling her eyes. “I just needed a few minutes of fresh air and to slow down. Ever since we got here, I’ve been all over the city, visiting and holding conferences and talks with people I’ve just met. It… It gets tiring, you know,” she sighed and plopped down on the sofa.

He sat beside her and placed his arms around her shoulder. “I know kiddo. And you deserve every chance of rest you get… All I’m saying is, please do it here or ask me to go with you next time. Please?” He made a pleading face and she laughed at his attempt of humor.

“Sure, I will but you have got to stop making that face, Barret. I swear you do not look convincing at all!” she said as Barret chuckled. “How about you? How was the prospective client?”

“Well, that’s what I wanted to tell you the moment you walked in… It went great and I have acquired a huge client who wants me to start producing furniture for them as soon as possible. I showed them my portfolio and they loved it! But Cornelia?” he said with a mellowed tone.

“Yes? What is it?” she asked, afraid that something had gone wrong with their transaction.

“I have to fly back to the states tonight… I need to get things in order. But I will be back in a month! I just need to hire some people and train them a bit to make the pieces I’ve already made. I promise, I’ll just be gone a month or less. I’ll be right back here in a jiffy.”

“Barret, of course it’s okay! Please, go home and make your furniture. I don’t want you to stop what you love doing just because you want to watch out for me. I am not a teenager okay. I can take care of myself. Please, go. What time is your flight anyway?” She grabbed two glasses and poured some wine into them.

“In three hours. I was lucky to book one of the last trips out. I really appreciate this Cornelia. If it  weren’t for you holding that meeting, I would never have bumped into Mr. Kahn who introduced me to my client,” he said, taking a small sip of the wine.

“Oh please, Barret. Don’t thank me. It was all your doing! Cheers and congrats on this new client!” she said raising her glass as he clinked it with his own. It was proving to be a day of great surprises.

After they had celebrated for an hour, he had to say goodbye to pack up and finally, go to the airport. They hugged and promised to call whenever they can.

“I promise to be right back here once I’ve settled everything there. Please don’t go off by yourself again. As much as I hate it, take Kevin with you or anyone you trust. It’s not safe anywhere Cornelia,” he reminded her again and then took off with a company car towards the airport.

She sighed and waved to him as the car drove away. She’s going to miss him but she didn’t want to keep him here far longer than he should. He has a life back there and I hope that Sally has thought things through and goes back to him, she thought to herself.

Barret had spilled the beans regarding Sally, Morrison’s ex whom Linda had manipulated and threatened so she’d leave him. She was the same person whom Morrison was hugging when she was on her way out of the hospital after James passed away. Barret explained to her who Sally really was and what she had to go through at the hands of Morrison’s cruel mother. She couldn’t believe what Barret told her but she hasn’t met the infamous Linda McElroy yet so she couldn’t really make up her mind about her yet. She just listened with an open heart and felt bad that Sally had gone through that ordeal. After Barret gave her another perspective about the woman, she finally understood what she saw at the hospital. She felt bad for accusing Morrison and for getting mad at the woman. But, it still didn’t change the fact that Morrison had chosen to push her away and say those hurtful words at her. She still has not gotten over what she felt when Morrison broke her heart. She needed more time to be apart from him. Besides, if they were back together, she didn’t think she could fulfill James’ duties to the best of her abilities for she would have to consider Morrison and the distance that would be between them with her working in Europe and him, staying in New York.

So she decided to go on without him anyway. She was beginning to believe that if she allows herself to feel happy, something happens to the people around her. When she fell in love with Morrison and forgot all about her plots about getting her revenge on his family, James died. She begun getting it in her head that she is better off alone, just to go on and fulfill her family duty of taking care of the companies James had left her. But who would continue on after her if she doesn’t find someone to have a family with?

I guess I could find someone in the future and just marry for convenience. Or maybe after everything, I could finally find someone who would understand me and won’t make me any empty promises… This was a constant conversation in her head, especially when she stares out into space during her walks or trips to the park. She tries not to think about her love life, or lack of it, as much as possible because she has better things to think about and act on like how to run her family’s companies. She needed to focus on that and even though Barret had left; it doesn’t mean that she would depend everything on Kevin. On the contrary, she needed to be more independent more than ever.

She went back inside and hoped for a better tomorrow. But what she didn’t know was the next day would bring a different kind of test, not only for her, but for a lot of people.

 

The loud bang out of nowhere woke her up and as she sits up to find her bearings, she finds herself in the luxurious suite of the Four Seasons Hotel where James took up residence everytime he was in Paris.

“What was that?” she whispers to herself. She throws back the covers and places her feet on the carpet floor. She realizes that the power must have gone out because the room is in total darkness, except for the moon that shines brightly in the sky outside her room. She listens more intently for any other sound and then she hears sirens from a short distance away. “Oh no, what might that be?” she asks herself, thinking that there might have been an accident near the hotel or something, which caused the power outage.

“Where the heck is my phone anyway?” she hisses as she gropes in the dark. The emergency lights come on and she finally sees her surroundings. Her phone lies on the floor next to her bed that might have fallen off when she was asleep. She picks it up and looks out her window to see what the commotion was all about.

The sirens get louder as she tries to call Kevin on the phone. “Please pick up, Kevin…” She begins to feel concerned because she can hear more sirens and people started shouting down below. She hasn’t gone down to the lobby of the hotel yet for wanted to call Kevin to find out what’s happening first. She might just be overreacting but as the minutes tick by, Kevin still does not answer his phone and the increasing noise outside prompts her to investigate herself. She puts on her jeans, a tee shirt, and comfortable shoes. She grabs her jacket on her way out and gathers her hair in a tight ponytail.

As soon as Cornelia opens her door, she sees people running about the corridor, some with their suitcases while others are still on their robes and nightgowns.

“What’s happening?” she asks the enthusiastic American reporter, Liam, whom she met a few days ago, who just passed her on his way to the elevators. “Why is everybody such a hurry? Is there a fire somewhere?”

“Didn’t you hear? There was a bombing just a few blocks from here, in Boulevard Saint Germain! You have to get out of here now! They’re saying that the terrorists are not done yet. They are still currently roaming the streets to look for other places to bomb. I’m going over there to cover the news but it would be best for you to get out of here Cornelia!” Liam shouts as he enters the elevators.

“Wh-what?” she asks with disbelief. “W-where? Where is the bombing?” she asks again, feeling a little deaf from all the noise around them.

“In Boulevard Saint Germain!” The elevators close as Liam shouted his response.

Cornelia stays rooted in her position in the middle of the hallway as people keep running and bumping into her. It’s as if she is in a trance and is paralyzed all of a sudden. It’s like the time that her mother died. She remembers the sirens of the ambulance as she was taken to the hospital to see her dying mother. That memory paralyzes her at that very moment as she the sirens blare around her. Her room is on the eight floor, one of the duplex suites of that hotel, so she could distinctly hear the cars zooming past the city.

A young man bumps into her and apologizes but continues to proceed to the elevator. She springs to her feet after being rooted there for a few minutes. She runs back to her hotel room to look for something to bring. She fully intends to go to the place where the bombing happened and see what she can do to help. She thinks of calling Barret but decides she will do so once she assesses the situation.

She packs a backpack with a few clothes and a couple of thin blankets. She goes inside the bathroom and grabs a few of the compact flashlights that the hotel stores in the emergency cabinet along with a first aid kit and a few over the counter drugs. She grabs them all and stuffs them in the pack, making sure that they don’t get damaged or else they would be no use to her or the victims she might meet along the way. She is sure that the victims will need some fresh clothing and blankets to ward off the cold night, and especially some drugs for injuries or other ailments. She knows how its like to spend a night on the street with only the clothes on your back and getting sick because of the cold dark night.

After a short while, she goes down to the seventh floor and knocks on Kevin’s door. She waits a few minutes and knocks again but no one answers it. She tries opening it but it’s locked.

“Maybe he went out already. I’ll just give him a call later,” she says to herself then proceeds running down the service stairs to the hotel lobby. The elevators were already so crowded with people who are panicking and wanting desperately to get out the building. There are a couple of people running down the stairs like she is but they pay no mind to one another, each busy with their thoughts and fear gripping their very bones.

Terrorist attacks have been happening in the European sector for years now, first, spreading from the Middle East, and has reached parts of Europe over the last couple of years. But Paris… no one would even dare bomb Paris, right? She thinks to herself as she takes the flight of stairs two at a time as she counts the minutes that tick by. She figures she could try helping those who need shelter and clothing and by first light, she would go to her office and immediately meet with the team that handles emergency reliefs just like what they are experiencing now, and coordinate with other government rescue teams in providing whatever help they can.

As she steps on the last flight of stairs, she quickly pushes open the door leading to the lobby and rushes out of the hotel along with a throng of people. It’s dark outside apart from the light of the moon and it’s slowly being covered by the smoke coming from the boulevard where the blast was. She quickly takes out one of the flashlights she dumped in her backpack a few minutes ago and shines it on the road before her. She checks her watch and it’s only two-thirty in the morning. She looks from side to side and sees people fleeing to all different directions. She remembers her way across the boulevards and decides to run towards Saint Germain.

“Oh, God,” she exclaims as the scene of the bombing slowly surfaces from the smoke-filled roads. It feels like she’s navigating through a war zone. Smoke billows from above and below, making it very impossible to see clearly, let alone run. She slows down and puts her hand in front of her while covering her nose and mouth with the other. She remembers that she has some clothes in her backpack and kneels down to get one to shield her face from the smoke.

She screams as she sees a severed hand on the ground next to her right foot as she kneeled down to rummage through her backpack. She steps a few feet away and quickly grabs a small towel from her pack. She wraps it around her face, concealing her whole face apart from her eyes. She wishes she could have brought some goggles of even reading glasses to protect her eyes from stinging from the smoke but she didn’t bring any. She trudges forward carefully, hearing screams, sirens, and more screams from everywhere. She doesn’t even know where she’s going and what she’s actually doing there, she’s just compelled to go there and try helping those who need help, just like what James had done to her when she was starving in the streets.

“Gramps… Mom… Help me help these people. I know you’re watching over me. Lead me to those who need me the most and give me strength to help them,” she whispers as she tries to block out the blaring police sirens from all around her. A couple of woman brushes past her but kept running towards the direction from whence she came. Cars are strewn all over the street where she is walking on so she steps on the sidewalk to avoid falling into an accident herself. She gets a hold of a stick made of metal. She uses it to pick through the debris and comes to a stop in front of a café where she could hear a woman screaming for help.

“Wait! I’m coming!” she shouts back and tries to remember the French translation for “Please wait”. Her French could barely pass for a beginner but she knows simple words. “S-S’il vous p-plaît… a-attendez!” she says finally and uses her stick to remove the broken chairs and tables in her path. She still has her phone inside her pocket but she needs to get the woman out first before she could even call anybody for help. She can’t waste time in waiting for someone to pick up while the woman might die waiting for her.

She repeats her sentence over and over until she is able to clear a path leading inside the café. She ducks her head low and uses her flashlight to see where the woman is. She sees a hand sticking out from under a wooden cabinet. It flails around asking her to come over and help her. The structure itself threatens to collapse around her but she moves forward and by the time she reaches the hand, the ceiling is only a few inches from her head.

“Aidez moi!” she screams. She says some more in French but Cornelia does not understand but she moves forward, putting down her pack slowly, and edged towards the place where the woman is trapped. The wooden cabinet is not that heavy or thick but it’s the only thing that’s holding up a portion of the house’s roof. It is wedged between the woman and the twisted metal of the G.I. sheets that was once the roof of the whole place.

“Okay… Um… S’il vous p-plaît… I’ll help you, okay,” she says to the woman whose face she can partially see through the holes of the cabinet. She yanks out a lose piece of the wood but carefully holds it up so it won’t give way and take the whole roof down with it.

She spots wooden crates in the corner of the small space and grabs three of them, stacking them up on top of each other to form a makeshift pillar that would hold the roof up so she could remove the cabinet. She is successful and slowly pulls the woman’s arm from the hole she was stuck in and to Cornelia’s surprise, the woman is holding an infant in her arms.

“Oh my God! I-is your baby all right?” she gasps as they make their way out of the café. In a few seconds after they exited the structure, the roof gave way and buried the whole place.

The woman gasps as well but holds her baby close to her. The baby appeared to have been asleep the whole time and just woke up and wailed when the roof made the thunderous sound. The woman thanks her profusely as Cornelia guides her to a waiting ambulance just a few yards from where they stood.

An emergency personel quickly gets the mother and the baby and interviews them while checking them for any injuries. Cornelia is still shaken up but otherwise, unharmed from the whole experience. Another responder took her and gave her s doe of oxygen as she began coughing uncontrollably. She askes how the mother and baby are doing and the nurse responds with a think French accent that both are okay. There are no injuries to the baby and the mother just had a few bumps and bruises. They were alone in the café, which was a family business. The responder also tells her that the husband is actually looking for them and is on his way to them now.

“Thank God! I’m okay… I just need to breathe for a whi-,” she doesn’t finish her sentence for another blast happened a few buildings away from them.

The responders shout orders to each other as some of them starts running towards the recent blast site. The ambulance where they are in starts moving and drives back towards the safe zone.

“Wait, there are more people out there needing help! I can help you. I’m able and I’m not injured… Please, let me help!” she screams to be heard by the responder she was talking with earlier.

“Non madame. Elp eez on ze way,” he says then turns back to the mother and the child. He talks into his walkie-talkie in French as they weave through the fallen debris all over the main road.

Cornelia suddenly feels light-headed and nauseous. She leans her head on the side and passes out. Her last thoughts fleeting through her brain…

Thanks Mom, gramps, for looking after me…

 

 

Chapter IV

 

“Just keep her there until I arrive. I want to look into that bitch’s face before she dies,” Gia says with such hatred in her voice that gives the person on the other line, chills.

Gia’s been waiting a few weeks for this and now that she’s got her chance for retribution, she will savor every second of it. She was given a very attractive proposal by one Miss Cornelia Wilson, James Wilson’s heir as it turned out, to leave the McElroy’s alone and in exchange, she will make sure to fund her old company and make it flourish again. Of course, she had to say yes at that moment. It was a rather generous offering from one promising young heiress. She had every intention to honor her agreement with her until she dug a little deeper and found out who she really is.

From what her birds told her, she was actually Nick McElroy’s long lost daughter and could very well be the heir to the McElroy fortune as well! Given that its rather public knowledge that Morrison is an adopted son because Linda McElroy is a barren woman, it would be guaranteed that Cornelia will get the inheritance once Nick finally kicks the bucket and Linda gets cast aside or if she met an untimely death herself. For a second, she thought that Cornelia might have planned everything all along but Gia saw her and her unassuming personality. There is no way that she could have plotted that great of a plan, to get rid of her enemies by going into partnerships with them, even before she reveals herself and take what is rightfully hers.

To Gia, it was still an advantage if Cornelia does inherit the McElroy legacy and combined with the Wilson’s amassed fortune, she would be one of the richest people in the world! And Gia de Grassi would love to be associated with rich and powerful people. So, she decided to help out the little would-be McElroy heiress and seal Linda’s untimely death. She would never tell Cornelia though but she knows that the young naïve girl would thank her one day and she would gladly reap the rewards of that thank you.

Gia is still in Paris but would be flying out to New York that night to catch a last glimpse of the great Linda McElroy before her body washes off into the Hudson River. She fully intends to end the life of that bitch who started all her pain and suffering. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Nick and his coma, in fact, she fervently wishes that he never wakes up or better yet, just stay in that state for the rest of his measly life. Only with Nick fully incapacitated will Cornelia be able to take over, overshadowing that adopted son of theirs. Gia plans to be the one to expose that Cornelia is the daughter of Nick McElroy and she fully expects the police to make a DNA testing, which she has already done and confirmed from the doctors who tested it, that she is a McElroy beyond any doubt.

“She will thank me one day, which she will… Besides, it’s only right for her to take what is hers by birth and this is to repay her for her kindness of offering me a way out, no matter how misguided she is about me.” She laughs and sips her vodka. Her Paris hotel has one of the best views in the city. She moves across the big expanse of the terrace and breathes in the chilly afternoon air. She wonders what lies in store for her that night.

Would Linda finally admit that what she had done was wrong and would she beg Gia for forgiveness?

“I would see you grovel at my feet and beg for my forgiveness… You have given me a life of torment… of pain and destruction…,” she says outloud, letting one tear roll away from her tear ducts and down to her cheeks.

She has always been a strong and independent woman, which got her through the toughest times in her life, like when she lost her father and eventually, lost touch with her mother. Her mother always blamed her for her father’s death and she was right…

“She was right… I was the stupid kid who wanted to go into an adventure and that got my dad killed! I could never forgive myself for what I had done to you, father… I must live my life bearing this guilt inside of me. But she took everything we had, dad! That bitch of a wife took your legacy away and trampled on it! She tainted your name and I was too weak to defend myself! I was helpless and no one would dare touch me after all the lies that she had spread…” she is sobbing now, wracked by the pain that she felt years ago when the whole world turned their back to her and she was forced to live a life of isolation. She never intended to hurt anybody… she just wanted a chance to be happy with Nick. It didn’t matter to her that Nick was married but Linda made sure that she never forgot. Because of her quest for love from a man, she lost everything in the hands of another vicious woman.

“But now, I will get that all back and more!” she wipes her tears away and laughs, feeling herself feel elated with the thought that she would look into Linda’s eyes in just a few hours. And she will make her feel what she had felt before. Like it was the end of the world, but for Linda, it really is going to be the end of her world for she would never see the light of tomorrow. Today was going to be her last day on earth.

Gia looks forward to that evening but first, she has to make a short trip to the Boulevard Saint Germain to do some last minute shopping and visit a friend’s café. Her flight is not until nine in the evening so she has time to cruise by the busy boulevard and have a leisurely supper. She is going to have her last minute date with a guy whom she fancies at the moment but she doesn’t really think that there would be anything more than what they had at the moment, which was simply having a warm body next to her each night. She’s even surprised at herself that she’s going on a date with the guy when normally, she just sleeps with them and then ditch them the next week. She has been living like that, carelessly playing with other people’s feelings because she lacks feeling herself.

Ever since Nick, she had never fallen in love again. She’s had some flings and constant partners but never that feeling of longing and passion that she experienced with Nick. But as intense as it was, it actually fuels the hatred she feels in her heart even after years of not seeing him.

Oh, yes, she went to James’ funeral that fateful day that Nick met his accident… and it was no coincidence…

 

She arrived at the venue early. She was among the early ones who thought that they could do away with having to deal with a huge crowd if they went there before the actual time. And they were not disappointed for there were only a handful of people there at fifteen minutes to the time of the ceremony. She knew that Nick already knows she arrived in New York courtesy of his evil wife, Linda. And for sure, he would be following her to Buffalo, besides, James was among the most celebrated businessmen in Europe and Nick was familiar with the European market as well as the US one.

Gia did not know then that James was the father of one of Nick’s old conquests, Julie Lewis Wilson and she did not catch a glimpse of Cornelia because she was too busy ducking her head and looking for Nick’s face to notice anyone else. She had her manservant with her as well and the moment that she was alerted that Nick had arrived, she stayed out of the building and slipped past the parking space where she met with Mike.

“Did you see what car he was driving?” she asked Mike looking sideways to look towards the building underneath her wide-brimmed hat.

“It’s the black sedan right over there,” he replied nodding towards the black Mercedes Benz parked a little crookedly at the side of the East parking lot. “What do you want me to do with it? Do you want me to search it or something?”

She smirked and shook her head, “No. I want you to take out the brakes.”

Mike took a second look at her but her expression did not change. She meant it and he would have to obey whatever she says. “Oh, okay. Whatever you say,” he answered and proceeded to take out his handy tools and walked closed to the black car.

The parking was deserted because everyone was back inside, paying their respects to the old businessman. She herself had met James many times before because he was a good friend to her father. She remembered him as the silent man with a ready smile for her whenever he visited their home in Tuscany. When her father died, he was there everyday to console her mother and her but she wouldn’t let him or anyone get near her. She stayed locked up in her room for the next couple of months of her father’s death, not knowing if she would ever get the courage to open the door and learn to exist on the outside ever again…

But she did. She was able to crawl out of the dark place she was cooped up in for several months and got out to exist with the world again. She decided to focus on her father’s business and do her best to continue his legacy and of course, to sustain the life that they have. She was successful for a few years after she graduated from College and she was at the peak of her career when she met Nick McElroy. It was a mistake from the start but Gia being Gia, her stubborn streak won over her better judgement and decided to have an affair with a married man. She was far younger than Nick but she was immediately drawn to him.

They met at a gathering for businessmen teaching each other the tricks of the trade, as they say, and ended up chatting with him the rest of the night and doing more than that for the rest of the night. Nick was hesitant at first, with her being more than twice his age and because he is married to Linda but Gia worked her magic and convinced him otherwise. It went on for a few days until Linda came to Paris, herself, and the three of them even had a luncheon together.

Gia was actually taken by surprise at Linda’s very accommodating nature and even wanted to personally take care of the partnership that Nick and her would be getting into. Something which Nick had led his wife to believe as to what his relationship with Gia was. She went along with it because she wanted to meet her rival and see what she can do to break their marriage up for good. She had fallen really hard for Nick and wanted more than just an occasional tryst abroad. To her, Nick had shown her how a man should take care of his woman. He was gentle, kind, loving, and had her laughing all night long. She longed to be with Nick… To be his wife and bear his children. Nick confessed to her that Linda couldn’t bear children when she asked if Morrison had other siblings. He was honest in telling her that Morrison was adopted – which is not really a secret in the first place but she was still flattered that he had the need to tell her himself. The moment she learned that he doesn’t have children of his own, she had a great idea to be the one to bear his children. She could clearly see in the way he talks about kids that he still wants to have his own kid one day. She made an unbelievable suggestion to Nick which he didn’t have an answer to right away.

“I want to bear your children, Nick. Let me bear children for you… You don’t have to marry me or anything,” she lied, “or give me child support since I can quite fully support myself. All you need to do is be with me on certain days when your child needs you. That’s all,” she said matter-of-factly, as she looked at him with her tousled hair and only a sheet covering her slim body.

They were in his hotel room and they just had sex. They were talking about some stuff about themselves when she brought up the subject about children.

“W-what?” he asked, looking incredulously at her like she had gone completely mad. “Are you serious?”

“Yes! I am! Come on, Nick. Hear me out. You want a kids right?” she asked.

Nick nodded and was about to say something else as a follow through but she put her forefinger on his lips and shushed him, looking all seductive and tempting to Nick.

“Shhh… Okay, so you want kids. Your wife can’t have them… well, she’s had her menopause now, I suppose, so that’s out  of the question,” she rolled her eyes and continued, “And then there’s me who want to have your kids. Like a surrogate mother, except that we would actually have sex and we would need to see each other like every week… I can move to the U.S. if necessary so the kids won’t be too far away from you-,”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he stopped her and chuckled. “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself too quickly here? I mean… Yes, I love kids and I wish I’ve had my own offspring, myself,” he said, not confessing that he does have a biological daughter but was lost and couldn’t find her anywhere which was probably for the best. “But I’m not sure that I’d like a baby, an actual small human being to care for and rear at my age. I mean, I’m pushing sixty and you’re what, twenty?”

She just rolled her eyes and kissed him fully on the mouth. “I’m much older than that, thank you. And besides, you’re not going to be the one who would actually change its diapers or feed it. You’re going to be the dad and I’m the mom. Simple as that!” she said enthusiastically, like a child explaining to an adult how they should be climbing trees.

Nick shook his head and drew her away from him to look into her eyes. “Gia… You are a sweet young woman… But I think you’re completely forgetting that I am married and even if she can’t have children of her own, I don’t think she would appreciate a surrogate mother right now. For us, having children has passed. We have Morrison and he is all that we need. Besides, I don’t think spending a few days each week with a “supposed surrogate mother” is very suspicious and Linda is far from being naïve, believe me…”

Gia had to let the subject go since Nick wasn’t sold with the idea at all. She thought it was a full-proof plan of being able to continue with their affair while his wife unknowingly approves of it. But Nick thought otherwise. She wasn’t sure if Nick was enamored of her like she was of him so she needed more convincing to do for the handsome married man to forget about his ageing wife.

What Gia didn’t know then was that Nick was never going to leave Linda for anybody. He had grown too familiar with her and she had always forgiven him for his transgressions. They have come to, sort of, an agreeable existence with each other while staying married to each other. Nick had gotten accustomed to that kind of life and deep inside, whether he admits it or not, he had grown to love Linda over the years. She has been so patient and understanding, always looking out for their best interest as a family and the most amiable wife anybody could ever ask. That was Linda to Nick.

But, as Gia had found out after she had given Linda access to her accounts through her lawyer, Linda was far from the friendly cub that she portrayed herself to be when in front of people. Inside, Linda was like an angry tigress that would spring and kill anybody who would hurt her family. That was Linda… the real one.

So, Gia had her day of comeuppance, broken and isolated from the world like a person with boils whom nobody wanted to touch. She vowed to return the favor to Linda McElroy. And her day had finally come.

Gia finishes her drink and gets ready for her early dinner date that night. Something tells her that it’s going to be a quick one and she’s actually thinking of skipping the date altogether and fly to New York right away… But she’s hungry and she wants to have her favorite coffee at the place they were going so she might as well have a little fun before she has some real fun, ending Linda’s life.

By the time that five o’clock comes around, she has her purse in her hand and ready to get out the door. She pulls on her dress and adjusts it. She’s wearing a simple black dress with a high slit on the side. Her matching purse is slung on her dainty shoulders as she gets inside the limousine, which was courtesy of the hotel she is staying at the moment. The only other property she owned is her ancestral home in Tuscany. After the lawsuit she got involved in, all her assets had been confiscated and sold off to different companies, leaving her with only the properties that were passed down to her and hers by birth, like the house in Tuscany. Albeit it was the only real estate that she has at the moment, it’s the one that has been giving her ample money to live comfortably. The vineyard at the back of the house grows one of the best grapes in the land and she was lucky that a neighboring wine company went into business with her even after the lawsuit. It was the only shot she had to get enough funds to move forward and to plot her revenge. She still has her trust fund but it had dwindled throughout the years.

“Boulevard Saint Germain s’il vous plait,” she says to the driver and they drive off after a few seconds.

She looks at her watch and knows that she would get there in time. She doesn’t like being late, even for a date, or a semi-date, for she needs to run afterwards to the airport. When she arrives at the restaurant, she is ushered in by the waitress to her table at the corner of the room. It’s a pricey restaurant and she was glad that her date even had the chance to get a reservation. The restaurant is usually fully booked for the next two months at least.

“Ah, ma Cherie! You look breathtaking!” Jones, her date, exclaims as she nears their table. He is a young model who just got his break in the fashion industry. Paris is the perfect avenue for him to grow as a model… and the fact that he had to, basically, screw anybody he needed to so he could get bookings and be a Calvin Klein model.

They met at last year’s Paris Fashion Week where Gia was invited by an old friend to attend and enjoy the night away. She did enjoy the night with Jones after they met at the after party of one of the successful designers. He was young and passionate and he loved life.

She first saw him chatting away with some of his other young model colleagues at the pool. They were very loud and that got her attention as she slowly sipped her gin and tonic at the balcony of the house. She felt ridiculous for even going to the after party. There were mostly kids in their twenties or even teenage years, in the party, which was understandable since the line of the designer was on teenage clothing.

Of course, he would have teenagers modeling his work! And yet you still thought it was a good idea to tag along and maybe you’d find somebody who might want to listen to your rumblings! She berated herself as she lets her glass down with care on the railing of the balcony. She was about to leave and just spend the boring night at her hotel room when a good-looking young man approached her with a sly smile.

“Hey, beautiful… Are you here by yourself?” he asked. He held his drink with his right hand and ran his other hand through his beautifully messy blond hair.

“Look, I’m on my way out and you certainly look intoxicated enough not to even remember my name if I even give it to you. So let’s not go through this game and just let me pass,” was her curt reply and tried side stepping him.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you would want to have some company. I, honestly, don’t like parties like these. I only want to get along with these obnoxious models that’s why I act loud and all talkative… but I’m actually not comfortable with a crowd. Then I saw you all by yourself and I felt drawn to you. I… I don’t mean to waste your time and all… I’ll go my way then,” he said then turned his back slowly with the intention of going back where he came from.

He noticed that she had a French accent but was not very distinct, but he had always been keen to languages and was trying to learn the French language since he was to work in Paris from then on. He hails from a small town in Iowa and he had clawed his way into the fashion industry from the very first time he saw how much models travelled around the world. That was his first motivation, to be able to travel and live in luxurious hotels and basically, have total control of his life. Back in Iowa, he was expected to run the family business involving managing the three restaurants that his father owned. But he had a different path he wanted to follow and he did. He secretly auditioned for shows and even tried acting on the side when he was in College. He went to the city to study but he only spent a year in the State University then flew to Los Angeles and went to fashion go-sees. Luckily, after about his tenth one, he snagged a small stint modeling for a retail brand, which lasted for a few months and then his big break happened when he was recruited by a designer who was participating at the Fashion Week to be held in Paris that year. It was a dream come true for him and all he wanted to do when he got there was to stay where he was. However, the production was cancelled and the show never happened for his designer. He was devastated. But he wouldn’t let himself be stuck there, without money, without lodging, and without a job. So he did what he had to do. He sold himself to other models who toyed with him because of his good looks and young body. And after a few months of this, he hit the jackpot and became one of the boyfriends of a celebrated designer, who, of course, made him a part of his modeling staff and lined him up to strut on the runway for his fall line.

Finally, he was able to attend the Paris Fashion Week and there, during the after party, he met the alluring Gia de Grassi. He’s hear do her before but not in detail. All he knew about her was that she’s no longer in her prime but still a lovely woman, who had the misfortune of falling from grace. It is rumored, though, that she still owned a fortune and is alone. So, he thought he’d introduce himself and perhaps, get more acquainted with the heiress. After all, he’s grown pretty tired of the crowd he’s been with for months now and he wouldn’t mind having a change of scenery. He wants to have a luxurious life and this is what there French heiresses are all about according to his limited exposure to them. But still, he wanted to give Gia a try. Perhaps they would find refuge in each other’s arms.

“Umm, hey, wait a minute,” Gia said after Jones turned his back on her.

Jones hid a smile and faced her with a kind of a let-down look on his face. “Yes?”

“Okay. I could spare a minute with you but only one minute! After that, I’m on my way. Besides, I’m still waiting for my limo.”

He beamed and offered her his arm. “Of course, mademoiselle! Now, let’s get a little fresh air, shall we?”

And that’s how they started. They’ve been seeing each other on and off for about four months and although it’s not serious for the both of them, they still stuck with each other because they know that they are so alike in many ways, one being, they are not comfortable with changes. They are not really just lovers or just friends, sometimes they can’t stand each other, and other times, they act like lovesick puppies. Complicated is the most appropriate word for what they have and they are comfortable being like that.

“And you are looking particularly dashing, Jones. I don’t believe I’ve seen you in that tux before?” she accepts his kiss on both of her cheeks and sits on the velvet chair that he held out for her.

“Well, I’ve been a very good boy that my boss gave me a little bonus last week. And that’s why I wanted to have dinner as well. I am actually on my way to Los Angeles tonight for a show and… I was wondering if, ah,” he scratches his head and seems to be shy about what he is about to say.

“What? What are you going to say?” she asks, while checking the menu. She’s not paying full attention to him since her mind is on her flight that night as well. “Oh, and yeah, I am also on my way to New York tonight for some business meeting.”

“Oh,” he says, looking disappointed.

“So,” she looks up from the menu and asks again, “I’m glad you’re having some shows again. What were you going to say?”

“Um, nothing…,” he ducks his head so she won’t see him lying and looks at his menu as well, “I’m glad you’re going stateside as well. How long would you be there?”

“Just a couple of days, I guess. I just need to take care of some pressing business problems.” She looks over at Jones and feels that there’s something else he wanted to say but she doesn’t push it. She can just ask later.

“Oh, okay. Maybe I’ll meet you there perhaps. Are you going to be busy the whole time?” he asks again. He wants to be honest with her and tell her how he really feels about her now that they’ve been together, on and off, for several months, but he’s afraid that he might scare her away. He remembers what she said to him the first night they were together.

“Promise me you won’t fall in love with me, Jones,” she whispered to him as they laid on the bed, spent from their lovemaking.

They spent the whole night together, with the after party of the Paris Fashion Week show, and even enjoying a cup of coffee afterwards in the streets of Saint Germain. He honestly thought that she would just be another random woman whom he could use to get the things that he wanted like living comfortably, and he did that during the first few months because he felt that she, too, was using him for her own reasons as well. They were obviously just using each other and he was comfortable with that.

But just last month, as they laid on her hotel room bed, he glanced at her sleeping guise and saw her… the real her. Her eyebrows were drawn together and her breathing was getting faster as if she was struggling with something in the dream she was having. She suddenly jerks and gasps, waking up after a nightmare and she reached for him instinctively. And as surprised as he was, he let her draw him to her. He hugged her shivering body to him and whispered soothing words to her like what one does to a crying child. She was being the scared child she was, and it was the first time that Jones saw honesty in her. She never showed any vulnerability in the way she spoke to him or acted towards him or everybody else. And he’s spent a few nights in her bed but never after she had already fallen asleep. He learned from the first time they got together that she doesn’t want anyone beside her when she wakes up in the morning and she was very vocal about that. She had asked him before to promise to leave after she had fallen asleep, and he had always done so.

Except that night. He didn’t want to leave just yet so he stayed another hour after she had fallen asleep and that’s when he witnessed the most vulnerable part of Gia. The most honest she could ever be… And he liked holding her in his arms that way, in a non-sexual way. He liked the feeling that she was dependent on him, even for just those few minutes.

After several minutes, she had fallen back to sleep and never awoke until he decided to finally leave her at around three in the morning. He wanted to make sure that she didn’t have any more nightmares before he left. And he wanted to gaze more into her unguarded state because he doesn’t see that side of her very often, or almost never at all.

Then as he was walking back to his apartment at four in the morning, it struck him that he never slept with anybody else in those whole time that they were together, except for her. She knew that he was very good-looking and had many girls on the side, so she never pushed him into getting into any kind of label between them. She made it clear that she wasn’t looking for a relationship of the romantic kind. In her exact words, “It’s not like I’m going to marry you someday and have kids with you because that would be crazy”.

He realized that he felt something more than friendship with Gia. He wants more nights with her, holding her tight to ward off her nightmares. He wants to be the one she reaches to whenever she’s scared. He wants more than what they have…

So, since that night, he had secretly been looking for the perfect moment to tell her what he really felt about her. He goes crazy at times that she doesn’t respond to his messages or wouldn’t meet with him because of a prior engagement. He has never been the jealous kind but when it comes to Gia, he would go crazy with jealousy knowing that she might be with someone else and doing all the things that they do inside the bedroom. During those times, he would go out and get drunk out of his senses. He would normally not remember how he got home the next day or who he was with but he was still glad that for a night, he forgot about her.

Then news came that he would be going to Los Angeles for the next two months. He would be the lead model for an ad for a known brand of clothing. It was a huge opportunity for him and he couldn’t say no to it. He decided to call up Gia and have dinner with her before he flies out. He just found out that morning so he was ecstatic when Gia agreed to have dinner with him.

“I might be busy during the first few days but not so much afterwards. I’m really not sure, Jones. And I’m not sure that it’s wise to meet up when were there. I don’t actually know what my exact schedule might be so I think its best to postpone meeting up… at least until we get back here,” she says offhandedly.

Jones tries to crush the urge to ask again or to push with meeting up with her so he decides to order to get his mind off what she just said. They order their favorite meals and talks some more about what’s been happening to each other.

“It’s been, what, three weeks or a month since we last saw each other, right? So how’s everything?” he asks, mustering his best forgetful look but in his mind, he had counted the hours.

“Yes, I think about three weeks or so. Nothing much had happened, except for the fire in the vineyard. It’s good that only a small portion of the plants got burned. Just imagine if it had spread! It would have decimated the whole vineyard and I would be out of work. Hah! I don’t know if I can live anywhere else or do anything else aside from managing something,” she laughs.

“You could find a husband and have a family?” he says all of a sudden.

She looks at him with an amused expression and answers, “Well, if he deserves it or lucky enough to find me, maybe I will have a family someday. Can you imagine me with kids and a white picket fence?” she asks with the same amused tone.

“Well, maybe. You don’t know what will happen in the future you know. I, personally, want to have a wife and maybe a couple of kids running around in the backyard,” he adds.

“Hmm, I’ve never pegged you as someone who would want to settle down. At what age are we talking about? Maybe when you’re sixty?” She’s making fun of him because she doesn’t believe that he would ever want a family of his own.

“You haven’t known the rest of me yet, that’s why,” he jokes.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I’m happy you still long to have your own family in the future. Me, on the other hand, am not entirely sure I still want one. And I’m not exactly in that stage that you call “child-bearing age”. So, its probably best that I pass on it and enjoy my single blessedness. Its fun! Its better than having complicated relationships and then end up divorcing after a couple of years. No, thank you!”

They grow silent for a few seconds then Jones turns serious and says, ”Gia… I have something else to tell you…”

She looks at him with an expression that shows that she’s waiting for whatever it was he was about to tell her when there’s a sudden explosion somewhere to her right. They are inside the restaurant, on the corner, beside a big window that looks out to the streets of Saint Germain so the blast reached them and shattered the glass that’s beside them. Jones is quick to pull her down with him after the blast shattered the glass of the windows. Shards of glass were in her hair and some on her bare arms but she couldn’t feel any of it yet. She is still in shock of the explosion that she doesn’t feel the trickle of blood   on the side of her. A small piece of glass had lodged itself on her right cheekbone and it’s making the wound gush with blood.

“A-are you okay? Gia? Gia? Hey! Look at me!” Jones is shouting at her from above the screams and other noises in the restaurant. She can hear him but there’s a ringing in her ears that made his voice sound muffled and seemed so far away even if he just screamed right next to her ears.

“W-what?” she asks but can’t hear her own voice.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” he asks again then sees the glass that’s still on her cheekbone when he turned her face towards him. “Hold still,” he commands then takes a napkin from an upturned table, and takes out the small piece from her face. The end of it sticks out so he could see it clearly and yanks it out slowly. He uses the napkin to dab on the wound, “Hold this and keep pressure there. The bleeding should stop after several minutes but you have to press on it, okay?”

She nods and keeps the napkin pressed to her face firmly. She can’t feel the pain yet but she is slowly gaining her hearing. There’s still a ringing in her ears but its considerably not that loud anymore.

“What happened?” They look around and see people lying on the ground, their tables all haphazardly strewn on the floor as plates, utensils, bottles, and other utensils are all on the floor as well.

“I don’t know but we have to get out of here. It’s no safe here. The restaurant’s roof might collapse, see?” he points to the ceiling and sees it slowly collapsing. He grabs her hand and leads her out of the crowded restaurant. Lots of people are on the ground, others were no longer moving while the rest are lying flat on their stomachs, too afraid to make a move for fear that another blast might happen.

“I think that a bomb went off or maybe a big building with explosives or fireworks because if it were just an ordinary building that caught fire or had a blown switch that caused an explosion, it wouldn’t be that big… not like this… No, this is something else. Come! We must find safety!”

She only nods and follows Jones as he goes forward towards the parked cars on the street, many of which are on fire but there are a couple in the alley that looks like it was spared from the blast. Towing her with him, he goes from car to car to see if its open. He tries the door handle of the first one but it’s locked so they go to the other one beside it. Miraculously, it is open so he yanks open the driver’s door and looks for the keys.

“I’m sure the authorities have already seen the explosion and they are probably on their way here. We just need to hold out until they get here but we’d suffocate here if we don’t get to somewhere safe,” he tells her as they pile inside the car.

He tries to start it but it sputters several times then finally, it starts. It’s screechy sound fills the alley as he slowly steps on the gas. He takes care not to make any loud sounds for it might cause a commotion and would further collapse the buildings round them. It was a strong blast and it took out the whole street where they were having their dinner.

“What do you think happened? We must find shelter from these buildings because they look like they’d collapse anytime,” he says as they pullout of the alley slowly.

“I- I don’t know what’s happening… Wh-where are we going anyway? Can you see anything in this thick smoke? You might hit somebody, Jones!” she replies with obvious panic in her voice.

“We have to get out of here, Gia. We can’t stick around here and wait to be crushed by these bricks. Look, we’re going to go slowly okay?”

She nods slowly and looks around cautiously as the inches forward out of the alley. The street is pretty much full of debris and bodies but they can get around if they go slowly.

“Hold, on, Gia. I promise, I’ll get you out of here. Just have faith, okay? We’re going to be okay, you’ll see,” he tells her this as he presses more on the gas and steers the wheel carefully.

“Jones?”she asks after a full minute of silence.

“What is it Gia?”

“It’s deadly quiet out here. Do you think there are still survivors out there? Where are we going?” she scoots closer to him and holds his arm.

Her gesture puts a smile on his face. It makes him feel good for her to reach for him when she’s scared. He wants to be there for her in every way and easing her fears was one task he would gladly do.

“I’m sure there are lots of survivors, Gia. Maybe they’ve gone ahead and looked for shelter elsewhere as well. Don’t worry, we’ll find people out there. Hold fast and don’t be scared, I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to you,” he says with resolve and looks at her with a comforting smile on his face.

She is taken by surprise at how sincere he seems to be when he uttered those words. She looks at him with wonder and feels differently about him all of a sudden. She’s been trying to hold herself back from feeling anything about anybody, especially for him, because she didn’t want anything to destroy their convenient set up. But for the past month, she had been missing him even more each time they part and she’s been trying to shake off that feeling by declining his invites to lunches and dates. She wanted to stay away from feeling anything romantic about what they have. They’ve agreed in the beginning that it would be nothing but a partnership for the both of them. Yes, they are friends, and yes, they allow themselves the benefit of being more than that physically, but never emotionally. She remembered making him promise not to fall in love with her, but in truth, she was making herself promise that she must not fall in love with him.

And now, they’re in a pickle because she sees in his eyes that what he said about him being there for her is the truth and she can feel her heart swell with love as he looks into her eyes and assures her with his gaze. She wants to throw her arms around him and give herself fully to him as someone who can be romantically involved with him.

“Jones, I…,” she starts but then they hear a shout from behind them.

“Watch out!” says a male voice behind the car, coming from the direction of the restaurant.

They look behind them and sees a handful of people still inside the restaurant, cooped up with each other. One man, a waiter according to how he was dressed, waves at them and points up their heads.

“What the -,” Jones says then looks up at what the waiter is pointing at. “Oh, my God…”

“What? What is it?” she says, looking up as well.

“Look out!” he shouts at her then drags her down to the floorboards and covers her with his body. She gets knocked down to the floor of the car and loses her bearings for a few seconds.

The next instant, she feels Jones’ body weigh her down some more to the floor. She pushes up with her hands to steady herself but his heavy build is too much for her to bear. With one breath, she heaves herself up and pushes him off of her. A huge boulder had dropped from the building beside them and landed on the hood of the sedan. Jones used his body to screen it from hitting her but he was hit instead and lost consciousness.

She eases him from her and sees that they are trapped inside the car but she can still move around if she bends her body accordingly. Jones’ lower body is half lying on the driver’s seat and his head and chest is slowly sliding to the floor of the seat.

“Oh my, God! Jones!” she grabs a hold of the lapels of his tux and pulls him up to her. He’s heavy but she uses her leg to assist her in heaving him to back to the seat. She locates the seat adjustment knob and pushes the seat all the way down to the backseat where Jones could now lie down.

“Jones! Jones! Wake up, Jones!” she inspects his face and sees blood on his lip and on his temple. He must have been hit in different places and his face must have hit the steering wheel or the dashboard. Then she remembers that there were people in the restaurant before the boulder hit the car.

Maybe they’re still out there.

“Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi! Il y a quelqu’un là-bas?” she screams and bangs on the sides of the car. The whole front half of the car is buried in the debris of the boulder and the back part is up against the wall. The impact of the boulder propelled the car backwards and back up the wall behind it. The trunk is crushed making it impossible for any escape from the back. The only other option is for the boulder to be removed or else they would be trapped there and might possibly suffocate from the smoke that’s coming from the burning building beside them.

She calls out again and uses her hands and feet to make noises to attract anybody’s attention. Then after several minutes, she hears voices.

“Attendez! Reste où tu es!” someone says from the outside. At first their words seem muffled and far away but it was because of the huge block of cement boulder that was on top of the sedan. Then there are more voices and more shouting from the outside. She hears instructions being given out in French on how to remove the cement block from the top of the car.

She looks at Jones who is still out cold and caresses his face. “Don’t worry, Jones. Help is here. Hold on. Don’t…,” her voice catches in her throat and fights the urge to cry. She gulps hard and swallows the emotions that threatens to spill over, “Don’t let go. I’m here. I’m not leaving you, Jones, please…” she rests her face close to his and feels his faint breathing. She tries to stem the blood gushing from his forehead but the cut where it’s coming from seems deep and big that’s why there was so much blood coming out of it.

As the hears the people still working outside to get them free, she tears out parts of her dress to use as makeshift bandages and towels to dab on the blood coming from his cuts. Her face is also caked with blood but she doesn’t care. All she could think about is Jones and how she could get him out of there. And how similar the scene is to what she saw when she and her father had the accident that claimed his life.

“No! You will not die on me too, Jones! I can’t let you! You can’t die because…,” she stops and thinks, Why? Because what?

“Because I love you, that’s what! Yes, I love you, Jones Kendrick! I’ve loved you for a while now and the only reason why I couldn’t allow myself to do so was my fear of being left behind again…” she says, the last words were whispers that only she could hear.

She starts to cry. She’s letting herself weep for her father, for feeling helpless again for not being able to do anything more for Jones, like what happened when her father died. She suddenly feels a hand come up to her face and wipe her tears away.

“Jones!” she gasps and holds on to his hand. His eyes are now half open, despite the caked blood down the side of his face from the wound in his forehead. “Oh my, God! Jones, you’re okay!” she hugs him tight and lets go because of his slight protest.

“Ouch!” he hisses but then smiles up at her after she pulled away.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Did it hurt? I’m sorry… I’m just so happy to see you awake! I was so afraid that you’d never wake up… I was so scared for you, Jones…” she hugs him again but more gently this time.

“Gia… I told you, I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I’m just here, I won’t leave you, okay?” he looks longingly at her and sits up a bit on his seat.

The people outside are still banging and hacking at the cement block while shouting words of encouragement to Gia and Jones. Gia responds to them whenever they call out so they would know that they are still alive and are waiting to be rescued.

“Gia?” Jones asks as she dabs on the blood on his another cut on his right arm.

“Hmm?” she answers while she looks for other cuts on his arms.

“Did you mean what you said?” he asks in a low voice.

Gia stops what she’s doing for a few seconds as the question sinks in. Oh shit! He heard me! What should I say? Should I admit it? Or should I continue not telling him what I really feel and flat out lie to him?

She clears her throat and keeps on inspecting his arms for other wounds. “What are you talking about? You were out cold earlier… I was talking to myself… Or maybe I was calling out for help. I don’t know exactly… what you’re talking about…”

He places his fingers under her chin and lifts her face slowly to meet his. “Gia? Please… Can we stop lying to each other? I think its about time and if this,” he looks around at the small, cramped space of the car, “is the only way for us to be truly honest to each other, then I am glad that this happened to us… Well, except my injuries, of course. They freakin’ hurt like hell!” he chuckles.

She laughs at his remark too and shakes her head at him for still being so humorous after all the pain he’s been through.

He turns serious after a few seconds and holds her hands in his, “Seriously, Gia. I was going to tell you tonight… I was going to ask you to come with me to Los Angeles… I had planned to go home to my hometown and have you meet my parents. They’ve been waiting for me to bring home a lady whom they might see me have a family with… someday…”

Gia remains speechless but her heart is swelling up inside from all the love she’s starting  to let herself feel for the man who risked his life to save hers.

“And, I, ah, I truly would like to believe, if you would have me, of course… To, ah,” he starts stammering and can’t seem to get the right words out of his mouth. He is too nervous to deliver his message in the way he pictured it to be. “Ugh! I can’t even get the words right!” he starts getting angry at himself for messing up but Gia places her forefinger on his lips gently and says,

“Shhh… Jones, you don’t have to say anything… I, ah, I would love to go with you to your hometown and I’d be honored to meet your parents.”

They look at each other and they know in their hearts that finally, after four months of sleeping with each other and not allowing any emotions to get between them, they are being honest and are starting to let their hearts rule over their heads. Their faces draw closer to each other as Gia closes her eyes in anticipation for their kiss.

“Mademoiselle?” a voice calls out from outside and when she opens her eyes, she sees that the people who were calling for her from the outside of the car were able to dig out a hole in the cement block which was big enough for Jones and her to crawl out from.

An ambulance was waiting for them on the street. The emergency personnel who responded carried Jones out with a stretcher and gave Gia a mask to breathe into for oxygen. They had been inside the suffocating car for about fifteen minutes or so and inhaled lots of smoke from the burning buildings all around them.

Gia is escorted to another ambulance but wanted to go with Jones. “No, I’m with him. I want to go with him,” she protests as the EMT was about to close the ambulance door.

“D’accord Madame,” says the EMT and lets her into the ambulance where Jones is.

The moment she sees him, his eyes lit up and he stretches out his hand to hers. She takes it and puts it up to her cheeks, relishing the warmth of his big hands.

“Oh, Gia… I am so happy that we made it out and that we’re still together…,” he whispers in her ears as the ambulance drives away towards the hospital.

“Oui… And we will be together far longer than those minutes we were inside the car. I-if you would have me…” she answers back.

“Oh, Gia,” he pulls up his body with one hand and kissed her full on the mouth. The EMT inside with them graciously busies himself with arranging the bandages behind him and radioing the other ambulances to coordinate.

After a long and passionate kiss, he draws her away only to tell her what he originally wanted to tell her during their date. “I love you, Gia de Grassi. I’ve loved you since a couple of months ago when I woke up from being a stupid idiot and saw you for who you really are. You are kind and good and even if you hide yourself away from everybody else, I see you… and I love you!”

Gia feels tears spring to her eyes and realizes that she wants to believe everything Jones said about her. Maybe it is high time to move on and forget having her senseless revenge where she would not only hurt other people, but herself as well in the process. Maybe it’s time to set aside her differences with the McElroys and get on with her life. She’s destroyed years of it already. And maybe if she had just listened to her good sense then and never even considered entering into a relationship which was doomed in the first place for one party was already married, then she wouldn’t have tasted the bitter vengeance of a wronged woman, Nick’s wife. Maybe they were all hurt in this whole vengeful act that she had concocted and that people, by nature, just retaliate to threats involving their families… protecting their families with every inch of their abilities and even going against their better judgements…

“Jones Kendrick, I love you too!” she replies and showers him with kisses as he laughs until his injuries hurt. But every ounce of pain he was experiencing was worth it.

 

 

Chapter V

 

“The blast in Paris has sparked worldwide panic as the streets…,” the television reporter continuous giving them horrendous news about the bombing in Paris and Morrison has not been able to reach Theo in past hour.

“Damn it to hell! Where the hell could he be?! Shit!” he slams his mobile phone on his office table and rakes his fingers through his hair.

He was at home when the news broke out but he couldn’t stay in one place so he decided to go to his office and find out what he could do from there to find his mother. He presumes that no one would be calling him at that hour because if anybody would be asking for any demands, they would have called hours ago.

His phone suddenly rings as Morrison juggles with it in anticipation of Theo’s call but it isn’t Theo.

“Sir, we’ve found her,” says the voice whom Morrison recognizes as one of his men.

“Tell me,” he answers in a calm but deadly voice.

In the next half hour, Morrison drives around town following the directions that his man gave him. He also made calls to the police to give them the directions as well but couldn’t wait for them to come pick him up. He just wants to go and get his mother and make sure she was all right.

He arrives at the place where his man meets up with him shortly after he concealed his car in a dark spot.

“What have you seen?” he whispers to Jake, his most trusted investigator, as they crouch low behind the bushes as they scour the vicinity while the police are still on their way.

“There are four men in total, two outside, prowling around, probably the sentinels to keep watch for intruders, and another two inside with your mother, I presume. I didn’t see her yet but according to the call she made, we got in touch with your phone company and triangulated the signal within a fifty-mile radius. After more inferring with my other colleagues, we found several abandoned places such as warehouses and old residential houses. I had them checked and so far, this is the one we highly suspect is the house where they are keeping her. But as I said, I have not seen her personally for we haven’t entered the premises yet. I wanted to call you first and let you see for yourself.

“Wow! You work faster than the cops! I am impressed,” Morrison answers, feeling certain that it is the exact place that his mother is being held prisoner.

“That’s why you pay us, Mr. McElroy. Now, according to my colleagues, they see some activity inside. One of the other men is coming out. Would you want us to take them now so we could see if your mother is indeed inside the building?” he asks, his hand poised to give the signal to his companions through his earpiece.

“Yes, let’s take them now. We’ll find out later if you’re right. The important thing is we eliminate as many places as possible in our search for my mother,” he replies, readying himself for a fight. He was not going to stand around and let them fight the bad guys alone. He wants in on the action too.

“Okay men, take them out,” Jake says calmly into the earpiece.

One by one, the two men who were outside the house dropped. Jake’s men used a tranquilizer to knock them out, using their snipper skills to make the accurate shots from afar.

“Okay, good. Now, Mr. McElroy, you better stay here until I clear the house.” Jake makes a move towards the thug who is on his way outside when Morrison charges forward and takes Kurt by the arm. He twists Kurt’s arm, locking it behind the man’s back and shoving him against the wall.

“Where is Linda McElroy!” Morrison asks Kurt in a deadly whisper. “Tell me, now! Or your arm would never go back the way it was!”

Kurt cries out in pain but Morrison shoves a piece of cloth in his mouth to stifle his cries. Kurt makes moaning sounds and makes nodding gestures, signaling to Morrison that he’s ready to talk.

“So, are you going to tell me now?”

Kurt nods as Morrison takes the cloth off his mouth. “Yes! Sh- she’s inside,” he gasps, catching his breath. “She’s inside with Mike, okay! Please, let me go. I- I had nothing to do with this plan… We were just given instructions…”

Morrison shoves him, some more which presses his face against the cement. The cement scrapes his face as he cringes from the pain.

“Who sent you? Whose plan is this, huh? Tell me!” he lifts Kurt’s face form the cement only to push it back harder to the wall.

“Ow! C’mon man! I already told you, she’s inside! I-I don’t know who the boss is… Only Mike knows, I swear!” he pleads again and this time, Morrison tosses him aside to Jake and tells Jake to subdue the man with rope, which Jake does with little effort.

Jake hits Kurt on the back of the head to knock him out until the cops got there and then proceeds to go inside the house cautiously with Morrison.

Morrison looks at Jake as they converge at the door, “You check the right and I’ll go left. Remember, no harm must ever come to my mother and if you can avoid it don’t kill that Mike fellow. I want to question him some more and I don’t want the cops to get to him first,” he whispers.

“Copy that, sir. I’ll be quick and quiet,” Jake replies and goes in first with Morrison following suit.

The inside of the house is dark with only the moon as the source of light. Jake crosses the threshold between what seems to be a small living room and the kitchen, which were both on the right from the main door. Morrison, on the other hand, goes towards the left side and sees a staircase going up. He looks up cautiously and glances over to Jake, who shook his head, signaling that the living room and kitchen are clear. Morrison nods and points upwards, towards the second floor. He steps on the first flight of stairs and hears the wood creak with his every step. He cringes at each sound but hopes that the other thug doesn’t hear it.

Jake is right behind him and as they reach the top of the stairs, they separate again, each taking one side of the upstairs rooms but as they converge back to where they first parted ways, they didn’t see or hear anything from the rooms.

“Where could they be keeping her?” asks Jake then gets an idea. “Maybe there’s an underground cellar or basement or something. My men have not checked this house yet so we better get down and see if there’s a hidden room below.

“Good idea. Let’s go. And where the fuck are those cops?” Morrison mutters as they start going down the flight of stairs. “We better make this quick Jake. My mother’s not in good health.”

He is terrified to even allow himself into thinking that Linda might be sick or unconscious somewhere in that old house. It makes him mad to think that if he couldn’t protect his own mother from their enemies, what would make him capable of protecting Cornelia?

Jake signals to him from where he is and points to a small door. “I think that one’s a basement or cellar door,” he whispers to Morrison as he came closer. “I’ll go ahead and see what’s down there. You wait here until I give you the signal to come down, okay?”

Morrison nods and lets him go inside after opening the door. It wasn’t locked so he didn’t have to pick it. The door gives a small creaking sound as Jake opens a fraction. He goes inside stealthily and then all of a sudden, there’s a ruckus from the inside and it sounds like its coming from below.

Morrison decides to charge inside himself and opens the door wide. There’s a narrow stairway going down with only a dim and flickering yellow bulb lighting the inside of the basement. It didn’t lend much light to the basement, only enough for Morrison to see where he is stepping on.

“Jake!” he hisses but there’s no answer from Jake. He’s being careful not to be so loud just in case they have not been discovered yet. “Jake, where are you?” he calls out again but still no answer. He lands his foot gently on the fourth step from the top when suddenly, a hand grabs his left ankle and yanks it from underneath the stairs. “Ow!” he yelps as he stumbles forward. He uses his hands to shield his face and head from hitting the ground as he rolls to the foot of the stairs.

He hits the wall and comes to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. He comes to his senses quickly and shakes his head to ward off his dizziness. He looks around quickly and can’t see much due to the dim light. He gropes around for something to hang on to as he stands up slowly.

“Mom? Jake? Are you in here?” he whispers, still not sure if the enemy had spotted them already but since someone grabbed his ankles, he guesses that the Mike fellow probably knows and is waiting to pounce on him. Shit! How could I be so careless? I should have waited for the cops… Who knows what he has stored in this basement?

Then he hears a sudden movement on his right and a distinct grunt. “What the-,” he exclaims as a man charging with an axe comes and attacks him. He is quick to duck and roll over on the ground to avoid the weapon the guy is wielding.

“What the fuck!” Morrison rolls some more and hits another part of the wall with a thud. He regains his footing and springs to his feet with agile movements. He is further into the basement and its pitch black where they are. A sliver of light shines on the glass window and shows a figure below it. The figure is slouched forward but appears to be breathing but restrained on the chair that its sitting on.

“Jake?” he whispers as he edges towards it. He squints his eyes to see more from the dark room but he could barely see the figure beneath the window. He reaches the window and can see that it is Jake, slumped over, sitting on the wooden chair with his hands tied behind his back.

“Jake! Wake up man!” he grabs Jakes shoudlers and gives it a shake then tries loosening the ropes on his hands.

“Wh-what happened?” Jake says groggily as he comes to.

Then Mike lunges from the shadows again with his axe and hits the wall where Morrison was standing on just a few seconds ago. He ducks behind Jake and kicks something on the ground. He picks it up and stands quickly in time to stop Mike form swinging his axe again at him. The object on the ground near the corner of the room was a gun so Morrison holds it up in front of him and takes aim on Mike’s shoulder.

The shot rings across the room and the sound is deafening. In the next instant, Mike is on the floor, moaning from his shoulder wound. Morrison was successful with his aim. He quickly approaches the man on the floor and kicks the axe away from his hands.

“Stay where you are! Stay or I will shoot you between the eyes!” Morrison shouts at Mike as he looks over to his shoulder and sees Jake trying to loosen his ropes. He already has one hand out of the restraints Mike put on him and is about to finish the other one.

He stands beside Morrison, rubbing his forehead where a gnash had begun bleeding. “What the hell. He caught me by surprise when I reached the landing. I saw his shadow move from behind so I was able to kick the gun out of his hands but then he was holding an axe on the other one, which he swung right above my head. I lost my balance and went down to the ground where he knocked me out, I guess.”

“Yeah, I was lucky my head wasn’t chopped off as well when I came inside. Where are the fucking lights in this place anyway?”

Jake takes out a lighter and looks for the switch, which is at the far side of the brick wall. He turns on the switch and bright lights comes on. It blinds them for a few seconds but as their eyes adjust to the light, they see boxes and crates lying around the basement. It’s a storeroom of sorts, probably from the ones who used to live there.

“Hey! Where is Linda McElroy?” Morrison kicks Mike’s foot as the man groans from the pain. “Tell me! Where did you take her?”

Mike doesn’t answer right away but laughs at him instead.

“What the fuck are you laughing about? You want me to end you right here, right now? Because I will not hesitate to blow your brains out and I couldn’t care shit if the cops are already outside!” was Morrison’s heated answer to Mike’s laugh.

The sirens were blaring outside and he could hear the cops scramble towards the house, shouting orders to each other to secure the perimeter and to look for them.

“You wouldn’t kill me… at least not right away,” says Mike with a snort. He sounds so confident and crazy that infuriates Morrison even more. He takes a step closer to Mike and points the gun closer to Mike’s forehead with angry eyes.

“Yeah! And why is that? Who’s going to stop me, huh? Jake is sure as hell wouldn’t lift an inch to help you, asshole! Now tell me where she is now!”

“You won’t kill me because I am the only one who knows where your precious mother is right now, Mr. McElroy, Jr…” Mike says then laughs again. He has totally lost his mind now. He didn’t expect anyone to know where they are because no one from his companions would even dare rat him or Gia out.

 

When they dragged the old lady’s still sedated body out of the car, they knew that it was only a matter of time until Gia arrives and gets her say with the old lady. After that, they would need to dispose the body, probably near a river or an abandoned lot or something. He figured they’d just think about the technicalities once they’ve killed the old lady.

But as it turned out, after about an hour, they saw that news that there was a bombing in Paris. He tried calling Gia afterwards but he couldn’t get an answer.

“What do we do now, Mike? What if she doesn’t come?” Kurt asked as Mike paced across the living room of the abandoned house.

“I don’t know, you idiot! Let me think clearly for a few minutes, will you?!” he snapped at Kurt, which got him to shut up for his own  good. Mike continued pacing until an idea struck him. “Well, if she doesn’t arrive at the designated time, then we’d have to move to Plan B.”

Kurt looked at him with a puzzled look, “There’s a Plan B? What is Plan A in the first place?”

Mike just shook his head at him and replied. “That’s for me to know and you to follow. So, start digging.”

“Huh? Dig where? What are you talking about? Can you let me at least know what you intend to do with the old lady? Are we going to kill her or what?” was Kurt’s answer, still with doubt written all over his face as to if he should follow what Mike’s telling him.

“Listen, you idiot! I’m in charge now! Gia is probably off there in Paris somewhere. We don’t even know if she’s still alive. So instead of gawking around here, not knowing what to do with this rich bitch, why don’t you just listen to me and do as I say!” repeated Mike brandishing his gun as he said it.

Kurt put his hands up and didn’t protest anymore, “Okay, okay, boss. Whatever you say,” then proceeds to digging up the ground in the basement where they’ve placed the old lady.

“That’s some pretty strong stuff you’ve mixed into the air conditioning, man. She’s still out cold. How did you manage to avoid getting drugged?” Kurt stabbed the ground with the shovel and proceeded to digging a hole. “Hey, how big is this hole going to be?”

“For a guy, you talk too much, Kurt. But I will indulge you for lack of anything better to do. I don’t think I have used that much in the drug and I used a mask to avoid inhaling the dreaded substance. If you ask me, Mrs. McElroy right here is just pretending to stay still so she could work out a plan to escape, which, in this case, is fruitless for we are in the basement and the only way out of here is that small door up the stairs… So, if I were you, Linda, I’d be better off talking to my captors instead of plotting on how to escape when there is no possible way for you to even step out of this house.”

Linda straightened up from her slumped figure on the chair, mainly because her back was killing her, and also, she realized that it was fruitless to even attempt to outrun them. The man, named Mike, was right. That place might very well be the last place on Earth she would ever be.

“Fine. So you think that you’re all clever because you found me out. How did you notice anyway?” she asked Mike.

“Well, for one, you keep squinting your eyes at us, yes, I can see in this dim light, and then your hands can’t stand still from groping all over your seat. Yes, I saw that too,” Mike said nonchalantly at her.

“Okay, I’d give you that. You have eyes like a cat then. But can you tell me what you’re planning to do with me? As you have mentioned, Gia might be indisposed indefinitely, so are you going to wait for that bitch to come to her senses and turn herself in or are you going to do that yourselves?”

For an old lady who was just kidnapped, Linda sounded calm and collected, which set off Mike’s ire. He tried being the calm one but he was riled up by how she was behaving. He expected her to beg and scream for help like any other victim but she’s not even attempting to stand up and make a run for the door, which was only a few paces from where she was sitting.

“You think you can talk me out of this? Well, you thought wrong. Even if Gia might be indisposed, or even dead, for all I care, I have an agenda of my own and since you’re already here, unaided and alone, I’d like to make the best out of the situation and ask for ransom from your family myself. Let’s see if they pay up, shall we? If not, then, perhaps this hole that my good friend, Kurt, is digging is the best place for you to stay… permanently!” Mike spat his words to her to show her he means business. “So, if you ever want to see the light of day or your precious family again, you would do well to send them a message and ask for what I will tell you to ask. Your rich husband would surely cough up several of his millions to save you, wouldn’t he?” he added.

“I’d hate to bring it to you, junior, but my husband is incapacitated as of the moment since he is in a coma, so even if I call him or even go to him in his hospital bed, I might not be able to talk any sense into him,” she replied with sass.

Damn this woman! Isn’t she afraid of what might happen to her? Of what’s going to happen to her if she continues to defy me?

Mike slammed his fist to the wall and kicked the spare shovel on his feet. “Are you really that stupid to think that you could beat me with your play with words, huh? I can assure you that after this, you are going to die, one way or another. But first, I want to make money from you. I know you have a son and he is now in-charge of everything so why not give him a call instead?”

“Well, you could try but knowing my son, he wouldn’t be standing around waiting for a call from some random kidnapper. If you knew Morrison, you’d know that he’s probably on his way here right now, with or without the cops, and will be storming in this God awful place to take you down,” she said confidently as if she knew exactly that it’s what’s going to happen just a few minutes afterwards.

“Oh you! You’ve pushed it!” Mike shouted and looked over at Kurt who kept on digging despite the exchange of words that the two had, and who secretly hid his smiles and snorts.

Kurt was actually starting to admire the old lady. At least she’s got guts to face what’s coming for her, he thought.

“Y-yeah, Mike?” he answered uncertainly, not quite hearing what Mike had just said because he was too busy figuring out if the old lady’s last remark was true or was she just bullshitting them to buy herself some time.

“Aren’t you done yet?” barked Mike, who went to the corner of the dark basement and dragged a wooden box towards the hole. It was actually a wooden crate when she looked at it closely. It’s the size of those standard wooden crates used for deliveries for wines or furniture. She could probably fit in if she ducked her head and curled her legs up to her knees while sitting down.

She was beginning to understand what the hole and the crate was for. And despite her brave front, a cold sweat ran down her back as her dreaded hour was fast approaching. But instead of acting beaten down and defeated, she straightened her spine and raised her head higher.

“So, I bet you’ve already figured out what’s going to become of you, have you? With that brilliant mind and cocky attitude, it’s not hard to put two things together, isn’t it? What have you got to say for yourself now then?” Mike asked sarcastically, brandishing the gun at her as he urged Kurt to dig some more.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in a few hours… but this I know for sure; by the time I’ve ran out of breath in there, you would have been caught and probably shot at – I hope shot dead – but that won’t be  wise because no one would know where you’ve put me. I’m sure that dumbo here,” she cocked her head to one side at Kurt who was still digging, “would spill the beans the moment he gets caught and you’d be trapped down here, like me. What will you do then?” was her calm answer.

Her statement infuriated him some more and he couldn’t help but hit her with the butt of his gun.

Smack! Then Linda’s world turned black.

“Serves you right you cocky old bitch!” snorted Kurt then kept on digging. “Who would have thought that this wrinkled old woman would still have some spunk in her, right? For a moment there, I was actually going to believe her about her son coming over here that fast but then I realized that it wouldn’t be possible because no one knows where we are! Googly old hag!” Kurt spat on the ground and looked at Mike’s still-angry face. “Is this deep enough?” he asked.

Mike shot him an angry look then looked down on the hole on ground. It was wide enough for the crate and deep enough to stifle any sound coming from her if she comes to. “Fine! Get the crate in there and dump her inside. You’d need to bury her when I say, okay?!” he shouted at Kurt as if he was yards away.

“Yeah yeah yeah, I got it. You don’t have to bite my head off,” answered Kurt.

“Just get it done, now!” Mike snapped at him, which sent him scrambling to get the crate over to the hole he had dug.

Kurt dragged the crate over the side of the open hole and dropped it on the hole. He was thankful that the crate didn’t break apart when it landed with a loud thud. He went down and adjusted it so it would be even with the ground and so that it would fit perfectly on the small hole in the ground. The ground was moist and smelled rotten.

Well, she wouldn’t mind it so much when she’d smell like it soon enough, he chuckled to himself.

“Aren’t you done there yet? Help me lower her body there. If she’s right and her idiot son is not so idiotic after all, then he might be on his way here. Tell the boys to stay alert. I’ll keep contacting Gia to see if she’s there now, but we’ll still push through with the plan. If I can’t get Gia, I’ll call McElroy junior and ask for some cash. If he doesn’t cooperate, then we’d be better off leaving this old lady to rot here. She’s seen our faces so we can’t risk for her identifying us if she survives this shithole at all!” he exclaimed, then his lips transformed into an evil smile. “In any case, at least we’d still be killing someone today, with or without a payment. And its not because Gia had asked me to, I just don’t like this old bitch!” he said, dumping Linda’s limp but breathing body into the crate.

“Wait, the crate won’t close entirely. Her legs are sticking out like tree stumps,” Kurt said with a strained voice from all the hard labor he went through with digging the hole and hauling both the crate and Linda to the same hole.

“Then get her in there! I don’t care if you have to break her legs or cut them off so she’d fit! Just make sure that you close that crate so she won’t be able to escape,” was Mike’s angry answer.

“Sure thing, boss. I’ll go get her straightened out,” said Kurt the muttered something under his breath, Great! So I’m promoted to his minion now! Fuck! If this lady’s son doesn’t pay up, I’ll make sure that he gets in a box of his own! I’m not risking my life and getting all tired and dirty for one shitty kill! I want money and that’s what I’m gonna get!

“What was that?” Mike asked.

“Uh, no-nothing, boss. I just didn’t think this old lady would be that heavy, is all!” he replied and groaned over the weight of Linda’s legs. “Shit! How am I supposed to get you in there?” he asked himself. Then was surprised that the old lady was still limber for her age so he bent her legs up to her knees and placed both of her hands on top of her bent head. “There! Now, you’re all nice and cuddly in there!” he said, feeling proud of his work.

“C’mon then! Get that lid on and get out of there. Go check on the boys outside after you’re done.” Mike ordered.

“Okay, okay, I’m on it!”

Kurt closed the lid and hammered in the nails to make sure Linda doesn’t get out when she regains her senses.

“And thrown in some dirt already. We won’t know when they’ll discover her so better make it harder for them, eh?” Mike chuckled as Kurt joined him.

“Yeah! I’ll get on it then.”

Kurt grabbed the shovel and started putting back the dirt he had dug up back into the hole, filling up the sides first and then putting enough soil on top to conceal the crate. Mike wanted the hole to be dug right underneath the only window in that basement so they would know exactly where they buried her. After Kurt had finished, Mike placed a wooden chair on top of it to hide the disturbance of soil on the ground.

“Now, go check on the boys. I’ll try calling Gia again.”

“Okay, boss. Be right back then,” Kurt said then rolled his eyes as he walked away from Mike. Who does he think he is?! Ugh! You’ll get your day, Mike. For now, I’ll follow you around because you might actually get some cash out of that lady, he muttered as he reached the top of the stairs.

“Damn! Why aren’t you picking up Gia?” Mike said, as he got frustrated with not knowing where Gia was and what she wanted him to do next. He’s making up his plan as he goes along, which is not a good thing, especially with a rich old lady inside a whole. “What am I supposed to do now?” then he thought that he could just do exactly what he told Kurt, to call Morrison and ask for ransom. He only told Kurt of his seemingly brilliant plan to get him to follow him. If Kurt and those men outside found out that their boss wasn’t responding, they would surely flee and leave him with the burden of disposing the body, or worse, they’d kill him to get back at him for dragging them into that kidnapping job in the first place.

“Shit! Shit! Shit! What the hell! I ain’t got nothin’ else to lose anyway. Maria is as good as dead in her state of health right now and there’s no turning back for me,” he said, and then picked up his mobile phone to call the younger McElroy.

He’s got all their contact numbers, courtesy of Gia who asked in a favor from her other “friends”. He tried the home number but after ten rings, and two answering machines later, he gave up. He tried the office number and the same thing happened.

“Where the fuck is that kid? Shouldn’t he be waiting around for any calls from the kidnappers? He should be by the phone, ready to pick it up as soon as it rings, right? Shit!” he exclaimed. He was getting a lot frustrated over that job and he still can’t get Gia on her phone. “Damn it to hell! She could be buried in some rubble right now.” He sat down on the wooden chair he had placed on top of the crate and covered his face with both hands, groaning over his predicament.

Then, he heard footsteps outside and some thuds. “Shit! Who the fuck would that be?” he whispered to himself then perched on the chair to look outside the small window. He saw two men take out his men who were supposed to be looking out for intruders but they seemed to have fallen asleep. “Oh, stupid idiots!” he muttered then quickly got off the chair and was about to get up the stairs when he heard footsteps above.

“Oh, fuck! They’re here! Gotta hide quick!” Mike went behind the staircase and hid himself from the dim yellow light. He waited for the intruders to come in and the moment that he saw one foot on the middle of the steps, he grabbed it and rushed to clobber the guy, who was then on the floor, trying to recover from his fall.

He was about to shoot when the guy shot his foot out and swept him off his feet, making him lose his balance and accidentally losing his gun in the process.

“Shit! Oh no, you don’t!” Mike kicked the guy’s shins and got a satisfying groan out of him. He then got back up his feet and knocked the man over using his elbow, thrusting it forward and hitting the man’s nose, immobilizing him for a few seconds because of the blood that started to gush down his nose.

He then, dragged the man forward and dumped him on the ground, kicked his back and knocked him unconscious. Mike had to move fast because he heard another guy call out from above.

There’s another one. I have to move fast!

He dragged the unconscious guy over to the wooden chair that was propped on top of the hidden crate and positioned him where he could bind the man’s hands from behind the chair. He doesn’t hear a sound from the crate yet so he assumed that his captive was still unconscious. He heard the other guy call out again so he moved back to his original position underneath the stairs to lie in wait for another victim to fall to his trap.

 

That’s when he underestimated Morrison who has got him pinned down now and is shouting at him to tell him where his mother was. He just told Morrison that he wouldn’t kill him yet because he was the only one who knew where Linda McElroy is and he knows that’s the truth.

“You son of a bitch!” Morrison shakes the wounded man on the ground until Jake pats him on the shoulders and tells him to back off.

“The cops are here, Mr. McElroy,” Jake says, urging him to back off as the officers descend down the basement.

“What happened here? Mr. McElroy? Drop the gun, sir, slowly please,” the officer says to him in a calm voice after assessing the situation.

Mike lies bleeding on the floor, laughing as if he is enjoying everything that’s happening before him.

Morrison puts his hands up in the air and surrenders the gun to the officer. “Okay, officer. Take it,” he says.

“Thank you, sir,” the officer replies and takes the gun from Morrison’s hand. “Were you the one who shot this guy?” asks the officer.

“Yes, I did,” Morrison answers and looks at his nametag, “I did it, Officer Perez. But only because he was going to kill me first and knocked out my friend here, who wanted to help me find my mother. He still won’t tell us where they kept here!” he says angrily, spitting at Mike who is still smirking from his position on the ground.

“Men, take this man and sit him over there!” Officer Perez instructs his other companions then proceeds to question Morrison some more.

“I don’t know where she is! That’s the problem officer! Only he knows where my mother is… wait, the guy we knocked down earlier, the one outside, maybe he knows! Where is he?”

Morrison is already on his way out of the basement and into the living room, rushing to where they left Kurt. Luckily, he was still there, on his knees as officers were putting handcuffs on him.

“Wait, officers, we need to question him first,” he shouts and Officer Perez nods at the other cops. They slap the handcuffs on and gets Kurt to his feet so Morrison could question him.

“Where is your captive? Where is Linda McElroy?” asks Morrison in a calm but deadly voice.

Kurt looks from side to side and sees Mike being hauled out of the house. He is laughing and cursing like a crazy person with a wound bleeding from his shoulder. Mike gets a look at him and shouts,

“Don’t tell them where she is, Kurt! She’ll be in heaven or hell soon enough! Ha ha ha!” Mike’s evil laugh rings in the house and the outside.

Kurt looks at Morrison fearfully and swallows the lump in his throat. “Wh-what do you want?”

Kurt backs against the wall of the house as the cops don’t stop Morrison from advancing to him.

“Hey, hey, hold it! I surrendered! Help me here guys! This man’s going to beat me to a pulp!” Kurt looks at each of the officers surrounding them but no one goes to his aid.

“We don’t have any orders to interfere. Maybe he just wants to talk to you,” says one of the cops, then laughs as he turns his back to him.

Morrison punches him in the gut and holds him up by his hair.

“Ow! Ow! Ow! Lay off the hair, man! That hurts!” he complains as Morrison gives him another punch on the side of his body. “Shit! Okay, okay, you got me! What do you want?”

“Where is my mother?” says Morrison, his gaze never wavering as Kurt squirms from him. “Where did you take Linda McElroy?”

“She’s there! Inside the basement!” cries Kurt, closing his eyes as Morrison’s fist connects with his face.

“Don’t lie to me! If you lie to me one more time, I will put a bullet inside your head!”

“I-I’m not lying, I swear! She’s in there! She’s buried beneath the chair beside the window! She’s in a crate, we… ah… put her there…,” whispers Mike.

“What the fuck do you mean she’s in a crate? If I find out that you’re lying to me again, no one can save you!”

He lets go of Kurt and runs towards the basement along with Jake and the other officers as Kurt is taken to custody.

“Do you think he’s telling the truth?” Jake asks Officer Perez as they run behind Morrison.

“I think so. He’s one of those that sing whenever they’re backed up towards the wall. Well, we will find out soon enough,” was the officer’s answer.

“Mom!” Morrison shouts the moment he steps inside the basement. “Mom! Where are you?!”

No one answers then after a few seconds, they could hear a thudding sound from underneath their feet. They scramble towards the wooden chair that’s still on top of the spot where Linda is buried and they start digging through the dirt.

“Mom! I’m here, don’t worry, I’ll get you out of there! Hang on!” shouts Morrison as he digs his hands into the soil and feels something hard underneath his palms. “I think this is it. Who’s got a shovel? Hand it over to me!”

Someone hands him a shovel as the other police officers try to dig around the crate. They could hear her muffled shouts now as they dig out the moist soil around the crate.

Morrison yanks open the crate and hauls Linda out of the wooden prison she was in. “Mother! Are you okay? Stand still, help is coming. We need an ambulance!” He glances at the dirty face of her mother and feels relieved that he found her at last.

Linda looks around confused and groggy from being cooped up inside the crate for a long time.

“Wh-where am- am I?” she asks, looking up at Morrison and caresses his face as if to make sure he’s there. “M-morrison, son? Wh-where… How?” Linda doesn’t seem to know what she’s saying and where she is but Morrison is still thankful that she’s alive.

“Mom, its okay. Don’t speak anymore. Just let me take you up at the house and into the ambulance. You’ll be all right, mother. I’m here and I will always be here to protect you, okay? Come, let’s go. I’ve got you,” assures Morrison as Linda nods in agreement.

Officer Perez already has the ambulance ready when they reached the front porch of the house.

“Okay, mother. Please go with this nice young lady and she will take care of your injuries okay? I’ll be over there with the police officer for a few minutes and then I’ll go with you to the hospital. Are you going to be all right there inside the ambulance while I go over there?” he asks. He wants to make sure that Linda would not feel fear even if Morrison were not with her. He never wants to see her unsafe ever and he will make sure that his mother would be protected at all times moving forward. She is the only mother he’s ever known and despite him being adopted, she showed him what a mother should be to her child, always loving, caring, and even if she was overbearing sometimes, she’s only like that because she wants to protect him and keep him away from harm.

“Morrison dear,” she says, looking more lucid than how she looked a few minutes ago, “You go and take care of what you need to do. I’ll be fine, son.” Her reassuring words prompts him to do exactly what he needs to do, which is to ensure that he gets to the bottom of the whole thing.

He strides towards Officer Perez as the police officer radioed in the results of the whole operation to his superiors. The McElroys are considered to be high priority mainly because of their reputation and influence in the business industry and it was also considered a human interest story of an old rich woman who gets kidnapped in spite of her husband being in a coma. The media, by that time, had arrived and were clamoring to get an interview from Morrison but luckily, they were being subdued and kept at bay by other officers in the scene.

“Officer,” Morrison starts, “I would like to go with you to the precinct and question those in custody. I think, by now, you’ve also realized, that the one I shot needs to be evaluated thoroughly if he really has gone crazy or is only acting like it to avoid prosecution. But I can say that the other one we caught earlier as well as the two other men who were with them, are of their normal selves and would need to be questioned further about what happened here. I want to be present in these investigations, officer, and I would appreciate it if we question them tonight.” He waits for Officer Perez’ response with a firm face.

“Very well, Mr. McElroy, but you can go to the precinct later once you’ve deposited your mother to the hospital. Other officers would also need to ask her questions, but that can wait until tomorrow,” the officer replies.

“I truly appreciate this, Officer Perez. I would proceed to your precinct after about an hour. Thank you again,” says Morrison, shakes the  officer’s hand, and walks towards Jake who was currently being checked by another EMT.

“Hey, Jake, how are you?” he asks, patting the guy lightly on the shoulder.

“Oh, hey, boss. I’m okay. Just a few stitches here and there. How’s Mrs. McElroy?” Jake squints his eyes as the needle full of pain reliever medicine goes into his arm and makes a hissing sound.

“I think she’ll be okay. A little shaken up and bruised, but otherwise, fine. Look, I wanted to thank you for what you did back there. You could have been injured far worse than this but you went ahead and charged. I appreciate your dedication, Jake. And for saving my mother’s life.” Morrison shakes Jake’s hand firmly and nods at him.

“You saved your mother’s life, Mr. McElroy, because you came here on my suggestion. We didn’t even know if your mother was really in there but you still came here and listened to my every word. We wouldn’t have been able to save her if it wasn’t for you.” Jake looks at him sincerely and smiles through the pain of his wounds.

“Thanks, man. You go get some rest now.”

They say their farewells and Morrison strides back to the ambulance where his mother is waiting for him. “Mom, are you feeling better?” he asks.

She nods and asks him to sit with her as the ambulance drives them to the nearest hospital.

“Son,” she says in a small voice.

“Yes, mother?” he answers, taking her hand in his. She is lying on a stretcher as her legs were wrapped in bandage due to the scrapes she got from sitting in a bent position inside the crate for a long time.

“I’m sorry for getting you into all of this…” she begins to sob which starts to infuriate Morrison.

“Mother, please stop it,” he says calmly. “Stop saying that you’re sorry for everything that’s happened in the past which is coming back to haunt us now. I get it, you were young, and selfish that’s why you did what you did before. You stepped in a lot of people’s shoes when you were being your ugly vengeful self… And although I do not condone those acts, I cannot blame you for them for the results that are happening to us now. We all make mistakes but the important thing is, we repent and we realize that they were wrongful acts. So we move on… We take whatever it is, call it retribution or a comeuppance, whatever it may be, but we have to take it. I will take it mother and I know you’re being strong and taking it as well and I am proud of you for being who you are now, today. You’re changing into someone better… a better mom, a better wife, and, most importantly, a better person. But you or I, for that matter, will not be able to change completely without getting scarred, ourselves. We have to take what is coming for us and weather the storm.”

Linda is speechless and Morrison’s words moves her to tears. “Oh, Morrison… I could never be a prouder mom than right now… You have grown into such a wonderful person a mother could ever ask for… Oh, how I wish your father would see you now…,” sobs Linda as her son takes her into his arms and hugs her tightly.

“Dad would be fine, mom, I’m sure of it. He just needs more time to recuperate, you know how he is. He’s just taking his time in getting back to us. You’ll see, he’ll be awake soon…,” answers Morrison. “Listen, mother. I know what I said about us accepting our comeuppance, but I also would want Gia de Grassi to accept hers, which I would do. I would make sure she pays for having you kidnapped, mother. I know you might have wronged her about dad years ago, but snatching you up and leaving you there for good to die is unacceptable. So please allow me to go to Paris and seek her out. I’m sure the police would be well on their way in investigating this, but I also want to go to Cornelia who is in Paris at this very moment. Since you were kept in there, you might not know that Paris is in a state of emergency now because of a bombing in Boulevard Saint Germain. I want to make sure Cornelia is all right that’s why I have to go there as well as see what I can find out about Gia de Grassi.”

“I… I see… Okay, you go and look for her, Cornelia, right?” she asks.

“Yes, mother. I wish you could have met her before she left but with any luck, I might win her back and get her to come back with me here so you could also see how wonderful she is,” he answers.

Linda could see how happy Morrison gets by merely saying her name. She wishes her son to find true happiness and she she’s glad that it seems like he has. “Go, son. Go to her. And I’m sure no one can resist you, my son. I pity the woman for I know that she’s in for some of the best wooing anybody could ever have! Oh, I do hope she can restrain herself from falling all over you. I am fully confident you’ll get her back!” she chuckles as Morrison rolls his eyes at his mother’s banter. She pats him on his cheeks and says seriously, “I know you’ll do everything to get her back but make sure you leave her enough room to make a choice. We, women can sometimes be… err… how should I say it, complicated, is the right word… Yes, women can be quite complicated sometimes but once we make up their minds about loving a man, we rarely change it.”

Morrison hugs her mother again as the ambulance stops. They’ve reached the hospital. It’s the same one where Nick is as well.

“I want to see Dad first before going to the precinct,” says Morrison.

He checks with the nurse as his mother is wheeled in to get further treatment for her injuries. He bids her farewell for the moment and goes to his father’s room.

As he enters, he sees Nick still in a coma, still not able to move by himself or return to his senses. The younger McElroy sits on the chair beside the bed and pats his father’s hands.

“Dad, I’m happy to report that mother’s okay. She’s being treated right now and I’m guessing she’ll be up here right after they’ve addressed her wounds. I’ve already said my goodbyes to her as I am leaving for Paris later tonight. I just need to drop by the precinct and see what else I can gather from those thugs. But I will be flying straight to Paris to… to see Cornelia. Yes, dad, I lost her… She’s in Paris right now to take care of some things but I think mostly because she doesn’t want to see me or get close to me after I did what I did. I was so stupid! I thought that if I  pushed her away, she’ll be safe and out of danger from our enemies, when what I should have done is to keep her close and protect her from those who want to do us harm!” he sighs and bows his head.

He stays quiet for one full minute and then takes a deep breath and stands up. “I need to go dad. I’m sorry if I have to leave you now but Cornelia needs me and I won’t let her down. I love you and mom, dad. Please take care and if you feel like it, please wake up… We’re awfully excited to see your eyes…”

He bows his head again and gives his father a kiss on the forehead before walking out of the hospital room. He meets his mother in the hallway who is on her way to visit Nick.

“Mother, I have to go. I need to fly to Paris in an hour. I trust you’re okay? Do you need anything before I go?” he asks, drawing his mother to him to give her a last hug before he sets off.

“No, son. I have everything I need. You take care and you go and look for your girl. Make sure to bring her home with you so your mama can also see how she’s like. What’s her name by the way? Forgive me, with all these commotions, I never even asked for her name,” Linda apologizes.

“Oh, that’s okay, mother. We are all under so much stress, even her, because she just lost a very close friend of hers, who turned out to be her grandfather…,” he shakes his head as he remembers James. “Her name is Cornelia… Cornelia Masters. I’m sure you have not heard of her because she’s originally from Jersey and just moved here about four years ago. I’d be glad to introduce her to you when we get back… Just wish me luck that she still wants to be with me after I rejected her during that time that we rescued her from Gia’s thugs,” he says regretfully.

“Son, if you’re truly serious about this girl and if you really love her, you will make sure that she believes you and that she comes home with you. You are irresistible anyway, just like your Momma!” she says encouragingly as she pats his cheeks with her dainty hands.

“Oh, mother. I hope you are right… Well, I better go or I might miss my flight. Please take care and don’t stay up too late watching over Dad. I’ll call you when I get there.” He hugs her again and plants a kiss on her forehead.

As her son leaves the exit door of the hospital, she feels a little saddened that he will be away from her again. She had just been rescued from her captors and even though she didn’t sustain any major injuries from her struggle, she still feels traumatized by the ordeal. When Morrison was out of sight, she slumps on the hospital chair along the hallway and places her face between her hands. She breathes deeply and closes her eyes to keep her fears at bay. She fears of being back in a dark box with her body contorted in order to fit inside. Ever since she was kidnapped, she’s been trying to keep herself calm and cool at any situation. She never showed panic or fear to her captors and apart from Morrison rescuing her, her resolve to keep calm helped her in surviving her capture.

If she had crumbled during the time that she was held captive, she would have surely died much quicker or went out of her mind with paranoia. “I should continue to be strong… We’re not out of the woods yet. Nick is still in a coma. God,” she whispers, “if you are real and if you are merciful, please forgive me for my many sins and please… please… wake Nick up. Let him come back to us. We need him… I need him. Please…” she begs and then stands up slowly to go to Nick’s room.

She looks at the familiar bed with silver railings and its cold steely feel. Nick lie in the middle of the bed, with the beddings freshly changed and the pillows nicely fluffed. Linda had never felt so lonely and desolate with the thought of Nick never waking from his deep sleep.

“Oh Nick. Look what life has taken us now. I never thought that you would ever look helpless and sick. You always seemed so strong and so sure of yourself. I miss your cocky attitude whenever you tell me to take things lightly and not think about problems that much. I miss your seriousness as well when it comes to your business. And I miss you looking at me with love in your eyes.”

Linda has never been one to show her emotions, especially to her husband of many years. They were, after all, married for convenience. Their families were better off when they got married and it was always how Nick pictured it, except for Linda. She had fallen for Nick the first time she saw him and since then on, she had made everything possible for them to be together, even if it meant convincing her father to marry her off to him for the good of their companies. Maybe they were never meant to be because ever since they got married, a lot of unfortunate things happened. She never gave birth and she learned during the first year of their marriage, that she could never bear children. Nick had his first affair with that Julie Wilson, and then a few others, then finally, with Gia de Grassi.

“Oh I’m sorry Nick. I truly am… And if I could take it all back, I would. I would never want you to end up this way. I should have let you go years ago. I shouldn’t have ignored the signs that we were not meant to last…”

“No, Linda… We are meant to be…,” comes Nick’s weak voice.

Linda’s head shoots up and she looks at Nick’s open eyes. She rushes to him from position outside the door and takes his hand in hers. “Oh Nick! You’re awake! Oh my God! You are awake!” she whips around and calls out for a nurse to come and help her. “Nurse! Nurse! My husband’s awake! Come quick!” she shouts as some of the nurses scramble to get inside to check the monitors on the side of his bed.

“Li-inda? Wh-where am I? What h-happened?” he asks Linda who gives him a tight hug and showers him with kisses on his face. Despite his confusion, he is pleasantly surprised at his wife’s public show of affection towards him. “Did I die and went to heaven?” he asks jokingly, turning to Linda and covering her hand with his.

“Don’t you remember the accident? You were in a car crash, honey and you’ve been in a coma for a few weeks now. I am so glad you’re finally awake! Oh, wait until Morrison hears about this. I’ll give him a call,” she says, picking up her phone and dialing her son’s number. It rings a few times then the voicemail comes on. “Oh, yes, that’s right. He’s probably on his way to the airport. He’s going to Paris on a plane tonight because there’s this huge bombing that happened there and he told me that his girlfriend is actually there and he needs to go get her. Our son is such a romantic! So, how are you feeling? Is there something wrong?” she asks because the look on Nick’s face turned from surprise to dread.

“C-Cornelia? Is he going to see Cornelia?” he asks but is not really looking at Linda but the wall right in front of him.

“Yes, he said that she went there after some relative of hers died. So, he wants to follow her and see if she’s all right and then plans to take her back here to introduce her to us,” was Linda’s answer.

“Oh no! Don’t you realize what this means? He’s going to see Cornelia! The same Cornelia Wilson who is James Wilson’s granddaughter… Julie’s daughter…,” he looks slowly at Linda whose expression has also changed into one who suddenly realized who Cornelia really was.

Oh, my, God! I thought her name sounded familiar! I should have known! Oh my…, she thought as she contemplates on telling Nick the whole truth behind him not finding out where his daughter had gone all these years.

“Nick… I have to tell you something… I do hope that you don’t condemn me for what I am about to tell you. Please know that this was a time when I was young and stupid and didn’t know a thing about being good.” She looks at him and his empty expression and awaits for his answer.

“Go on,” was the coldest answer she ever got from anybody.

“Remember all those years ago… about you and Julie?”

“Yes? What about it?” he asks, knowing full well that Linda already knew about it from the beginning.

“Well, I harassed Julie then, embarrassing her in front of the people in the  community  she lived in and I even tried to tarnish her reputation… All because you had an affair with her. I warned her to stay away from you, which she had explicitly demanded that I didn’t have to tell her because she has already left you then. I never did anything to her car or anything! Please believe me. I was just that vengeful bitch of a wife who wanted her to get away from you. So after she died and her daughter was turned over to the state, I pulled some strings to hide her from the system and put her in an orphanage in Jersey. Not until she ran away that, I realized that she had been there for six years after her mother passed.” She stops to take a breath and check on what Nick’s reaction was.

“So you mean to tell me that you knew all along where she was and what had happened to her all this time?!” he exclaims.

She expected this. She expected angry words and probably things hurled around the room or Nick ordering her to get away from him but she wouldn’t have been prepared for his response.

“Yes, Nick, I did. Well, I didn’t know what happened to her after she ran away from the orphanage and I just realized that she was even there when I heard pf her escape from the local radio. Nick… I know that I look like the evil bad guy in everything moving forward from that day, but please remember that I only did all those things because I was so desperately trying very hard to keep our family intact. I couldn’t let anyone destroy it, let alone someone who was years younger than I was with that kind of beauty and grace. I was so scared of that thought that you might leave me for her that I did some stupid things… But I never wanted to do them harm, just get rid of them from our lives. I never wanted…” she stops and lets the sentence hang in the air.

“Linda… I’m sorry,” Nick says. Linda’s eyes flew open and she looks directly at him.

“Wh-what?” she asks, not quite believing what she heard. “Wh-what did you say?”

“I said I’m sorry for putting you through so much pain and suffering. If it weren’t for my indiscretions, you wouldn’t have to resort to those things…,” he says, holding out his hands to hers. “But Cornelia is my daughter no matter what and I won’t let anyone destroy what we will have, if she would still want to know me as her father… I won’t let anyone get in the way of our reconciliation… even you, Linda. I’m sorry but if you’re going to be against all of this, I-,” he stops when Linda places two fingers on his lips.

“Shhh… I won’t get in the way anymore. I have found my peace with your flaws because I know that I have plenty as well. I want you to be together with your daughter too, and I hope that after some time… when wounds have been healed and grudges forgotten, that you and your daughter, Cornelia, would let me get to know her better.”

Nick gathers her hands in his and pulls her forward. “Linda, you will always be the woman for me and I will always be the man for you. We’ve been through a lot and we will get through a lot more. But the important thing is, we are still together. Let’s make things right… together,” he says to his wife of more than forty years as she nods at him and gives him a reassuring kiss.

After a few minutes, they both walked at the same time again regarding the issue that they’re both aware of but are hesitant to open up. “They’re siblings… Well, stepsiblings. They would not be related by blood since Morrison is adopted but how do you think they’d cope with that information?”

“I know Morrison and based on what I have observed from Cornelia when she worked for me is, that they both have very open minds about any situation. We just need to tell them the truth before anything else happens. Could you try calling Morrison again?” asks Nick who had been checked by the doctor just a few minutes ago.

“Okay, I’ll try. He might be on the plane by now but I do hope that he still keeps his phone on,” replies Linda then proceeds to redial Morrison’s phone number.

“Hello, Mom? Sorry, I was driving earlier. What is it? Are you okay?” he asks anxiously.

“Morrison, honey, your dad’s awake! He just came to a few minutes ago,” she says excitedly over the phone.

“That’s great, Mother! I can’t wait to see him when I get back from Paris. Please tell him that I’ll be home as soon as I find Cornelia and make sure she’s ok,” he says excitedly.

“Um… that’s what I needed to talk to you about.”

“Well, what is it mother?” he asks.

“Here’s your dad, he’ll explain better…” There is a rustling sound as Linda gives the phone over to Nick.

“Hi Morrison! How are you son?” Nick asks.

“Dad! You are really awake! Oh my gosh! How are you feeling?” Morrison asks. He’s up in the air, having boarded the plane about half an hour earlier. He is scheduled to land in a few hours and then he’ll go straight to Cornelia’s hotel afterwards.

“I’m okay, son. Listen… I have something very important to tell you. This might come as a shock to you but I have some news about… about Cornelia,” Nick says cautiously.

“Wh-what about her? Do you have news about her? W-what do you know about her current condition?” Morrison asks, getting more aggravated by the second upon hearing his father’s serious tone saying that he had some news about Cornelia.

“Son, calm down. I have some information about her past, not about right now. I understand you’re on your way to her… to the bombing site in Paris where she might be… I want to come with you if I could but as of the moment, I cannot. I will do so shortly though…” replies Nick, trying to buy time until he tells his son about his daughter.

“Why would you come here too? What about her, dad? Tell me!” Morrison’s voice has risen a bit because of the confusion about his dad knowing something about the woman he loves.

“Cornelia… is my biological daughter. Her mother, Julie, James’ daughter… I had an affair with her before Cornelia was born and the reason why she ran away then was that she thought I didn’t want the baby or her… I was younger and stupid and I did everyone wrong, especially your mother. I only just found out about it when I was at James’ funeral, when I saw her there and overheard her taking over the companies because she is the legal heir. I’ve always had this feeling of something unexplainable whenever I saw her, like an inexplicable bond with her… and this is the reason why… I’m sorry that I had to drop the ball like this. I wish I could have told you this in person but I didn’t want to wait until you saw her again. I will come and see her too to tell her the truth, if she hasn’t found out yet…”

Morrison is speechless and his mind is reeling from the information that Nick just told him. His throat starts to close up as he gulps to try breathing normally. “What?!” he exclaims as the realization dawns on him. “So, she’s your daughter? Wh-what… H-how? You know what, nevermind. I need to think about her and her safety right now. I- I can’t process what you just told me… I need some time… I… I’ll talk to you when I can. I have to go, Dad.” He doesn’t wait for Nick to respond anymore. He puts his mobile phone down and stares at it for a full minute.

Cornelia is my dad’s daughter. So that would make us family, basically, right? I mean, were not blood-related but we are related… Oh shit! What a twisted way to end this day! And does she know about this? Does she know that we’re practically brother and sister? No, no, no… we’re stepbrother and stepsister! There’s a big difference.

He slams his fist on the small table he has on the private jet. He decided to take the jet instead of taking a regular flight out to Paris. He needed to get there as soon as possible and as much as he doesn’t want to waste the company’s resources for his personal trips, he needed it this time due to the urgency of the matter. He can’t waste any more time in finding her. He hasn’t been able to contact Theo for the past hour and he’s not sure if Theo lost his phone or got injured or what. He tries to think of the times he and Cornelia were together.

So that’s why my dad was close to her and that’s probably what she’s doing in his study the first time I saw her in the Hamptons. She must have been snooping around to know if Nick McElroy was really her father! And then she just made up an excuse of them having an affair so I won’t suspect, and then tells me the truth only to tell me another lie that she just wanted to be in Dad’s good graces that’s why she snuck up there to try to persuade him to give her a job in his office? And I was so gullible to believe her lies all those times!

He looks out the window of the jet and sees the Parisian skyline. The jet was quick but he did give specific instructions to make it quick because he needed to find Cornelia right away. He’s been hoping that she is, after all, safe inside her hotel room, waiting for news about the bombing attacks and not go to the place and try to help out the wounded. He’s known her for a while and even though she hasn’t gone to charities or participated in philanthropic activities, she’s got a good heart and she’d want to help out in any way she can. He does plan to send out their own volunteers or set up a program for the tragedy that has befallen the great city.

“Sir, we will land in a few minutes, please prepare for landing,” the pilot says into the speaker.

He looks out the window and sees one part of the city in flames and thick with smoke. He gets a closer look and sees people and emergency personnel on the ground, running around and rescuing people who need their help. He wants to get down right away and see what he can do while he looks for Cornelia.

He receives a call from his office and is informed that his father had already set up a team to assist him in Paris the moment he lands. Morrison closes his eyes and despite his confusion about his father’s recent recovery and mind-boggling revelation, he’s still thankful to him for thinking about him and his quest in finding Cornelia.

“Okay, thank you for letting me know. I’ll look for him when I land,” he says to the person who informed him. He was informed that a man would meet him to take him where he needs to go.

The plane lands after ten more minutes and as he walks down the flight of stairs, he sees the man who will take him to the places he intends to go. He shakes Hector’s hand, his driver as he was greeted in French for his arrival. They drive towards Cornelia’s hotel right away as soon as Morrison gave him the instructions. He receives another call and it’s from Barret.

“Hey, Morrison, are you in Paris?” Barret asks, sounding as if he is in a hurry or running around somewhere.

“Hey, man. Yes, I just landed. Where are you? Aren’t you with Cornelia?” he asks sounding a little annoyed at the guy. He just realized that Barret was with Cornelia so why is he calling him now.

“I left a few hours ago and I’m still on my flight actually. I heard about the bombing a couple of hours ago and I’ve been trying to reach Cornelia or Kevin for the past hour. I can’t turn back now since I’m already so far away and the airlines cannot turn back now. I’ll catch the next flight out once I land. Where are you? She’s at the Four Seasons, at the eighth floor. I tried the hotel but I can’t get through due to the lines being down. I suggest you try Kevin’s number as well but I haven’t been able to reach him either,” Barret says over the humming of the plane in his background and other people talking.

“Okay, I got it. I’m on my way to the hotel now and I’ll make sure to check her room and Kevin’s as well. Thanks for telling me, Barret.” Morrison is sincere in thanking Barret and even if he’s still jealous over the time Barret and Cornelia had between them when they were both in Paris, he knows that Barret took care of her and she would have been better off if Barret was still with her the moment the bombing happened.

“You make sure you find her and take her to safety, Morrison. I’ll call you from time to time. I gotta go,” he says goodbye and clicks off.

Morrison arrives at the hotel and goes immediately to her room the moment he found out where it was exactly from the receptionist. The hotel room is empty so he goes looking for Kevin but he is not there as well.

“Where the hell could they be?” he exclaims as he gets in the car. He’s stuck and doesn’t know where to go next. He decides to go to the nearest police precinct and see what he can do for the victims. He asks Henry to take him to the nearest police station while he calls the person in-charge of the rescue program his father had started back in New York. He spends some time on the phone and by the time he arrives at the police station, he has deployed about two dozen volunteers from their satellite office in Paris. He mobilized funds from their budget that’s allotted for philanthropic activities and sent it over to those who would be in-charge of their program in the city. He goes into the precinct and coordinates with the chief there, offering him any help he could and gathers information on the things they need to make their rescue operations even more effective. At the same time, he has asked his driver to get information about Cornelia since he doesn’t speak the language and it would save time for Henry to get whatever information he could while he talks with the chief in that precinct.

Meanwhile, Barret lands in JFK and the moment he steps out of the tarmac and into the airport lobby, he looks for a flight back to Paris. He’s not looking where he was going and then bumps into someone real hard, sending them both sprawling on the floor.

“Oh! I’m truly sorry, miss!” he exclaims as he got to his feet fast and assists the woman he bumped into. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going and -,” he stops talking and just looks at the woman who has the same surprised expression as he.

“Barret!” Sally breathed. “Wh-what are you doing here?” she asks, looking incredulously at him as if not believing that he’s really there in front of her.

“Sally, I, ah… Wh-what are you doing here? I just came from Paris a few hours ago but I’m actually on my way back because of the bombing -,”

Sally suddenly grabs him and hugs him to her. Then draws away from him to give him a kiss full on the mouth. Barret remains speechless and rooted to his place, his expression turning from confused into somewhat pleasantly surprised.

“What was that for?” he asks with a smile.

“Oh Barret! I am so glad you’re here! I was so afraid of what might have happened to you! I heard about the bombing there and I knew you were in Paris. I couldn’t stand to stay lying around here, waiting for any more news from the victims and survivors so I packed up one bag and decided to look for the next flight out to Paris. I’m sorry Barret. I was stupid and confused and didn’t want to admit that I had fallen for you the moment we met at that parking lot. I was so afraid to let my heart be open again that I chose to flee instead of fight for you. I chose to be on the safe side and pushed you away because of my fear… But it struck me that I don’t want to be away from you anymore and live my life in fear of the possibilities of a good future after I my  horrible past…” she starts sobbing as Barret takes him to the nearest chair and sits her down.

He strokes her hair and her face. “Listen, Sally. I understand that you were afraid and that you thought that you might just get your heart broken again… And I am willing to wait until you get past your fear. I don’t want to force you into anything because I love you… Yes! I love you. I want to protect you and mend your broken heart. I want to be your knight in shining armor who would save you from the dragon! I am a corny guy and a hopeless romantic and I love you!” he shouts, making other people’s heads turn towards them but he doesn’t care. “I could do this all day and shout to the world how much I love you, Sally. If that’s what it takes for you to believe me.”

Sally chuckles despite her tears and puts her hands on his face. “You have to know something else about me… I, ah,… Its very hard for me to say this but I want to be completely honest with you…,” she whispers and bows her head.

Barret turns her face up to meet his and whispers, “I know, Sally… I want to rip his face out of head and wipe him off from the face of the earth! But don’t worry, he’s gotten his due…” he says with controlled rage, his eyes burning and his voice strained. “The moment I found out, I knew that I had to get back to you. If my conclusions are correct, you are afraid of what I might think about you when I found out… But I don’t think any less of you, Sally. Instead, I admire you even more for being so strong and for pulling through all that trauma and bad luck that happened to you…”

She looks at him in shock and she can’t believe how he came to know of that. “H-how did you know? I never told anybody. And what do you mean about him getting his due?”

“I had someone look into it. I knew there was something more to what you were not telling me… I’m sorry I had to get someone to dig through your past. I didn’t mean to find out… I just wanted to make sure you were all right after you left me so I hired someone to look after you and being a thorough guy, the man I hired dug around and found out about what happened to you… Don’t worry, I’ve had him taken care of. He won’t be bothering you anymore. Don’t ask anymore, Sally, I want to protect you from everything harmful in your life. Please, come with me… I want to go back to Paris to check on Cornelia for she depends on me as her closest friend. Morrison is already there looking for her but he needs all the help he can get to find her, would you join me?”

She’s still confused as to what he said about taking care of Larry but decides to let it go and move on. Barret is her new life now and she’d be damned if she lets him go again for the second time. She nods with a smile and they embrace for a long time before setting off to find the next flight out to Paris.

Barret had hired someone the first week they were in Paris, to look into Sally. He didn’t want to do it at first but he couldn’t help but be curious about Sally and because he was going crazy with longing for her. He just needed to know if she was safe and she was but then the man he hired found something about her during her past job and reported it to Barret. He was crazy mad at what he found out that he ordered the man he hired to teach Larry a lesson. That night, Larry’s restaurant had a fire and he broke his leg. All of his money and assets burned down along with his restaurant. Barret was satisfied with that but if he was given the chance, he would have had Sally send the police to Larry and arrest him for raping her. But he knew that she would rather keep it a secret her whole life rather than do something about it, so he did. He wasn’t proud of what he did but he would do it again to protect the woman he loves.

Together, they board the plane on their way to Paris… to a new life… to their newfound love… and no one and no past could ever break their love for one another. They have found their futures with each other.

 

Chapter VI

 

Cornelia coughs and sits up from the hospital bed. She looks around and sees white walls and an IV stuck in her arm. She lies back down as nausea hits her like a freight train.

“Ahhh,” she groans as a nurse comes to look in on her.

“How are you feeling, Miss Wilson?” the nurse asks.

Cornelia clears her throat as the nurse gets her a glass of water. “I’m not sure what I’m feeling really… Where am I?” she asks then gulps down the drink. She didn’t realize she was so thirsty until she got a taste of water.

“You’re at the American Hospital of Paris, mademoiselle. You were brought here from the blast site. You were lucky that the ambulance was able to get here on time before you bled out too much,” the nurse says while adjusting her pillow.

“What do you mean bled out? I wasn’t injured or bleeding when I got into the ambulance. Maybe you are talking about the woman with me and her infant baby. Oh, how are they by the way?” she asks, thankful that her nurse could understand her fully and doesn’t have any distinguishable accents. She must not be originally from Paris as well.

“Oh, yes, they are okay. The baby has done exceptionally well, having a very strong body and a healthy appetite as well. They are resting in one of the rooms in this floor as well. You were bleeding when you came in and it’s good you were treated right away or else, you might have lost the baby if you had waited for another hour before coming in.”

The silence inside the room is deafening as Cornelia tries to comprehend what the nurse just told her. “Excuse me?” she asks, thinking that maybe she just heard it wrong. Maybe the nurse pertained to the infant that the woman she saved had in her arms.

“You are in your first trimester, ma’am, it is the most vulnerable time for you and your baby so you must not get stressed and take plenty of rest. I’ll come back for you later to change your IV, okay? Do you need anything else?” the nurse asks the wide-eyed patient

“Hmm? Nu-uh, I’m f-fine…,” she answers absentmindedly, still shocked at the news she accidentally got from the nurse.

The nurse politely went out and left her alone with her thoughts.

Oh my God! I’m pregnant? I’m pregnant! I- I can’t believe it! Oh, my God!

There are many things that are going on inside her head at the moment but all she could think of clearly now is Morrison. She knows that he is the father because he is the only one she’s ever been intimate with. She tries to count the days from the last time she had her period and remembered that she did not get her period that month. She’s been in Paris for nearly a month so the baby is about a month or nearly two months old. She looks down on her tummy and feels its still-flat surface. She doesn’t feel any differently yet but she remembered that she had been prone to more dizzy spells over the past few weeks. She hasn’t run that much either with all the things she needed to do in Paris and all the things that happened before James died.

She places her hand on her tummy and feels herself get emotional over the thought if having a baby… and even more emotional at the thought that it’s Morrison’s baby.

“Hello, baby? How are you? Are you okay down there? Mommy’s sorry she hasn’t taken care of herself that well… But now that I know you’re there, I will make sure that Mommy gets all the rest she needs and more and eat healthier food. Oh baby… I’m going to take care of you with the best of my abilities… I love you,” she whispers, feeling a tear roll down her cheeks. She never thought that she would ever have a baby, let alone have it at her young age. But of all the feelings and emotions going on inside her head and heart, she doesn’t feel any tinge of regret.

She looks up and wipes her tears, “Mom… gramps… I’m sure you’re there and I’m sure you’re very  happy for me as I am ecstatic over this pregnancy. There’s another Wilson who will continue your legacy. I miss you both…,” she sobs with joy.

She feels tired and sleepy so she rests for another hour. When she awakes, she flips on the television and learns more about the latest news on the bombing. The media are broadcasting the names of those who have died because of the blast as well as the injured and missing. She listens and looks through the list that’s posted in front of the television screen. Then she gasps as she sees Kevin’s name on screen. His full name is Kevin Hill, which he told her before, and as she sees his name on the television, she picks up the phone on her bedside table and calls her office. She learns that there are many employees who lived near the Boulevard who died, including Kevin, who was supposedly having diner in that place the night before, according to the police reports. The cops had already  informed his office since he didn’t have any next of kin on the identification card he had on. Only his office name and address so the police reported their findings to T.W. Industries and the head of Human Resources and the whole team are busy in coordinating with the families of the employees who died or were injured or missing.

She feels saddened by what happened to Kevin as well as the other employees. So after hearing the news, she advises the person on the other line that she will conduct a meeting as soon as she is able to see what kind of help they can give the victim’s families, and gives her consent to the person in charge to use whatever kind of resource they need since she is also indisposed.

She gets off the phone after talking  with the person in charge for about half an hour, giving instructions and directives on what they should be doing to help.

There is a sudden knock on the door as she replaces the phone on the receiver. “Yes, come in, please?” she answers.

She freezes and could not speak. In front of her, stands Morrison, his hair tousled and still wonderful-looking despite the disarray. His tie is askew it looks like he hasn’t gotten any sleep for days. He rakes his hands through his hair and looks at her intensely.

“Cornelia…,” he whispers then as if by force of nature, he takes two steps towards her bed and takes her in his arms, wrapping his big arms around her and squeezes her tight. “Oh, baby… How I missed you! I’m so glad you’re all right! Oh, Cornelia. I almost went crazy with worry… How are you feeling?” he lets her go but he still has his hands on her arms and rubs them up and down.

Cornelia looks up at him and suddenly, all the pent up emotions  she tried hiding, all those intense feelings she feels towards him plus the stress of the bombing and the realization of having his baby, pours out of her and she sobs with huge drops of tears. Morrison hugs her to him and whispers soothing words as she is wracked with sobs.

“Shh… there… It’s going to be okay, babe. I’m here… and I’m never going to go anywhere else… if-if you’d still have me,” he whispers.

She looks up at him and because of all her feelings pouring over, she just nods and hugs him to her again. She’s done pretending. She’s done fighting alone. She’s done being alone in the world when there are people who want to be a part of her life. She will have them in her life and she will have a life with these people. She will no longer hold on to what happened to her past and the things she lost in the past. She decides to move on and get on with life, taking all the lessons her past have given her but not to allow the past to rule her future.

She draws away from him and clears her throat. “I’m sorry, Morrison. I was just overwhelmed with all that’s happened. What are you doing here? Isn’t Mr. McElroy still in the hospital? What made you come all the way here?”

“Cornelia… Dad has pulled through his coma and is now doing better,” he starts while looking at her cautiously.

“Oh, that’s good… Well, uhm, tell him to get even better soon and to take care of himself…,” she whispers, thankful that Nick had pulled through. Even if he isn’t the ideal father she always wished for, he is still her father and one day, when she’s ready, she will face him and tell him the truth herself.

“Why don’t you tell him yourself when we get back? They’re waiting for you… I know that you might not be able to forgive them right now, my mother and Nick, but believe me, they have changed, and they want to be a part of your life… He knows… I know that you are his lost daughter and that your mother is Julie Wilson, James Wilson’s daughter…,” he finally tells her.

It takes a few seconds for her to move from her spot and react to what he told her. “What d-do you mean you know?” she gulps. She didn’t think that he would find out that soon and she didn’t know how to react.

“I know darling, and it doesn’t change anything about how I feel about you. I still love you and it actually made me love you more because despite everything that you’ve been through, you stayed strong and true to yourself. Nick informed me the moment he woke up and my mother wants to explain herself to you… She knows that she had given your mother such a hard time before but she’s changed, Cornelia. She wants to make it up to you if you would allow her… But no pressure, babe. You don’t have to make any decisions right away. I’m just letting you know that you don’t have to hide anything anymore. I love you and I want to be a part of your life…,” he says sincerely.

“Oh, Morrison…,” she cries, “I have tried very hard to stay true to myself but I don’t think that I have done so enough. Everything’s been so hard to get through. I’m surprised that I’m still standing here.” I also have something to confess.” She looks at him uncertainly, thinking if it is the right time to break the news of wait for a few weeks until she’s sure. Her conscience tells her to tell him because he deserves to know because he’s the father. She doesn’t want him to go on for weeks without knowing.

“What is it, Cornelia? Tell me, don’t be afraid…,” he urges as he sits on the bed and cradles her to him.

“Umm, I’m pregnant… and it’s yours,” she whispers.

Morrison doesn’t respond right away for a few seconds.

“Say something, Morrison… Don’t leave me guessing here,” she says when he still did not respond.

“Woohoo!” he suddenly exclaims which startles Cornelia but looking at his reaction, all his shouting and whoops of joy, she feels happy that her fear of him not wanting the baby was all for naught. He did want the baby and he looks ecstatic about having a child. “Oh! You’re not kidding, right? Woohoo! This is the happiest day of my life!” he shouts.

Some of the nurses took a peak at the open room as Morrison dances around like an idiot over the news of him being a father.

“Okay, okay, take it easy Morrison,” she chuckles. “Don’t break everything in here…”

“Okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I’m just so happy! Oh, Cornelia! You’ve made me the happiest person ever! I love you!” he kisses her fully in the mouth for a long passionate moment and proceeds to rubbing her flat belly. “When do you think he’ll show? What name is best for him?” he asks excitedly.

“Or her. We don’t know yet,” she interjects.

“Oh yes of course, her. What name would you want if he turns out to be a she? Oh, do you think we could have twins?” he asks. He’s acting like he’s been given the best Christmas gift.

“Hey, hold your horses there, mister. Take it easy…,” she warns laughing at his adorable reaction.

“I’m sorry, honey. I’m just so happy. I love you…”

 

 

 

Epilogue

They talked for most of the day and she was discharged the next day after the doctor gave her specific instructions to take it easy and rest. Morrison was so ecstatic that wanted to tell his parents right away but respected Cornelia’s wish to postpone the announcement until they get back. They had a lot of things to do before they went back to the states. Morrison took charge of the relief operations of their company and doubled up with the ones in charge of Cornelia’s companies. The two big companies, McElroy and Wilson, joined forces to bring help and relief to the victims of the bombing as the French government continued to investigate who the perpetrators of the terrorist attack were.

Gia de Grassi completely recovered from her ordeal and turned herself in to the cops about her involvement with Nick McElroy’s accident and the bogus lawsuit she filed against him. Linda, personally went to see Gia and together, the two women came to terms with their differences and both forgave each other of the years of feuding they’ve set upon each other. Linda wanted to come clean to the police about her lawsuit against Gia as well but Gia, herself stopped her, telling her that all had come full circle. Due to the McElroys not suing her, Gia paid a fine for her bogus lawsuit and had some other lighter punishment.

The first time that Nick and Cornelia got together, emotions were high and lots of talk happened. Words that were kept for so many years were finally unleashed and spoken to the people who deserved to listen to them. Linda had begged forgiveness from Cornelia about her unforgivable acts to her mother.

“I will be very honest in telling you that the things that you have done to my mother were beyond anything that I can forgive now. She’s the only family I had before I came to know James and you drove her away and caused her so much heartache… I thought before that there was some foul play to what happened to her, I guess it was me wanting to pin her death to someone specific whom I could take revenge on… But I guess that the only foul play that happened that day was her hear in pieces. I cannot forgive you for what you have done…,” she said as Linda nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. “But the heartache that you also had over your husband having another woman and even conceiving an offspring, must have been unbearable as well… that might have pushed you to lose your senses and make bad decisions of your own… I know that you’re not going to be able to forgive their affair and I could never forgive your revenge on her… but we can both move past it and live on. I know that my mother would want that for both of us. She had a good heart and I know that she’s happy where she is now…”

The two women nodded at each other, they did not embrace or shed tears of joy with each other, but they came to terms with each other’s circumstances and set aside their differences, hoping that in time, they could even be friends.

Kevin had a decent funeral back in James’ old property in New York where they spent the early years of their lives there. They never knew of his plots against Cornelia and they never knew that on his last day on Earth, he went to one of the cafes in the boulevard to meet with his henchman to tell him to call if all off. He had thought about his circumstances and came to terms to his lot in life. He realized that he should be thankful for what he had and not long for anything more… His greed got the better of him but on his final day, he was able to set things right before he left the world.

Barret and Sally caught up with Cornelia and Morrison in Paris and even spent a few weeks together, both exploring the city and Sally even made friends with Cornelia. It was like they both found their best buds in each other, which made the two men in their lives ecstatic for that means that they could all move on to better days in their lives.

 

“And congratulations to the newlyweds!” Barret exclaims after Cornelia and Morrison got married two months after they got back to the states. It was a small gathering of friends and family for Cornelia didn’t want a big wedding. They had the small ceremony at the park where they first bumped into each other.

Morrison gazes into Cornelia’s eyes and sees his forever in them. He never felt anything like it in all his life. It was as if his life is now complete. All that time when he was away and looked for people to help because it made him feel complete when he did so, it was all just a preview to what he was about to have with Cornelia. He was going to have the time of his life when they start their lives together as husband and wife and the thought of raising their kid together, with all their previous struggles all behind them was all he could ever ask in the world.

He knows that they will have problems and struggles still but that they could beat whatever it was, together.

Cornelia looks at Morrison’s expression as he looks at her and down to her belly and feels in her heart that she made the right choice in letting all her guards down, that time when he visited her in the hospital in Paris. If she didn’t let herself open up to the possibilities of having a future with him, it would have been a totally different scene that she would be looking at that day.

But she did make the right choice. She did not let her past haunt her forever. She did not let her hate control the rest of her life. She did not close her doors to the world.

And because of the choices she made, she will have a life with her new child and her husband by her side.

Yes, she did not get the revenge she so desperately wanted form the moment she lost her mother, and yes, she did not destroy those whom she thought was the reason her life was in pieces… but she got more than that in return. She got more than she bargained for.

“Honey?” Morrison asks, taking her by the waist and drawing her to him as they look out towards the gardens of their new home in Upstate New York. “What are you thinking?”

She turns her head to his to give him a kiss and wraps her arms around him. It’s been getting harder for them to embrace each other because Cornelia has been steadily growing. It’s her ninth month and she’s ready to pop anytime soon.

“Hmmm, nothing… I was just thinking about what I was doing the same time last year… I was living in another apartment then, waiting tables… It was about a week before I moved to Barret’s apartment building, when I just got the job at your firm.”

“Ah, I remember. The moment I saw you on the ground, pissed off at me for bumping into you, I was mesmerized by your beauty and body,” he chuckles as she nudges him at the stomach. “Ouch! What? It’s true… I was so blinded by your beauty that I couldn’t speak for a full minute until- ouch! What was that for?” he asks while still chuckling.

“I-I’m…ah!” she screams and that’s when Morrison knows that she’s not kidding anymore.

“Oh! Cornelia! Are- are you? Is this it?” he asks, moving around like he didn’t know what to do.

“Yes! This is it! Get my overnight bag from underneath the couch and call the driver,” she orders calmly while clutching her stomach. The pain is getting unbearable but she holds on to sanity until Morrison loads her into the car.

“Okay, okay, we’re all right. Take us to the hospital quick! Step on it!” he shouts at the driver as they pull out of the driveway.

After a few minutes, they reach the hospital and Cornelia is wheeled inside the delivery room. She has progressed in her labor rather quickly that by the time they arrived, she was already seven inches dilated.

Morrison paces back and forth in the hospital lobby as Nick and Linda rush to him followed by Barret and Sally.

“How is she?” asks Nick with concern etched in his face.

“She’s in there… I don’t know… I was there earlier but they suddenly kicked me out…” Morrison answers telling them that there was something wrong with the child’s umbilical cord that’s why they had to do an emergency C-section. Cornelia was a bit traditional with her pregnancy, not wanting to get an ultrasound to know the baby’s gender but made sure that she eats healthy and stays fit for the baby.

“Oh God! I don’t know what to do! Oh, please God, let them be okay!” he says outloud.

“Son, don’t worry, they will be fine. Rest a little while we wait,” urges Nick as Barret and Sally volunteered to get them some coffee.

They return shortly after as the doctor comes out of the delivery room. He has his doctor’s hat on and he just removed his gloves. He turns hi face to them and smiles the biggest smile they have ever seen.

“You are never going to believe this, Mr. McElroy,” he announced.

“Are they okay? Please tell me they’re all right!’ Morrison grabs the doctor by the arms and shakes him a little.

The doctor chuckles and nods his head, “Yes! They are healthy and fine. You can go in now.”

Morrison cautiously opens the door and sees Cornelia with a bundle in her arms. He fights back the tears that threaten to spill out but couldn’t.

“Oh, baby, you are the most beautiful woman in the world! I love you so much!” he exclaims as he inches forward. He peeks at the bundle of cloth in her arms and sees his infant son.

“He’s a he,” she says weakly. She looks tired but otherwise okay.

“Oh, what a beautiful little boy… I love you James Nicholas McElroy…,” he whispers as he takes the baby in his arms.

The nurse comes closer to them with another bundle of cloth in her arms and gives it to Morrison.

“Wh-what?” he asks looking unbelievable surprised at another baby that the nurse handed over to him.

He turns to Cornelia who gives him a wide smile.

“And she is a she,” she whispers with tears in her eyes. “Meet Julie Linda Wilson McElroy…”

Morrison beams with pride as he looks at both of his babies. He moves closer to Cornelia who wraps her arms around them. The fact that Cornelia named their daughter over both of their mothers’ names was the next best thing that happened that day. He could not ask for anything more in the world apart from the three people he has in his arms.

They were crying with happiness as Nick, Linda, Barret and Sally came inside the room to share the couple’s happiest day.

And whatever happened to them before, they did not let their pasts haunt them. Instead, they moved on and lived…

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The Past that Haunts You Part 4

Chapter I

 

Linda starts pacing towards the balcony door and back to the balcony. She’s been like this since she got up that morning. She can’t shake the feeling of dread threatening to overpower her.

You will pay for your devious ways! You and your worthless husband and son! I will rid the earth of the McElroys!

Linda shudders at the thought of what that vindictive woman might do next. It wasn’t enough that Nick is in a bind with the money laundering case he is facing now, she even went as far as orchestrating a kidnapping for her son’s girlfriend or whoever she is. Quite frankly, she didn’t care who the girl was. What she was concerned about was her son’s safety during that dangerous rescue they did. She learned from Nick that according to their men, there was an encounter and although Morrison was unharmed, he faced a lot of flying bullets. She just hung up the phone with Nick a few minutes ago and now, she thinks back to how their conversation went…

 

“What do you mean don’t panic, Nick!? You just told me bullets were flying past him. How could I not be worried? Why aren’t you worried? He’s our son, Nick!” she screamed at him over the phone as he calmly communicated what had happened.

“I know that he’s my son, Linda. He’s our only child. So don’t lecture me on being a parent because I am worried and I want him to be okay. But that is not the right thing to do right now. I know him, Linda. He can defend himself and I have my men standing by. They have actually engaged but covertly because I gave specific instructions for them not to show themselves. Do you think that one guy can defend them with just one gun?” he replied sharply. He knew that Linda was panicking because that’s how she usually was, especially when it came to her only son.

“But Nick… I want him out of there and back to our house. He needs to be protected from whoever it is who’s targeting you and our family. We need to keep each other safe! Promise me, Nick! Promise me that you’ll get him home safe and sound!” she pleaded while sobbing uncontrollably.

Nick knew he had to reassure his wife so he did. “I promise, Linda. I will do everything that I can to get him out of there and back in New York.” But it might be difficult to get Morrison back right away, unless Cornelia agrees to go back with him. His son was besotted with his young assistant and he couldn’t blame him. He knew what it was like to fall in love when he was younger. But that was a different story…

Nick called up the private guards who were at the drop site as well and asked the current situation. He learned that it was then contained and although Morrison and his companions drove safely away, the thugs who kidnapped the girl, also got away. They couldn’t show themselves right away, which gave the goons the time to get away with the boat they used.

He gave instructions to follow Morrison and ensure that they remain safe. He decided to call his son after a few hours once he’s settled so he could know his situation.

He turned his thoughts to the evidence that the kidnappers wanted. Of course, he had already made a copy just in case something happened to the original ones. What he found out was quite confusing. He found that there were accounts in the ledger that led to a particular name whom he had dealings with before. A certain lady named Angela de Grassi. The name de Grassi is well known and he’s had the pleasure of knowing a de Grassi about four years ago.

“But this couldn’t be her. They might just share a last name…,” he says to himself.

They were supposed to go into business together about four years ago but something happened and their deal was off. He knew exactly why their deal went awry but Linda was the one who took care of the details so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He must admit that she wasn’t really the best person for the job but she arrived at that opportune time that Nick was at a convention in Paris and had met the lovely de Grassi. The certain de Grassi lady was quite a distraction for Nick. Nick always suspected that Linda might have found out about their affair and decided to step in to remind him that she was still his wife.

He pushed the thought to the back of his mind that moment and proceeded to preparing for a meeting with his lawyers. He’ll call Morrison later and possibly convince him to get back to the city where he could put some bodyguards on watch, twenty-four seven. He decided not to tell Morrison of the guards he sent because he didn’t want him to think that he didn’t trust him with dealing with the situation. It was all too complicated for them at the moment and he’s just trying to do his best to keep his family and company alive and not let his life’s work go down the drain because of some unseen enemy.

 

She shakes her head to clear her thoughts. She’s been keeping a secret from Nick over the past year about a dangerous adversary.

Not everyone really gets how Linda is. She means well when it comes to her family and she’s willing to do anything, and that means everything, to keep her family intact and in good condition according to her outlook. She’s like a ferocious mother protecting her cubs when it comes to Morrison and her claws would come out at the slightest hint of her family being threatened.

Unfortunately, that kind of mentality also puts her in a bad light especially to people who gets close enough to Nick or Morrison. She would go behind their backs to do background checks on people she thinks would be a threat to them, may it be a greedy business partner or a gold digging girlfriend. She didn’t care about hurting those people in question or even possibly putting them in dangerous situations as long as those people left her family alone.
Because of her judgmental and untrusting attitude, she has always been the most popular person in lots of circles but never for a good reason. She has gained lots of enemies whose wanted her comeuppance to happen really soon and with such force that would finally knock her down a few pegs.
So far, she’s had minor snags in the past but never like this. It’s not that she’s afraid because she is still every bit the fighter, but she fears for her family. The family she has built since she married Nick. Her family includes their amassed wealth, of course. She is accustomed to their way of life. Aside from losing her husband and son, what she fears the most is being poor. She’s never had to work for money or food all her life and she wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to do when the time comes that she had to work to survive.

Oh, what should I do now? I can’t tell Nick because he would never forgive me if he found out what I had done four years ago…, she thinks to herself.

 

Linda Ellis was a young and beautiful budding Southern belle when she met Nick McElroy. She had him on her sights ever since she saw him on one of the business magazines her father always read before. He was the up and coming young businessman who had made his break with his family’s string of companies.

She was in love.

“Oh, Daddy, would you please invite him over for lunch or dinner or something? Or you could have him as a guest on that gathering you’re having next month?” she pleaded her father as they were having their breakfast at their house. Their family was originally from Virginia and they have lived there ever since the late 1800s. The house that stood on a hundred acre land was one that her great-grandfather built with his own hands when they first settled there. It was a grand house and she loved every bit of it.

They had other lands with even bigger land areas. The Ellis’ were also the biggest producers of sugar and cotton since the Depression and they have maintained that reputation up to that day.

Being an only child afforded her lots of privileges and being the only heir of their massive estates has made her a prime catch in the country. She was also very beautiful and regal, one who was born into privilege and class. She’s the epitome of grandness. Most of the girls in town were envious of her and she made it a point to flaunt her advantage over them to the point of being s stuck-up bitch.

When her best friend snagged a rich boyfriend when they were in College, she drew him over to her with her coy plays and flighty behavior. Susan Morgan always hated her but wanted to be close to the Ellis’ because of their money and fame. So she endured Linda’s behavior and let go of Hank when Linda showed interest in him. As much as she was in love with the young lad, she broke up with him and even told him to pursue Linda if he wanted to which he didn’t at first but Linda’s persistence got to him and they eventually dated for a while. But as do all relationships that were not really meant to be in the first place, they parted ways and Linda even caused a nasty scene telling everyone that he cheated when she was the one who had a tryst with some local boy.

That was Linda in her youth and when she finally got Nick, she never let go of him or her devious ways. She made sure that she never had any competition for him. She always got what she wanted and always had her way in things.

Except that day when Nick saw Julie Lewis Wilson, daughter of another businessman who was not that known at that time. Linda got wind of their chance meeting but didn’t think Nick would have any interest in her since they were not really big in the business world. She didn’t pay any mind to it even if her source – who was a member of her charity group of friends, of course – told her that the young woman was quite lovely indeed.

“Nick would never even glance at her if her father’s company was worth anything, believe me. Nick is just looking for prospective business partners. That’s all,” she scoffed, feeling confident that she’s got Nick on the palm of her hands.

What she never realized was that Nick had fallen in love and when one was in love, he never looks at a person’s worth in money but their worth to that particular person.

She realized that Nick was serious about the girl when it was already going on for months. He even had the nerve to get her pregnant. That sent her off the roof and she vowed that they would never be together, not if she had anything to say about it.

It was a good thing that the girl’s father also didn’t approve of their union and made sure that they didn’t get together so Linda just let him do his part. When the stupid girl ran away, she made sure that she stayed away by keeping watch of her actions, where she lived, if she had a job, a house, etc.

She was happy for a few years that Nick had seemed to give up in finding the girl but he had a sudden slip up and tried launching a search for her again. He found her but the girl had the sense of not showing him their child, only giving him a painting of hers, which he still kept in his study.

Linda panicked when she heard of this but didn’t dare take down the painting and question him about it for fear that he would find out about her activities as well. It didn’t progress though so she didn’t do anything about it. The girl didn’t want anything to do with him anymore and he seemed to let her go.

But ten years ago, Nick had completely changed his mind about Linda and their marriage. One day, he asked for a divorce and his reason was that he was not happy anymore. There was something missing in his life and as much as he loved their son, he couldn’t stand to let his other family be estranged. He wanted to look for Julie and their child again.

“I know you know everything, Linda… you always do. I want a divorce. I want to feel happy. I want to do right by Julie and our daughter. Please…,” he whispered as they were face to face in their grand living room in their house in New York.

Linda was in shock. “Wh-what are y-you talking about, Nick? Are you out of your mind? After almost twenty years of being together, you want to quit just like that?!” her voice started out soft but it was escalating to a high pitched one quickly.

“Linda… we both know that this is a marriage of convenience, a partnership of our companies. It was never based on loving each other… And you’ve only cemented our marriage by adopting Morrison, which I do not regret because he is the best thing that ever happened to us, but aside from that, we don’t have anything Linda. I don’t want to keep living a lie. I want out,” he said firmly, his brows drawn together telling her that he was serious.

“No! You can’t do this to me Nick! After all I have done to keep us all together? After turning a blind eye to your stupid dallying around with other women! After I have put up with your lousy ways, you have the nerve to ask for a divorce?! You are just one selfish son of a bitch! That’s what you are!” She was so angry at him that she confirmed that she knew everything he has done with other women.

Nick was never the ladies man but women always flocked to him. He had that certain charisma, a silent and mysterious appeal that drew women of any age to him like moths to a flame. Even in his advanced age, he still had women take second looks when he passed them by.

“That’s what you think, Linda. I never had any other affair aside from Julie. I know that’s wrong and despicable of me but I love her. I don’t want to hurt you even further as I have done all these years that’s why I am doing this. Can’t you understand? Do you still want to be married to me knowing that I love someone else? Can you stand living with me still?” Nick raked his fingers through his hair out of frustration. He couldn’t get through her. She was being the stubborn brat she was.

“No! No matter what you do, Nick, I will not divorce you. I will not let the family I have worked for in building all these years fall to pieces because of your flimsy affection! No one is married for love anymore. People stay married because it is practical and gives them security. Love cannot feed you when you’re hungry. It cannot save you from your debts!” she kept shouting words at him and as their kept on talking, Morrison’s heart kept breaking into a million pieces.

He was kneeling on the stairs right above them. He didn’t mean to listen to them but they were getting so loud to ignore from his room. He crept from his bed, into the hall, and sat on the steps of the big staircase. Their house was huge which didn’t do anything in containing their voices. If anything, the high walls even amplified their shouts.

Nick stormed out of the house after failing at talking any sense to Linda while she wept on the floor of the living room.

Morrison, at a young age of nearly fifteen, was pained for his mother and started hating his father. He knew that he was adopted since he was a baby. They told him when he was old enough to understand and he owed everything to them but he was closer to his mother since she was his primary caregiver. She cared and loved him unconditionally and even if his father was the same way, he was mostly away for business.

He couldn’t understand why his father had to destroy their family. They were so happy together and it was the first time he saw them in a shouting match. They might have had fights before but they never escalated that way like what he heard that night. He heard what it was all about. It was about a woman that Nick wants to be with. He was leaving his mother because of another woman.

How could he do that? Didn’t he care about them anymore? Doesn’t he realize that if he did it, he would break his mother’s heart and his?

He clenched his palms into fists and took a deep breath.

I can’t think of myself right now. I have to think about mother. I have to be there for her like how she has been with me. I will never let him hurt her any longer. He vowed to himself as he went down the stairs, took one look at Linda, and gave her a tight hug.

He didn’t have to utter any words. His embrace to her said it all and all Linda could do was weep even more for she realized that her son would be her closest ally. She rejoiced in that thought but felt despair in Nick’s wavering love her and their family that he would risk them breaking apart for that woman.

She would pay for this! I will make her pay!

And she did. She went to New Jersey herself and went to Julie’s workplace. She never hesitated. She slapped Julie across the face and said hateful words and threatened to drag her down to the dirt if she ever showed her face in New York or to Nick ever again.

“You slut! Do you think you could get away with your plan to take him away from me?!” she hurled her words at her while Julie was on a break in front of her office.

“Wh-what are you talking about?” but she knew exactly what she was talking about. She couldn’t believe that Linda Ellis McElroy came to her place of office. How did she find her in the first place? Was the first thought that came to her mind the moment she saw the familiar walk of someone who never had a hard day.

Nick had contacted her years before, when Cornelia was about six or seven years old and she only agreed to meet him because she wanted to clear the air and make things clear between them. She admitted to him that she gave birth to their daughter but refused to let him see her. She gave him a painting that Cornelia made just that year and told him that the painting was the best thing she could give him as a keepsake or reminder of Cornelia but she couldn’t show her to him… at least not yet. He seemed to genuinely feel pain and regret but she hardened her heart and thought about Cornelia’s future. She would rather have Cornelia think that her father died rather than let her deal with an absentee father. She could deal with getting her heart trampled by the guy but she couldn’t let her daughter experience the same fate.

That was almost three years ago and then came Linda barging into the place where she worked, interrupting her on her break time to rant and rave about a husband she couldn’t control. This realization gave way to anger after her initial shock at seeing her there.

“Oh you know as well as I do that you have sunk your slutty nails into my husband’s mind again and made him think that he could ever have a future with you and your bastard child!” was Linda’s response to Julie’s confused question.

The sound of flesh meeting flesh rang in the air as Julie slapped Linda hard on the face.

“How dare you come to my territory and accuse me of lies! I have not spoken to your husband in nearly three years and the last we did speak was because I broke off all connections with him! Why don’t you ask your husband why he suddenly had a change of heart after all these years, huh?” she exclaimed at Linda whose eyes grew big at the fact that Julie slapped her.

She attempted to slap her back but Julie held fast and stopped her hand from connecting to her face.

“You! Get your hands off me, you homewrecker!” she retorted, making sure that the people around them could hear her clearly. She was so mad at not being able to slap her back but she made sure to get even in another way.

“Why don’t you just go back to where you came from and leave me the hell alone! Tell that to your cheating husband as well!” shouted Julie. She didn’t care that her colleagues could hear her and that they saw the spectacle happen right in front of their eyes. She never felt so mad than what she felt at that moment.

“Just you wait! You can never get any jobs anymore! I’ll make sure you suffer and your child along with you! Don’t come crying to me when you’re all out of options. I told you, back off! If you had the sense of leaving Nick alone, this would never have happened,” Linda threatened.

It was like a bucket of water that was dumped straight to her face. Julie realized that Linda Ellis McElroy is a very powerful woman and she had every influential friends. If she gets sacked at her current job, it would be hard for her to get another one because Linda would make sure of that.

She stayed silent and wide-eyed as Linda stalked off towards her Mercedes, shades and expensive handbag on hand, heels clicking on the pavement, and a lingering smile of pure maliciousness on her lips. Oh, she was planning something all right and if there was anything Linda was good at, it was in planning things, good or bad.

Julie went home that day, clearly troubled and agitated. Cornelia noticed it and it went on for a week. Until the last day that Julie ever drove her to school. Julie was especially happy that day like she had forgotten whatever it was that was plaguing her for more than a week. Cornelia didn’t dare ask her about it outright for fear that she might get the brunt of her mother’s anger- although Julie rarely got angry with her or with anything in particular.

Linda had taunted Julie for the next few days, calling her up and shouting accusations at her and threatening to have her arrested for adultery and all other bullshit accusations. Julie usually hung up once she realized it was Linda but Linda knew that she was getting to her especially by the end of the first week.

“This is just the beginning, Julie. Just you wait,” she snickered after yet another call to Julie. She had told her that she was fired from her job and banned for getting a new one in town, which was not a lie.

Linda managed to coerce the manager of the office Julie was working on and told him lies about Julie like drug addiction and that Julie was secretly hiding her addiction with alcohol as well. She even went as far as accusing Julie as a thief, telling the manager that it was the reason she was very secretive, that she didn’t want to be found out about her past crimes in New York. Linda had people fabricate criminal records that she sent to the manager’s fax and even posted them on the job site used in that town.

Linda did her best at manipulating circumstances and lying to people to make it hard for Julie.

Finally, on the last day of the week, Julie dropped Cornelia at school and smiled sweetly at her daughter before spending the day at the park, just looking at the green grass and the falling leaves. It was nearly summer and despite the warm weather, she had never felt so cold.

What now? What would become of us now? Oh God, please help me! I can’t let Cornelia down. I can’t go to Nick for help either!

Then she finally entertained the thought of going back to her father. She’s been receiving aid from him every month since she walked out of their house and locked him away from their lives. She blamed him for her not seeing Nick all those times when they could have solved their predicament but over the years, she simply fought the urge to forgive him because of Cornelia. She wanted her to stand on her own two feet and never to depend on anybody for her survival. She taught her that the world has never done them any favors and they should not expect goodness from people.

But as she watched a family – a mother, a father, and a child – play and giggle in the falling leaves, she felt a pang of envy. For almost ten years, she had no one to share her life, her happiness, and pains with, except for Cornelia. It made her think that she was being unfair to her child for keeping her away from the only family she had.

After almost spending the whole day just reflecting and thinking about her options, she made the decision to contact James that night once they got home. This thought gave her a new sense of joy, something that she rarely felt when it came to the topic of going back to her roots. But at that moment, it was the best shot they had. She would swallow her pride and go back to James in order to protect Cornelia from Linda’s misguided wrath.

As she was driving towards Cornelia’s school, she came upon a high cliff and slowly pushed the brakes but then it didn’t catch. She pushed again and again with all her might but it wouldn’t budge. She had no brakes!

“Oh my God! Help!” she shouted, rolling her window down and honking her horn but there were no other cars on the highway. She was approaching the cliff and she decided just to jump and take her chances on the hard ground of the highway but then her seatbelt got jammed. It took only a few seconds for her to reach the edge of the cliff and it was too late for her to jump. She braced herself and the last thought on her mind was of Cornelia running around in the playground, all smiles and squealing in delight as she chased her around with their puppy. She was about four years old then and it was one of the happiest times they ever had, just the two of them, with no worries in the world, just being together and feeling complete.

She smiled and closed her eyes as her car hit the tall trees below.

The next thing she knew, Cornelia was by her side, fighting tears. She told her something but she can’t really understand herself then and sent a prayer for her daughter before letting the pain take over.

Julie’s death was reported in the local news and Linda stared at the television set, paralyzed in her seat, as Nick walked in and the news had just ended.

“Oh my God…,” she whispered then looked at Nick’s confused face.

“What? What’s the matter, Linda?” he asked, putting his suitcase down and approaching his wife. He had a fight a few weeks ago but he chose then to just dismiss his sudden longing for Julie and their daughter.

The decision to find them and get a divorce from Linda was a spur of the moment thing for Nick. He was drunk one night then he glanced at the painting his daughter made. It made him melodramatic and reminiscent of the love he felt for Julie. Yes, they met about three years ago when he finally tracked down a phone number that possibly led to her, which it eventually did, but she refused to tell him where she was and just agreed to meet him some other place. He demanded to see his daughter but she just gave him that painting saying that it was the best she could give him from his daughter because Julie would never let him see her. He pleaded with her and begged her to see reason for the sake of the child but she was cold and hard as stone. She had changed but he still saw some semblance of the young, spirited lady he fell in love with all those years ago. They were victims of wrong circumstances but he guessed that Julie was hit the hardest with those unfortunate circumstances.

He wouldn’t let Julie go without seeing their daughter but she started making a scene, which caught the attention of some bystanders so he decided to back off and accept what she had to give at that time. He vowed to her that he would never stop wooing her and would never cease convincing her to come back to him, even telling her that he would divorce Linda. Julie asked him if he was still with her and he answered truthfully.

“Just as I thought. You know what, Nick. My father was always right about you. You will never divorce her or risk losing her because she has power over you. She owns half of everything you do so divorcing her would be so brutal that you would abandon that attempt altogether in the end,” she scoffed and made her final stand. “No, we don’t want you in our lives. No, you may not see me and especially Cornelia ever. No, you cannot know where we are and if you do find out, I will know and I would willingly get her as far away from you as possible. So this is the last time we would ever see each other, Nick. Do not come looking for us or I will have you arrested,” she said with a very firm and unwavering voice.

She walked away then and all Nick could do was stare at her retreating back. He battled with himself if he should go after her and convince her some more or if he should just accept the fact that she was right about Linda having power over him because it was the truth.

That night when nostalgia and longing for the woman whom he has lost was the spark that lit the flame of asking Linda for a divorce. He went home that night, intoxicated and with anger in his heart and got into a shouting match with Linda over him asking for a divorce. He eventually walked out when she wouldn’t concede to his wish, and woke up the next day realizing that he was wrong. He let his heart rule his mind. It wasn’t the practical thing to do. So he forgot about it and let the incident go. They went about their days without discussing the matter further. Linda seemed satisfied that Nick never mentioned it to her again.

Then he got home one night and saw the horror on Linda’s face. He asked her what the matter was but she just shook her head and said it was about her friend losing a daughter.

“Whose daughter? Are they from your charity organizations?” he asked moving towards her to give her a hug. They had gone closer again, mostly because Linda made sure that he was reminded of how she takes care of him.

She hugged him back and said distractedly, “No… no, ah, she was one of the beneficiaries of the charity foundation I put up in the smaller towns in Jersey. I- I’ll just send some flowers or something. It’s just shocking if someone dies, you know…”

Nick sighed and got a drink from the decanter at the bar, “Makes you think about your time on earth. Time is fleeting and we’re not getting any younger.”

Linda had an idea to make sure that Nick doesn’t find out about Julie’s death right away. Not that she was happy about what happened to Julie but it served a purpose for her to finally keeping Nick at her side.

“I totally agree with you, which actually gave me an idea. I want to go away for a few weeks. Somewhere far away with no media, no distractions, just us. It’s been a while since we went sailing. What do you say?” she asked hoping he says yes at once so she wouldn’t have to resort to forcing him by reminding him of his past blunders about divorce.

Nick gave it a thought and took a deep breath.

“I think… that it’s a great idea! I do have some downtime for the next couple of weeks. Where do you plan to go?” he asked, sitting down next to her, glad that she suggested that they go away. It was a time for him to make up for asking a divorce. He realized he was stupid and that Julie would never agree to marry him anyway. He’s better off with Linda because she would never leave him. He would just find a way to get close to his daughter in the future.

They discussed their itinerary over a glass of wine and laughed a couple of times. It was one of the most enjoyable talks they ever had.

At the same time, Cornelia was crying herself to sleep, thinking about the father who never had the guts to stand up for them. She had vowed that night to do what she had to do to get even. To remember that night that her mother died in despair and she was left to fend for herself.

That was how she distracted her husband from finding his daughter but it didn’t take long for Nick to find out and he did. When they got back from their vacation after a month, he learned of the tragic accident and immediately set out to look for Cornelia. However, even with his private investigators looking into the matter, they just couldn’t find her. It was as if she disappeared entirely from the face of the earth. Whenever they asked the police station, the cops would say that it was a confidential case and the records were sealed.

“What do you mean they’re sealed? Where is the little girl?!” Nick said frantically to the cop at the local police station. He went to New Jersey, at the town where the accident happened and figured it was where Julie lived her secluded life for the past ten years.

“I said they are sealed. So if you don’t have any other questions Mr. McElroy, please find your way out. I don’t want to have to arrest you for public disturbance,” the unfeeling policeman said.

Nick couldn’t do anything but growl out his frustration and walked out of the station. He called his lawyer and friend and asked the details of such a case. He learned that he, basically, couldn’t do anything if the case was confidential and shut out from the public. It might be that she’s on protective custody or something like that, for the legal system to prevent anyone from finding her. Or maybe someone just doesn’t want her found.

“So you’re telling me I can’t do anything to find my child? What the fuck kind of system do we have!” he shouted over the phone then apologized for his rashness.

“I understand Nick and I would feel that way if I were in your shoes but unless you have proof that you’re the father, you can’t get custody or even see her. I suggest that you just let this go. I’m sure she’s in a better place. We have a good system for displaced children. I’m sure she’s in a good home or at least a nice orphanage.” His lawyer and supposed “friend” neglected to mention that Linda paid him big money to discourage Nick from finding the girl and just to convince him that she’s better off without Nick looking for her.

“Are you sure about that? I mean, how would you know if she went to a good home? And she shouldn’t be going to anybody else’s home. She should be going home with me. I’m her father for Christ’s sake!” Nick was getting worked up again.

“Calm down, Nick. It won’t do you any good if you don’t keep your cool. Tell you what, we’ll keep looking or I could at least find out if she’s in good hands. But don’t expect me to get her location because I can’t but again, I could ask some friends about her if they’ve heard about her.”

Nick thanked him profusely and urged him to look into it so he would know how his daughter was doing. He would’ve wanted to take her home with him but he didn’t have any proof that he was the father. Julie never gave him any legal document about their child and he knew that she kept her mother’s maiden name so the child would naturally follow hers since she was a single mother.

After a few weeks, the lawyer gave him some lie about the kid being in a place that was nice and safe for her, even showing some fake photos of the girl in a swing set, playing in a playground full of other kids, looking happy and satisfied. Nick totally fell into it and thanked him for looking into it.

“But I still want to get custody of her. How do I do that?” he asked.

“Well, we could wait until she’s legally an adult and then talk to her then or again, get some proof that you’re the biological father. Other than that, we can’t do anything. It’s a court appointed home for her and as you can see, she’s very happy and safe there. Away from anyone who might want to harm her. Believe me, Nick, you don’t want this kind of publicity if the world found out that their most respected family man had an affair and a child with a young woman who was tragically killed in a roadside accident. What would that make of you then?” the lawyer pointed out.

“I personally do not give a fuck what people say,” Nick replied.

“But your employees and shareholders do. They care who and what kind of person they do business with. So as your friend and advisor, let this go. Wait for a few years and then you could talk to her when she’s all grown up to understand. You’re both better off on your own.”

Nick was convinced that his daughter was better off without him at that point in time and let the matter go, vowing to go to her once she’s emancipated from the state. Then he learned that she had run away when she was sixteen and hasn’t been found since. He sent out his investigators but again, they couldn’t find even a thread of her whereabouts. He started to think that there was something fishy going on and that someone was deliberately trying to hide his daughter from him but never got to go further into finding out because it was when he entered a new venture in his business that distracted him even further.

Linda was glad that Nick started letting go of the thought of finding his biological daughter. She was tired of having to pay off people to lie to him and hide wherever Cornelia was. She had asked her friend, who happened to be a judge in New Jersey and who handled the Lewis case. She had orchestrated the child’s transfer to the orphanage and to seal the records.

“You owe my father, John,” Linda said to the judge, reminding him rather unsubtly about his past and that Linda’s father had to bail him out of a possible murder charge. The Ellis’ were very powerful in lots of places and that included New Jersey so when Linda had asked a judge for a favor, she was sure to get it.

Cornelia was written off as an orphan and chucked to the least organized orphanage in the state and her name was even changed to mask who she really was. Not until she ran away on her own did Linda have her peace of mind. At last, she wouldn’t have to keep paying those idiots to keep her from being found in that place. Now, the girl could go wherever she wanted and Nick would never find out what happened and what she did.

Until a whole new kind of adversary came along and threatened to crush the very foundations of her life… her family…

When Nick met Gia de Grassi, Linda’s world started to crumble down her feet again… It wasn’t like that with Julie, it was something entirely different because Gia was so much like her. She had the same, if not more, power in terms of influence and money. The de Grassi’s were very prominent in Europe and other parts of the world, not only in the U.S. and when a de Grassi takes an interest in you and your company, you would usually fall to your knees and treat it as an answered prayer.

It was like that for Nick for his business never truly skyrocketed until the de Grassi’s started being an investor.

Nick met with the ambitious and glamourous daughter and heir of the de Grassi family, Gia, at a luncheon in Paris. What started as a friendly and “strictly business” evening, turned out to be something more for the two. Nick and Gia slept together that night and started having an affair.

Linda found out about it right away and cried herself to sleep for the next several nights while Nick was still in Paris, spending time with the heiress.

“You will not leave me Nick McElroy. I vow to destroy whoever stands in our way! Including that slut!” she screamed at herself in the mirror and hurled a glass vase across the room of their bedroom. She was alone that night. That was four years ago. What she did next would seal their fates for the years to come…

 

Chapter II

 

Cornelia packs her suitcase hastily. She just had a heart-wrenching conversation with Morrison and with the loss of James that day, her heart and mind are not in the right condition to make drastic decisions. But all she wants to do is to get out of there. She had called Kevin earlier and asked about the arrangements of her grandfather’s funeral. She was informed that he is to be cremated on the following day. Kevin also asked her to stay after the ceremony so he could talk to her about James’ will together with the family lawyer.

“I will do as you ask of me but I am telling you now, I have no interest at all with James’ money. I loved him as a friend and considered him as my only family even before I knew all of this. That does not mean that I will take his money. Give it to his other family members no matter how distant they are…,” she told Kevin over the phone when she called him.

“Cornelia, I completely understand what you’re telling me but please, just come. We are certainly not going to force anything on you but please give it some careful thought for I know that you are the only beneficiary of James’ company and estates. He had no other family, at least ones that he considered his family, other than you. I’ll tell you more once you’re here… but please, come,” Kevin said with a sad but firm voice.

She couldn’t say “No”, even if she knows that she might break down in pieces once she fully accepted the fact that James had passed. The only person who showed compassion and concern was gone. She had no one to call for help anymore…

No one to send correspondence to when she found out something about Nick or the McElroys. But it was all a moot point now since James told her about the truth behind her past.

She will go to James’ funeral. It was the least she could do to honor her grandfather. She has not thought about what she would do afterwards but one thing is clear in her mind, she doesn’t want to see Morrison any longer, at least not in the near future, anyway. She needs to pick herself up and stand on her own before she can even face him because if he pushes her some more, she might crumble and give in to her love for him and end up going back into his arms.

He’s just an unnecessary distraction for her and she still has to make a decision if she wants to let Nick know of who she was or just stay silent about it.

“What possible satisfaction would I get if I tell him? It doesn’t matter anymore,” she whispers to herself as she zips up her bag. She didn’t bring much simply because she doesn’t have much really. Just a few practical clothes for the office but she wouldn’t need them anymore. She has decided to leave the firm regardless of what the outcome would be after James’ will is heard. She could never withstand seeing Morrison everyday and reporting to Nick knowing full well that he is her biological father.

She musters up the courage to get up and open her apartment door on her way out. She has a few hours to spare until she needs to travel back to the Hamptons and she doesn’t want to spend them cooped up in her apartment. She needs to go outside. She needs to see other people going about their business like nothing has changed in their routines. She needs to see some normalcy in people because her life had always been so far from normal and she’s starting to feel the weight of these discrepancies in her identity. She hasn’t had one day of peace after her mother died.

She walks towards the park where she had first met Morrison on the day that he almost ran her over with his bike. He was such a class act, taking her to the hospital an making sure she was all right after their accident at the park. It was the first time she ever felt cared for by someone else other than herself but she couldn’t realize it then. All her guards were up when she first met Morrison and even after her first impromptu date with Barret. She didn’t think she would meet the man who will make her heart beat faster than it has ever felt. All the while, she thought that she had gone cold and hard inside that nothing and no one could ever thaw that part of her.

According to Kevin, James wanted to be cremated and then placed at the mausoleum in his property in his New York home, the first ever home he had bought when he made it big in the business world.

The funeral itself will be held at James’ residence in the city, some place she has never been before. James had never asked her to come with him anywhere or even invited her to his home.

It was probably because he wasn’t comfortable with me in his private world, she thought but knowing James, it was far from that. He might have thought I wasn’t comfortable fully knowing his world. Yeah, that might be it. In any case, I will get to see his house now.

She wipes another stray tear from her left cheek and feels the breeze on her face, blowing away the moisture on her face. It was like a caress telling her that it was going to be all right.

Oh, mom, I wish you could be here with me so we could both pay our respects to grandfather, she whispers to herself.

She plans to spend the rest of the day in the park but also needs to be early at the crematorium before anybody else and leave before everybody comes. She just wants to pay her respects privately before his body is cremated. She wouldn’t be able to take it if she saw some people looking at her and wondering who the hell she was, at the back of their minds.

She decides to leave then and make her way to a café to make her arrangements. She calls and makes her reservations at a hotel near the address Kevin gave her. She’s never been to that part of the state and as she learned from researching about it, it takes up to more than six hours just to get there by land so she decided to book a flight going there instead.

“Okay, so it would take about an hour and a half for me to get there then I’d have to drive to the crematorium for half an hour then to James’ house for another hour. Okay… I can do that,” she said to herself after an hour of sitting at the café, having made the proper arrangements for her trip the next day.

She looks up and looks at the crowd, wondering where she could have been that very moment if she never knew James. Would she still be alive? Would she still be living in the streets? Who knows…

 

A pair of eyes looks at her from a distance.

“Yes, she’s still here. I don’t know… I’ll keep checking. Yes, sir… I will,” he says to someone on his phone.

He’s been following her since she left the hospital, making sure to keep a keen eye on her and her whereabouts. His employer specifically instructed him not to lose her at any time for she is a very important person to him. As far as he knows, she serves a higher purpose other than a grieving granddaughter of a rich old man who finally kicked the bucket. He remembered his employer saying that she is going to be gold mine and if she ends up cooperating, then they wouldn’t have to resort to forceful measures to get her to sign over the rich man’s companies and estates to his employer, that is.

She’s a top priority to his employer and he was given the task to monitor and tail her wherever she goes. He was given instructions to stay as her shadow and not harm her but if she won’t give up the old man’s riches to his boss, she would have to miraculously disappear and never ever come back.

If that happens, the next of kin would inherit Mr. Wilson’s fortune and they all knew that he doesn’t have other close relatives any more. Naturally, his employer – being deep in Mr. Wilson’s counsel – has his name written on that will, somewhere, and would eventually get everything once he eliminates all who stands in his way.

If his boss gets that inheritance, it would make him rich beyond measure and that would mean he, Gerald Deco, from the backstreets of Brooklyn, is going to get he’s been longing for all his life at last!

No more lousy jobs just to pay the bills. No more late nights doing dirty work for those goddamn stuck-up business owners.

He has been a hired thug all his life, ever since he turned seventeen and experienced being hungry with nothing to eat for almost three days. When he saw the chance to steal for food, he never hesitated. He’s been in and out of foster care starting at the age of two. His father walked out on them just after he was born and his mother tried his best with him but having poor health and empty pockets, she had to give him up for adoption when he was only two years old. A family eventually adopted him when he was three. They were decent and provided for his needs but having five other children of their own, they couldn’t let him go to a good school and had to give him up when he turned seven. He was turned over to five other foster families ever since, some were not favourable while the others were just barely decent. He started getting into the wrong crowd and into drugs when he turned fifteen then ran away when he was seventeen. He lived in the streets for a year then finally having sold his first ever, big stash of cocaine, he was able to get a place for himself but it was also the beginning of a string of police arrests.

At only twenty-two, he’s been to prison several times but only for minor charges; never for the jobs where he was paid lots of money for – eliminating people who were undesirable to his employers.

This time, it was Cornelia. He was offered big money, the biggest he’s ever been offered, for just trailing her around and then, when and if deemed necessary, kill her.

No more of this poor fucking life, he thinks to himself. He would live in a faraway place with plenty of sunlight and warm weather to go around, and no more of that dreadfully cold atmosphere in the city.

Gerald replaces his sunglasses and puts down the high-end binoculars his boss gave him to specifically use in spying on little miss heiress. He switches off his cellular phone and gets into a more relaxed position in the driver’s seat.

“I guess it’s going to be a long afternoon. Can’t this girl just get a move on? I’m so bored doing nothing… watching her stare off every few minutes like some crazy girl. But I must admit that she is a beauty, this one,” he smirks eyeing Cornelia’s pretty face and nicely shaped legs showing from her dress.

“Hmm, it’s not a bad view at all though.” He laughs despite the boredom that’s killing him by following her around.

And it was a long afternoon for Cornelia spent another two hours just sitting there and contemplating what her next steps would be. It was hard for her to figure it all at once but she had to start somewhere. So, she contacted another person who might be able to help her and felt satisfied that he was willing to help.

She pays for her food and stands out in the street to hail a cab going to the airport. Her flight would be in another three hours but she wants to get there early.

After boarding the plane, she fell into a deep slumber that lasted the whole trip and when she woke up, her plane was just beginning to land in the Buffalo Airport. She proceeds to her hotel and decides to go out to get some food for her dinner.

She hears her stomach grumble as she was getting her purse, “Ouch… must’ve been many hours since I had anything to eat,” she says to herself, realizing that the last time she ate was when Barret took her out for some food that morning, at the hospital. She arrived at around ten at night and it was ten-thirty on her watch.

“Oops, I hope there are restaurants or convenience stores still open around here. Where would I go though?” she asks herself as she closes her hotel room door. As soon as the magnetic stripe worked and locked her room, she set out towards the elevator and down to the lobby of the small but cozy hotel slash inn that she found in the internet.

Coincidentally, the name of the small hotel was Julie’s Labyrinth, which was actually the reason why she picked that hotel, because it had the same name as her mother’s.

She sees the concierge and asks politely, “Hi, there, umm,” she glances at her nametag and sees her name, “Marly, what a nice name,” she says smiling at the pretty young concierge.

“Well, thank you, Miss Lewis. How may I help you today?” she smiles graciously back.

“Yeah, I was wondering if you had any idea what place is still open right now for dinner. Or even a snack, that would be fine,” she replies and gives an apologetic smile at the lateness of the hour.

“Oh, you would be happy to know that our cook is still here and would be more than happy to get you what you want! Although, I do recommend the chicken soup and Caesar salad,” Marly whispers, winking as if giving her trade secrets of the hotel.

“Wow! I would love that, Marly. But I wouldn’t want to be a bother…,” she says uncertainly. She doesn’t want to keep the poor cook in for longer than he needed to be.

“Don’t be silly, Miss Lewis. It would be our pleasure to provide you all our ready services. Besides, Greg practically lives just a block from here so it shouldn’t be a bother for him to stay another hour for you. It would be overtime for him so that’s a win-win for all of us,” she beams and Cornelia can’t help but smile back at her contagious perky nature.

“Well, in that case, please show me the way to the kitchen then,” Cornelia answers enthusiastically. She starts to feel better after her lonely afternoon and tiring trip.

“Please follow the arrows that lead to the diner area. It shouldn’t be that hard to spot. Look for the red arrows that say “Resto”.” Marly points at the first arrow as Cornelia thanks her for her kindness and help.

When she reached the end of the arrows, there was a cozy room that had an open backdoor. It leads to a garden of flowers.

“Oh!” her breath catches in her throat and covers her mouth with her hand. She’s shocked to see a sea of flowers hidden at the back of the small hotel. She never even saw that in the listing in the internet but it sure is an added attraction to the place. “Such a beautiful garden…,” she whispers as she continues forward.

The open balcony, as it turns out, only has about five wooden tables all scattered about the small space that was enclosed with metal railings. But beyond the metal railing – that reaches up to her waist – is a path that leads to the flower garden beyond. A small gate with a latch at the middle of the railings was there to separate the balcony from the garden. It’s a lovely sight indeed even with the night sky and the yellowish lights surrounding the garden.

“Breathtaking, isn’t it?” she hears someone with a deep voice say. She turns around and sees a guy looking straight at her. “The flowers, I mean…,” he continues on to say.

She clears her throat and smiles at the man who spoke. He looks harmless enough with his unassuming smile and handsome face. He looks like he was on his way to a party or something with his tuxedo and closely cropped black hair. “Yes. It is. It’s such a spectacular piece of heaven in such a hidden space. How did they ever manage to contain it here?” she asks no one in particular.

“Well, it’s pretty easy really. All you need is a little bit of gardening skills and you’ll be able to duplicate one of these babies,” he answers her nonetheless.

She’s surprised at his confidence in claiming to know how to create such a masterpiece. “Oh really? So I suppose you’ve built this garden, then?” she asks a little sarcastically, raising an eyebrow.

“Not really,” he chuckles.

Thought so, she says to herself haughtily.

“But I own it so I’m actually taking some lessons. It’s a rather intricate art, gardening is,” he infers.

Then one of the waiters arrive and greeted the guy as his boss. Her eyes widen for a bit then she closes them altogether, almost dreading the guy’s arrogant introduction of himself but it never comes.

“Hi, the name’s Adam… Adam Rothman. Pleased to meet you, miss…?” he waits for her to give her name with a smile that was devoid of arrogance or sarcasm.

“C-Cornelia. Cornelia M-,” she pauses. “Lewis. My name is Cornelia Lewis. Sorry about that remark. I just thought you were making a joke of what I said. I didn’t mean anything by it,” she apologizes with her head trained at the floor.

He chuckles again, a deep, resonating sound that oddly warms her heart. “Oh, don’t feel bad about that. You seem quite cross with me back then. You look so cute when you’re angry, did you know that?” he winks at her as she shoots him shocked look. But then he laughs a hearty one and throws his hands up. “Please don’t get mad at me again. I was just playing with you.” He still has his hands up when Cornelia finally laughs out loud as well.

“You think you’re funny huh?” she tries mustering a serious voice but he makes it hard for her to stay serious because of his mischievous grin. “It’s not really very good to make fun of your guests, you know. It’s bad for business.” She adds, finally making a straight face.

“Oh, really? And I see that you’ve had great experience in that area, isn’t that right, Miss Lewis? Hmm, where have I heard that name before? Are you from around here? Are you possibly connected to the Wilson’s?” Adam asks, trying to look like he didn’t know who she really is.

“I’m sorry if I’m intruding. It’s just that your name sounds familiar. And I’m trying to see if you’re one of those hotel mystery shoppers or evaluators as he properly calls them.

They’ve had several evaluators so far since it’s the time of year again when the best hotels and inns in their area are checked for their safety, comfort, and value. Not that Adam wanted to win, for he’s never had, not by choice, but because he doesn’t want this place to be known to all, just the original patrons. He wants to preserve the rustic feel of the place, just like what he promised to the previous owner whom he grew to respect.

 

Julie’s Labyrinth was Adam’s first restaurant, which he bought about four years ago. He was a budding restaurant owner then, a family business of the Rothman’s of Buffalo, and he was taken with the place because of it’s view of the backyard. It was small and it didn’t have a nice view up front. One side of the roof was about to give and the paint was peeling. He hesitated in going in but he was told by a friend that he wouldn’t regret ever going inside of that place. When he saw the first blossom of roses at the threshold with the intricate woodcarvings on the walls and the warm, cozy feel, he immediately fell in love with the place.

When he walked into the backyard where a private room was then located, he saw that it wasn’t a closed room like what he thought. It wasn’t like a storeroom or a garage like he pictured.

The scent was the first one to assault the senses. It smelled like a field of flowers mixed with the freshness of the breeze. It was very un-assuming and pure. Then when he saw the first patch of dirt with a bunch roses, arranged by color, he couldn’t resist going all the way inside the room. At first, it looked like an ordinary doorway, and then he saw the night sky above his head since he went there for dinner that particular day. It had an open ceiling, giving it a clear nice view of the sky above. Yellowish light glowed on the four corners of the room to give it more illumination. The back of the room was open. It led to a garden tucked behind the restaurant. The whole place must have been an acre wide but the restaurant was only a small portion of it. Adam had no idea that it was so wide at the back. He then talked to the person in charge of the place and found out that it was the property of a Mr. James Wilson, a prominent businessman in those parts but mostly does his business overseas. Adam did his due diligence and made his proposal to James after three months. It was fortunate that James went home to his family estate that month and Adam didn’t waste his time in talking to him. After much discussion, James sold the restaurant to him but with two firm requests…

“You must maintain the secrecy of the place and close off the garden until such time that a particular person comes. I’ll probably take her here myself or she might be able find this place on her own when she’s older. I’m still looking for her but I’m close to finding her… I’m sure of it,” James said looking hopeful. He had a good feeling that the young man in front of him, proposing to buy his restaurant, had good intentions and would honor his wishes once he sold the property to him. He built the place a year after Julie ran away. He didn’t want it to be open to the public but he also wanted it to be maintained and to generate jobs for the locals in his area so he opened it for the public, but never promoted or advertised. He wanted the restaurant to be a beacon for Julie… A structure of hope that one day, Julie would find her way home. James told him the second condition and had it in writing as well, which was no problem for Adam. He agreed to his terms because he wasn’t looking into making it a money-making restaurant but to make it a second home for those away from theirs.

That’s why he built an inn around the restaurant. He wanted to give those tired poor souls seeking refuge the whole package until Cornelia comes home. Adam had kept his promise up to that day and he means to keep it that way in honor of its previous owner.

He just learned that Mr. Wilson or Mr. W to those close to him, had just passed and would be having a formal funeral service followed by the burial of the cremated remains to be done in Mr. W’s house. According to Mr. W’s loyal butler, Jim, his ashes would be buried beside his daughter’s – Julie – remains and his wife. They were a small family but a rich one in those parts. He hasn’t heard much of Mr. W over the past four years. He never came back after that first time they met. It was just one meeting, but they had a good long talk and he knew a part of Mr. W that made him respect him as a business owner and as a family man.

 

As he looks at this beautiful woman-child in front of him, he thinks back to what James told him – to open the backyard gardens when she finally came – and she did. She made a reservation with them from out of nowhere the night before and the moment his secretary told him a certain Cornelia Lewis has called, he immediately recognized the name and knew for sure that she is James’ granddaughter as was relayed to him by James himself when he purchased the property. He didn’t want to reveal right away what James’ request of him when he bought the place. James specifically told him not to confess to her unless he told him so but since he was gone, Adam was uncertain if he should tell her when she arrived. He decided against it when he learned that she was arriving that night and would wait until after the burial and tell her then. She deserved to have some time to get to know the place before he tells her that it was actually James’ property before. Also, he needs to tell her what the second part of the condition was. But he will tell her everything after they put James to rest.

She appears as if taken aback by his question but quickly recovers and smiles at him. “No, not really. It’s my first time here actually,” she replies in a small voice. She looked tired from her trip and Adam felt like an idiot for delaying her meal.

“Oh, I’m sorry, you must be hungry and tired. I’ll have your dinner made right away. What would you like?” he asks, nodding to the waiter to take down her order. “You can order anything, I promise, we’ll have it made for you,” he ads.

“Oh, thank you so much for being so accommodating then. I just want a salad please and pasta if you have any leftover. If you don’t have any, it’s fine. I don’t want to keep the cook and other staff to stay longer than what is necessary. I just didn’t know any other restaurants in the area…,” she blushes a little and feels embarrassed for being a bother to them.

“Please, Miss Lewis, you’re not keeping them here because most of them practically live nearby and the restaurant’s just closing.” He offers her a seat facing the backyard gardens.

Cornelia is still in awe of the grandness of the gardens beyond that of the restaurant and the inn as a whole. She wants to know the story of the place and why it’s called its name.

“Umm, I know you just met me and you’re probably on your way home to your family…,” she starts saying.

“I live by myself and my house is five minutes from here,” he responds right away. He feels that he wants to spend more time with her. He senses that she wants the same thing too but is just too shy to blurt it out. He doesn’t want to embarrass her either by waiting for her to say it herself so he sits on the chair across from hers and smiles. “I am not married and I don’t have a girlfriend as well and you don’t have to worry about me hitting on you because I know its not what you need right now – although I must say that I am very interested to know more about  you… in a friendly kind of way, I mean.” He starts scratching his head and gives her a look that’s basically asking her to shut him up so he won’t blunder on so much.

She chuckles instead; feeling more relaxed by the minute by merely talking to this man. “Okay, please stay with me a while if you can. I- I don’t want to be alone to appreciate this wonderful sight!” she turns her head around pertaining to the moonlight garden that extends as far as her eyes can see. “I mean, this is just… I actually don’t have the words for it…”

Adam looks at her innocent expression and marvels at how long he’s been waiting to look into someone’s eyes and actually see them for who they are. He’s lived so long in a world full of fake people, especially women he dated before – that he’s used to categorizing them into specific identities. There’s The I’m-not-looking-for-anything-serious-but-I-want-to-have-five-babies-with-you type, The You-don’t-have-enough-time-for-me type, The You-were-cute-when-we-first-met-but-now-you’re-boring-me type, and of course, The It’s-not-you-it’s-me type, and a bunch of more descriptions and titles he used to think about women before.

But Cornelia gives me a different vibe. She looks and emits a kind of sad but strong vibe that triggers the Superhero complex in most guys, and he is definitely one of those men. She looks to be as young as twenty, if not younger, and he just turned thirty-five that winter but he doesn’t look a day beyond twenty-five, as most people commented before. He has a rugged kind of handsomeness, like a Richard Gere kind of appeal and he wears it so well.

“This place has a story that most people who come here don’t know about. I don’t particularly share it outright but if they ask, I tell it as best as I could.” He turns towards the gardens as well and remembers how he made it grow.

There was just one garden when he bought it. It was right outside the backyard, beyond the open room where flowers of almost every kind were planted. He asked permission from James to expand the gardens and he was permitted to do so just as long as he keeps his end of the bargain. So Adam had his team of interior decorators and even a gardening and landscaping team to fix it up and expand the garden to plant more flowers, until it became as big as it is now. The inn itself is only around a thousand square meters, the garden is as big as the inn, and the rest is open grassland. He loves how it looks better now more than ever and he’s happy that she came just in time to see its grandness.

The food arrives but Adam refused her invitation to eat as well, claiming he’s already had his dinner that night, which he had with the staff a couple of hours earlier.

“Please tell me about this place… if that’s okay, that is,” she says shyly as she takes a sip of the water and a forkful of the salad greens.

“Of course, Miss Lewis,” he responds enthusiastically.

“Please call me Cornelia, instead. Its pretty tiring hearing my last name over and over,” she admits.

“Of course, Cornelia, but only if you call me Adam as well,” he replies, enjoying their friendly banter, which had started the first second they met.

She agrees and he proceeds to telling the story of the place.

“Well, it was a rather serendipitous event, me owning this place. I came here for a bite to eat one night, as suggested by a friend, and I thought out front that it was a crappy place to eat in but the smell of fresh flowers greeted me when I stepped inside. Then I went all the way inside and saw this wonderful sight. I mean, I was so awestruck that I had to make an offer to the original owner. I practiced law before but I wanted to start my own business. However, I wanted to start a project close to my heart first and see how that panned out before really getting into the restaurant business – which is what my family does in these parts. We acquire small restaurants, most of them bankrupt or neglected, and we work on it to build them into bigger and more competitive companies. We want to help the people here in our town and that’s how we make our living as well.” He looks inspired and motivated as he relays the story and Cornelia can’t help but admire the man and what he aims to accomplish.

“That’s a very noble and honorable cause, Adam. I wish more people like you existed in this world,” she tells him suddenly thinking about Morrison. She already misses him and she kept repeating their conversation in her head when they talked in her apartment earlier that day. She shook her head slightly and focused on what Adam was saying.

“And then I was lucky enough to get this place. I thought about expanding the inn but I think that it would defeat the purpose of this place being a small, secluded sanctuary for select people. Not many really know about this place. I’m surprised you found it actually.”

“Oh, I, ah, I was just browsing the internet and needed to go to a, um, a gathering near here. The name got me at first glance, really. Has it always been named Julie’s Labyrinth? And if so, would you happen to know why the original owner named it so?” she starts asking, feeling all the more curious about the place.

Adam resists the urge to tell her everything and resorts to being honest, “I don’t know the particular reason for the name but as the owner told me before, this place serves as a beacon for a person – or people – he interjects, who want to find hope and forgiveness. I guess he really thinks much of this place as a refuge rather than an establishment.”

Cornelia feels sad all of a sudden, remembering James and connecting to what Adam just said pertaining to people who are seeking refuge. She tries to fight her tears from spilling but a lone one escapes from her eye.

“A-are you okay, Cornelia? I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?” Adam quickly gets to his feet and offers a napkin.

She nods her head a couple of times and apologizes to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bawl,” she smiles, dabbing her eyes. “I just remembered someone dear to me, that’s all, and I’m probably bone tired from my trip, is all.” She puts her fork down, having realized she’d gone through her food that quickly.

“You should take your rest, Cornelia.” Adam rises from his feet and assist her as she gets up from hers.

She starts reaching for her purse but he stops her. “No, its on the house. Please, I should take you to your room.”

“Please charge it to my room then if you don’t want me to pay for it now. I would it appreciate it if you do that instead, Adam.” She looks serious on that one that Adam just had to nod.

She agrees for him to take her to her room and thanks him for a wonderful evening.

“Thank you for taking time out of your night to chat with me. I’m sure I was boring you as hell but you sat there like a pro and endured it,” she says jokingly, trying to make light of their conversation as what he did cheering her up earlier.

“Oh, please… You call that boring? Hah! You should sit through the town meetings one of these days.” They both laugh. “But seriously, I do hope you take advantage of the garden while you’re here and let me know whatever you need. I’m here for you,” he says in a way that she feels he really meant it and was not just saying it because she was a guest there but pertaining to her particularly.

She thanks him again and finally closes her door. He probably tells his guests that he was there for them all the time. Besides, it’s what good owners of businesses do, they assure their customers, she tells herself as she gets out of her clothes and takes a short shower.

It’s going to be a different day tomorrow. I’m scared of waking up…

 


 

Chapter III

 

As Morrison drives home to his empty apartment, he’s deep in thought and hurting like hell. The sting he feels from Cornelia’s rejection is very unexpected and surprising for him. Yes, he knows that he has grown to care and love her over the past weeks but he didn’t expect it to hurt so much when she was the one who didn’t want him.

“What the fuck did you do, you idiot!” he exclaims to himself, banging the steering wheel hard. “God! What were you thinking! Damn it!” he keeps on berating himself but knows that it’s not doing him any good, cursing and throwing a childish tantrum over losing her when he could be thinking of ways on getting her back.

He takes a deep breath and pulls over for a minute. He closes his eyes and leans his head back on the driver’s seat. “How could I be so daft to think that she’d be ready to take me back after I crushed her heart the night before?” he whispers.

He remembers her face when he told him that he didn’t want her to be around him anymore and making it look like it was her fault that they were in that situation when deep inside, he was just doing what James had asked of him and what he thought was the right thing to do… to keep her safe… He doubted her strength in overcoming the odds with him, and because of that, he lost her.

He honestly doesn’t know where to start in trying to get her back. Of course she’s devastated with James’ death since he was the closest person to her, more like her only family. He doesn’t want to push his luck by forcing her to talk to him in the funeral. He asked Kevin the details and was told that it would be held in James’ home in Buffalo, New York. He has the address and would be there by tomorrow. He’s sure that she would be there too but she’d probably arrive early. He plans to catch her and possibly talk to her before the cremation ceremony but again, he didn’t want her to hate him even more.

He’ll respect her grief and let her be this time. She deserves it and she needs it.

He is deeply saddened by James’ passing as well. Even if he knew him only for a very short span of time, he knows that James was a stand-up guy and had Cornelia’s best interest at heart. He only wishes that he could have known the man some more and shared more talks with him. But he wouldn’t have that chance anymore, just like Cornelia wouldn’t have a chance to see the man who took care of her anymore, at least in this lifetime.

He takes a deep breath and continues driving back to his apartment. There wouldn’t be anything much he could do now but to wait for Cornelia’s anger towards him to abate and once she had dealt with her grief. He doesn’t exactly know the timeline for those two things but he is willing to wait no matter how long it will be.

His phone rang at that moment and Linda’s voice comes on. “Son, how are you? Are you coming home?” she asks.

Morrison sighs and answers her truthfully. “I’m actually driving home to my apartment mom. Is there something I could help you with?” His tired voice can clearly be heard and his mother didn’t miss a beat.

“I’m sorry about what happened to your, ah, girlfriend… I heard from your father. I was so worried about you, son. I want to see you. Can you pop over here tomorrow perhaps? I need to talk to you,” she asks hoping he would agree.

“I’m sorry mother. I need to be somewhere tomorrow. Maybe on the weekend perhaps? And you don’t have to worry, we’re okay now,” he answers back.

“Oh… I see. Okay, I’ll wait ‘till the weekend then. Are you sure you’re okay?” she asks again.

“Yes, mother. Just tired, I guess. I just really want to get home and get a shut eye. It’s been a long day…”

“All right. I won’t keep you then. Please stay safe. Talk to you soon, son. I love you,” was her concerned reply.

“Okay, mother. I love you too. Take care.” And with that, Morrison tries to drive home as fast as he could so he could make arrangements for James’ funeral the next day.

 

As Linda looks down on her phone after her phone call with her son, she feels dread creep all over her body once again. She wanted her son to be with her, safe in their house, close where she could reach out to him all the time.

She recalls where all of this happened. It was because of a beautiful woman and her jealous heart.

 

Linda heard that Nick spent the night at a certain Gia de Grassi’s hotel room and she went off the roof. She found out more about the heiress and decided to take her revenge on them.

Nick was having an affair again and as she always did before, she won’t have any of it. She’s had to scrape off those women who clung around her husband and she didn’t have any problems doing it then so nothing would stop her from doing it again now.

But she underestimated the pretty  young heiress. Linda flew out to Paris while Nick was still there. She intended to surprise him so he won’t have any reasons to go out with his business partners without her. He won’t need to spend another night in another woman’s arms.

Oh Nick! You bastard! Why do you always do this to me?! She screamed in her head as her plane landed on the tarmac of the airport. She went straight to the hotel where Nick was staying but she covertly got a different room on the same floor as his. She intended to spy on them first before making herself known. She needed to know more about the woman and find her weakness before using it against her.

 

Right at that very moment, Gia looks at the fish tank, or more of an oversized aquarium placed in her hotel room. She loves the water and she loves having aquariums near her when she sleeps. It’s one of her unusual requests whenever she travels to other places apart from her home in Paris and as well as Tuscany.

She reaches for the decanter and pours herself a glass.

“Dov’è lui adesso?” she asks where Nick is at the moment from the man right across from her. She speaks with a rhythmic tone, one that is pleasing to the ears, not so rough that it makes one cringe, but it makes you think of graceful dancing whenever she speaks… like her tongue smoothly glides in her palate making pleasant sounds come out of her mouth. She talks like an angel but there’s something far from angelic in her mind.

She can speak perfect Italian, given it’s her mother tongue, but she can also speak English like it’s her native language. Other languages she has mastered include French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Mandarin, and she’s currently learning Latin. She is one force to be reckoned with and she knows it. She makes sure everybody does as well.

The man in front of her flinches but responds bravely in English, since he knows that she can understand and speak perfect English.

 

Mike Leigh worked in construction before and had a wonderful family and a beautiful wife… But circumstances turned on him and learned that his wife was seriously sick and he couldn’t get any help from his employers or friends. Then one day, Gia de Grassi appeared from out of nowhere while he was slumped on a hospital chair in the City General hospital in New Jersey. She hired him on the spot, offering a stable job as her bodyguard and other stuff she needed done. Or so he thought. After a while, she made him do other stuff that were already illegal like detaining people against their will, extorting information from people using brute force and intimidation, and even killing her enemies.

He didn’t complain, just as long as she provides him the means to keep his wife, Mary, alive, he would do anything she asks. His loyalty lies in whoever was keeping him and his wife alive.

After he failed to retrieve the documents last night, he contacted some people he knew to somehow find out where the girl and her companions went. He found out that they were in a secured location in a mansion owned by a rich guy. He still has to see if he can do something about getting those papers back somehow but right now, he had to pacify his employer, something that was very hard to do. Once Gia de Grassi puts her mind into doing something, she never stops until she gets what she’s after. And right now, she’s after the McElroy family.

 

“He is still in his office in Manhattan, trying to decipher the document…” he starts.

“That you failed to retrieve! When I talked to you over the phone when you were there, you sounded as if you are sure you will get what I was asking. But now, you come up empty-handed and your tail behind your back! She was just one girl! And Nick’s seemingly incompetent son doesn’t look like he was being incompetent at all. You let them get away and now, I face exposure as the one who orchestrated all of this!” she stands, hurling her glass across the room, just missing his head by mere inches. He didn’t move though, even if he might get hit, because he knows he made a mistake in underestimating the McElroy heir. “Dannazione!” she shouts.

“Madam… I am sorry about the… about what happened but I will make it right! I’ll get that document and I’ll make that McElroy boy pay for messing up the operation!” he replies with gusto.

She glances at him with a bored expression on her face. “And what do you suppose to do with that document once you get it? They have already combed through it by now! That is already beyond doing because those details would lead them back to me! Capisci? You can’t get those files back because they’re useless now. What we need to do is make sure that the trail stops there, at that document.” She starts pacing again with her eyes trained on the fish tank. She thinks better when she keeps her eyes on the fluid motions of the fish in her tank.

He might think it’s just a random coincidence… but if he were still the Nick McElroy I came to know all those years ago, he would surely think there was something in that name, she thought to herself.

“I came here to get his head on a steak; along with that woman he calls his wife. I will do whatever it takes! I’ve started with that girl to get to his son and I won’t stop there. That poor bella donna was just a casualty of this war I have waged against that despicable family!” She turns her murderous stare at her American hired goon slash bodyguard. He, basically, does anything she tells him because she gives him all the cash he needs and wants to keep his wife alive… that is as long as he does what he is supposed to do.

She’s not very fond of him at that moment so she sends him away and focuses on what else she could do to inflict the most harm to the family who caused her downfall.

 

Gia de Grassi grew up in a very traditional Italian family who has deep roots in arts and culture. They are believed to be direct descendants of the once famous Giovannino de’ Grassi who had a famous sketchbook found in 1395 that contained a large number of drawings of animals. It was found in his workshop when he was a court artist.

The de Grassi family started out as a family of artists, producing paintings and sculptures all across Italy and then to France. But their place of origin was Tuscany and they still had lots of lands in those parts. The earlier de Grassi’s then started getting into the fishing business and built ships for the shipping companies in Italy until they, too, had their very own in the 1800’s. It was a glorious time for the family and their family members grew every year, producing sons who toiled the land and worked on the family business, and daughters, who had good heads on their shoulders.

Hector de Grassi, Gia’s father, rose into greatness in the early 1960’s being able to raise the company business into new heights by branching out to other countries and to the U.S. Many businesses then were apprehensive in doing so because of the turmoil in the war but Hector, himself being a soldier, faced the odds and came out victorious. He acquired many small scale companies and combined those that can be put together, creating more jobs in his town and increasing his profits.

When Hector met the love of his life, Olivia, he married her at her early age of eighteen while he was already approaching his fifties. He always said to his daughter that he married in that age because that was when he met the one person whom he couldn’t live without.

“It just so happened that she came very late in life,” he used to say to Gia when she was younger and she always giggled afterwards, teasing him that he was just picky about girls.

The couple had five children, Gia, being the youngest, and the only girl. She was spoiled because she was the only girl in the house except for her mother. They adored her as a child and she was their little princess. She had a thirst for knowledge and was interested in playing music and different musical instruments. Her favorite would be the piano, which Hector, himself, taught her how to play. It was their special time together and it brought them even closer to each other. Olivia sometimes teased them that they always went off somewhere by themselves and never included her. They’d tease back that she was just not up to the challenge of their activities.

They had a wonderful family and they were very happy when they were younger. But then, tragedy struck…

She was fifteen years old, just learning how to drive, and of course, her father was her teacher. They’ve been driving around their house for weeks and now, Gia, wanted to venture out some more. So they went out of the property and into the main road. Then Gia got curios about a bend in the road and took the road less travelled by people. Her father said it was fine just as long as she took it easy and slow. She’s driving the family car, it was an old BMW but it was her favorite car amongst the dozens in their parking lot. Their house in Tuscany was her favorite too. They were there for their summer vacation but they usually stayed in the city, where Hector could work and manage his companies. Even having achieved great success over the past decade, Hector remained grounded with his family and always put them first. He enjoyed going on trips with them to different countries and cities in Italy and France, but his favorite thing to do was to spend time with his princess, Gia.

Gia didn’t exactly know what happened. One minute she was driving relatively smoothly against the rough terrain then the car pitched to the side, hitting a big rock then in her panic, she stepped on the accelerator instead of the brakes. The old car pitched forward and they drove aimlessly for about a minute with Gia screaming her head off and Hector trying to take control of the wheel. He tried stepping on the brakes but it must have jammed because the car wasn’t stopping. They could feel jagged rocks hit the underside of the car and one huge rock ripped through and jutted up from underneath.

The trees battered the car from all sides as they went off the road. Gia screamed some more as Hector tried to gain control of the vehicle. He kept telling Gia to calm down and to hold on as the car continued forward.

Hector was afraid that they would run out of road and fall to the ravine but thankfully, there were many huge trees around so he only had to find one that he could use to stop the car with. Of course, that would mean ramming the car into it so it has to be a tree that could stop the car entirely and do the least damage to them. He spotted an old cypress tree that was not that big and not that high. He made some quick calculations in his head and thought it would be enough to do the job.

“Preparati, Gia. Ho intenzione di mandare in crash la macchina in quell’albero. Resisti,” he told his daughter who had a look of pure fear on her face. He just told her that he would crash the car into the tree ahead, and to hold on. She was still trying to process what he said while keeping a sane mind.

“Che cosa?” ‘What?’ she asked incredulously, looking from side to side for fear that her door might bust open and she’ll fall off the car to her death at the jagged rocks and pointed branches on the path they were driving into.

After only a minute, Hector let go of his grip on the steering wheel and covered Gia with his body as the impact of the crash hit them.

“Papa! Cosa dovrei fare?!” she shouted at her father in a high-pitched voice, asking him what she should do. “Papa? Papa?” she repeated as she looked about her for a way out of the mangled car. She unhooked her seatbelt and unlocked her car door.

The car had smoke coming out of its hood, which was bent in half. The whole front of the car was totaled and looked like it was beyond repair. She could smell gasoline and panicked for the car might explode. She rushed to her father’s door and tried yanking it open. It had a huge dent on its side which made it hard to open. She decided to break the glass and get her dad out that way. There was a rock about the size of her fist lying on the ground next to her. She took it and broke the glass without wasting another minute. The smoke was getting worse and one side of the hood had already caught fire when she cleared the window of the broken glasses.

She is five-foot-eight and was active in sports, not to mention, a very big fan of running. Hector wasn’t a big man himself and at his age, it wasn’t that hard for Gia to lift him off his seat.

She lifted her father, first by his arms. Once she got both arms out of the window, she heaved him up with one big pull and got him hanging by the waist over the window of the passenger door. It was easier to drag the rest of his body out of the car and drag him away from the smoking car.

Gia begun tugging on to his father’s shirt as they lay on the ground. “Papa? Per Favor! Papa!” she screamed, looking around frantically for help.

But they were in a less travelled road, deep in the woods, so no other cars were nearby.

Mi dispiace Papa! Per Favor svegliati! Per Favor!” she was saying she was sorry and begged her father to wake up. “Aiuto!” she screamed for help to the tops of her lungs but no one seemed to hear her. She can’t even hear any vehicles passing by. She felt helpless and fearful for her father.

Then Hector coughed once and then twice.

Papa? Papa? Stai bene?” she asked if he was okay and he grunted in response. She could see that he was in pain and there was blood oozing from the side of his body.

“Quello che è successo?” ‘What happened?’ he asked.

She tried to explain what occurred but Hector stopped her by reaching out to her face and caressing her face.

“Gia…,” he said weakly.

“Si Papa?” she answered, trying very hard to stay calm for her father until help comes.

“Ti amo e io sono così orgogliosa di te,” ‘I love you and I’m so proud of you’ were his last words as Hector de Grassi finally looked up at the sky and rested his eyes.

“Papa! Papa! Svegliati, Papa!” she shouted several times, trying to wake him up but she knows in her the recesses of her reasoning, which was not evident at that time, that her father had left her.

She became all the more hysterical as a car passed by and stopped. It was all a blur after that for Gia. All she could remember was her clutching her father’s body, shaking him to wakefulness and tears streaming down her face. There was an explosion as the car finally erupted into flames. Gia saw darkness for a few weeks as she went into a comma.

She recovered after staying for a month in the hospital then continued her recovery and physical therapy sessions at their house in Tuscany. She didn’t want to go back to Paris just yet. She wanted to stay where she last saw her father. Her mother was very worried for her child but she respected her wishes and left her alone most of the time. It was a difficult time for Gia. She had to accept the fact that her favorite person in the world had passed on and that it was all her fault. That was the biggest struggle she had to go through over the course of her teenage years. Even as she went to College in the states, Stanford, her heart was still laden with guilt over the loss of her father all those years ago.

But luckily, she found refuge in the arts and in business. She took up Business Management in College, not only because it was expected of her since she would have to run her father’s company in the next few years, but also because it gave her joy sharing a passion that her father once had. It was the most redeeming thing that she ever thought of doing to make up for her stupidity and carelessness that caused her father’s passing. She vowed to herself that she would continue what her father started and would fight tooth and nail for what he built. Her mother passed away ten years after her father did and that was the time that she met Nick McElroy…

She was a beautiful, successful, and spirited twenty-five-year-old owner of a huge company in Europe and she wanted to expand overseas as well. The de Grassi Shipping Line was already a big name and a successful venture but she wanted to try other things in other places. That was why she went to the convention in Paris to meet with prospective business owners that she could invest in. And she met one particular handsome business owner in that gathering.

Nick McElroy went there assuming that he would not get anything substantial in that convention but was still worth  his while so he decided to go still. Back in the states, he’s still looking for his long lost daughter who seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth after her mother, Julie, died. It baffled him that no one could tell him or his investigators where the little child went to. He managed to confess to Linda the truth about Julie and their child and she was surprisingly very forgiving for what he had done to her.

“Oh, Nick. That was many years ago. I, for one, don’t hold on to grudges and if I chastise you now for your indiscretion, that happened years ago, I wouldn’t be a good wife and partner for you, now would I? And that poor child. Good heavens… Where could she possibly be? I’ll be fine if you found her and brought her home with you. She’s just a child. Poor darling…,” was her response and he found it very mature and fitting for her tender soul. He’s not always fond of her, especially since their marriage was done for convenience and good business relations.

But over the years that they spent with each other, she’s grown to accept his flaws and became the best mother to their adopted son Morrison. She can’t bear children herself because of a complication in her internal organs but they did try during their first year together, then finally giving up and deciding to adopt instead. They were very lucky to have found and adopted Morrison after five years of being childless. He was just a baby then but he was a gift from heaven that glued Nick and Linda together until that day.

“Are you not going to scream or ask for a divorce or anything…,” he asked incredulously.

“No. I don’t want to waste time arguing about the past, Nick.” She then walked away and went on with her day as if he didn’t drop a bomb on her.

From that day on, they forgot about the whole affair and she, basically, just let him search for his lost daughter all he wanted, even asking for any update on his search from time to time. Nick came to appreciate her even more after that.

He went to the convention just to get his mind off things and to look for potential partners in Europe, in particular, since his firm was then in trouble of filling bankruptcy because of bad deals and a plunge in the stock market that affected most of the investments his firm made in the past months. He owned fifty-one percent of McElroy and Burns, and he was planning to buy out his partner, but he thought better of it and just let his old pal stay on as his managing partner. He did want to get into the financial side of things as well and maybe open up a bank or a small credit union since his father opened up his own, about twenty years ago. It was still open but was not doing well enough to stay open. He planned to restore it so he had his eyes trained on a potential business partner for his restoration of Missions Bank.

And he did find it in the guise of one beguiling lady named Gia de Grassi. She moved with grace and elegance across the room as she went to the bar to get a drink. Nick couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the young beauty and even if he was obviously much older than her, he decided to approach her and throw caution to the wind. Besides, it was cold and he needed to have someone to talk to in that lonely convention.

“Hello mademoiselle. How are you this fine evening?” he started while ordering his own drink from the bar tender.

Gia was not surprised that the guy from across the room – the one who had his eyes on her – finally approached her. She’s been eyeing him as well and she was glad he looked at her direction at last. He looked years her senior but she didn’t care. She liked how he looked, all mysterious and his brooding stare got her right away. She wanted this guy and she smiled secretly as she feigned being surprised by his sudden appearance.

“Oh, ciao. Ti conosco?” she asked, not knowing if he understood Italian or even spoke it.

“Ah… haha,” he chuckled lightly. “I’m sorry but I do not speak Italian that well. Solo un po…” He said telling her that he can speak just a little bit of Italian. He liked how her voice sounded. It was like silk being pressed to his cheeks. It had a sexy ring to it.

“I see,” she answered with a neutral accent. “I’m sorry, do I know you?” she asked, repeating her question in English this time.

“Oh, no. I am attending this convention as well but I’m from the states. It’s my first time here I’m afraid and I don’t know anyone around here, to be frank. I’m just a lost sheep here…” he chuckled and combed his hair with his fingers, tousling it a bit to make himself look a little more boyish.

She looked to be in her twenties and he’s already in his fifties but he didn’t care. He needed to talk to that enchanting creature and she, obviously, wasn’t offended by him coming over.

She smiled and took a sip from her champagne. “Oh, in that case, let me show you around this beautiful city then. I’d hate for you to miss out on the best things we can offer here in Paris.”

Nick’s heart gave a leap as he outstretched his arm and said, “I’m glad that you’re willing to show me around. May I know your name?” She took his arm and they walked towards the terrace. It was chilly so Nick took off his jacket and wrapped it around her bare shoulders. She was tall for her age and mature-looking. She had on a long blue gown made of silk and it fit her slim body like a glove. How he longed to wrap her in his arms and taste her lips. He shook himself from his daydream and focused on what she was saying.

“Gia… Gia de Grassi,” she said as she stretched out her arm to shake his.

He took her hand and planted a kiss on the back of it and replied, “Nick. Nick McElroy. So very pleased to meet you, lovely Gia de Grassi.” He smiled and gently let go of her hand as she smiled her mysterious smile.

They talked for the rest of the night, getting to know each other better and flirting with one another. Nick was very open about him being married and having a son but Gia didn’t care. She wanted to be with him that night and not only in that convention. She also wanted to be with him for more than that night and she planned to keep him busy with their intended tour around the city in the next few days.

And she did, starting that night… They went home together at his hotel room and spent the night in each other’s arms. Nick felt guilty in sleeping with Gia but he also felt alive again, after a very long time.

They went to all the places that were popular in Paris, of course, they don’t display their affection to each other in public because they both have a reputation to uphold. Him, being a married man, and she, a well-bred socialite. So they kept their intimacies in the bedroom but their daily tryst did not escape the eyes of Linda’s spies.

After hearing about what Nick was doing in Paris aside from the convention, Linda flew out and booked herself a room in the same hotel where the two lovebirds were staying.

She booked herself under a different name so Nick wouldn’t find out, and she made sure she wasn’t seen or recognized by anyone, especially Nick and his lady friend.

Linda arrived in Paris and immediately went to the hotel. Having talked to her contact there before landing, she found out that the two lovebirds were scheduled to go to the Louvre that day with the girl wanting to show Nick the art and culture of Paris.

“I’m sure she wants to show him more than the arts of her country! That slut!” she hissed to herself as she dropped her expensive bag on the sofa inside her hotel room. She tipped the bellhop and went to change her clothes. She was going to follow the two and she even wore a disguise so they won’t notice her arrival. She was a natural blonde with shoulder-length hair but she wore a wig of long black hair and covered herself with a long brown coat since it was freezing outside.

She arrived at the Louvre five minutes after they opened and went in right away. Nick and his friend were going to arrive in a few minutes and Linda wanted to have a nice position where she could observe them uninterruptedly. While waiting, she went around the paintings of the Renaissance era and called her private investigator.

“Tell me about this girl. Everything,” she spoke into the receiver and listened intently to what the man on the other line had to say.

She found out about Gia’s past and present status. The girl was an heiress to a big corporation, apparently, and was looking into expanding her business to the US. So Nick was the perfect target. Linda had no qualms about Nick having business partners who were women, especially if they had the money to begin with, but she certainly didn’t want them sleeping with her husband.

When Nick and Gia entered the threshold, Linda was taken aback by Gia’s beauty and body.

No wonder Nick is enthralled by her…, she thought, feeling even more hurt for her husband’s betrayal. She already forgave him for his past indescretions – and she certainly had her revenge there – but here was another one and this one might be hard to beat since this girl is no simpleton and she had the money and power to protect herself. Linda had to think of another way to pry that girl away from her husband and she had to think fast.

Linda surprised Nick in his hotel room later that night and Nick was obviously very surprised and a little anxious.

“Hi Nick!” Linda said excitedly as she went into his hotel room after he opened his door.

“L-Linda? Wh-what are you doing here?” What the fuck is she doing here? Shit! I have to meet with Gia in an hour. How do I deal with her now that Linda’s here? Fuck! I have to cancel on Gia…, he thought as he hugged his wife. Linda had probably gone to the hairdressers because she had a new haircut and her make-up was impeccable, as always.

“I wanted to be with you. It’s been lonely since you were gone. You know Morrison, always running around and never wanting to stay at home for long so I got bored… Why? Aren’t you happy to see me?” she asked, pretending to look a little hurt.

“No… No, no. Of course, I’m happy to see you darling. I was just surprised, that’s all. How was your trip?” Nick took her jacket off and offered her a seat on the sofa. He went to the bar and fixed them both drinks. He badly needed one. He was sweating unnaturally even in the cold weather.

“Are you okay Nick? It seems like you’re thinking about something serious… How was your convention? Any possible prospects yet?” Linda asked looking concerned. Yes, sweat all you can, you bastard! You’re about to get a taste of your own medicine! She thought while she took another sip of her wine.

Nothing. I w-was actually thinking about a client who might be interested in investing in Missions Bank. I am actually supposed to meet with her in an hour but I can definitely cancel or have it moved to a later time since you’re here.”

“Oh, no, please don’t do that, Nick. We want to have investors and I don’t want to interrupt your future dealings with her… As a matter of fact, why don’t I come and meet her too. Maybe with a woman present, she’ll trust you even more and with my skills in arranging things between deals, I’m sure we’ll be able to snag this fish for our future venture with Missions Bank, don’t you think?” she looked excited with the thought. Nick couldn’t disagree with her then because she would certainly thin that something was up if he refused.

Nick remained silent for a few seconds and then finally conceding to her idea. “I think that’s a good idea Linda! But let me give her a heads up so she won’t be totally surprised. If you don’t mind, I’d like to call her. Excuse me a minute.”

“Of course darling. Take all the time you need,” Linda smiled up to him.

Nick called Gia and explained that his wife was there and wanted to go with them on their “supposed” meeting.

Gia took it all in stride and agreed to their lunch date with Linda. She was curious about the wife as well and what better way to meet her rival, than to have a meal with her.

Gia replaced the phone on the receiver and smiled to herself. Hmm… So the wife finally arrived to make herself known. Well, let’s see about that.

Gia had fallen in love with the middle-aged handsome fella she saw at the convention and who had shared her bed for many nights since. She intended to snatch him away from his wife and make him stay with her in Paris. She’s been looking for someone like him for a very long time. She’s had lousy lovers and even worse partners in the past that she nearly gave up finding the right guy for her. She admits that she has a hard time opening herself up fully to her partners but she was just being cautious.

But it was different with Nick. Even at first sight, she was drawn to him even before he saw her walk across the room, which she purposely did just to get his attention. It was going very well until his wife decided to show up all of a sudden.

“Well, I guess I would have to see what I’m up against then…,” she said to herself, already readying herself for the upcoming luncheon with the infamous wife.

Nick and Linda arrived at the said fancy restaurant in the middle of the city’s social district. Linda’s been there many times before and she actually spent one whole summer there when she was in College so she was familiar with the sights.

“You haven’t been here before, right?” she asked her husband.

“Yeah, it’s my first time here. I’ve been to other parts of Europe but not Paris,” he answered.

“Have you gotten the chance to see the sights? I could take you to the more popular ones here if you want. We could go to the Louvre and look at the magnificent art stored there. What do you say? Say, after this lunch? Are you going to be doing anything today?” she asked nonchalantly, pretending that she didn’t follow him yesterday with his newest conquest and watched them stare and chat away.

She remembered the sting of seeing her husband enjoy being in the arms of another woman. It’s been a while since they went somewhere together. The last time they went away for a vacation with just the two of them was when Julie died in that car crash and she needed to distract him from finding out right away. While they were in his yacht, sailing across the pacific for a month, she secretly had her investigators and other influential people under her control do what she asked them to do. A policeman who owed her money manipulated the reports and connived with a judge to keep the records sealed and to change the child’s name so Nick wouldn’t find out where she was sent to. She wasn’t a mean person, but she would do anything to keep her family intact, even sending an innocent girl to one of the worst orphanages in New Jersey. She found out that the girl ran away, just a month ago, after spending six years in that orphanage. Good riddance, was all she thought. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about her being found in that hell hole. She’s on her own now and Nick would have a harder time looking for her.

Uhm… No, I haven’t been around yet. Haven’t had time to do so… I had some client meetings and stuff so I never got around to some sightseeing. Yeah, that’s a good idea. I can free up my time tomorrow so we could go there.” Shit! I had a scheduled trip with Gia tomorrow to Nice but I guess I’d have to cancel that and everything else… I wonder if Linda knows… Maybe that’s why she came over here all of a sudden. But who would have told her?

Nick? Nick? Can you hear me?” Linda was waving her arms in front of his face to get his attention.

“Huh?” he replied, looking confused.

“You zoned out for a minute there. I said, we could go to the Louvre in the morning and then stroll the streets in the afternoon then to a nice restaurant in Rue de Bucci or perhaps Rue du Montparnasse for desert. Personally, I like the restaurants near the Louvre since we’re already there. I’ll arrange everything, don’t worry about it,” she finished saying.

Nick had not heard everything she said because he was deep in thought about what the hell he was going to do with Gia. She’s a lovely girl, that she was, but he’s not about to compromise his marriage and partnership with Linda because of her, no matter how she makes him feel alive and human when they’re together. He still had to think about his reputation and what he and Linda have built throughout the years.

He would have to take Gia aside once they had their lunch and break off their affair. Yes, that’s the only solution to the mess he, himself, had created.

“Oh, I think it’s time for our meeting with your lovely client. Where is your Italian client, by the way?” Linda said, looking up at the crowd to see if Gia had arrived and fixed her dress. She prepared herself for that meeting when she was back at the hotel. She would make sure that little miss Italian bitch would never bother Nick or her again.

“I never told you she was Italian… Linda, did you really come here because you had nothing to do in the states or have you come here to spy on me?” Nick asked pointedly. He knew there was something fishy with why Linda had raced over there with no notice whatsoever that she was coming.

Linda looked at him with a blank expression and said sweetly, “Whatever are you saying, Nick? Of course I assumed she was either French or Italian because were in Europe but I leaned more on her being Italian because I liked them better. Is that a crime? Am I wrong then? Is she French?”

Nick seemed to consider her answer and then answered in a  resigned tone, “She is Italian, I believe. She’s the daughter of one of the richest Italian families in Europe and I was lucky enough to bump into her at the convention and she told me that she would consider going into a partnership with me. That is if she likes what I have to offer,” he answered, looking around anxiously. Where is she? Is she going to show up? I hope she just ditches me and don’t show up altogether. It would be easier that way…

As soon as the thought came to him, she appeared in a regal dress of red at the restaurant’s entryway and drew in lots of oohs and ahhs from the people inside. She was indeed stunning and Nick couldn’t help but stare at her beauty and body. He longed to hold her again but squashed the feeling as quickly as it came. He had to keep his mind focused on convincing Linda that there was nothing going on between them and possibly get out of that restaurant unscathed.

She does look beautiful and more so in person. No wonder this blundering idiot is in love with her. But no, he can never be in love with someone else. He’s mine and he’s going to continue to be mine until I say so.

“Oh my, you are a pretty little thing,” Linda started as Gia came to their table. “Linda McElroy, nice to meet you.”

Gia looked at the wife of the man she was quickly falling in love with and felt envious of her all of a sudden. She quickly did her research before going there and found out that Linda is a force to be reckoned with and might not be so easy to deal with. She’s certainly a classic and elegant-looking lady, oozing with confidence and regal air. Her envy quickly turned into admiration and can’t help but like the lady.

“Ciao! Pleased to meet you. I am Gia. Gia de Grassi. I’m sorry, did I take long?” she asked innocently, smiling at Nick and taking her seat.

“Oh no, it’s fine. We just arrived a few minutes ago. Should we order?” Linda asked, acting all amiable and friendly when inside, she was fuming.

Nick was all sorts of uncomfortable for the two ladies to come together like that but he supposed it cannot be helped. And it’s better that way since he didn’t have to sneak around to meet Gia. But he had to talk to her privately to tell her that he’s breaking off their affair. It would have to wait until Linda goes to the ladies room or something.

They ordered and talked some more. Gia told Linda all about her family and their home in Tuscany and Linda showed great enthusiasm in listening to the Italian beauty. The talk, surprisingly, centered on the development of Missions Bank. Nick had talked to Gia about it and she seemed genuinely interested before but they never really got into the details because they were too busy with each other. But with Linda there, they were able to talk about the problems and advantages of the small bank.

At the end of their lunch, Gia and Linda had basically became best friends and were talking about setting up another lunch date or even diner date in the next few days. Linda volunteered to look up the paperwork on what they needed to do to get the ball rolling in the investment. Gia gave her full support and promised to send her lawyer to Linda so they could discuss the matter further.

“I’m sorry if I couldn’t be the one to talk to you about the technicalities of my investment. My lawyer would be best suited for this, I suppose,” Gia said explaining further that she doesn’t really get into the mix of her investments but fully trusts her employees to do what was best with her money.

That’s where your downfall would be. I wouldn’t be laughing and flirting this openly to my husband once I get through with you. “Oh, yes, of course, and I’m sure they know what they are doing. I’ll be glad to talk to your lawyer then. I don’t normally take care of these as well since I let my husband do the talking but I do have a lot of experience in this, having taken care of my father’s estate and businesses as well. I’m so excited to get this started. Are you going to go back home or do you have somewhere else to go?” Linda asked.

“Ahm… Not really but I wanted to do some shopping around a bit. Why do you ask?” Gia was curious why Linda was so friendly. Did she not notice anything between her and Nick? Or was she that good in pretending that Gia, herself, was convinced that she wasn’t having an affair with Nick?

“Oh, I see. I wanted to invite you to the Louvre, which I am sure you have seen plenty of times, but I was going to take Nick there this afternoon for a little bit of sight-seeing. Would you care to join us? He hasn’t been around the city yet and I wanted to show him around since I am quite familiar with the place,” Linda said with her sweet voice.

Gia almost laughed at what Linda said because she was taken Nick to most of the spots in the city over the last couple of days since they met. She curbed her urge to smirk and graciously declined using her shopping excuse.

“Oh well, next time maybe. Now, if you both would excuse me, I need to use the ladies room.” Linda stood up and walked towards the restroom.

“What the hell are you doing?” Nick immediately whispered into Gia’s ear the moment Linda was out of sight. “How could you agree to the investment? Don’t you see that it’s her plan all along? I have a feeling that she knows everything and is just using this meeting as a way to get to you and me. Can’t you see that?” he hissed.

Gia looked cool and composed as she answered him, “Of course I know that, Nick but being a woman myself, I understand what she’s trying to do. She wants to keep her enemies close to her. And I really want to invest in your bank. Don’t you want me to?” Gia came closer and brushed the lapels of his shirt.

He quickly grabbed her hand and drew it away from him. “Don’t. Not here. She might see. Please, Gia. I’m telling you, back away from this deal now. Of course I want an investor but this might just mess it up for the both of us. And… I – I can’t continue with this affair any longer… I’m sorry. I have to go back in a few days to the New York anyway so there’s no point in continuing this until then. I’m assuming Linda will be with me for the remainder of my stay here so it is best to end it right now before we stir up some more trouble in our own families,” Nick said in an apologetic tone.

He didn’t mean to drag the young beautiful heiress into his mess. He was just too selfish to contain his attraction of her that he allowed himself to give in to the pleasure of her company even though he fully knew that it wasn’t going to be a serious relationship, but just a momentary fling while he was abroad.

Gia was shocked at what he said. All the while, she thought that she would finally get into a serious relationship. Nick was the perfect guy. The only one who finally fit the bill of her ideal man. All this time, she thought that he went through with their lunch even though his wife was there was because he wanted her to continue seeing him even if his wife was there. But in truth, he just wanted to say goodbye and rub it in her face that he chose his wife over her.

“Wh-what are you talking about, Nick? I don’t understand,” she asked looking hurt and confused by what he said.

Nick scooted closer to her and held her hand, “Look, Gia. You’re a beautiful young lady who has everything going for her. Don’t lock yourself away from other people and don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve. You deserve someone who will take care of you all the time and who will never leave for another. I want you to have a life with a meaning and not just someone who totes around a married man like me. You’re better than that. Please… Let’s part ways now that it’s still early. I… I can never be that man for you, Gia. I am married and I’m going to remain married until the day I die. I love my wife. I love my family… I’m sorry to have to drag you into this… I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I- I’m just one selfish bastard! And you should get as far away from me as possible because I will only ruin your life.” He let go of her hand and moved back to his seat.

Gia stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief. “What the hell are you talking about? I’m a big girl and I don’t need anyone to tell me what I want or don’t want in this life. And I want you in my life, Nick! More than anything… I want to keep going. You don’t have to make promises… Only your time. I know what I’m doing, please… Don’t do this… Don’t you feel the same way towards me? She can never give you what I can offer, Nick. I’ll stick with you even if you are still married. I’m not hoping for anything more. I just want your time,” she pleaded. She felt tears coming on but she tried to suppress them. It was like saying goodbye to her father all over again.

That gut-wrenching feeling that she felt when her father passed away in her arms was like the same thing she felt as she saw Nick shake his head and disagree with her.

“No, Gia. I can’t do that to you. You deserve so much more than a scumbag like me. I need you to continue with your life here and not think of me, of us, anymore. I can’t give you what you’re asking, Gia. I can’t promise you my time because I live so far away and I have a wife and a family that I need to be with. Please… It would also be better if you don’t send your lawyers to Linda anymore. You can still back out from this deal. You don’t have to go through with it.”

Gia realized that she was not going to get through to him that way so she composed herself and pretended to see reason. “Okay… Okay, fine, Nick. I see what you mean. As much as I hate this to happen, I agree with you. You… you, obviously, cannot leave your wife and you’re not willing to so I guess this is the best course… But I still want to go through with the deal. I want to invest in your bank and I’m serious with conducting business with your company. This has nothing to do with our affair, it’s purely business.” She cleared her throat as Linda came back from the restroom with a ready smile on her face.

They conducted their lunch meeting and Nick and Linda proceeded to their scheduled sight-seeing that afternoon and their dinner afterwards.

Gia went home with a heavy heart but with a plotting mind. She can’t simply let Nick go. What she wants, she gets, was all she ever knew in her life. And she wanted Nick. She sent her trusted lawyer to Linda the next day to make the necessary arrangements on the investment. She was serious about the partnership, that part was true, but she also had an ulterior motive. She still wanted some form of communication with Nick and she can do that by becoming partners in a business venture. That way, she could fly to the U.S. as much as she could and no one would be the wiser. It would simply appear as if she was checking on her investment when she really wanted to see more of Nick and continue convincing him to come back to her… And quite possibly, have him ditch Linda in the end.

The next day, Linda met with Gia’s lawyer and he entrusted her with Gia’s fortune, not knowing that Linda would screw them over and make Gia’s life a living hell after that. And that was exactly what she did.

Linda had managed to mess up Gia’s accounts the moment she got back to the US, and even made up some offshore ones to show that there was some kind of illegal activity in her string of companies in Europe. Linda, being a “good citizen and a moral human being”, anonymously reported these made-up illegal activities and blamed it all on Gia de Grassi. It was the biggest feat Linda managed to pull off as of yet. She used all her connections in getting the dead done at the same time, keeping it all from Nick, or at least keeping herself off from all the drama and controversy that Gia had to deal with back in Europe.

Nick, in the meantime, didn’t know the specifics of the issue and honestly, didn’t pay any mind to it when he got back to the states and got swallowed up with work. Linda kept assuring him that it was all a mix up and that Gia just decided to quit the deal without explaining much. And that was that for Gia de Grassi in the lives of the McElroys.

Until she came back into existence, only four years later…

 

 

Chapter IV

 

Cornelia arrives at the crematorium early the next day. The funeral service is not until nine in the morning but it’s only eight. She looks around consciously, not wanting people to see her but uncertain if it was the right building as well.

She feels the same pang of heart-wrenching tightness in her chest like the one she felt ten years ago, when she stepped on the pavement leading to the establishment a few minutes earlier. Her emotional pain was so great that it’s physically impairing her breathing. She stands on the hard ground near the parking lot and can’t seem to take another step towards the threshold of the funeral home. It’s been about five minutes of her just staring down on the pavement and contemplating if she can go through with the funeral.

“I can’t…,” she whispers to herself, clutching the small bag she bought with some of her valuables. She never thought she had a family left but for him to be taken away so early, just as she found out that she had a grandfather, was literally breaking her heart apart into a million pieces.

A hand gently touches her shoulder. “You can, my child. You have to… for James,” Jim, the butler was behind her with a sad smile on his old but friendly face.

He must have been the same age as James, around seventy or older, but he has the use of both his legs, unlike James who wore a cane for the past ten years or so of his life.

Cornelia feels a great sense of gratitude for the old man and a familiar feeling of closeness like what she had with James. She nods at him and sighs. She takes a step forward and then another and another, finding courage in each step to go further.

Just a few more and you’ll be inside, and then it would be easier to walk all the way to his… to his coffin, she thinks to herself.

She talks herself into finding the courage to go through the day but as she is currently finding out, getting inside the building isn’t even the hardest part but she’s struggling so much already.

James’ lifeless body was already laid out in his coffin earlier this morning and would be cremated after a short ceremony. Then they are going to bury his ashes in his estate. A mausoleum was already set up years before he even died in preparation for his death. Kevin has filled her in with the details when they talked yesterday. She owes a lot to Kevin who took charge of the situation when she left and arranged everything. She feels so ashamed for leaving just like that but everything was too much to take all at once that she couldn’t stand to stay there any longer, knowing that James had passed on.

As she approaches the coffin where James was laid to rest, she feels dread coming over her body. Dread not from seeing a dead body but seeing another family member who died. Someone who will never ever again look into her eyes and talk to her. He will never again call or pay her a visit just to say “Hi”. That familiar soothing voice will never again be heard by her ears or anybody else’s ever again. And his curt walk with his cane would never be again witnessed by anybody… especially not her.

She peers through the glass of the coffin and looks at his peaceful face. It really looks as if he was just sleeping or taking a nice siesta in the afternoon, just like what he used to do when she visited him one time in his hotel room in New York. He always seemed to travel a lot but kept tabs on her from time to time. He never invited her to his home though, and that’s probably because of the secret he was keeping from her. But he did invite her to his hotel whenever he had some business dealings in the city.

She remembers one day when she decided to have dinner with him at the Four Seasons. It was a birthday, she thinks, possibly hers… She went to his hotel room and found him dozing off in his chair, facing the skyline of Manhattan through the glass windows of his suite. It was the first time she saw him unaware and she imagined then that if she had a grandpa of her own, he would have looked like James. All gray hair and those friendly wrinkles on the sides of his eyes. He must have been handsome in his youth and she wondered then why he never introduced a wife, daughter, or grandkids to her. She never pried, of course. It wasn’t her business and she respected his privacy just as he respected hers. She looked at him for several minutes, enjoying his peaceful guise, then decided to wake him gently so they could chat. It was one of those rare moments that she let her guard down and imagined having a family…

And all along, he really was her grandpa. She never even had a day with him to bask on the joy she felt for finally finding a living close relative.

“Hi gr-grandpa… I miss you. I’m not mad at you anymore… I was, when you first told me, but I’m not anymore. I wish I could have told you…,” she began sniffing because she couldn’t contain the tears from falling down her face. “I- I wish I could have told you how much I appreciate you for looking out for me all these years, without even asking for anything in return, and without even telling me who you really were… It must have been hard to keep all those things from me, but you did because you thought I would run away just like what mom did…”

She fishes a hanky out of her bag and dabs her eyes. She looks into his seemingly sleeping guise again and smiles down at him.

“I know you didn’t mean for things to happen that way between you and Mom… I know you probably asked for forgiveness a thousand times and felt guilty for not getting hers. Don’t worry grandpa,” her voice catches in her throat, but goes on, “Mom understands what you did. You only thought of what was best for her when she was still alive… And knowing her, she’s forgiven you long before she even parted this world, she was probably just as stubborn as you to admit it,” she laughs a little, wiping more tears from her eyes.

Cornelia contains her sobs and thought of the happy times they had over the last four years that she’d known him. She holds on to those memories as she continues to stand in front of his coffin.

She wonders who would give James’ eulogy. Kevin didn’t ask her to do it, being the only family he had, but she also knows that she is also the least person who knew him well enough to give his eulogy. Kevin knew him the best, she supposes, so she guesses that he would be giving the eulogy.

“I guess Kevin will be speaking today. I’m glad that if he would because I don’t think I could go through it. Even if there are only a few people, I couldn’t stand in front of them and describe you when I don’t rightly know you as much as I wanted to. I wouldn’t do any justice to your memories… Yes… I’m glad Kevin is here to do it. He’s your most trusted confidant and I’m thankful to him for keeping you company all these years,” she says, feeling a little better now that she had seen him and is slowly trying to get things off her chest even if he’s not physically alive to hear them anymore. It still gives her a sense of relief that she’s pouring it out and not keeping it in like what she always did with her hatred towards Nick and her grief for losing her mother.

At the same moment, Kevin walks in the room where they kept the coffins before the cremation itself. The ceremony would take place at the crematorium room where the body would actually be burned and then the ashes are collected to give to the family members.

“Hey, you’re here. Have you been here long? Sorry, I had to do some errands. Did you come alone?” Kevin asks looking all-professional and businesslike about the whole thing. It was as if something had changed with him. He wasn’t the usual calm and quiet man that her grandpa always had around.

“Um, yeah. I just arrived a few minutes ago,” she responds while wiping her face with her hanky. “I… I came alone and I’m not staying long. I don’t want to be here when all the people came.”

“Aren’t you staying for the ceremony and the burial? I mean, he was your grandfather. Don’t you think it appropriate for you to stick around?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.

It feels a little intrusive of him but Cornelia realized he might probably be right. If only for formalities sake, she is the only living relative that James would leave behind. But she prefers to stay in the background and just be a silent participant and not speak at all.

“I suppose you are right, Kevin. Thanks for reminding me. Its… It’s all too soon and too confusing for me that I have not fully realized that I am a Wilson and I owe it to James to be there when the people pay their final respects to him. Will you be staying as well? I meant to ask you… Would you be doing his eulogy then?” She feels a little ashamed that she didn’t think things through but is thankful to Kevin, yet again, for reminding her.

Oh I wish Morrison was here… The thought came out of nowhere and it even shocked Cornelia for even thinking about Morrison. She focuses her attention back to Kevin.

“I was thinking that I should do it since I was the one with him all these years. I mean, you could if you want to. Of course, you’re the relative here,” he adds.

She shakes her head and replies, “No. You should do it. You’re right. You’re the one who was always by his side all these years. I’m okay with just being quiet. If you ask me, I just want to privately say my goodbye and go. I wouldn’t know anybody in the funeral anyway.”

Well, you that’s what you should do, butt off and go your way. You didn’t slave your way into the old man’s trusted circle. I did. And I’ll be damned if you just take all that money away without even sparing me crumb or just give me the whole lot of it. Don’t worry, darling, I would make sure you leave here empty-handed.

Kevin’s true colors are starting to show. He couldn’t wait for this day to come. For the old man to finally kick the bucket and go his merry way and leave all his riches to those who deserve it… Surely not the ones who didn’t do anything to care for the man.

She is just a relative, that’s all. She never saw James at his worst, only at his best. I did all the dirty work for him and I endured because in the end, I knew that I would eventually get my due… but she came along and now, she most definitely get all his riches. He never should have found her in the first place if he just stayed where he was supposed to and not go wandering around himself in search for his long lost good-for-nothing granddaughter!

“I guess it is for the best that I should speak in his behalf. But do stay behind for the will because I believe that he would leave his estates to you, naturally…,” he seemed to spit out the words as if it tasted bitter on his lips but then smiled dubiously at her.

“Oh, I – I didn’t think he would have thought of me… Honestly, I wouldn’t want any part in it. I have lived this way all my life and having money and riches wouldn’t make me happy. I would rather have it donated to charities and other organizations where I know it would do people some good.” She gives it some more thought and says, “Yes, if James did leave me some money, I would donate them. I wouldn’t want it used for any other means. Would you help me ensure that, Kevin? I’m sure you would feel the same since you’re his closest confidant. You know what James would want us to do with his fortune,” she says with a voice filled with hope.

Shit! What the hell! No fucking way! I won’t squander all that cash to charities! Are you kidding me?! “Of course, Cornelia, I’ll help you,” he answers.

But in his mind, he’s already thinking of ways on how to coerce, manipulate, and if it comes to it, force her to give him the rights to the fortune that James had surely left for her.

Some people started coming and the crematorium started to fill up with visitors. Cornelia doesn’t recognize any of the ones that arrived until she saw a familiar face and she is filled with relief.

“Hello beautiful. How are you? I didn’t see you anymore yesterday. Where did you go off to?” Barret comes up to her and gives her a warm hug.

Cornelia clings to him for an extra minute and closes her eyes. She feels so much better that Barret is there with her. Now, she could at least turn to someone she can trust and depend on him to have her back.

“Oh, Barret… You don’t know how happy I am to see you… Please stay with me throughout the ceremony and after. Are you going someplace else after James’ funeral?” she draws herself away from him only to look him in the eyes with lost eyes.

Barret couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor kid. She’s been through a lot and she needs someone she can depend on in this particular time. He places his palm on the side of her face and says,

“No. I’m here for you. I’ll be here, don’t worry.” His mind takes him back to his unforgettable time he had with Sally only yesterday.

 

After the incident at the hospital, with Cornelia going off like that and Morrison going after her to find her, Barret decided to call Sally and find out the place where she was staying. He called her when he was at the parking lot as Kevin drove away in his car. He couldn’t explain the feeling he felt at that moment but all he knew was that he wanted to see her again. He took out her business card which she slipped into his hands when they parted.

“Hey, Sally? It’s me Barret,” he said with his deep voice. “Have you found a place to stay? Is it okay for me to come over?” he asked, closing his eyes, hoping that she’d say yes.

“Sure, Barret. I’m here at the Grand Park Hotel. Its only a few minutes from the hospital, to your right if you’re at the parking lot.” She gave him more directions and within a few minutes, he was on his way to her.

He hasn’t been that excited to see someone since he met Cornelia and it’s a different feeling altogether. With Cornelia, he felt curios about her. He wanted to protect Cornelia from the world because of what he saw in her eyes the night when she came home crying. She was so broken and alone that he felt compelled to give her the security she deserved, being a young woman who never had any visitors to her apartment and who didn’t go to family holidays or even parties.

But with Sally… It was a different kind of curiosity. He knows from the moment he met her, when she stuck aa knife at his side, that she is a strong woman who went through undesirable circumstances but unlike Cornelia, Sally had this spark in her eyes that said she hasn’t given up on love and would gladly give it another try. He could see her personality through her smile. Sally did not hurt like Cornelia and because of that, she still sees the world as a good place to be in. A place to find a new love and to give that second chance the best she got yet.

That’s what Barret sees in Sally. And that’s what draws him to her. He needed to feel that alive again. He feels that with Sally, he could grow out of his shell and experience the world with her.

He still feels strongly on protecting Cornelia, but now that he met Sally, he looks at Cornelia more of a little sister that needed protection. He, himself, is shocked at how quickly his feelings changed over the course of a few hours. That’s how strongly Sally impacted him. And he doesn’t care if she had a relationship with Morrison before. It was her past and he’s willing to accept anything about her if she would give him a chance.

When he knocked on her hotel room door, she came quickly to open it and had a ready smile for him. She was dressed in a different outfit, jeans and a shirt. She had on a dress earlier but as Barret looked at her, she looked more relaxed in what she was wearing then.

“Hi… Please, come in,” she said in a small voice. She had no make-up on and she looked radiant. “I’m sorry about the mess, I was just unpacking and just got out of the shower. Please, make yourself comfortable.” She proceeded to picking up her bag and neatly stashing it in the cabinet beside the king-sized bed.

Her hotel room was very spacious and it had a terrace that overlooked the ocean outside.

“Please, don’t make a fuss about it. You should see my house. Hah! That, I can tell you, have not been organized for a year now,” he said chuckling and feeling more relaxed now that he’s with her.

“Oh stop making feel better. I know its crazy in here.” She was pertaining to the towels on the small sofa on the foot of the bed and another one draped on a chair near the bathroom.

Barret shook his head and couldn’t imagine what she would say if she ever saw his room. A few towels doesn’t constitute as messy for him. He laughed again and said,

“If you don’t believe me, you should come over sometime and see for yourself…” It came out unexpectedly but as soon as he heard himself say it, he pictured what it would be like having Sally over in his lonely house and filling it with joy just because she was there.

She looked at him with a serious face and he was almost afraid that she’d order her out of her room but then her face broke into a demure smile and she replied, “I’d love that…”

He took two steps towards her and took her in his arms then. He hugged her tight and she clung to him like there was no tomorrow. There was a feeling of electric charges going off inside their bodies and as he leaned down to kiss her, the world dissolved around them. All they could think about at that moment was their bodies dancing and swaying to the rhythm of their union.

A few minutes later, they lay in bed, still locked in each others’ arms, enjoying the aftermath of their lovemaking.

“You know, I never thought that I would ever be this intimate with another man again… at least not this soon after what happened with me and…,” she paused then shook her head. “Forget it. I’m over and done with the past. I need to start living in the present,” she finished saying as she looked up at Barret’s face.

“Sally, honey… When you’re with me, you don’t have to hide. I know about your past and believe me, you’re not the only one with failed relationships. I had a divorce myself, just over a year ago. We’re still good friends though… I guess we never realized it before we got married, that we were always better off friends but not husband and wife. We never had children either so maybe it was for the best that we didn’t consider having kids because we would’ve just ended up hurting them,” he replied in a subdued voice.

“That’s too bad… You would’ve been a great dad, I could tell,” Sally answered.

“It’s not too late, you know. I could still father a son or a daughter or maybe a few… I assume it would be great to have kids with someone who would want to have them with me…” He let the sentence hand and looked down at her with a serious expression on his face.

“Barret… I think we’re moving too fast… I mean we just met and I… I don’t know yet what to do when I get back to my old life,” Sally replied drawing away from him and sitting up. She wrapped the sheet around her and pulled her legs up from under her, propping her chin on her knees like a little girl.

“I know! And I normally don’t do this… proposing to have a family with a woman I just met and slept with all in the same day! But these are not under normal circumstances and we both know that we met not by coincidence… Maybe the universe is trying to tell us something. You came here with a purpose to avenge yourself for the wring that was done to you and I was here to comfort a friend. But somehow, we met and even with you attempting to cut me,” he chuckled as he saw the look of horror on her face.

“Oh my, God! You’re right… I did try to harm you! I’m so sorry about that Barret… I didn’t mean… I was not thinking straight-,” she started explaining but Barret took both of her hands and kissed them.

“I know, darling. I know… You were hurting and I was just there at the wrong time… No. I think I was there in the right place at the right moment for you to bump into me. Because from the moment I met you, there isn’t a single second that was normal for me. And I have been that way all my life. I have always been normal and I have always been drawn to women who have abnormal situations… And I think that I  have finally found that one person who will fill my life with enough extraordinary and abnormal things that I wouldn’t be looking for something else… Something that I feel would complete my overly normal life… And I have found that in you, Sally.”

Barret had sat up as well and even in his seated state, he towered over Sally’s small frame. She was looking at him with a tearful expression on her face.

Oh my… Is this guy for real? Could I be so lucky to have found the one person who could make everything better for me? She asked herself silently as she continued staring at his sweet and gentle eyes.

His grip on her hands was firm but gentle as if telling her that it would be the same treatment he would give her if she gives herself to him fully. He was telling her through his actions how it would be like if she ever wanted a life with him.

“I never met anyone like you in my life, Sally.. And I have existed long enough to realize the real thing if its standing right in front of me. I want to grab that chance… this chance to have a life with someone who have captured me fully…” It was like he was already proposing to her because Barret was that kind of man. For him, life is fleeting… Like what happened to his parents. You can never tell when your life would end so he vowed to himself to experience everything as they come. To not hold himself back for any reason. Even his divorce was a blessing for him because without it, he wouldn’t have valued his friendship with his ex-wife like he has ever since they separated. He learned from his mistakes and he wanted to share himself with Sally because he knew that she was the one for him.

“I- I don’t know what to say, Barret,” Sally whispered. She’s trying to contain her joy but her fear and reservations about the situation that was happening so fast, were slowly taking over. She shook her head several times as if trying to ward off her thoughts then said in a heartbroken voice, “No, Barret. I think it’s best for everyone involved that I go away for a while… You know, to deal with my stuff…”

She stood up with her tousled hair and flushed face. She looked so radiant and alluring that Barret wanted to pull her back and make love to her again in the bed they shared earlier. But he stopped himself because she was obviously distressed.

Sally couldn’t deal with Barret’s honesty at that moment. She’s afraid that it’s not for real… that it’s going to turn out another failed relationship if she continued with their whirlwind romance. The last time she was with a man and gave her trust to him, she was taken advantage of and was forced to do acts that were against her will…

“I’m sorry Barret… I have never done anything like this as well. I mean, before, when I was with Morrison or even prior to meeting him, I was wild and young… and did stupid stuff that I’m not proud of but nothing like this now that I’m older…” Her back was turned to him and her head was looking down on her hands. She was so scared of Barret’s declarations that her instinct was telling her to run away, far away from the promise of Barret’s love for it might not be true…

What if he found out about what Larry did to me? Would he be disgusted and ashamed that he ever met me? No… No, he can’t find out that I was raped… I don’t want his resentment if he does… And most of all, I couldn’t take it if I saw pity in his eyes…

Barret stood up and slowly went to her, hugging her from behind with only the sheets between them. She closed her eyes at the comfort of being held by him. It was evident in his touches and kisses that he was a sincere guy and that she would be a lucky girl if she gets his heart.

But Sally’s mind was still in disarray. She just spoke to Morrison earlier that day and her emotions were still in turmoil over the fact that he never intended for those misfortunes to happen to her. However relieved she felt after talking to him, the events that happened after his mother sent her away, still happened. That’s what she needs to deal with… She’s over Morrison and their past but the fear and trauma that the rape left her with still affected her so much that it’s preventing her to function normally in social situations, much so if she ever entered a romantic relationship ever again.

She never even thought she could have sex with a man ever again after what happened to her. But she seemed to forget the pain and trauma when Barret’s gentle hands and kisses touched her skin…

But still… I can’t deal with being in a serious relationship or any relationship right now… I owe it to him and to myself to be one hundred percent okay before I decide to love again.

“I never wanted to come here. If it wasn’t for my stupid grudge towards Morrison, I wouldn’t have thought of coming all the way here just to wreak havoc. But I’m also glad that I did… Because I got to settle my stuff with him and I got an explanation. I guess that’s what I was really after… after all these years, I just needed an explanation straight from his mouth, you know?” Sally said with a resigned voice, hoping that he believed her. She was trying to divert the situation over to her getting over Morrison and not about something else.

She walked towards the bathroom and closed the door gently, breaking off their intimate embrace. Barret grabbed his jeans and put them on as Sally got dressed in the bathroom. He could hear her sobbing inside so he approached the bathroom door and knocked gently.

“Sally? Are you all right? Are you feeling okay?” he asked, placing both hands on the door.

She stifled her sobs and washed her face vigorously.

“I’m okay, Barret. Just a little tired. I’ll be out in a minute,” she answered.

Oh, Sally, what are you doing? Are you ready for this? Are you ready to walk away from this? She asked herself silently in her head as she looked at her reddish eyes and flushed face.

In just a few hours, she experienced a lot and learned a lot from her visit in this quaint town in the Hamptons. She went from crazy vengeful to finding a resolution to her yearlong hatred. She felt hate and relief all at the expanse of a few minutes… And then finally, the hope of love and security a few hours later.

She finally got out of the bathroom and faced Barret who was then fully dressed. He was looking out the terrace window and turned at the exact moment she appeared from the bathroom. Her breath caught in her throat at seeing this handsome man in front of her. Someone who offered his love and loyalty to her a few minutes ago and who was looking at her with so much care and love that her heart was melting in her chest.

Oh God! How could I refuse this man? Please God, help me be strong to deny him… To deny myself the love that I so long to have… I have to be fair to him and to myself.

Barret felt something was wrong and that Sally was slowly slipping away from him. He poured out his feelings to her hoping she’d feel the same but mostly because he couldn’t contain it anymore. He’s never been that open before but after his divorce, he saw the importance of finding someone he really liked and making sure to keep them while they are there.

Sally came out of the bathroom with sad eyes and her nose was a little red. Probably from crying… But why would she cry if I just all but proposed to her? Doesn’t she feel the same towards me? Not even a little bit? The questions were circling his mind and it was about to drive him crazy. Thankfully, Sally spoke up.

“Barret… Look. I’m very flattered with what you told me about… about your feelings towards me,” she started.

Barret could feel a huge “but” that was coming after her initial sentence.

“But… I’m a broken person and I want to fix myself first before I could give myself fully to anyone… especially to you.” She closed the distance between them and took one hand in hers. “Please don’t think of this as a rejection… It’s just a speedbump. I’m just asking for more time to sort myself out.”

Barret looked into her eyes and saw that she was baring herself to him and being honest about her true emotions. The look in her eyes told him that she was hurting deep inside and what she needed now was not him… She needed time to heal and get to know herself again. To gather the broken pieces of her soul and try to patch them back together so she can find herself again.

He gripped her hand and hugged her to him. “I understand completely, Sally. Take all the time you need. I’m just here. Just let me know when it’s okay for me to come back to your life again and I’ll be there in less than a second. I swear,” he whispered into her ear as he inhaled her scent one more time… maybe for the last time in a long time. He just wanted to keep this moment in his head and hold her for the longest time possible until it was time to part.

And it came too quickly for them both. Sally was the first one to break the embrace and caressed the side of his face as she looked lovingly to the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with… but not at that time.

He told her that he would need to travel to Upstate New York for James’ funeral and he had to leave in an hour so he could be there in the evening. The funeral was the next day but he wanted to be there that day to make sure that Cornelia would be all right. He was still worried about her and he knew that she needed him more than ever especially since she and Morrison were not in good terms. He explained it to Sally which she understood and even urged him to make sure that Cornelia was taken care of.

“She has no one else in the world now and she needs you to be there for her. Thank you for being such a wonderful person… I would miss you every single minute we are apart,” she said in a sad voice.

He was about to hug her to him again but this time, he stopped himself. He was only prolonging their agony. Instead, he nodded, kissed the back of her hand, and turned around. He walked out the door with a sad heart but hopeful for what the future might bring. He knew he would see her again. He just needed to wait for the perfect time.

 

“What happened to you yesterday after I left? I’m sorry a-,” Cornelia starts explaining to Barret but he cuts him off.

“Shhh. You don’t need to explain anything to me, Cornelia. I understand that you had to do what you did. I would’ve gone to the roof as well if I found out about my real identity. It’s okay. Kevin took care of everything after you left. I was just standing around there, trying to assist as best as I could,” he replies in a subdued tone.

He doesn’t tell her about his conversation with Sally because she didn’t need to hear it. He surmises that she’s still probably mad about what she saw at the hospital when Sally and Morrison were in each other’s arms. He’ll tell her in another time perhaps.

“Oh, Barret… You don’t know what it felt like for me finding out that James was my grandfather all this time… We’ve known each other for nearly four years and I spent most of my time with him, telling him about my mother and how I  longed to have a family of my own… He told me at the last minute… I don’t hate him for keeping it from me, I mean, I understand that he was afraid I would run away as well if I ever found out. But I feel cheated! I could’ve spent more time with him and treated him better… More than just a good friend.”

Barret takes her aside, away from the prying eyes of the people who were milling into the crematorium. Some of them he recognizes as owners of companies and businessmen, but he doesn’t know anyone at a personal level.

They find a secluded room just outside the crematorium. It was a small chapel with the cross in the middle and miniature sculptures of saints on the sides. Barret sits her down on one of the pews and takes out his handkerchief.

“Here, please take this,” he gives her the handkerchief as she dabs her eyes carefully.

“Thanks. I’m sorry. I’m bawling in here when I should be out there welcoming those people who want to pay their respects to James…”

“No, you are right where you should be at this moment. You don’t need to entertain anyone. You need to be comforted for your loss and they should understand why you’re not in a chatty mood, okay,” he says firmly, holding her shoulders upright to give her strength and composure.

She sighs and looks at the altar.

“I’m going to tell you a secret, Barret…,” she starts.

Barret listens intently and can’t help but feel that people have really gotten into the habit of telling him their secrets. Was he really that trustworthy?

“I used to be filled with hate. I lived and breathed for the day that my enemies will fall to their feet and grovel. I longed for the time when those who are at the top, to finally fall to the ground and feel the hurt and experience the excruciating pain of being kicked while they are down and low in the mud. I held on to that expectation. I must admit that James had helped me to feel more strongly towards getting my revenge on the people whom I thought have wronged me… But at his last minutes on earth, James came clean and told me the truth. And the truth was, we, ourselves, are our greatest enemies. The grudges we hold on to and the lying and hurting we go through and inflict on others will come back to us and bite us in the ass one day.” She continues to look ahead, at the cross, with glazed eyes. It’s as if she’s not even talking to him in particular, but to the world, and to herself.

“Since James told me the truth that Nick McElroy is my father… Yes, Morrison’s dad is my biological father. Can you believe that?” she chuckles and glances at his face. “What’s the matter? You don’t seem shocked about this,” she asks.

“Cornelia… James told me about your relationship with Nick McElroy and that he was your grandfather. He told me the night when you were rescued and brought to his house in the Hamptons.” He remains silent for a few minutes as she digests it all in. He actually expects her to throw a fit, hit him, curse him, throw stuff, or just basically go crazy. But to his surprise, she smiles and nods.

“James was really a great judge of character. If he told you his secret, a secret as big as this, it means that he trusted you to keep it and tell me all about it at the right time. It means that you’ve helped him unload the heavy burden of keeping our real relationship a secret. Thank you, Barret. For being there for him when I couldn’t.” she hugs him tightly after she replied and he feels her shoulders rock with emotion.

He pats her back and smiles down on her. “Thank you, Cornelia. For being such a good person… For knowing that the only way to get your revenge on those who hurt you is to forgive them and, most especially, to forgive yourself. It takes a good person to know that they have gone bad.”

Cornelia smiles through her tears and draws herself away from Barret and says as an afterthought, “You know… You should’ve been a counselor… Or maybe a priest. You’re so good at perceiving people and you’re spot on when you give pieces of advice. I’m so lucky to have you as my friend. Thank you for being you.”

He gently nudges her on the shoulder and winks jokingly. “I can be a counselor but I’m not sure that I would be a good priest…”

They share a subdued laugh and it was the best feeling Cornelia has had the whole day.

Morrison looks at them from his post outside the small chapel. Cornelia and Barret’s backs were turned towards the altar but he could still see the sweetness they have for each other. They even shared a private joke and he nudged her on the shoulder, emitting a positive response from her.

His heart aches at the thought that he couldn’t get close to Cornelia. He couldn’t even show himself for fear that she might just walk past him and pretend he wasn’t there. He couldn’t take it if she gave him the cold shoulder but he would understand if that would be her behavior if he decides to show himself to her.

It’s her time to grieve right now and despite the hurt and betrayal he feels inside, he’s glad that Barret is there to give her the comfort that she needs… the kind of comfort that he couldn’t give her at her most vulnerable time.

He continues to hide behind the big post that was holding the building up. He struggles with himself if he should show himself or respect her wish and leave her alone.

In the end, he decides to leave…

Morrison walks out of the crematorium and gets in his sports car. He drove all night to the place where James would finally be put to rest. He didn’t make any long stops along the way he has a full day’s worth of stubble. He looks haggard and sleep-deprived but he didn’t care. He wanted to see Cornelia and to make sure she was all right.

And he did… He did see her and she was all right…

Thanks to that son-of-a-bitch! He hits the steering wheel of his Porsche with the back of his hand and feels the pain after a few seconds.

He closes his eyes and welcomes the pain. All of it. But no matter how hurt he was at hitting the wheel, it is just a fraction of what he is feeling in his heart at that moment. He has never been emotional but he couldn’t shake the fact that Cornelia is happy with someone else.

How could she move on right away? Doesn’t she love me anymore? Even just a little bit?

He opens his eyes and feels that hurt slowly turning into dislike, then annoyance, and then, finally, to hate.

I fucking hate them! They are all liars! They don’t deserve my time or my love. She doesn’t want me? Fine! Then I don’t want her! The hell with giving a damn! From this time on, I would no longer care about her.

His stare could very well pierce through the cement of the building and through her. His heart has been filled with jealous rage and he slowly turns into someone he’s never met before.

 

 

 

Chapter V

 

After their talk in the chapel, Cornelia respectfully let Kevin do the short eulogy for James, knowing full well that he would do a much better job at honoring James than she could.

James’ remains were buried in the mausoleum behind his massive estate just a few minutes from the crematorium. It was the house where Julie grew up in and Cornelia couldn’t contain her excitement as she walks up the cemented steps leading to the backdoor of the house. They were directed straight to the gardens when they arrived and walked around the house so she hasn’t seen the interior of the house yet.

There is to be a short snack inside the house as people started to pile into the big Victorian-style house.

Many people had approached her at the crematorium after Kevin introduced her as James’ only living relative and granddaughter. No one knew that James had a relative and they were pleasantly surprised that she was there.

“Our condolences again, my dear,” an elderly woman, Rose, greeted her at the door as she fell in step with her at the threshold of the house.

“Thank you, madame. I appreciate it very much,” Cornelia responds and smiles.

They continue forward and Cornelia can’t help but let her jaw drop at the extravagance of the living room. It has a different look and feel from the one in the Hamptons. The house they stayed in the Hamptons was a little more toned down, having walls the colors of brown and grey. This one had yellow, almost, orange, couches of different sorts. On the corner is a big old-fashioned reading chair, next to the window that offers a great amount of sunlight to the room. This room had no ocean view like the one at the Hamptons but it has a great view of the gardens and the mausoleum.

She looks to her right and sees a grand piano that dominated that side of the living room, next to a hearth. She could imagine Julie curling up on the couch right across the fireplace on a cold and breezy night and just enjoying a good book or two over coffee or tea.

That thought brings a smile to her face. What she would give to actually see that scene play out…

“Welcome Miss Cornelia,” Jim greets her from behind the adjoining doors of the living room. “Please come inside.” Jim opens the door a little wider for her so she can see the inside of the room.

It was actually a study that is adjoined to the living room. As she enters, she sees rows of books lining the wooden aisles of the four corners of the room.

“Whoa!” she blurts outloud, not being to contain yet another awe-inspired moment of that grand house.

“Great, isn’t it?” Jim’s openly smiling and friendly face gives her comfort while Barret was left in the living room, talking with some people he admires in the business world. She’s glad that he’s able to meet prospective clients and hopes that he gets to have some great investments out of it.

“Grand is more like it… I’ve never been in a room with more books than this one inside ones home. Unless it’s a library, that is. I can see that James loves his books. He must spend so much time in here, huh?” Her head is still tilted upwards, surveying the titles of the books in the room.

The upper part of the room is where the books are properly placed that extends up as far as the ceiling, which is a very high ceiling, she could see. A ladder is placed at one side of the room for the convenience of the person who wants to read a book from those high bookcases. It’s no ordinary ladder, she observes. It’s one of those ladders used in real libraries where it has wheels and can whirl around the place with no problem.

“Actually, he did, and young Miss Julie also frequented this place. She loved spending time here with her father when she was younger,” Jim adds.

That statement causes Cornelia to look back at Jim with a happy smile. Tears start to come to her eyes but she quickly wipes them away and chuckles. “Sorry, hah! I’m tearing up in here over some books, that’s a first. I usually read just to get to sleep faster but now that I know that both my mother and grandfather loved perusing these pages, I would have to get into that tradition as well.” She says lightly to dispel the sadness in her eyes.

Jim nods at her and smiles back, “I am certain that they would love to see you frequent this room as well when you’re all settled.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” she asks trying to understand what Jim was trying to say.

“He means that you have inherited all of James’ estates, properties, companies, and all that he had toiled for in the years of his life. All of his assets are going to be turned over to you. He doesn’t really have any liabilities at this point since he knew how to do business and always had a backup plan for everything. So, Miss Wilson, shall we sit and discuss this further?” says a man who is dressed in an impeccable suit with a slim suitcase on one hand.

“W-who are you? And how do you know that he left me anything?” she asks, feeling overwhelmed by what he said. She knows that James is a businessman and probably had a substantial amount of cash but she could never prepare herself for what’s to come.

“Hi, sorry, my name is John Klein,” he extends his hand and shakes hers in a firm manner. “I’m Mr. Wilson’s attorney. I take care of his legal documents. First of all, I am very sorry for your loss young miss. I knew James for a long time. He hired me straight out of law school and gave me a chance. I owe him my career actually and I am saddened to see him go so soon. He was a man I respected and considered a dear friend…,” he said with sincerity. “I know this because he called me last week and had me run over the will which he had asked me to draft a few years ago, around four years ago, I believe. And he never revised it. I guess he had a feeling that he might need to check it again…”

“Th-thank you Mr. Klein. I’m sure he respected and valued your friendship as well. I’m sorry for being skeptic, it’s just that I really didn’t know him that well. I only found out that he was my grandfather the day when… w-when he passed,” she replies giving him a sad smile, trying hard to remember the James she knew when he was alive and not the moment that he died in her arms.

“Thank you as well, Miss Wilson. Please, call me John. I am not here to push you or anything but if you would permit, I would like to read the will to you… unless we are waiting for someone else to be present.” John raises his eyebrows as if in question if they were, in fact, waiting for other people to come and listen to the will.

“Yes, and I am here now so we can proceed if you may John?” Kevin waltzes inside the study and sits himself on one of the chairs of the long table in the middle of the room. He looks different that day. More confident, more interactive, perhaps.

Cornelia couldn’t put her finger on it but she feels that Kevin had just broken out of his shell and is slowly revealing his true self. He used to be very timid and talked less than he was these past few days but she guesses that it was because he had to step up and arrange James’ funeral and his other affairs.

Cornelia shrugs off the feeling she has for Kevin’s transformation and just focuses on the task at hand.

She nods at John and they all sit around the table as Jim leaves to get them some refreshments.

“Okay, so, as I have told Miss Wilson here, James called me up last week and we went through his will again for any final revisions. So far he didn’t ask me to do any except for some changes on his message, so let’s start, shall we?” John asks as both Kevin and Cornelia nod their heads.

“To my dear Cornelia, I am deeply honored to have known you these past few years and I hope that in my death, you and Julie, would find it in your hearts to forgive me.”

Cornelia can feel tears come rushing back to her eyes but clenches her hands into fists to try to contain herself. Kevin maintains a blank expression on his face.

“I leave to you, Cornelia Lewis Wilson, my entire estate, properties, and investments, amounting to a net worth of 700 Million dollars in total,” John said in a neutral voice.

Cornelia still can’t digest everything that’s happening and what it means to her so she remains silent. Kevin, on the other hand, leans forward at the mention of the current net worth of James’ assets. He looks to be very interested in what was coming next.

“And to Kevin Albright, who was my constant companion over the course of more than two decades, I leave you one million dollars and a pick of any of my cars, which I am sure you have driven all of them. Thank you for your services. To my employees…,” John continues stating that the workers of his merchandising company get an annual profit-sharing amount based on the total revenue of the company over the course of a year.

“What?” Kevin blurts out. “I-I’m sorry,” he says immediately. “I, ah, I was just surprised that he even left me anything… Heh,” he laughs nervously.

What?! He left me a million dollars only? And a stupid car? That’s not gonna cut it. I am so deep in debt that by the time I’ve paid off all of them, I’d end up having a few thousand dollars… Shit! I can’t have that. I must do something about it…

What nobody knew about Kevin is that he is a notorious gambler. He had always been and that was why he even had to rob James in the first place, all those years ago. He does feel indebted to James for taking him out of the streets but he never helped him with his gambling debts. He tried asking before, when he just started, to loan some cash from James to pay off some of those people he owed money to and he got the cash but he also got back in the game as soon as he had money to burn. He promised James before that he was never going to gamble ever again once he paid off those loan sharks, so he kept his gambling activities on the side, a secret from his employer and from everybody else.

Over the years, he accumulated more debt and more and more loan sharks are after him for the amount of cash he owes from a lot of people. Of course, he was careful in keeping his occupation a secret so James wouldn’t find out and given that James was busy with his granddaughter, Kevin managed to slip away several times to gamble.

Now, he needs the money James has given to Cornelia. He needs more than a million dollars and a lousy car if he ever wants to pay off all of his debts and still live comfortably for the rest of his life. Needless to say that he would surely continue on with his gambling ways if he ever gets a hold of Cornelia’s inheritance.

“Oh, Kevin, of course James would leave you something to help you out like what you have done for him. Thank you for being there for my grandfather all these years,” Cornelia answers and pats his shoulders to show him that he is appreciated.

Yeah, that’s right! I was the one who kept him company all these years, not you! And now, you’re the one left with all his money while I get just a fraction!

“Thank you, Cornelia. It was a pleasure serving your grandfather all these years,” he answers. It would be so much easier for you to disappear so I won’t have to suck up to yet another Wilson before getting what I deserve.

The lawyer continues with his reading the distribution of James’ other assets to his staff. Cornelia can’t help but admire her grandfather for having a heart. He made sure that everyone in his employ gets a part of his toils, for as he said in his will, “You helped me make things possible by serving me and never leaving me as I went through everything I had to go through in life to achieve this.”

After several more minutes, John finished reading the will and took out more papers for Cornelia to sign.

“Now, Miss Wilson, please sign these papers… These documents will show that you are now the new and sole owner of T.W. Merchandising, T.W. European Shipping Lines, and T.W. Corp. All of which are under T.W. Industries and are all situated in Paris, France. He wanted to have his main offices there because he wanted to get into the European market and then circle back to the U.S. markets, which he has started doing a few years back. His accountants and other business lawyers will fill you in with the details. Which means that in the next coming weeks, you will be holding board meetings and conferences with the members of the board in these different investment companies. You will also be getting this house and the one in South Hamptons, I’m sure you’re familiar with that already and as a matter of fact, it is technically under your name ever since James bought it. He thought you might need a different house from this one once you find out that you’re a Wilson. There is also a grand estate in London, England, which I will show you when we visit there in the coming months. And a ranch in Texas. James had a penchant for animals and built this ranch to give all kinds of stray animals a shelter where they are cared for by veterinarians and volunteers.” John pauses and looks at Cornelia’s confused face.

“Of course, you need not be overwhelmed, Miss Wilson. I will assist you all the way as well as other financial advisors James has. Kevin is the best person to have around when you’re travelling outside the country because he’s been to every business trip James had in the past and pretty much knows all of James’ affairs,” he says, patting her hand across the table.

John looks over to Kevin who seems to be deep in thought. “I trust you would be assisting the young lady as well, Kevin? Or do you have other matters you want to discuss. James doesn’t expect you to stay on longer than what is necessary for you since, technically, James, your employer, has passed, meaning you are relieved of your services. I’m sure you can’t complain about the hefty severance pay he has left you, not to mention one of the cars in his garage.” John smiles over at Kevin and ads, “Personally, I like the Jaguar the best,” he winks.

Kevin smiles back but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Oh, yes, I would still offer my services to Miss Wilson,” he responds then looks at Cornelia with a questioning look, “…if she would still have me, that is…” He leaves her to finish the sentence.

“Kevin, of course, I would love for you to stay here and continue working for James,” she replies graciously.

“You mean, for you, Cornelia. I would be working for you now…” he reminds her.

“Oh, yes… I guess that’s right… I’m sorry I still can’t take everything in. I’m still thinking about James and the fact that we are, in fact, family, and now you guys are telling me that I have inherited a billion dollars… It’s just too much for one day…” Cornelia admits as her voice continues to shake until she finished talking.

“It’s actually a couple of billion dollars, 2.2 Billion, to be exact. But don’t stress yourself over understanding all of it in one seating. I completely understand that you are not in the right mindset and emotionally, you are not in your best state… So if you just sign the dotted line over here,” John points to the dotted line above her name, her real name, Cornelia Lewis Wilson – James made sure that it was correctly added after he found her in the streets and set up her first apartment.

She complies without even reading it because she trusts John even if she just met him. James seemed to entrust everything to him and they’ve known each other for years so there is no reason for Cornelia to doubt him.

“Are you sure you’re in the right condition to sign any papers, Cornelia? You said so earlier that you don’t want anything to do with James’ money and would rather donate it to charitable institutions or something?” Kevin asks dubiously, as if making her look like greed has taken her over. “I mean I am all for doing good and all, and I actually like your idea. But here you are, signing on that line to get that 2.2 Billion dollars? What if you change your mind again and just leave it in unsafe hands or something. I’m just saying, you aren’t experienced in handling money, at least not that big amount of cash. Don’t you want to put it in a trust fund or ask for someone to help you oversee it?” he asks, shrugging his shoulders.

Kevin has been acting strangely and Cornelia can’t seem to feel uneasy at the thought of him still staying on as her guide and point person in James’ affairs overseas, but it can’t be helped because there was no one else that close to James. She would have to squash her reservations with his sudden behavior and just account it to it probably being an effect of James passing. Maybe Kevin is still understandable distressed about everything that its affecting how he reacts to the situations unfolding before him.

“I appreciate your concern, Kevin, and it is true that I said I just wanted to give all his money to charity but I didn’t realize that he had so much and that these companies are responsible for hundreds, even thousands of employees. If I just turn them over to be liquidated or broken off and sold to other companies, what would happen to those loyal workers who served him and who continues to serve the company? What would happen to their families who depended on him? Now that he’s gone, am I supposed to just let them all fend off for themselves because I wanted to donate to charitable institutions? No, I have to think a lot of things over. And you are right, I am inexperienced, that is why I need the members of the board and his lawyers and accountants to help me. I want to continue his legacy, especially now that I see the impact he’s had on people and that their livelihood was of great importance to my grandfather.”

John could have clapped right there for Cornelia’s compelling speech about her taking over and claiming her rightful inheritance, but he settles for a toothed grin.

“This just cements our trust in you, Cornelia. You are truly James’ granddaughter, a true Wilson. Now, let us conclude this order of business so you could take your rest at your new house. Your other houses and properties have their own caretakers, whom you can communicate with at all times, to check on those properties.” John hands over the pen and Cornelia signs the documents with renewed determination.

It was true, what she said about her concern for the people who works for James. She wasn’t thinking about the impact of what she intended to do when she told Kevin that she’d rather just donate all of her grandfather’s money. She would still give generously to those in need, especially to orphans such as herself, but she won’t let his legacy die with him. She will learn how to run a business properly and will maintain the kind of services his companies had been giving its customers and clients.

Kevin stares at her and contemplates on how to get back on her good side. For sure she became suspicious of him after he, basically, said she was inadequate to take over her family’s business.

“Look, Cornelia… I didn’t mean what I said about you not able to handle your grandfather’s affairs… It’s just that I’ve been with him for so long that he was the only one I saw fit to be the boss of his own company, you know… I didn’t mean anything by it. I guess, I’m still not used to seeing you as my new boss after so many years of serving Mr. W,” says Kevin, who seems to sound like his old self.

“It’s okay, Kevin. I know that this is going to be a huge adjustment. I am still understanding the gravity of what I am undertaking and I need you more than ever to be on my side as I try to learn the ropes of these companies. As you said, you worked for my grandfather all your life and you know everything there is to know about his regular days and how he conducts his business… please… help me in keeping his legacy alive. I want to continue how he does business and grow it even, when the time comes. It’s not just about the money, Kevin. It’s about my family’s continuance,” she answers with sad eyes.

“Don’t worry, Cornelia, I will be here to give you all the assistance you need. I just had a thought since I am used to calling him that way, may I call you Miss W, as well? That is if it’s okay with you…”

She tries to say it silently and kind of likes the ring of it. It has anonymity and mystery. “I like it. Sure you can call me that. Thank you, Kevin. I don’t know what I would do without you…”

She hugs him lightly and he pats her shoulders to show his support. She lets go of him and tells him that she would like to speak to Barret as well so Kevin sets out to look for him.

Cornelia lets out a huge sigh after Kevin and John left the study. She sits on the reading chair facing the window and leans her head back.

“Do you know what you’re getting into, Cornelia?” she asks herself outloud. Then she outs her hands on her face and massages her temples. She’s been getting headaches again ever since she left Manhattan. Sometimes it got so worse that she felt the need to vomit, which she ends up doing during those times. She thought about going to the doctor but since there were so many stuff to do in the office during the last week, she didn’t get a chance to.

“I must make sure to ask Kevin or Jim if we have a family doctor so I won’t have to go out to get checked. I’m sure the media is going to have a field day when they find out that I am the new owner of the T.W. Industries.”

Barret knocks softly at the door and she gets up to greet him.

“Hi, Barret, please come in. I’m so glad you’re here. I have to tell you something. Do you need some coffee? Tea?” she asks as she ushers her to the table where she talked with John and Kevin earlier.

“No, I’m okay, Cornelia. I had some snacks in the living room earlier. What’s up? How are you holding up?” he asks, sitting down on the comfortable chair.

“I’m… I guess I’m still taking it all in. James had certainly changed my life when I met him and he’s continuously doing so. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, because I am… I truly am… Without him, I’d probably be dead right now. He saved me… And I will forever thank him for that. I miss him terribly, Barret. I’ve never had anyone to talk to and depend on ever since my mom died and now he’s gone too.” Her voice catches in her throat but takes in a deep breath to stop her tears from falling again.

Barret was about to stand up from his chair to go to her but she holds her hand up and shakes her head. “I’m okay, I’m okay. Please sit down, Barret…” she says.

She looks at the man in front of her with admiration and can’t help but feel so lucky to have a friend like him. Yes… he is a friend… She supposes that it’s what they will always be and she’s totally fine with that but wonders if Barret is.

Another time and another circumstance perhaps… she thinks to herself. But try as she may, she thinks about Morrison and where he could be right that very moment. She understands that he didn’t go to the funeral because she told him, the last time they spoke, that she never wanted to see him again… As much as it hurts not seeing him around, she realizes that he’s only respecting her wishes. She was fine with that but couldn’t he send me a short message even if I had pushed him away? No, you can’t expect him to do that anymore, she shakes her head and tries to focus on what she wanted to tell Barret.

Barret sits back down on the chair and nods to Cornelia to go on.

“Alright… So, I just learned to day that I have inherited all of James’ properties including his companies and other assets.”

Barret looks amazed and says, “Wow! That’s awesome, Cornelia. I mean,, of course, it would’ve been better if James were still alive to teach you the ropes and all that stuff, but I’ve kind of figured that you would surely become the sole owner of your family’s fortune. It’s just right, Cornelia. I’m glad for you.”

“Thank you, Barret… Which gave me the idea to make you my financial advisor and maybe a partner for your furniture business… if you’d have me. I know you’ve been looking for an investor to get your business to a wider audience and I am willing to get into that mix with you. I think that your furniture pieces are works of art, as I told you before, they’re really good!” she says excitedly.

Barret remains speechless but his eyes couldn’t disguise his excitement. “Do you really mean that, Cornelia? Wow! I’ve been waiting for a break ever since I started making those pieces and I’m sure glad that you’re giving me a chance with this! This is just great!” he exclaims. He stands up and goes to her to give her a bear hug, which she gladly accepted.

She’s glad that she’s able to bring joy into someone’s life by just helping them do great things. She looks up as Barret hugs her and imagines James and Julie looking down at her, nodding their approval for her first step as the head of her family’s business. She trusts Barret and she knows that having him beside her would only strengthen the companies she was left with and he would help her make more sound decisions such as what she just did.

“Oh Cornelia! You are such a godsend! I’m flattered that you thought of me first. I promise you, I won’t let you down and I gladly accept your offer to be your advisor, although I am sure there are more highly qualified people for the task… Have you considered looking for the most recommended ones first? I mean, I won’t be offended if you changed your mind and choose a better person… I just don’t want you to make quick decisions about this-,” he starts saying but Cornelia stops him by saying,

“No, Barret. I want you by my side. Sure, there might be other people better suited to advise me about money matters but none who really cares about me and what I envision my companies would be. I want to help people, Barret… And you of all people know what I’m talking about. You are the best person to help me on this because you are a good person. Simple as that and I appreciate it if you not doubt your abilities, okay? We are going to be the best team ever to bring change into the world…” she finishes.

He looks at her with admiration and says, “I am so proud of what you have turned out to be Cornelia. I’ve known you for just a short time, close to a year, but everyday I saw you, I saw your good heart and that was what drew me in.” He smiles at her and they both share another laugh with the hope of a new and better tomorrow for the both of them.

 

 

 

Chapter VI

 

Gia arrives at the airport and looks for her private chauffer to pick her up but instead of her chauffer, Linda is there right in front of her with dark shades on and clutching one of her expensive handbags again.

Her private jet travelled the most part of the night so she can reach her destination. James Wilson, of T.W. Industries, passed away just the day before and many have come to pay their respects to the old man who was a major contributor of the European business market. This throng of people includes Gia de Grassi of the de Grassi’s of Europe. She doesn’t know James Wilson personally but her father had been good friends with the man and she used his death as an excuse to go to the US herself and find out the developments of her plot against the McElroys.

 

She heard of the passing of James Wilson just the day before while she was getting ready for her early dinner. She likes her food served before six in the evening, before her workout so when she gets to bed, she would fall asleep right away. She likes to get so tired at the end of the day that it would just knock her to sleep the moment she hits the bed. It keeps her nightmares at bay. She suffers from dreams of her father’s tragic death less frequently now as compared to a few years ago right after Hector died.

“The death of the businessman James T. Wilson has surprised many of his peers and many have sent their condolences to his family and friends. The funeral and burial of his remains remain private and only the closest to the Wilson family is allowed in… Kirk Lind for Manhattan Tonight,” the reporter with a weird mustache signed off from his late night report as Gia clicked off her plasma TV.

She got a hold of her cell phone and called Mike, “Prepare my jet and get ready to fly out in a few hours. I’ll call you back with the details.” She didn’t wait for Mike’s reply and clicked off. It was understood that he make the necessary arrangements for her. It was always like that and it will always be the case as long as he is under her employ.

This is my chance to go there with a good reason. I could get a closer look at the situation and try resolving any damage Mike had done.

She zipped up her dress and got down to the dining hall. She would dine tonight with her casual lover and then spend perhaps half an hour having sex then she would proceed to her private gym where she loved working out until her muscles ached and her mind was clear of all things of that day.

Gia de Grassi has existed like this ever since the great scandal four years ago… It was such a disgrace that many of the investors of her father’s company left and crippled the whole operation of their shipping lines. She underestimated the power and influence Linda had and still have with a lot of people, especially those with political and economic positions in the U.S. as well as some European nations.

She can still taste the bitter taste of being slapped with so many lawsuits regarding the hazards that her management seemed to have done to their workers. Linda had sent out her minions into collecting forced and manipulated testimonies of workers of her company to show that the de Grassi Shipping Lines failed to comply with the several safety regulations and have, in turn, endangered their workers, even causing some accidents with members of the shipping crews. All of these were accidents and not because of neglect of the management but somehow, when they were all in court, mounds of evidence were suddenly produced and even those whom Gia thought were her loyal employees, turned against her and implicated her in knowing the mishaps in her company and the “alleged” violations with employee safety.

After just a few weeks of trial, the de Grassi Shipping Lines were out of business, stripped of its license, and lost all its investors and many companies severed their ties with them.

Gia was left alone, dejected, despised by all her socialite friends, and betrayed by the people she trusted. She locked herself away from the public eye and returned to Tuscany where she plotted against the McElroys. She found out that it was all Linda’s doing after she hired her own investigators and spies and sent them to the US after her exile. She slowly learned that Linda used the information she got from Gia’s attorney and used it to exploit and manipulate the facts regarding the management of the de Grassi Shipping Lines. Within weeks after Linda met with Gia’s lawyer, the lawsuit started and more and more witnesses were coming forward to give their own testimonies. All of which were connived into giving false accounts and claims because they were paid to do so by hefty sums they couldn’t resist and those who did resist were threatened and coerced into doing it for fear that a family member might be put in danger if they did not comply. She came to know all of Linda’s wrongdoing when she had launched her own investigation on who the mastermind of her fall from grace was.

But with all that she found, she couldn’t find a single thread of evidence or paper trail that could implicate Linda and clear her of all the charges of neglect and purposely ignoring the failing standards of her company. Linda was a good liar, manipulator, and thief of a person’s innocence. She used money, influence, and power over small people to get them to do anything she wanted. All of it just because Gia was having an affair with her husband…

Gia also realized then that Nick did nothing about it. He seemed to have forgotten their love affair as soon as he left Paris. He never called once and he never even checked up on her and her supposed business partnership with him. Even with the scandal blowing over, she never heard a peep from him.

She went through hell at the hands of the McElroys and, by God, she vowed to let them feel her wrath and get a taste of their own medicine.

 

At first, Gia was surprised to see Linda there standing in pristine clothes and a cold-hearted smile, then realizes that she shouldn’t expect anything less from the notorious wife of the man she used to love and now hate. She smirks at her as she approaches the glamorously clad woman in front of her.

“Well, I’m honored that you came all the way here to meet me, Mrs. McElroy. To what do I owe the pleasure?” she asks innocently.

“Ha ha ha,” she laughs sarcastically and even gives her a kiss on the cheek, a traitor’s welcome in Linda’s world. “Oh, you know that I couldn’t just let you come here without knowing what you are up to? I know it’s you who’s been orchestrating all these havoc with my husband’s company.” Linda says sweetly through gritted teeth as they make their way to the lobby of the airport.

“Whatever are you talking about, Linda? I don’t know what you are talking about. I’m just here to attend to a funeral of an old family friend, that’s all. Surely you won’t have a problem with that, right? And I don’t really care what you think anyway so you best get off my back bitch or I will run you over with my suitcase,” Gia responds with an equally sweet tone to her voice.

To other people there, the two ladies might appear as if they were having a nice chat about the weather or catching up but the tension between their stares were undeniably palpable.

“Of course, Gia. I am not here to stop you in doing anything you came here for but make no mistake…,” she says with conviction, “Don’t you ever threaten me or my family ever again and you better end this childish suits to my husband or I will answer your threats with real actions. I’m warning you, Gia. Stop what you’re doing until someone gets hurt.”

Gia looks at Linda as if she was dirt in her fingernails, “Uhm, if you’re done, I have to go now and pay my respects. And oh,” she turns back to Linda, “I don’t know what you’re talking about but this I can tell you… You’re only getting what you deserve.”

Linda then lost her composed face and shouts after her, “You bitch! You can’t destroy us just like that! You don’t know who you’re dealing with!”

“YOU don’t know who you’re dealing with! I know you were the one responsible for what happened to me! So don’t act like you’re being wronged and that you’re all innocent about it! You’re only getting what you deserve. You’ve caused do much hate and destruction to your fellow human beings that you don’t deserve to be happy ever again. Just you wait… This is just the beginning, Mrs. McElroy,” Gia spits the words like venom to Linda while she stands there, frozen in her position in the middle of the busy airport lobby.

Gia gets picked up by a limousine and drove off into the early morning light.

Oh God! What do I do now? I can see in her eyes that she means every word… I must tell Nick… It can’t be helped…

Linda calls for her driver and in a few minutes, she gets into the black sedan.

“Drive to Nick’s office right away, Jack,” she tells her driver as he nods at her instruction.

They reach the Manhattan office of McElroy and Burns and Linda gets off the car as soon as it stopped in front of the entrance doors. She puts one foot after another and as she does so, she feels the dread come over her. She’s been keeping this secret from her husband for the most part of the last four years and now, it has come to bite them in the ass.

“Linda, what brings you around?” Nick asks, looking up from his laptop and ushering her inside. “Are you okay? Do you need something?”

She shakes her head and sits on the chair across from his table.

“No. I’m alright, Nick. I came here to discuss a very serious matter… So if you have anything to do or anywhere to go in the next hour or two, you would have to cancel it because we have to talk about this right now.” Linda’s voice was filled with firm resolve and her attitude is not going to let him refuse her request. No, it wasn’t delivered as a request, but an order.

“Okay, I’m all ears. Tell me,” he responds, closing his laptop to listen to his wife. There has been a few times that Linda walked into a room with that kind of attitude and disposition. And all of those times turned out to be serious discussions indeed and they ended up making sound and wise decisions about their businesses and companies after every serious talk they’ve had.

“Do you remember the de Grassi Shipping Lines?” Gia de Grassi specifically?” she asks.

Nick’s face gradually changes from being curious to an expression showing that he got a little bit disturbed by what she said. His brows drew together as soon as Linda mentioned Gia’s name. It’s been a long time since someone actually said her name outloud.

He still remembers her face. The image of her smiling face while looking graceful and elegant in her red dress as she came down to one of their arranged diners about four years ago, stuck to his mind and that’s how he pictures her now. Then he recalls that Linda came to Paris all of a sudden and actually met with Gia thinking that she was a potential business partner. Then everything went South after Linda took care of the technicalities of the partnership. He wasn’t sure if it was just the worst timing but Gia was found to be neglectful of her company workers’ safety and failed some safety regulations that are in place in all kinds of businesses. Linda was the one who told him that it would be best for Missions Bank and for the whole of the company to drop Gia de Grassi and not take her offered investment. Nick couldn’t do anything because Linda decided to drop the bomb on them when they were in one of the board meetings so the whole board voted unanimously to discontinue ties with the de Grassi’s. He was only able to say goodbye to Gia during the said diner they had with Linda. He didn’t get a chance to talk to her after that because Linda had stayed with him during the remaining days of the convention in Paris plus she was always around that he couldn’t even make a single phone call to Gia. He decided to let it go and assumed that Gia had taken the hint and avoided him altogether but he didn’t know that Linda had been screening his calls through Michaela, his secretary, and instructed her not to let any calls from Gia de Grassi through as well as emails and other types of correspondence.

He saw how the media and other business sectors broke down Gia’s company and destroyed her credibility. He wanted to reach out to her then and offer his help but his hands were tied behind his back by the board members of his companies. They have advised him not to show any support to any business with any negative reputation, most especially those who were sued for serious matters such as neglect leading to unwarranted injuries and millions of worth of damages that would definitely be collected by the European government.

So as the years flew by, he forgot all about Paris and Gia de Grassi. It was a decision he made to forget about her because he realized that he couldn’t compromise the relationship he has with his wife and his reputation as a family man. His image was all he had and Linda’s money and influence has helped him get through the toughest times in his life. She never left his side and he owes her his success.

“Yeah, I remember her. She was supposed to do business with us, right? I can’t really see why there is a need to discuss her. What is this all about, Linda?” he asks, sounding a little bit defensive. He doesn’t want any old skeletons to come creeping back into his life so he feels uncomfortable about the whole thing.

“Because you know as well as I do that you had your European tryst with her more than four year ago when you went to that business convention in Paris,” she says nonchalantly as if it was public knowledge that she knows about his affair.

“Wh-what are you talking about? Me and Gia?” he tries to deny the fact but the look she’s giving him tells him that it would be a waste of time to lie to her.

Shit! Might as well admit it. It’s been years ago anyway… And she’s kept it all these years without telling me or confronting me… Why bring it up now?

“Cut the bullshit, Nick. I’ve put up with all your lies and affairs all these years, even with Julie being all the way in Jersey and your long lost daughter,” she smirks. “I know more than you do, Nick McElroy but U have kept it all these years because I don’t think it’s worth bringing it all up and digging up all these years of heart ache. So save your feigned innocence and face me now. I don’t care what you’ve done before but I have to tell you that our enemy… the one who’s been causing this entire ruckus with the law and the upset of our company security, is none other than your ex-girlfriend, Gia de Grassi. And that’s not even the worst news you’ll have today because she just arrived at the airport half an hour ago. She has come to destroy us at close range and she’s not letting up, Nick. We have to face her and pacify her for her mislead hatred towards us…” Linda finishes, leaving out the part that she was, in fact, the sole reason, why Gia hates their family, and is bent on crushing their legacy down to the ground.

It takes a few minutes for Nick to respond, and when he finally answers, “Why would she cause this? What have we done to her or her family to deserve her wrath that she would go so far as to drag us to a made-up lawsuit and go through the painstaking task of setting up a fake offshore account, not to mention, how she got connections to pin all of this made up allegations to us?”

Linda sighs and decides to tell him everything so they can both think of the best solution.

“Nick… I have something to tell you but you have to keep in mind that it was something I did out of love for you and our family. You know that I would do anything to keep our family in tact and when I see that it is being threatened in some way, even if it was because of your own doing, I wouldn’t hesitate in stepping in and fixing it in any way I could…,” was her opening statement.

“What did you do, Linda?” he asks, realizing that Linda might have done something irreparable. She always poked her head in his business ever since they got married but he always allowed her some form of control because of her family’s money and influence. She was an advantage when it came to his businesses. But they don’t always go as planned when Linda was in-charge of something.

“I… I kind of manipulated the lawsuit against her before… The one that ended her business about four years ago,” she says. She had the decency to look somewhat guilty for what she had done.

“What! What do you mean you manipulated the lawsuit? Did you fabricate that whole negligence issue?” Nick feels his face go red from the shock of knowing that his wife was even capable of pulling that kind of large scale lie.

“Yes!” she exclaims as she leans forward in her chair. “And its all because of you, you bastard! Don’t lie to my face and deny that you never had an affair with the slut! I know everything! I’ve known every single affair you’ve had Nick and what did I do about it? Instead of confronting you and feeling sorry for myself, I took my revenge!”

Linda’s eyes were ablaze and Nick couldn’t answer for a few minutes.

“You’re right, Linda… I’m sorry for putting you through my shit. I… I never wanted to hurt you but I swear, after Gia, there was no one else I had an affair with. I stopped because I realized that I couldn’t take it if you left me… Please… I’m sorry, Linda,” Nick says as he comes around the table and kneels in front of her.

He takes both of her hands into his and looks directly into her eyes. “But you have to tell me what you did. What did you do in all that happened to her? How do you know that she came here? Did you see her? Did she admit to have orchestrated the whole money laundering shit we’re facing?” Nick asks without waiting for her reply. He has so many thoughts about the situation. It only confirms his suspicion about the name Angela de Grassi that he saw on the list of accounts written on the evidence they were going to use in court to give them leverage on the case.

“I did the whole thing, Nick. I coerced those witnesses into lying in court to make sure that Gia de Grassi falls from her pedestal and never get up there again. I was filled with so much hatred then, Nick. Because of your whole affair! I was so mad at you but I was more mad at her because she knew that you are a married man but it didn’t stop her from snatching you up with her charms and money. So I orchestrated a plan to get back at her using the very information that her lawyer gave me when she thought she was getting into business with you. The rest was history. I pulled a lot of strings and forced lots of people to do things against their will just so I could exact my revenge on the woman that caught your eye.” Linda recalls how ruthless and manipulative she was just several years ago. She never cared if she hurt anybody as long as she gets what she wants…

But it all changed when they started having problems with the lawsuit and that Morrison was getting caught in the middle of it, indirectly through the girl he likes. She hasn’t even met the girl but when she held Morrison’s birthday earlier that month, she noticed that her son was smitten and even if he enjoyed the company of Susan’s daughter, he still sought that girl at the end of the night. She thought to herself that maybe she should meet that girl soon but with all that’s been happening, she hasn’t found time to arrange a meeting, much less launch an investigation on her.

“Oh, Linda… I’m sorry to have put you through all my shit before. But right now, we have a major problem. I must talk to her and explain everything. She might think that I was aware of what you did to her and maybe that’s why her hatred got even worse. Don’t think that I want to get back to her or anything, I just want to save our company, our life’s work! Where did you see her exactly? Has she contacted you before? Oh, God! She’s the one who had Cornelia abducted… If she could do that, God knows what else she may be capable of!” Nick stands from his kneeling position on the floor and starts pacing.

“She called me before, just a few days ago, telling me that she would bring our family down… Then I saw her at the airport just less than an hour ago… I heard about James Wilson’s death and I assumed that she would use that to come here because I remember that when I looked into her history, her father was good friends with James Wilson and even had business together… Mr. Wilson is the owner of T.W. Industries, which I am sure you already know because he was the same James Wilson who kicked you out of  his house twenty years ago, when you tried looking for his daughter, Julie,” Linda says with all seriousness. She doesn’t sound angry or hurt, just tired from dealing with Nick’s past that has now come back to haunt them both.

Nick is silent. He stares out the window of his office, into the busy streets of Manhattan below. It’s still early in the morning. He actually just arrived in his office a few minutes ago before Linda came barging in unannounced.

“James… I didn’t know he died… When did he die? How?” he asks, not caring if Linda would be angry. Eventhough James had refused him so many times before and never trusted him, he had immense respect for the man who just wanted to do what was best for his daughter. Poor man. He never even had the chance to reconcile with Julie and to meet his granddaughter…

Oh, Julie… I’m sorry. I’m sorry that until now, I still have not found our daughter… I will make sure to go to your father’s funeral to honor him… I wish we could have met at a different time and under much different circumstances…

“I just saw it in the news. They’re making it private though. The details were not disclosed. Are you thinking of going to the funeral?” she asks, not really worried that he would see Gia there. She actually wants them to meet and talk about what happened so that this whole fiasco would finally end. She’s not willing to bow down to that woman but she will do anything to save her family… even if it meant her going to jail for it. She figured that she had already enjoyed a full life and she had nothing else to prove to herself or her family so if Gia wants her to go to jail for retribution then so be it…

“I don’t know what to do yet. I must talk to her though so she would just drop all of this. It’s time to end all these grudges. I’m so tired of doing this. After this mess, I swear to God, I will finally retire and just spend my days lounging around in the house… with my lovely wife…” he walks back to her and hugs her. They’ve both been through a lot and no matter how cruel and unjust they were to each other and to other people, they stayed together all through the years. And to Nick, that’s what marriage was all about.

“Nick. I don’t think she’s going to simply let us off the hook just like that. She’s looking to spill blood and I know for sure that she’s looking out to get mine. I’m ready for whatever she wants to do with me as long as she leaves you and Morrison alone for good. I am willing to make that sacrifice for your sakes. I’m tired too and if this is what it takes for her to stop, I’d gladly walk into that jail cell and admit everything she accuses me of,” she says with so much conviction in her voice.

Don’t think that way, Linda. I’m sure this would all end and it’s not going to be you walking into a jail cell. Not if I had anything to say about it. I’m not proud of what you’ve done to another human being but I also know that you only did those acts because you love me and don’t want to lose me. So I am with you all the way… No matter what happens, I’m not going to let you go to jail. Do you hear me?” He takes her in his arms again and squeezes her lightly.

Even at past sixty years old, both of them still look no more than fifty and as they held on to each other, it opened them up to be close to each other and it dawned on them that they could finally trust each other completely.

 

Gia walks in her hotel room and takes a long shower. The notice said that the funeral was going to be at nine in the morning so she has about three hours more. If she takes her jet to Buffalo, it might still take her a while but she has no intention of even going to the funeral anyway. She’ll just arrange some flowers to be sent over. She just needed a way to get into New York without so much fuss.

She relaxes for a few minutes after her long shower, sipping wine on the terrace of her hotel suite, looking out into the busy streets of the city. She wonders what Nick was doing and if his wife already told him of her arrival.

“You better be prepared Nick. Now, we will dance and see who comes up on top. Now, I’ll have a chance to look into your eyes and see how black your soul is before you see your whole crumble before your eyes.” She laughs to herself and takes another swig of her wine.

She doesn’t care about the documents anymore. Even if he uses it in court, it’s just going to be a small portion of what the jury will base their judgement on. She has lots more in her arsenal and she will use them all… even if someone needs to get hurt. She doesn’t care anymore…

“Father… I’m not proud of what I am doing but I cannot just let it pass that everything you have worked for just vanished because of a woman’s spiteful act to contain her husband. I will get out revenge and you will see your legacy rise again. I swear to you!” she says with anger in her voice.

She calms down a little and allows herself to think about what really pushes her to continue with her plan. She has never had anybody else like Nick in her life… and he was taken away from her just like that… But his promises were blown away with the wind because obviously he never really cared about her as she found out in the worst way possible. She wanted to know why. Why did he leave her at the mercy of those who wanted to destroy her? Was she that insignificant that he couldn’t even make a single phone call? Didn’t what they shared in Paris mean anything to him? Or was he just being a guy who needed a warm bed for the nights he was away from his wife? How cruel could he be to toy around with her emotions and just let his wife throw her under the bus?

She throws her glass across the room and it smashes as it hit the wall and lands in pieces on the ground.

“No! He won’t get away with it! He will pay for leaving me high and dry!”

And with that, she returns inside the room and curls up in her bed, cringing at the thought of possibly having another nightmare about her father.

 

 

 

Chapter VII

 

The next morning, no one knew that it was going to be a day full of a series of events that could very well change all their lives.

 

The day started out with Nick getting the details to the funeral through a friend because for sure, he wasn’t a friend of the Wilson family. He got there about an hour late so he went to James’ home straight from the airport. He was sure before he even got in the plane that he would eventually be laid rest in his ancestral home in Buffalo. It was the same house Julie grew up and the last time he saw the massive house was around twenty years ago, when he banged on the gates over and over to see Julie but all he got was James’ angry response.

As he stopped his car in front of those very same gates, he was reminded of Julie and how it was between them so many years ago.

“Ah, Julie… How I wish that I have found our daughter and brought her back to this house and tell her that this was your favorite place on earth…,” he said to himself as the gates opened and he was let in.

He tried his best to conceal himself and not get spotted because he was already very late and he didn’t want Gia to catch wind of him being there. But after searching for half an hour, she was nowhere to be found.

Maybe this was just a ruse. She never had any intentions coming here. So that means…

He realized that he just fell into Gia’s trap and was about to go out of the door and back to his car when he spotted Cornelia coming out of the room beside the living room where the guests were chatting and having some coffee.

What is she doing here? I thought she was with Morrison back in the Hamptons? Maybe she went with a friend to attend James’ funeral? I better say “Hi”

Nick strolls over to her but then he overheard someone call her name.

“So, Cornelia Lewis Wilson, what do you intend to do next?” Barret said to her as they were coming out of the study.

She felt like a lot of dead weight was lifted off her shoulders and all she wanted now was to somehow get rid of all the people there and just explore the house where her mother and grandfather lived. She was excited to touch the paintings on the walls and look at the many photographs that lines the book cases and tables around the house.

“I just want to have some rest and then probably talk to Jim about the arrangement of the house and how to basically find everything I need in this huge place. Would you please stay? Even for just one night… I- I just don’t want to spend the night alone here. I’m not scared of ghosts or anything,- I actually want to see my mother’s ghost if she was to show herself- I just… I don’t want to stay here without someone I can fully trust…,” she finished saying.

Not that she imagined herself to be in any danger or anything but it was comforting to see a familiar face in that place apart from the ones who serve there.

Barret looked at her and smiled while tousling her hair a bit, “Of course, kiddo! I’ll stay here with you as long as you like. I want to see the rest of this place. It’s huge!” he exclaimed and then covered his mouth because his voice was a little loud than what he expected it to be.

“Shhh… Don’t get too excited. You know what? I am too!” she said and they shared another smile.

Her face suddenly turned serious and whispered, “I wish James and mother could see me now… I wish I could tell them that I am finally home…”

Barret takes her in his arms again and kisses the top of her head like she was his little sister. “I am one hundred percent positive that they are looking down on you at this very moment and nodding their heads in approval. You’ve done so well, Cornelia. They must be very proud of how strong you’ve become. We all are. So don’t be sad anymore. You are home and you have the means to make other kids’ wishes of a home come true as well. I’m so glad you’ve decided to give to charity and especially to orphanages. Those lost kids need all the help they could get.”

They exit the living room and went to the gardens. Nick was left there standing rooted to his spot near the study. He overheard everything they talked about and was just realizing what it meant.

C-Cornelia is a Wilson… She’s James’ grandchild… So that means… Cornelia Masters, the secretary who worked in my office actually Cornelia Lewis Wilson, the one and only granddaughter of Mr. James Tudor Wilson of T.W. Industries… and she’s my daughter…

The truth of the situation hit him like a bullet and he was left paralyzed where he stood. They didn’t see him or notice him as he was partly concealed by the big column that was holding up the ceiling of the massive living room.

His mind was reeling and he needed to sit to steady himself or else he would just collapse. He backed out of the room and found a door leading outside, to the fresh morning air. It led him to the terrace looking out towards the mausoleum, where James was buried only an hour ago.

Why didn’t you tell me James? Why didn’t she tell me? I’m sure she has known long ago that I am her father, right? Why… Why didn’t anybody tell me?

He sucked in air long and hard, feeling something hurt on the right side of his body. He thought it was because of fatigue or lack of sleep so he didn’t pay any mind to it and got out of there as soon as he could. He couldn’t face his daughter at that very moment. He didn’t know what to say and how to explain the circumstances of her mother, Julie’s, and his relationship before.

He puts his car in reverse and drove out of the parking lot, still distracted from what he came to know. What was most disconcerting was that Morrison loves Cornelia. He didn’t have to pry his own son to find out. The moment he saw the pretty girl in his office, the poor boy was smitten and he went out of his way to get her, not to mention his latest near-death experience saving Cornelia from those thugs who were supposedly sent by Gia.

And Gia… does she know that Cornelia is my lost daughter? I never mentioned that fact to her or anybody, just Linda… Oh God, I hope she doesn’t know about her or else she might use her to lure me into making a mistake that could potentially hurt my case…

He got his phone and decided to call Morrison to know if he knew about Cornelia and their connection.

“Yes, dad. What is it?” was Morrison’s curt reply. He was driving himself, away from the crematorium where he left just half an hour ago after he saw Cornelia and Barret hugging in the chapel.

“Morrison, where are you right now? I need to talk to you. It’s urgent,” was Nick’s next words. He sounded panicked and distracted which caught Morrison’s attention.

“What’s the matter Dad? I’m currently driving. I- ah-,” he didn’t inform his father that he was in Buffalo because of the funeral of Cornelia’s friend. He never really disclosed anything to his dad about their whereabouts in the last few days since they were keeping everything at low volume just in case their enemies gets wind of where they were.

He shook his head and thought he might as well tell him since it seemed that he had something important to say.

“I’m actually in Buffalo. Cornelia’s friend, the one who gave us a safe place to stay in the Hamptons… He died yesterday and its his funeral today-,” he was saying when his father cut him off and said,

“I’m here too! Meet me at the big gas station near the crematorium… Do you know what I’m talking about?” his father asked urgently. His voice sounded more forced and Morrison could hear his labored breathing.

“Yes, passed it about fifteen minutes ago… What are you doing here? Wait, I’m turning back now,” he held his phone with one hand as he steered the car.

When he placed his phone back on his ear but couldn’t hear his father anymore. Instead, he heard the constant sound of the car horn like someone had landed on it and it got stuck.

“Dad? Dad! Hello! Answer me, dad!” he shouted over the blaring of the horn.

He felt a cold sweat run down his neck and knew that something bad had happened to Nick. He stepped on the gas and raced towards the crematorium. After five minutes of manic driving, he found his father’s car that was wedged between two trees on the side of the road.

“Dad!” he screamed as he stepped hard on the brakes and almost jumped out of his car. He raced towards the already smoking, frantic to get his father out for fear that the car might explode with Nick still inside.

He was still holding his phone and quickly dialed 911 as he ran to the wreckage. The car was almost unrecognizable. It was one of the service vehicles from the airport. He wondered why his father had taken such a car when he could have had his personal car flown with him as he normally does when he travelled. But it was something he didn’t bother thinking about at the time. All he wanted was to get his father safely out of the car and to see him breathing and okay.

“Hello, yes, please help! My father just had a car accident. I am approaching his vehicle now. We are on the side on the side of the road… Oh, God, please be alright dad!” he said in between breaths.

The operator got the location and promised to have send help as soon as she could.

Morrison dropped his phone and yanked the door open with his bare hands. It was hot from the flames that have suddenly engulfed the hood of the car and was quickly creeping towards the driver’s side.

“Dad! Hold on. I’ll get you out of here!” he shouted over the sound of the horn. He could see Nick slumped over the steering wheel and his chest was pressed on the horn. His chair was moved a few inches towards the front of the car due to the impact of the collision.

Morrison yanked the car seat backwards to make room, freeing his father from being wedged in between the wheel and the seat. There was blood all over Nick’s face but he was breathing, albeit faintly. He could hear the sirens from a distance and was thankful that help was only a few minutes away.

He removed the seatbelt and pushed the airbag away in order to haul Nick out of the car. He successfully got Nick out of the burning vehicle and dragged him to safety in the middle of the road as a firetruck emerged from the curb in the road just a few feet away.

Morrison had inhaled a lot of smoke and was coughing uncontrollably when the paramedics got to him.

“I-I’m okay… Please help my father,” he coughed and pointed to Nick who was still unconscious on the pavement. Then as soon as he saw them hover over Nick, he let himself black out and the next thing he remembered was the white hospital walls that greeted him when he opened his eyes.

He was dreaming then of Cornelia whispering something to him as he lay on the ground. He tried to recall what else was in the dream but it quickly slipped his mind. He wanted to go back to sleep to find out what Cornelia said and to possibly continue the dream into something good like them getting back together, but as with all dreams, it was all in his head.

“Wh-where am I?” he said in a haggard voice to the nurse who had her back to him.

She turned around, pressed a button to alert the doctor, and came closer to him to adjust his pillows as he started getting up in bed.

“Please take it easy, Mr. McElroy. You just had a bad fall yesterday, please don’t move too much,” said the nurse.

The doctor came in and greeted him then Linda came rushing in with a relieved expression on her face.

“Oh, Morrison! Thank God you’re all right, son!” she exclaimed then hugged him tight like he was the same little boy she used to hug often.

“Yeah, ma, I’m okay… H-how is dad?” he said realizing that his dad had an accident and that was the reason why they were in the hospital in the first place.

Linda’s face changed and then she cried, “Your father is still in a coma… He hasn’t woken up yet…,” she hugged her son again as she cried for her husband.

Morrison couldn’t speak right away. He didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t imagine Nick being in a coma… He was always so fit and healthy even with his age. It’s hard to picture him stuck in a hospital bed.

He cleared his throat as Linda drew away from him. “H-how long h-have I been out? Wh-what did the doctors say about his condition? Is he going to be okay?” he asked looking anxiously at the doctor who came there first. He didn’t know anybody who ever went into a comatose state so he didn’t rightly know the implications but he knew enough to conclude that it’s a very serious situation and if his father doesn’t wake up…

No! I can’t think that way! I have to be strong for mother…

He looked at Linda’s tear-streaked face and told himself not to show weakness in front of her.

The doctor spoke up and told him that he was brought to that hospital the day before along with his father and they operated on Nick right away. He had a broken leg and a nasty wound on the head possibly when he hit the airbag. His right arm was also broken in two places and he had internal bleeding but they were able to prevent it from spreading and stopped the bleeding before it got even worse.

He, on the other hand, just had a minor head injury when he hit his head on the pavement after he passed out from lack of oxygen and from inhaling lots of smoke from the burning car.

“You were very lucky, Mr. McElroy. If you waited or hesitated for just a single minute when you were getting your dad out of the car, he would’ve suffocated from the smoke or bled to death. Luckily, we were able to replace most of the blood lost but he’s still out and we can’t do anything else until he wakes up, except to cure his other wounds. Once the tests come back this afternoon and we see that everything seems to be all right, then you can be released in time for your diner. Now, if you’ll both excuse me, I need to make other rounds. Take care Morrison. Mrs. McElroy,” he said, nodding his head.

“Thank you doctor,” said Morrison who was still trying to digest what the doctor said.

“Thank you, Dr. Hudson. Please let us know if there is any other news about Nick’s condition.” Linda dabbed her eyes and closed the door after Dr. Hudson left.

She turned to Morrison and asked what business he had in those parts. “I was so shocked to know that you were here too. I thought you were back in New York and resting. Whatever happened to that girlfriend of yours who got kidnapped. Thank heavens you are okay. To think that bullets were flying all over you during that ordeal! Thank the heavens you got out of there alive!” she exclaimed, dabbing her eyes again but only made her mascara spread even more around her eyes. She looked her age at that moment and Morrison realized that his parents really were getting old. Seeing his mother look that way reminded him that life can just pass you by in minutes.

“How did you know that there were gunfire involved?“ he asked suddenly understanding what she said.

“Oh, your father told me about it after he knew what transpired in that dock. You can’t really believe that your father would just let you go to a very dangerous situation without keeping an eye on you, can you? He was worried about you and sent some of his men to make sure you were unharmed. If that would have happened, they would have stepped in and extracted you from there. But as it turned out, you had some help too so it didn’t have to end so bloody.” Linda sat on the chair next to her son’s bed and held his hand. “Please don’t get mad at your dad for the things you and your lady friend got dragged into…,” she said, deciding to come clean to his son as well.

Morrison remained silent because he felt that his mother had something else to say.

“What is it mother?” he asked when Linda didn’t speak for a few minutes as well.

“Morrison, its not your father’s fault that we’re going through all these problems… It’s mine. You see…,” she started telling him the truth and continued to tell him what she had done to Gia de Grassi, which caused the woman to seek retribution by causing harm to them.

Their conversation stretched on for hours with Linda not being able to stop when she got started. For the past few weeks, she had the sudden need to get those things out of her chest as if she knew that she had to make amends for the wrongs she had done to other people for she felt that karma was just around the corner and her time for getting the short end of the stick was coming. At least she’s trying to make amends. And the first step for her to make things right was to talk about it.

Mother and son talked and shared moments that would always be with them forever. Morrison finally got a chance to know the other side of the mother he always loved and admired and, at first, he felt mad at her, but then realized that everybody makes mistakes. As long as that person has realized that those acts were wrong and was asking for forgiveness, he or she deserves a second chance… And that’s what he gave to her mother. A second chance to right all the wrongs she made.

Linda felt so relieved after she told her son about what she did to Gia. She told him everything. The way she manipulated numerous people, coercing them to lie and to break the law, the scandal she had concocted, and finally, the downfall of the young woman that Nick had an affair with.

“I know I’m a bad person… but I am willing to pay for my sins. You and your father do not deserve to be punished for what I have done years ago… I’m so sorry Morrison,” she sobbed, her shoulders wracking as she continued to cry.

He couldn’t take seeing his mother crying and beaten down. He always saw her with her head held high and that air confidence seamlessly being emitted from her very presence. But she was a different woman as she cried beside his bed.

He held his mother’s hands and kissed the top of her head, “Please, mother… Stop crying. You don’t need to ask for my forgiveness. You were hurt because dad had an affair. I would feel the same way if anyone betrayed me… Please don’t think that I despise you because of what you did… I understand why you did it, mother.”

She smiled up at him and thanked him for being such a good son. But she left out another secret, which she had buried a long time ago… She never thought that it would rise up and loom over their lives one more time…

After he was discharged from the hospital, Morrison and Linda decided to move Nick to New York, to a hospital near their home where the family physicians can look after Nick. It was also because they needed to proceed to taking care of the case that was still on going. Despite the fact that Nick is now in a coma, Morrison still needs to meet with their lawyers and come up with a plan about their newly-acquired information about Gia de Grassi.

 

That was a week ago. Now as Morrison wakes up in the middle of the night with cold sweat running down his back, he shakes his head to ward off the nightmare he had.

“Shit!” he exclaims, noticing that he wasn’t in his own bed in his pad and it was two o’clock in the morning. “I fuckin’ overslept again. Damn it!”

He quickly scrambles to his feet but takes a long gulp of the water next to the sofa where he slept in. He’s been sleeping in his office sofa for a week now. Not being able to sleep in his pad for long periods of time, he decided to take up partial residency in his Manhattan office and it was also to be closer to the hospital where his father is still in a coma. And its been going along just fine until his mother threatened to throw him out of his office if he doesn’t go home and get a decent night’s sleep and a proper shower. He’s been driving himself to the ground with work and it’s been bothering his mother, especially because Nick is still not out of the woods yet.

But Morrison likes the distraction. He craves for it. He likes being so tired at the end of the day that all he could do was drop to his bed or any soft surface at close proximity once his fatigue takes over.

“Son, you have to take care of yourself. You’re a grown man but you’re acting like someone who is trying so hard to distract himself from the truth that it just tires you out and is making all of us miserable. Your father is not okay as it is and now, you’re making it even worse for all of us. If you have any sense and any concern about your father and I, you will stop this and go home to a proper bed like a normal human being!” Linda exclaimed at him after paying her son another visit in his office.

They’ve had a closer relationship ever since the ordeal with Gia started and since Nick had his accident. It was over a week ago but he still doesn’t exactly know the details of what transpired that day. It was the day that James was laid to rest in his Buffalo home and the day that he had a conversation with his mother that he would never forget for it was the first time that he saw her in a different light.

He switches the light on and looks for his phone, which is wedged in between the pillows of the couch. He unlocks it and sees the four missed calls from his mother and one from a number he doesn’t recognize.

He grabs his suitcase and car keys and proceeds to the lobby downstairs. He decides to go home and shower quickly before he sets out again, this time to a lead that one of the investigators saw in the documents.

As he drives across the still-crowded streets of Manhattan towards his apartment, he looks forward to uncovering the new lead that they’ve uncovered.

Gia de Grassi had left the country only a day before, as his sources told him, but it baffles him that she had left all of a sudden after staying here for nearly a week. She hadn’t made any move since she got here and it seemed that she just stayed in her hotel room most of the time, just going out to dinner and she actually had some shopping done. But she didn’t seem to have any suspicious activity, which made it even more suspicious for Morrison so he never let up and trailed her wherever she went.

Then the private investigator told him the day before that Gia had gone out to dinner in a yacht with a very beautiful lady. Then the next thing they knew, Gia had her jet prepared the next day and flew back to Tuscany. Then his lawyers informed him later that night that there have been some development with the case and its looking like the prosecutors have sent a request to dismiss the case due to the fact that the witnesses who were supposed to testify could not be contacted anymore.

“We’re not sure if this is a trap, Morrison, but if its not, that would mean that the case is going to be a bust. Nick McElroy and the Missions Bank would be off the hook! Well, its what we’re all hoping for… for the truth to finally come out, but don’t let your guard down just yet,” said the lead lawyer who is in-charge of the money laundering case against Nick.

“Yes, let’s hope that it turns out that way. But I’m curious why she left all of a sudden. She seemed to have a merry good time seeing her entire plan pan out… Why the sudden change?” he replied, which was more of a rhetorical question.

He reaches his apartment and takes a five minute shower, then was out again in just fifteen minutes. He drives to the location that the P.I. gave him and ended up near Cornelia’s old neighborhood.

It’s been a week since he last saw her in Buffalo… She was leaning her head on Barret’s shoulder and they were sharing an intimate moment. Morrison got so angry that he left without even paying his respects to James. One thing that he still regrets a week after, but vowed to go back someday and thank the old man.

But he now thinks of Cornelia. He stops at the park where he first met her, where he nearly ran over her with his bike. Those pair of eyes of hers were the most beautiful ones he had ever seen and he longs to look into those eyes again and tell her that he still loves her. He was mad back in Buffalo, but he realized that it wouldn’t do him any good if he seeks revenge by sleeping around and date hundreds of girls just to show her that he could have anybody he wanted. That wasn’t him at all… and he doesn’t want her to think that he was that shallow.

He gets out of his car and goes inside the park. Even at two-thirty in the morning, the park still had some lights on but it was deserted. Except for one solitary figure sitting on one of the benches facing the open field.

Her hair is lose and not bound by her usual ponytail. Her face looks straight at the expanse of the park as if it was the middle of the day.

She went to the park on a whim because she couldn’t sleep. She’s been staying in her old apartment for three days now. After settling her affairs in Buffalo and after making sure that James’ funeral was done the way she wanted to.

She looks up at the star-lit skies and looks at the bright stars above.

“I know you’re shining down on me, mom. I miss you… I miss you and grandpa. I wish we had more time with each other… All those years of hate and pride were all wasted years… If only…,” her voice catches in her throat and she fights the urge to cry. “But that’s the past… I’m happier now that I know you’re both resting and are finally together. I would gladly go there as well but I feel that I am needed here. I want to make a difference and I want to do some changes in my life.”

Morrison hears every single word she said and his heart leaps in bounds. He wants to run to her and hug her tight until they both couldn’t breathe. He wants to shower her with kisses and tell her over and over that he loves her and wants to be with her. He wants her to forgive him and to agree to start over… he wants… he wants to simply look into her eyes and not see hatred but a smile…

But he holds himself back, knowing that she needed her privacy. She has been through a lot and she needs her space. He decides to walk away and leave her alone for a while.

He figures he’ll have plenty of time to woo her if she had indeed come back to Brooklyn. He wonders if she would be looking for a job or if she would go back to the office.

Has she heard about Nick’s accident? If so, she probably didn’t want to ask him about it because she might still be mad at him…, he thinks as he walks back to his car and reluctantly drives on.

He went there to investigate on a person that his P.I. told him about. The woman that Gia had dinner with was last spotted in that area as per his source. It didn’t actually make sense for Morrison to go there at the wee hours of the morning but he wanted to drive by Cornelia’s apartment like what he’s always done since he got home. Investigating on the mysterious lady was just his lame excuse to himself to yet again, drive by the familiar street where he first met her…

He then decides to drive back to his office and await for any update from his lawyers about the dismissal of the case.

 

 

 

 

Chapter VIII

 

“I need to go to Morrison! He needs me, Barret!” she exclaims as she heard about the accident that happened just a few minutes ago near the crematorium.

Jim told them that there was a car accident in the road leading to town and that Nick McElroy and his son, Morrison, were involved. He wasn’t clear on the details yet but he was sure that the two were airlifted to the nearest hospital to seek medical help.

“Okay, no problem. We’ll go there. I’ll drive you. But you have to remember that they don’t know that you’re James’ granddaughter… that you are Nick’s biological daughter and Morrison’s step-sister… Are you sure you want to break the news to them at this time?” Barret gathers his jacket and walks towards the door.

Cornelia was just behind him but as soon as he mentioned the fact that the situation is complicated, she stopped in her tracks.

“You’re  right, Barret… But I want to know how they are… Despite everything that’s happened, Nick is still my father and I still love Morrison even if he is Nick’s adopted son… I am not ashamed to admit that I love Morrison because I knew him even before I knew myself and nothing is going to change how I feel about him. Please, Barret, take me to them. I swear, I won’t let myself be seen,” she pleads, walking closer to him and clutching his arm.

Barret sighs but nods. “Come on, we’ll take my car.”

They drive towards the hospital where the pair was taken and Cornelia gets off the car even before Barret turned off the engine.

She rushes inside and asks the nurse sitting on the information section about the victims of the accident near the crematorium. There was only one crematorium in town so the nurse immediately told them that the older person was rushed to the operating room for an emergency surgery but the  younger one was in the emergency room, awaiting for his room to be prepared.

“Thank you, nurse,” she says then rushes towards the emergency room with Barret close to her heels.

“Slow down, Cornelia. We can’t have you slipping and breaking your skull in here,” he hisses as she continues to run towards the room.

When she sees him, her heart threatened to break into a million pieces. Some parts of his face were blackened because of the smoke and his clothes looks tattered and dirty. Dried up blood is still evident on the side of his face and he is unconscious with an oxygen mask on his face.

She rushes to him and hugs him to her. “Morrison… Please be okay… I’m sorry for being such a stubborn, naïve girl… I will stop feeling mad you as long as you open your eyes and look at me… please…” she sobs as Barret gets her to her feet and prying her away from him.

“Cornelia, you promised you would stay away from him, people are looking… They might recognize you. We agreed that you’d lay low for a while… this is not keeping a low profile. You can’t be linked to a person whose family is being investigated for money laundering. Come on, I’ll find out about him from the nurse. Just be cool,” he says, feeling her comply with him and not resist his pull.

They had talked further when they  were alone and she aired her reservations about Kevin and how differently he was acting. Barret advised that they maintain their suspicion about him but not to let him know. He still has the sympathy of the boards of her grandfather’s string of companies and he might do something to convince them to kick her out of her own companies.

They also agreed that she should stay away from the limelight and that directly means that she should maintain her anonymity when it came to being a real McElroy. She can’t be painted as the long lost daughter of a suspected criminal if she had any hopes of taking on the reins of T.W. Industries. She had to be tough and calculated and most of all, she had to be cold.

“Okay, Barret. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again…” she compose herself and gets some water from the water fountain beside her.

Barret casually saunters over to one pretty nurse who immediately flipped her hair when he was closing in. Cornelia rolls her eyes but smiles because Barret would surely extract the information they need about Nick and Morrison’s conditions.

She is worried about her father as well, no matter how hard she tries to suppress it. She frets that he might be in a bad situation and that she might not have a chance to tell him what she feels.

Barret comes back and fills her in with the details. “So Nick is being operated on at this very moment for a broken leg and he has some internal bleeding as well.”

She gasps but covers her mouth with her hands to stifle the sound.

“Just hand in there, Cornelia. He’s going to be okay, I know it. As for Morrison over there,” he nods his head over to where Morrison lies. “He just ingested some smoke which caused him to collapse and bump his head on the pavement. Nothing serious, I can assure you. But until his tests come back, they’re going to keep him here. The nurse said that the mother had already called in and is, as of this moment, flying in, to see her husband and son.”

She sits on one of the white chairs along the hospital lobby. “He must have went to the funeral… But why didn’t he approach me?” Then it dawns on her that the last time they spoke, she specifically told him to leave her alone…

She covers her face with her hands and tries hard to contain her tears.

“He’ll be alright, Cornelia,” Barret whispers and rubs her back.

“I just… I just don’t know if I can go on with all these pretending… Why can’t we just be together? Why are there so many complications?” she asks no one in particular.

But Barret answers all the same, “Because these are unusual circumstances. You have been given a chance to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others by helping those in need. And in order to do that, you have to have full control of your people. You can’t allow anyone the chance to stab you in the back and steal what your grandfather had worked for all his life. You are now the sole owner of a big corporation and you can expect a lot of enemies to start showing themselves. You have to be careful. We can’t all have what we want… There are times when we just need to let everything play out by themselves and hope for a good outcome…”

He was thinking about Sally and the fact that they, too, can’t be together because she had to sort out her own matters. And all he could do is to wait for her to realize that they are better together than apart. He sighs and looks down on Cornelia’s downtrodden eyes.

“I know how you feel about not being able to do what your heart tells you because your mind won’t let you… I’ll tell you about her someday,” he says when he saw the question in her eyes. “But right now, its all about you and how you can get up from this tragedy. I guess we won’t be of any use here today. I can talk to Jim about sending someone to keep an eye on them if you want. You can do that, you know. You have power now to ensure that the ones important to you are safe.”

She nods and stands up from her chair. “I guess you’re right. Yes, please, if you can send someone over here just to make sure that they’re okay and to give us an update if something comes up.”

They exit the hospital doors and drive back to the house. She then tells Barret that he could have any room he wanted on the house as long as they are there and lets Jim usher him to the guest rooms on the second floor so he could take his pick.

She proceeds to the study and sits on the reading chair next to the window. She looks at the rows and rows of books that are arranged neatly on the bookshelves and thinks back to the days when she had nothing. She never imagined that her life would suddenly take a drastic turn and that she’d meet James who took her in and provided for her. She never thought that she’d find out the truth about Nick and his true relationship with her mother, Julie.

Now, the picture she had of Nick still lies in the small suitcase she had packed. It turns out that he was never really the monster she pictured him to be.

“He cared for my mother… Quite possibly even loved her…,” she says outloud. “But what does that mean? Does that mean that I forgive him for not looking for me all these years? He had the means to do so but he didn’t…”

That was one question she always wanted to ask him but right now, he had no capability to answer any of her questions and she isn’t quite sure if she’s ready to know yet.

“For now, I will try my best to help people,” she whispers. She knows that Nick has an enemy that’s causing all the problems they’ve been having and she, herself, had fallen victim to their war.

She decides to take action and find out who is the mastermind of it all.

The next day, she calls for Kevin to investigate on that matter and to report to her whatever he could find about the people behind her kidnapping. It’s not that she wanted to hurt them as well, but she wanted the crimes to stop because she knows that with Nick indisposed, Morrison would be the next target and she couldn’t have that. She can’t let anything happen to Morrison and she will make sure nothing does.

Kevin reports to her at the end of the day with his investigation.

“It seems that the culprit is not a resident of the United States but is operating in Europe and James had ties with that family when he was there. Even though I was here, keeping an eye on you and your mother, I knew his businesses in Europe and the people he worked and socialized with. Hector de Grassi was one of the leading business moguls in Europe but he met his untimely death yeas ago… He left his whole business to his daughter, Gia. A beautiful and intelligent woman who knows what she wants and goes and gets it. I’ve met her several times when James had me fly there. She is one fine lady, that she is… But as all ladies who met Nick, she fell for him only about four years ago. Of course, Nick was married and still is married to Linda Ellis McElroy, who is also another woman not to mess with.” Kevin walks across the study and looks out the window into the gardens below.

Cornelia slept late last night and woke up early just to sit in her grandfather’s study and start thumbing through some books. She was delighted to see some familiar ones her mother used to read to her and started consuming the words from its pages.

“Okay… So what happened next?” she asks him, feeling impatient with Kevin’s long-winded story but also knows that she needs to hear all of it.

“Then someone somehow found out about some rumors that Gia’s company was being negligent of their workers and it ended up in a big lawsuit that practically ended the de Grassi Shipping Lines, which was their company. That’s how James was connected to the de Grassi’s. He was close friends with  Hector but when he died and James moved back here and found you, he lost touch with his partnership with the de Grassi Shipping Lines. He, eventually, had to let it go because of the overwhelming evidence that was brought to court. He always wanted to check on Gia though but never got the chance. Poor girl,” Kevin says, shaking his head for emphasis, “she had everything going for her but the scandal had all but obliterated their family name. Sure, she still has millions to spare but no one would want to touch the de Grassi name and be associated with it. It became something akin to the scarlet letter, I guess.”

Cornelia thinks back to the time she was abducted and remembered that the guy who took her talked to someone on the phone who seemed to be the brains of the operation. She must’ve been that person…, she thinks to herself.

“Okay, I want you to do something for me, Kevin…,” she gives him several instructions and by the time she was through, Barret arrives and Kevin departs to do what she bade him to do.

“So…,” Barret looks at her with a questioning look, “What was that?” he asks while his eyes follow Kevin’s retreating back.

That,” she nods, pertaining to her talk with Kevin, “Is the start of something meaningful. I intend to help the McElroys but I don’t want any of it leaking out and reaching Morrison. I want to do this secretly… I don’t want him to feel grateful to me or anything. I just want to help in the best way I can.”

“And that is?” he asks.

“By talking diplomacy between parties. There has been so much strife in this world that adding another war between parties would only bring more misery and more people getting hurt and ending up unhappy and unfulfilled…,” she sighs and thinks of Morrison.

“He must be awake by now. Have you heard from your man there?” she asks anxiously.

“He called me up that’s why I came looking for you. It seems that he is awake and doing well… but Nick isn’t… He ended up in a comma and they still don’t know when he will wake… if he ever does…,” he looks at her and says, “I’m sorry, Cornelia. But they have managed to mend all his other injuries such as the broken leg and arm as well as the internal bleeding. It’s just a matter of time until he wakes up, believe me. In the meantime, Morrison and his mother have arranged for a transfer back to Manhattan where Nick would be taken care of by his personal doctors closer to their home.”

“I see… I guess once I’ve concluded my business making sure things here will be cared for, I suggest we go back to New York as well. I want to meet with the members of the board of T.W. Industries in Paris but I want to make a stop in New York first. I need to make things right. Morrison and my father don’t need another headache. They have to focus on getting Nick better…”

“Okay. I agree with you with meeting with the boards but what do you need to do in New York?” He finds out the answer to his question just a few days after.

 

Cornelia gets ready for her dinner with Gia that night, making sure she looks like she means business. It’s not easy for her to look so tough and elegant at the same time, characteristics which Gia has and exudes effortlessly. Cornelia has to match that same kind of authority in order to get Gia to agree to her terms.

“The car is ready, Miss W,” Kevin says from behind the door of the suite she’s been staying in for the past day.

“Okay, Kevin. I’ll be right out,” she answers and adjusts her earrings. She’s wearing a long black pencil dress that hugs her every curve but not in a provocative manner, but in a classy and sophisticated way.

It’s square neckline shows off her long neck and flawless skin. She matched the dress with a pair of gloves and her hair was pulled up in a bun on top of her head. She looks like Audrey Hepburn in her signature poster wearing a black dress and black gloves.

She gets inside the car but not before passing through the lobby of the hotel where a string of admiring eyes turned to her. Some even thought she was a movie star with her dress and her looks.

As the car cruises along the Hudson, she adjusts her gloves and taps her fingers on the seat of the car.

Relax… It’s just meal… With a tigress, that is…, she thinks to herself. She doesn’t even know if Gia would agree to her proposition, let alone, leave the McElroys alone for good. But she has to try. At the end of the day, she is a McElroy and she will protect her family name no matter what.

She is escorted by Kevin as she boards the yacht, which was James’ favorite toy and now, hers. She invited Gia de Grassi to have dinner and to ask her a huge favor… of course, offering another one in return. She crosses her fingers and sits down on one of the velvet chairs that was set up on the deck of the yacht.

Gia arrives just a few minutes after her and Cornelia is literally struck by the beauty of the European woman. Gia’s tall frame towers over Cornelia as she gives her the traditional kiss on both cheeks.

“Bonjour, Cornelia… I am honored to be your guest this evening,” Gia says after kissing the air between their cheeks.

“Hello, Gia. I am delighted that you took me up on this offer. Please, sit down. So, how is New York treating you so far?” she asks as she signals for the waiter to pour them wine.

“Oh… It is great here. I am enjoying my time so far,” she replies with a beguiling smile.

“I’m glad to hear that. I’ve had the cook prepare a meal for us, I hope you like it. Would you like to start?”

“Sure. I have to be honest, I am famished. I just had some bit of shopping today and I enjoyed it so much I forgot to eat!” Gia shares then laughs at herself.

Cornelia laughs as well and says something agreeing to like shopping as well but was far from the truth. She could tell that Gia was sizing her up and is making chit chat to probably distract her into blurting out why she was invited in the first place.

Well, she didn’t have to wait long because Cornelia wants to get it out as soon as she could before her courage runs out.

“Well, I hope you like fish because that’s what you’re doing out here, right? Fishing for information that you could use to further push your campaign in destroying the McElroys…,” Cornelia suddenly says, her voice turning serious.

Gia’s eyebrows shoot up and her lips curve up to form a smile. “Well, you don’t beat around the bush, don’t you, little Miss Wilson?”

“I never really enjoyed surprises,” was Cornelia’s response.

“What do you plan to do about it?”

“I can offer you back your company, The de Grassi Shipping Lines, if you agree to drop this case and stop your revenge on the McElroys.” Cornelia looks her straight in the eyes as she said the words and knew from Gia’s expression that she might have a chance at convincing her to take the offer.

“What makes you think that I would ever want it back? And that company’s been dragged through the mud. Its over and done with! What makes you so confident that you could ever put that business up again?” Gia’s nose flares as she the feelings of betrayal comes rushing back to her and reminds her of the sting of being falsely accused and stripped of her previous life. “The McElroys are worthless pieces of dirt who deserve everything that’s happening to them. Nick’s accident proves that even the heavens agree with me in punishing them for what they have done!”

“And they are paying for their mistakes and sins. As you said, Nick is still in a comma and his wife has been going through a lot lately too with the accident and the impending lawsuit. Don’t you see that you’ve done enough? The rest will follow. If they really deserve to be punished, then they will be. Don’t lower yourself to being a common criminal, abducting people and forcing them to do your will. Have you asked yourself that your father wouldn’t want you to be this way?” Cornelia’s voice is calm and collected and is having the desired effect on Gia’s reasoning.

Gia stays silent for a few minutes as Cornelia continues, “And I can guarantee you that you can run your business again, with my help. I will invest as much as I can to have your shipping line up and running smoothly again and will make sure that the tarnished reputation will wash away like water does to dirt. You have an opportunity to rise again as a renewed person. A person who has let go of her past and who has decided to look forward.”

As she says those words to Gia, she can’t help but internalize her own words and think about her own current situation. She might as well be giving that advice to herself more than Gia.

“I was once like you… lost and left alone in this desolate world, trying to find where I belong. I was thrust into an existence that I never wanted to begin with… Nobody wants to be an orphan and alone… So I focused all my strength into getting back at those who have let me exist in that kind of life. I vowed that  I would  have my revenge on Nick McElroy but life took me into a different turn… I never thought that I would change my mind and actually advocate for him… to help him instead of hurt him. It was because I learned that hating and holding on to grudges never gets you anywhere but a heart full of regrets and a string of enemies. I don’t want that in my life… So I stopped and reevaluated my life and what’s left of it… Who’s left in it… And I realized that I could turn it all around. It’s not too late to do so. I’m offering you a way out of this wretched existence. To start anew, away from the hurt and pains of your old self.”

Cornelia had somehow closed the space between them and is now leaning forward and holding Gia’s hand in hers, offering her reassurance and strength. Gia finally nods and smiles at her.

“You might be young but you are older than your years. I appreciate you giving me a second chance and I will gladly take your offer. I will leave tomorrow and have my lawyers send a dismissal for the case. I will go back to Tuscany to prepare for our new venture,” she says graciously.

“Thank you, Gia… for opening your heart and seeing reason. I will be following you shortly to Europe and set up my office again in Paris. I’ve never been in that part of the world… or any other part except for Jersey and New York. I do hope you’ll take me out shopping one day… or perhaps the museums?”

“Ah! I would gladly take you in the best tour you’ll ever have. I can’t wait for you to live there. It is a very nice country to live in,” Gia responds.

Yes, I will be living in Europe now… There’s no turning back…, was the thought at the back of her head as they proceeded with their dinner.

The next day, Gia did as she promised and left for Tuscany. Cornelia went to her old apartment with Barret and reminisced her time there. She never thought she would leave that place and go to Europe, nonetheless! She’s partly excited to go to another place… halfway around the world, and she’s also scared of the new adventure she will embark on.

Barret had agreed to go with her but only for a few months since he needs to go back to his business and oversee his apartments, but promised to visit often.

Kevin, of course, would be going along with her to show her the ropes. She personally wanted Barret to stay with her but Kevin was the best go-to guy for all things that James did in Europe when he was there.

She looks at her apartment one final time and can’t help but tear up. That place was her home for the most part of the year and now, she’s saying yet another goodbye to a place she had lived in. She lived in other places before but so far, Barret’s apartment building has been the most memorable so far.

She closes her door and walks out of the complex. Barret is at his house still packing and waiting for her to come over. She looks at her watch and sees that it’s just two-thirty-five. Their flight will be at four and it’s one of the private jets that James owned… that she now owns.

She sees the park a few yards away and decides to visit it one last time. She trudges through the fallen leaves of the trees nearby and feels the breeze play with her hair. She welcomes the cold air and clutches her scarf closer to her neck.

She finds a bench facing the green playground and sits there, placing her small suitcase on the ground beside her leg. She sits there and thinks back to the days when she was lost in the streets of New York, cold and starving, and then an angel appeared and offered her shelter and food. That must have been the happiest day she’s ever had ever since her mother died.

She then became the independent woman who vowed to take down her father and run his life to the ground. But in the end, she couldn’t do that to her own flesh and blood. No matter how cruel and uncaring Nick seemed to be to her, she recognizes that he is still her biological father. James’ confession convinced her that she might be judging Nick too hard for he did try to make things right with her mother, but James was the one who never gave him a chance. She couldn’t blame her grandfather as well because he was just protecting his child.

In the end, no one is to blame for her current circumstance. She was a victim of very unfortunate turn of events but because of those certain events, she emerged stronger and wiser beyond her years. And now, she will start a new life… A new Cornelia Lewis Wilson. Her true name and true identity will now reveal itself to the world and she will prove to everyone that she is the rightful heir to her family’s legacy.

She feels the air shift as she dreams of Europe. She feels someone behind her but she doesn’t look. She knows that if she does, she might never be able to leave. So she looks on forward, never tilting her head back to see him, not giving an inch of reaction to his arrival.

After a few minutes, he was gone.

It’s for the best… I never could have said goodbye without running back into his arms. It’s best this way… No farewells, no teary last words… Just another ordinary encounter at the park in the wee hours of the morning.

She sighs one last time and gets up from the bench. She heads back to Barret’s house where he awaits for her in his porch, ready with his bags and his comforting smile.

“Ready?” he asks, rubbing his hands together to warm himself from the biting cold.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, Barret. Let’s go before we both change our minds,” she chuckles as they get inside Barret’s pick up.

Yes, I will go away… I don’t know when I’ll be back – if I will ever be back – to this place. I hope that Nick comes out okay and that Morrison hangs in there. I would have loved to have a different ending to this day but right now, this is the only ending for me and for our story.

 

Cornelia and Barret ride off into the sunrise, hoping for a better tomorrow and leaving behind lost dreams and loves that are put on hold for a better time… perhaps in the next years to come… or the next lives…

The Past that Haunts You Part 3

Chapter I

What must I do? Think, Cornelia! Get yourself out of this mess now!

She screams in her head but she can’t do anything. She’s trapped in that dreaded place and she needs to be strong to face the hours, days, or God forbid, weeks ahead that she’ll be kept in that hell of a place.

Oh my God! How could I be so careless? I knew that I somehow became the target of some malicious activity… but how could I know that it would come to this? She’s talking to herself again as the hours ticked by.

She was caught again when she hid herself in the woods after she and her attacker arrived at that dreaded secluded place, far out from the outskirts of the city. She had admitted to herself that it was her fault why she was caught unawares when went to the laboratory of Dr. Klacinski. She shouldn’t have gone there alone. She should have at least warned James first before heading on out of there like some confident fool.

Now, she’s in such a mess and she doesn’t even know who’s responsible for all of this. As far as she knows, it’s all because of the McElroys. It seems that no matter how she tries to avoid the lot of them, they will still haunt her life…

Cornelia Lewis is just your average twenty year old who is aspiring to succeed in life. She’s a secretary of one of the biggest business tycoons in the city and her “sort-of” significant other is the heir of that empire. It seems that she’s having it all and she’s making it big in life. But Cornelia has a secret. A toxic one that stems from her childhood.

“Are you having fun yet?” the hooded man who abducted her said from out of the cellar door. He sounds so near but she knows that it might just be a microphone attached to the walls of the cellar. The walls of her man made prison are thick and concrete. Although the outside of the structure is a small ramshackle of a cabin, the interior is quite different as she found out when she got dragged inside the house.

She stays silent as the man laughs into the microphone.

“Aw, don’t be sad my little princess, you’ll have a visitor soon. Just sit tight and hope that your boyfriend stays true to his word or else, we wouldn’t have any use of you, now would we?” The words hit her like cold ice and she shivers despite the warm air inside.

They have cameras then and they can see my every move. He must be talking about Morrison. Oh God! Please let him be okay… She can’t believe she just worried over him when she’s the one inside that dank cellar. But she can’t help but feel what she feels that moment. She doesn’t want to see Morrison hurt because of her – eventhough his family is the reason she’s in there in the first place.

“What did you ask from him?” she says softly.

“Ah! She speaks! I’m glad you’re still with us, Cornelia. Well, we just wanted a show of good faith from your boyfriend. And you’re about to find out in a few hours if he really does care for you, my little sweet.”

From his tone of voice, Cornelia knows that he is enjoying seeing her squirm and afraid so she straightens her back and smiles. She won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her broken without even putting up a fight.

“Why are you smiling, you bitch?! Don’t you know you’re going to die sooner of later?” he sounds pissed, just like what Cornelia thought he would be if she doesn’t show her fear.

“Oh, nothing. I know he will do anything to get to me and he will. Just you wait. You will never win!” she says confidently as the lights of the cellar dies.

“Well, you can continue your daydreaming in the dark then! Enjoy your night!” he chuckles and then, silence.

I guess he’s done for the night.

Cornelia manages to find the corner with the soft-enough sofa and a piece of cloth that she uses to cover herself with. She hugs herself and curls herself into a ball, afraid to move any further because she couldn’t see anything. She closes her eyes and tries to picture the room as she saw it with the lights on.

When she first saw the place, she could only see white because of the bright light on the ceiling but as her eyes adjusted, she began surveying the place. The place she is in is bare, except for some old items. It looks like a storeroom but with very few stuff in it. She spotted an old lampshade earlier and battered sofa with some cushions. The walls are all white but its corners have a yellowish tinge on them. Probably from not being used for some time or maybe this place got flooded a couple of times before because of some watermarks she saw on the floor.

She tried knocking down the door when she located it but it wouldn’t budge because it’s made of concrete as well. She tried looking for a window, even a small one, but the room doesn’t have any other opening except for the door situated up the few steps.

One consolation she saw was that the room was not hot nor cold, just the right temperature and the light gave a comforting glow that somehow dispels the feeling of being underground.

“Oh, how I wish I could’ve just waited for tomorrow…,” she whispers in the darkness and a lone tear begins to fall from her eyes. She quickly wipes it away and shakes her head. “No! I’ve got to stop this. I’m going to be okay. Morrison will find me and get me out of here. And James! Yes, James! He won’t let anything happen to me. I know for sure!”

Those comforting words will tide her through the night but tomorrow is another matter altogether.

 

Meanwhile, Morrison can’t stop pacing back and forth while waiting for the exact time the abductors said in the letter.

“We have her.

Don’t alert the cops or we would know.

If you want to see her alive again, you have to give us the documents you are working on regarding Nick McElroy’s case and don’t even think of making copies and using them in court.

If you want to see her alive ever again, follow these instructions carefully.

Bring the documents to the address below by midnight tonight or we will feed her to the wolves.”

The moment he learned that those threats were real, he felt panic grip his heart. He was in his office that Saturday with his dad going over some of the evidence his father’s investigators have found and Cornelia had just left for the station after getting them some food. She didn’t mention any place she would be stopping in. She said she would go home so he assumed that she would go straight to her apartment in Brooklyn. He never thought that she would get dragged into all the mess his family is facing right now.

Morrison and Barret were close to panicking earlier when they discovered that Cornelia was, in fact, not in her apartment and they could’nt seem to contact her in any way. That’s when Morrison confessed to Barret that his father and his whole company is undergoing a lawsuit and that they have uncovered some evidence that the kidnappers want to get.

“Yeah, I heard about that on the news. So, your father was really set up, huh? Well, this only means that they are threatened. They want you to lose, obviously, and so far, they are willing to do anything to get what they want. What do you plan to do then?” Barret sat on the chair opposite the sofa and folded his hands in front of him while he patiently waited for Morrison’s answer.

“God! I don’t know man! I wasn’t really prepared for this kind of shit to go down. I mean, if they were going to make a move to hurt my father, they would have taken me instead or my mother, right? But why Cornelia?” – was Morrison’s frustrated response because he didn’t know what to do then.

“Well, if these guys are serious, and they probably are if it involves the lawsuit is being slapped with, they could be watching your every move. They might be surveilling you from right outside your house or office, and even here. They know Cornelia and what she means to you, that’s why they took her instead of you. Do you know anyone you trust who could help us find her?” – was Barret’s answer, which made absolute sense.

“Us? Why? Are you coming?” Morrison looked up from staring at the floor and stared at Barret, wondering if what he said was serious or was he just being polite.

“Yeah, of course I’m coming. Look, I get it, you and Cornelia are dating but she’s one of my tenants, we’re good friends – at least I’d like to think so -, and we went on two dates – well, the first one was not “actually” a date but a get together at the park. Bottom line; I care for her as well and since you can’t go to the cops, which was what I first thought of doing, then I’m coming with you to find out where she’s being detained. But the two of us won’t be enough. We need someone, an expert at tracking people.”

“I was trained in combat but I don’t think I can be of much use in here. If what you said about them watching me is true, I can’t be lurking around with you. I have to be seen in the open, doing what they asked me to. And I don’t know anybody else who can help us…”

“I do,” a voice from the door answered then and that’s when they met James.

James introduced himself as an old friend of Cornelia and eventhough Morrison thought there was something more to it, he didn’t push it because he was more worried about Cornelia.

They had talked over what they needed to do in order to help Cornelia and Morrison ended up going back to his office to get the paperwork and then to his apartment to wait for the time he needed to go to the drop off place.

 

He looks at his watch for the hundredth time and feels guilt crush him for the hundredth time. He’s going out of his mind with worry and concern about Cornelia.

Where could she be now? Is she all right? Is she unhurt? Has she eaten? Is she thirsty? Maybe she’s cold and shivering on her own in some Godforsaken place and I can’t help her!

He punches the wall near the front door where he was pacing and didn’t feel the ache of hitting the concrete wall. He made a small dent on the wall with his fist but he didn’t care. He needed an outlet to get his mind steady and think straight and the nearest thing he could sink his fist on was the wall.

His phone rings all of a sudden and when he checks it, it’s his dad on the other line. He isn’t in the mood to talk about the case at that moment but he knows he has to take it because it might be important.

“Yes, dad,” he answers rather curtly.

“Son, where are you? Are you okay?” Nick’s voice sounds sincere and worried but Morrison could feel his anger build up instead of mellowing down.

“This is all your fault! She has nothing to do with your mess but look who’s suffering now because you couldn’t control your people!” he shouts at his father through the phone but as soon as the words left his mouth, he knows he didn’t mean any of it.

“Look, Morrison. I know you’re not okay right now and I think I know why but I need to make sure. Who is missing? It’s Cornelia, am I right?” Nick asks in a hushed voice like the realization has just dawned on him.

“Yes, she’s out there somewhere and I don’t know what to do, dad!” the son says in a voice that clearly shows how worried and scared he is for her.

“Okay, we can sort this out. We can get her out of it. We just need to have a plan -,”

“No! This is your doing! Its not her fault that people are after you and that you can’t control your people!” Morrison cuts him off and shouts angry words to his dad.

“Son, calm down for a second and let’s discuss this. The only way for us to help her is to stay calm and to use our heads. Yes, you’re right, it’s my fault but we cannot start pointing fingers right now! Right now, we need to help Cornelia so get your head out of your ass and start thinking on how to help her instead. Come on Morrison, think! What can we do?” Nick says showing his resolve amidst the turmoil that Morrison is going through.

“Yeah… I- I’m sorry dad… I’m just,” Morrison starts.

“I know son, you don’t have to explain. Where are you? Are you in your apartment? I’ll come over and help you sort things out and figure out a way to help Cornelia.”

“Yes, I’m in my apartment. Wait, who told you about this? I’ve never told anyone aside from Barret and Cornelia’s friend.” Morrison waits as his father explains.

“Because I received a similar threat. Shortly after you left the office, I received a phone call from an unknown number telling me that they have someone precious to you and that if I didn’t want anything to happen to her and ruin our relationship forever, I should do as they say when the time comes that they contact me again. But I have not heard from them for the past couple of hours and I didn’t think that you would get a warning as well but after I went back to the office and found the documents were missing from my office, I knew something was up. And you are the first one I thought about. I’ll come over. Do not do anything until I get there, okay, son?” Nick pleads as he instructs his driver to go over to Morrison’s apartment.

“Okay, I won’t have to leave until another hour. Please hurry,” Morrison’s worry echoes through his voice and Nick can’t help but feel sorry for his son and for Cornelia for getting dragged into that mess.

Morrison paces some more and after fifteen minutes, Nick knocks softly on his door and he lets his father in.

“So, what did they say? Did someone call you?” Nick gets right into the specifics. He hesitated in calling the police earlier because he knows that in cases like those, someone might be in jeopardy and has being taken as hostage and if he called the cops, there was a good chance that he would mess it up some more.

It’s not the first time that Nick McElroy has received threats to bring him down or even to kill him, but he always shrugged his shoulders and didn’t pay any mind. But what he would not shrug his shoulders for is if it would involve his family or anyone close to him. He can’t risk being careless about that ever again. Not since what happened to a woman he loved a few years ago… And it wasn’t Linda.

“It was a letter… delivered by some random kid they paid off to hand it over to me. Whoever they are, they’ve got Cornelia and they’re demanding the evidence we’ve uncovered. They want to retrieve the evidence and of course, making copies of it and using it in court would be pointless because once they find out what we have, they will surely do something to make it go away. And they want it at midnight. Your hearing would not be until next year and they must know that, which is the reason they want the evidence right away. They would have ample time to cover it up until the next hearing and personally, I don’t care, because all I want to do is get Cornelia and never involve her in any of this ever again!” Morrison’s voice rises out of frustration as Nick tries his best to calm him down.

“Morrison, we both know that getting mad is not going to do us any good. But I absolutely understand if you want to take it out on me. Besides, it’s my company and they are my enemies. I’m just so sorry that both of you is getting caught in the crossfire…” he finally sighs and goes to the small bar to pour them both drinks.

“Dad…,” starts Morrison, “I – you know I don’t mean what I said about this all being your fault. I’m just so scared for Cornelia. I don’t even know where she is! And I don’t want to entertain the idea that she might be hurt and needs my help at this very moment but I CAN’T do anything! Shit!”

“Here, take a sip. Well, you cannot help her by stressing yourself out any further and draining your energy. You’d need it when you go out there and give them the documents.” Nick has a resigned tone in his voice as he takes a sip from his glass.

“Do you mean that, dad? You want me to turn over the evidence? But that would hurt our case and implicate you even further?” Morrison is both confused and determined to hand over the documents but hearing his father give him the permission to do so only makes it all the more heart-wrenching because that would mean that his father’s life and reputation is going to be shred to pieces when they go to court in a few weeks.

“Yes, Morrison. I won’t have someone’s life be put on the line because of my incompetence and arrogance that, obviously, pissed someone off, and started this whole thing in the first place. Yes, it would be best to do that. We’ll just hope that they get more sloppy and we’ll find out more dirt on them that we can use legally. We have to know who these people are. That is the most important task at hand, and of course, get Cornelia out safely,” he replies looking at his son with concern.

Contrary to what people believe and what people see him, Nick is not a heartless son of a bitch who lets others take the blame and not take any responsibility for his actions. He’s grown his company from the bottom and worked his way up by being up front with his people and firm in his decisions, which was probably why some people hate him, especially people whom he had crossed along the way. But he has never screwed anyone over any deal or profit. That was why it boggles him that he has to contend with a foe who hasn’t aired out a direct demand or grievance to him yet. No, the enemy he has right now is playing hardball and is hitting him where it hurts the most, his family. He couldn’t care less if his company ultimately losses the case or if he had to take on some cut downs in his firm, but what he can’t take is that his family is being victimized by hurting those they love. He won’t have it.

“I know you might have many enemies because of your business but do you know of anyone who might hate you so much that they would resort to kidnapping just to get what they want? Obviously, the people who has Cornelia are the ones who started the suit against you and are trying very hard to destroy you. Do you have any idea who it might be?” the son asks the father. The son, who might have seen with his father eye-to-eye on most things but greatly respects him for his decisions, looks his father straight in the eye as he asked the question.

“Honestly, with all of the competitors who hate my guts, I have a handful of people who might go as far as kill me if they had the chance. It could be anyone of them. I – I really do not know who I have pissed this time. And I’m sorry that your girlfriend was dragged into this, but all we can do now is to get her back by giving them whatever the hell they want!” Nick rakes his hair with his tired hands, just like what Morrison does when he’s stressed and doesn’t know what to do.

“Okay, okay. We’ll worry about who hates you later,” Morrison downs his glass and sits on his black leather couch. He looks at his watch and notices that he only has an hour to go to the designated place. Kevin has promised to pick him up instead of Charlie to take him straight to the pick up location.

At the exact time, the guard on the lobby calls him up and informs him that a car is waiting at the lobby for him.

“Thank you, Jim. I’ll be down in five,” he clicks off and sighs deeply. “I guess I have to go now. Dad…,” he starts.

Nick looks at his son with remorse on his face and answers, “Yes, son?”

“Thank you.” Morrison shakes his father’s hand but Nick pulls him in and gives him a hug.

“No, son, thank you for doing this and I’m sorry. Please take care and I hope this all goes well. Call me on my phone if anything goes wrong so I can alert the cops or something. I can’t just let you go there alone, you know that but knowing you, you wouldn’t want any obvious bodyguards around to mess it up. But as I said, I can’t let you go alone.” Nick gives him a meaningful look as Morrison walks towards the door.

Morrison knows that his father has some people who will be on his tail to step in in case something goes wrong. It has always been Nick’s condition whenever he lets Morrison go to uncharted territory.

He nods his head and proceeds to the lobby through the elevator.

Lots of things are going through his mind like how he could extract Cornelia without having to resort to violence but if the situation would call for it, he would not hesitate to defend her with his life. He will do whatever it takes to get her out of the enemy’s hands. He has to.

I love her…

It’s the first time he finally admits to himself what he feels and what he has always felt from the first time he saw her. It’s not her beauty and obvious wit that draws him to her. He loves the vulnerability that is hidden deep inside her. She tries very hard to appear strong – and she is – but from time to time, he glimpses the fragile Cornelia, which he thinks is her most beautiful feature and the real one. He knows that there is more to her than meets the eye and certainly more than what she lets people see. He wants her to open up to him and be the one who takes care of her vulnerability and share her strength. He wants to be her strength and the shoulder she can turn to at all times.

He gets in the black sedan and sees Kevin behind the wheel. He nods to him as they drive along the streets and through the towns to their destination.

“James has instructed me to assist you in any way, Mr. Ellis,” Kevin says as they take a curb out of the city.

“Just call me Morrison, Kevin, and thank you for coming with me. I really do not know what to expect tonight but all I know is, I’m gonna get her out of there no matter what,” he says with much conviction and determination in his eyes.

“Don’t worry, Morrison, James would not risk Cornelia and he has given me specific instructions to do exactly that.” Kevin glances at him through the rear view mirror.

“What do you mean? Who is James anyway? Is he her father? Uncle? Grandfather? Relative?” Morrison decides to get to know the man whom Cornelia considers a close friend but is old enough to be her grandfather.

“That would be up to Mr. W to tell you. Right now, we are approaching the dock. Get ready to get out and don’t forget this,” Kevin hands him a small earpiece which kind of looks like head of a headset, minus the wire, but smaller.

“What is this supposed to be?” Morrison takes it in his hand and turns it over a few times.

“It’s a way to communicate with me. Just say something and I will hear it. I can also hear anything that goes on in the background. This is a precautionary measure just in case it gets ugly, you know what I mean. Just pop it on one ear. It would not be recognizable unless the person is close to you so try not to show it.”

Morrison puts it on his ear and as the car finally stops in front of a big steel gate, sighs deeply, grabs the brown manila envelope, and gets out of the black car.

He strides to the gate and seeing that it is unlocked, strides inside with caution. He looks around the place that looked like any ordinary dock with a few fishing boats and a handful of small yachts. It’s not a very popular dock and it’s mostly used for dumping fresh fish, which are then carried to the wet market. About a dozen container cargo containers looked like they’ve been abandoned years ago but kept there because no one knows where else to put them. The lower ones are full of graffiti and all sorts of signs of vandalism. It’s not a very family-friendly place.

He looks about a few times and glances at his watch.

“I’m early. What now? Do you see anybody?” he whispers into the earpiece and hears Kevin’s equally whispered response.

“Now we wait. They might come in a car, a boat, who knows. I haven’t seen any activity within the premises yet. Look up,” Kevin says and shows Morrison a tiny movement from one of the crumbling buildings to his left. Kevin is perched at the top floor of an old five-story storage building that is the closest one to the docks. He could see most of the place but not all.

“Okay. I think I see something,” Morrison looks to the waters and see a medium-sized boat approaching. It was a Bowrider. He’s not sure the exact year and model but he’s seen lots of boats in his life and this kind of speedboat does not come cheap.

“I see it too, sit tight. They’ll come to you for sure. No sudden movements and show both of your hands so – “

“So they won’t get suspicious, I know. I better shut up for now.” Morrison closes his mouth as the speedboat docks and one burly-looking fellow gets out of it. He wears a black ski-mask. There are four other men on board, all wearing the same black clothes and black ski-mask over their faces. But there is another person crouched low on the floor of the boat.

That must be Cornelia!

Morrison then starts to move forward in an attempt to look at her closely when the burly man takes out a gun and points it directly at him. He stops in his tracks and puts both of his hands up to mid-air.

“Whoa! Okay, okay. I’ll stay here. Just get that gun out of my face. I just want to see if she’s all right, okay man?” he says looking over at the huddled figure inside the boat. There are no bright lights near the boat so he can’t see her clearly and the lack of lights in that part of the dock only shows the top part of her head.

“Stay where you are if you don’t want me to splatter your brains all over this dock!” the man says still pointing the gun at his head.

“Okay. I’m not going anywhere. And we both know your boss won’t like it if the son of a billionaire gets shot point blank. The police will surely put this as the top priority in their cases and will launch a widespread investigation. You don’t want me to go on so before you get in any more trouble with your boss, just hand her over to me and you’ll have your precious documents.” Morrison looks him straight in the eye as he tells him his demands and both men know that he’s telling the truth.

“Fine, McElroy! But don’t smile just yet, this is just the beginning,” the man says with a snort, lowers his gun, and signals one of his cohorts in the boat to bring over Cornelia.

“Bring her here!” he barks which got the men from the boat moving at a brisk pace to bring the huddled figure from out of the boat towards Morrison. One guy brings her over. “That’s far enough. Where are the documents? Hand them over first,” says the one in-charge pointing the gun at Cornelia.

Morrison takes one look at her and rage starts filling his head. Curling his palms into fists was all he could do from lashing out and beating the worthless bastards to death with his bare hands.

“You goddamn sons of bitches! What did you do to her?! She is unarmed and a woman, you fucking fool!” Morrison exclaims out of anger but kept himself rooted to his place. He can see a smudge of dried blood on the right side of her lower lip, which was due to the blow she got an hour ago, back in the cellar. “It’s okay, Cornelia. I’m going to get you out of here. Just trust me…,” he says soothingly from across the distance between them. He wants to wrap her in his arms and tell her everything will be all right, but he doesn’t even know if they will get out of there unscathed.

What the fuck is taking Kevin so long?

And as if Kevin heard his him, he speaks softly into his ear.

“Relax McElroy. It’s going to be over in a while. Don’t muck it up, wait for my signal,” Kevin whispers through the earpiece.

“Oh shut up loverboy! It’s just a scratch,” says the man with the gun, smirking while toying with some stray hair from Cornelia’s head.

“Get your fucking hands off her or I swear to God, I will kill you!” he makes a move towards them but the guy just pushes the barrel of the gun harder into her temple.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk, careful. You don’t want me to slip and have an accident here, now do you. Now, hand over the papers and let me see if they are legit.”

“You must think I’m an idiot. No hand off until she is safely out of this dock. Once she’s out of the gate, you can have your documents,” he shouts back at the guy, standing firmly and hoping that the man doesn’t see through his bluff. He knows Kevin can see and hear everything that’s going on so he has his back covered – well, at least he hopes so.

It takes a few seconds for the masked guy to think about it and decides to whip out his cell phone to call someone. Morrison patiently waits for him and maintains a determined face. He is not going to back down, either they take the deal or he’ll have to resort to his Plan B, which means that he just starts kicking the guy’s ass and hopes to grab Cornelia before he gets taken down. And prays that Kevin can take the hint and starts shooting up the place.

He knows too well that they won’t risk him getting seriously injured or possibly killed because that would make them a target for a nationwide manhunt.

“Okay, boss,” masked guy number one replies to whoever is on the other end of the line, nodding in agreement to whatever is being relayed to him.

Kevin carefully speaks to him through the earpiece in a calm voice. “Wait for my signal after a few minutes. When she’s near enough, grab her and make a run for it, I’ll do the rest. Just keep him distracted for five more minutes.”

At that very moment, Kevin quickly loads his sniper rifle and makes sure to include the silencer. James had given specific instructions to do everything possible to get Cornelia out unharmed, even if it meant casualties. Kevin didn’t think the perpetrators would set her free so easily. He can’t take the risk of her being possibly harmed.

“Well? Are we going to conduct business or are we going to stand here all night? I don’t know about you but I’m all warm and cozy here.” Morrison wants to prolong their conversation and distract the guy until Kevin gets into position.

“Hold your horses. Here’s what’s going to happen. You hand that over to me and when I see that those documents check out, then I will let her go to you after, and not a second before, understand?! You rich crooks think you can talk your way out of any situation. That and your fucking money! Well, here’s some news for you, the world is not always going to do you any favors. And this is one of these days when you get a taste at begging for the one thing that means to you that cannot be bought by your money! Now, hand it over or I’ll blow her brains out!” Cornelia gets snatched by the man, who’s obviously in-charge of the operation.

Fuck! Damn it, Kevin. What’s taking too long?! Come on!

“Whoa, come on now. We both want a peaceful transaction here. I’m not bullshitting you okay, I meant what I said. Just let her out of those gates,” he points to the steel gate that’s at the corner of the compound, “and I will gladly hand over these papers. You will find everything you need in there.”

“You must think I’m one of those stupid morons who fall for your traps. How would I know that the contents of that envelope are the real ones, huh? I need insurance and she,” he thrusts the gun closer to her temple, eliciting a whimper from her, “is mine until I say that I have everything I need. So either you do as I say or you’ll make me do something you’ll regret,” he laughs as if mocking him.

“Now!” Kevin says suddenly as shots start raining from above them.

Morrison doesn’t waste any second and takes the chance of the guy’s confused state and knocks out the gun from his hand while grabbing Cornelia’s arm and pulling her with him to the ground.

“Run, Cornelia!” Morrison shouts at her as she recovers from his tight grip. Her mouth is dry and her hands are tied behind her back but she manages to scramble to her feet and run towards the gate.

“You little!” the man who had Cornelia recovers from Morrison’s blow to his face and sends a crippling blow to Morrison’s gut.

Morrison falls to the ground, clutching his stomach and coughing from the punch. He takes in a sharp breath but before he could even recover from the blow, another one connects with his face, knocking him even further into the ground. He parries the next one and sweeps the guy off his feet by kicking out with his leg.

He gets up more quickly this time and spots the gun to his left. He makes a run for it but is stopped by the man who managed to still keep his ski mask on. The guy grabs his leg and tries to grapple him from his position.

“No you don’t!” Morrison kicks his face with his other foot and gets away from him.

Meanwhile, Kevin lets out another round of gunfire as the other men in the boat exchange shots with him. Kevin is a master marksman and his vantage point is advantageous to the situation, but even with his skills, he can’t keep firing at them forever. They have to move fast.

“You have got to get out of there, Morrison!” Kevin shouts while bullets fly past his ears. “I’m taking in too much gunfire, we need to get out of here fast!”

“What do you think I’m doing!” he shouts back, finally grabbing the gun and points it at the masked man. “Freeze! Don’t move or I will blow the shit out of you!”

Morrison has handled guns before when he went to the shooting range with Nick when he was young. Nick is a gun enthusiast and he’s always wanted Morrison to follow his footsteps, even his penchant for guns. But Morrison had other ideas. He wanted to get into sports and not guns and only indulged his father but as he grew up, he learned how to say no and ditched the firing range altogether before he turned fifteen. He has never picked up a gun until now.

The man threw his hands up but didn’t flinch one bit. “This is not over, McElroy. You will have your day soon enough,” he says with a smile on his face.

“What makes you think that I won’t blow your brains all over this place, huh?” Morrison doesn’t like the look on the man’s eyes. It’s as if he knows a secret and he’s going to use that soon to bring him to his knees. He ducks a bullet that zinged near his ears. Being partially concealed from the others because of the distance between the boat and the building where Kevin is perched, they are able to take on minimal gunfire.

“Let’s go, Morrison! Get a move on and get out of there! I can’t get them off your back much longer!” comes Kevin’s voice, shouting to be heard from the rainfall of shots he’s getting.

And like a bucket of cold water, Kevin’s voice breaks his murderous trance and gets his legs to move. He sprints towards the exit and never looks back. He needs to find Cornelia and get out of there.

“Cornelia! Where are you?” he shouts as soon as he crosses the threshold of the gate. He frantically looks to his left then to his right and speaks into his earpiece, “Kevin, do you see her? Where could she have gone?”

“No, I haven’t seen her yet. I’m on my way down. I think I’ve scared them away enough. They’ve all gone into the boat and went back from where they came from. Stay where you are. I’ll pick you up in five minutes.” Kevin’s short breaths can be heard through the earpiece as he runs towards the car.

“Morrison!” he hears a short cry from behind and turns around quickly.

“Cornelia! Where did you go? I’ve been looking for you all over. Are you okay? Did they hurt you?” he grabs her to him and inspects her body quickly, checking her head, shoulders, hands, and looking into her eyes. She looks shaken up and a shiner is showing on her right eye. He gently places his hands on the sides of her face and kisses the place near her injury. “I swear, I will have their heads, Cornelia!” He says in a controlled but threatening voice.

“Morrison, I’m all right. I’m so glad you’ve come. I’ll tell you all about it but I just want to get out here right now.” She shivers amidst the warm breeze from the ocean.

“Of course, here, put this on,” he takes off his coat and wraps it firmly around her shoulders. Kevin finally comes and stops the car in front of them.

They get in quickly as Kevin drives away from the dock, fast. Morrison clutches the documents he still has under his arm and holds Cornelia closely to him as Kevin drives to a safe place. She leans her head to him and finally falls asleep from all the exhaustion and heart-racing events of the day.

 

 

 

Chapter II

“Wake up!” a bucket of water gets dumped to her face, jolting her from her sleep. She coughs a few times and when she finally catches her breath and wipes the excess water from her face, she gets assaulted by a fist connecting to her face. The big fist hits her right eye and stings like a bitch. She reels back to the hammock that served as her bed for the last few hours. It reminds her of its hard and cold surface.

“What the hell! Can you at least let me sit up first, you bastard!” she shouts to her attacker while putting her arms up to protect herself from future attacks.

Her vision is dim because of the blow to the right side of her face but also because of the lack of light in the room but she can make out the shape of the man who’s been keeping her captive in that cellar.

“You don’t need to sit up. You only need to kneel down and beg for your life when your boyfriend doesn’t come through with our agreement!” the man said in the dark.

Cornelia tries to move and attempts to throw out a punch or possibly scratch his eyes out but she couldn’t move more than a few steps. She looks down on her leg and sees that she’s been tied at the foot. A chain had been strapped to her ankle that’s attached to the pipe at the edge of the room, in between other pipes coming from the base of the house and goes up to the upper floors of the house.

“Let me out of here! You don’t have any right to do this to me! I haven’t done anything to you! I don’t even know who you are!” she shouts at the man who is at arm’s length but is not close enough that she can do any real damage to him. So she spits at his hooded face and lets out some more of her pent up anger for being in that situation.

The man slaps her face that sends her reeling back to the cot. “You’re only the bait. If you come to think of it, we all are, in this world we live in. We, those insignificant and poor people who fall prey to the rich and powerful who hate each other and play games to take each other down. And we are dumb enough or desperate enough to let ourselves be used because we need to survive! That’s what we are, we are survivors! So if you just shut up and do your part in this twisted game, you might get to live in the end!”

That silences Cornelia for his words ring true. Every word he uttered were true. They were all just dispensable pawns in their chess game. He, for being a manservant to his boss, and her, for falling for a guy whose family has screwed people for money and took advantage of the little people.

She sits back and doesn’t say a word as the man closes the door of the cellar once again. All she hears is the loud banging of the door as it gets shut, blocking her way out of that wretched place.

What did I ever do to suffer because of them? I was already wronged by Nick when he left my mom and me all those years ago… And now, I am being held here because of them? Isn’t this an unfair and twisted world we live in?

Because you love Morrison…

“What?” she asks herself outloud. She is as surprised at herself for thinking that the reason she is there, in that cold and lonely place, and willing to take it and survive in the end, is because she loves Morrison. She longs to be in his arms again and give in to the possibility of having a life of security and love from a man that she loves. Even the slightest chance of having a life with him gives her the hope she needs to make it through that time in the darkness.

But the darkness that truly imprisons her is her hatred for her father, for Morrison’s adoptive father, Nick McElroy.

She buries her face in her hands as she sobs and lets out her emotions right there. She doesn’t care if the hooded guy sees her or hears her crying uncontrollably. There, in the dark, in the solace of being alone, she lets herself be raw. She lets herself be vulnerable, stripped of her faux strong composure and her fake sassiness. Because deep inside, she is still that ten-year-old girl, terrified inside because of the uncertainty of her future, but choses to a mask to protect herself.

“Mom…,” she whispers in the dark as the tears roll down her face, the call of her desperate heart full of vengeance had always been and will always be for her mother. It’s the last word she utters as the world turns black again.

She jerks awake as the car stops, then is suddenly yanked off the back seat and gets thrown inside a boat – no, not a boat of any kind, it’s an expensive yacht, she corrects herself.

She remains quiet and still at the place she was shoved in, looking back and forth at the men who joins her inside the yacht. There are six people in the boat, five men and herself. She wonders who and why they are doing what they’re doing. She has a pretty good idea that it has everything to do with the McElroys so there’s a good chance that these loathsome bandits have not discovered her real identity yet. She better make sure they don’t or they’re gonna have a field day.

Well, you’re not entirely sure if you’re a McElroy by birth yet… Shoot! The test! I still don’t know the results damn!

She makes a mental note to check her email if and when she gets out of the situation she is in.

Where could they be taking me now? I hope it’s not anywhere far. I’m starving…

She has not eaten since she was taken in the streets of Flushing. She looks up at the stars and realizes that it must be very late in the evening because all the stars are out and there isn’t a cloud in sight. She tries to look at her watch but since her hands are tied behind her back, she obviously can’t twist herself enough to see the watch on her wrist. She looks around slowly and at the men who are wearing ski masks.

There must be something I could use around here! I can’t just let them take me wherever to kill me. NO! I have to find a way out of here. Where the hell am I anyway?

“Where are you taking me now?” she dares to speak up as the man standing closest to her looks at her and laughs.

“Ah! So the dead speaks! I was wondering if you are just going to pretend being dead in the corner like what you’ve been doing for several minutes now. And no, you won’t find any weapons lying around, honey. So sit tight and enjoy the ride,” he says as a hint of a malicious smile creeps up to his eyes, which are the only ones showing through the masks they have on.

“You still did not answer my question and those things make you look ridiculous. I can’t believe I’ve been kidnapped by amateurs,” she scoffs. She’s trying to provoke him to come near her so she can deliver a blow that might get her off that boat, even if it meant getting thrown overboard.

“Why you!” he gets nearer and kicks her leg hard.

Ouch! Don’t’ cry out! Take it!

She merely winces then smiles up to him to taunt him some more. She needs him to get closer so she can heave herself up to him and grab him somehow. She spotted a gun on his belt earlier and wants to get a hold of it but she can’t if he’s still a few feet away from her.

“Well, so you want more, huh! I’ll give you more, you little bitch!” he attempts to grab her by the lapels of her shirt to give her another beating when another masked guy stops him by punching him on the face.

“That’s enough, you idiot! Can’t you see she’s doing it on purpose, you moron! Shut up and guard her. Don’t give in to that pretty mouth because I’ll foul you up some more if you let her get you riled up again! Stupid idiot!” he shouts as the boat picks up more speed.

Shit! It must be the guy who caught me and who’s been talking to me at the cellar. Damn, he saw right through my ruse! What do I do now?

After several minutes, which seemed like mere seconds to Cornelia, they arrive at their destination. She shivers despite the warmth of the breeze.

“I’ll signal you if I need you to bring her out. Nobody moves until I do so, understand Pete!” the hooded man says to the guy who kicked Cornelia on the leg.

“Yes, man, I get it.” Pete scratches his ski mask and Cornelia sees a tattoo on his wrist. It looks like a flower but as she squints her eyes to have a better look, it’s actually a four-leaf clover. It’s only the size of a thumb but she can see it clearly because the light of the other guy’s flashlight passed by it.

The hooded man gets off and starts walking towards the dock. She can’t see anything past Pete’s body because she’s still slumped at the floor of the yacht. She also can’t hear anything from the rocking of the boat but she knows that there are people talking. She can’t very well pitch herself off the boat now since they already docked.

Then before she finally gives up and just let them kill her, she is hauled to her feet and the next thing she sees is Morrison’s silhouette standing on the dock. She would recognize his stance anywhere and when she realizes that it is him, her heart leaps from her chest and she can’t wait to wrap her arms around him and hold him tight.

The hooded man drags her closer to him and trains a gun to her head, telling Morrison to hand over what he was asking for.

Then suddenly, Morrison grabs her to him and gets down to the ground. She finds the last boost of strength inside of her to will her legs to stand up and run like crazy towards the gate that’s open in the distance. Shots are fired from somewhere but she doesn’t care. All she’s seeing is the open gate that gets closer by the second. Her legs pounding on the ground and her ears almost deaf from the gunshots.

Finally, she reaches the gate and goes to her right, towards a group of container trucks. She reaches the first one and collapses to the ground.

Oh my God! Oh my God! Shit! Where’s Morrison? He was just behind me.

She pants and catches her breath, then rolls to the ground to get her hands from the back towards the front. She untangles the cord that’s been tied to her wrists, leaving red painful marks on both wrists but she doesn’t mind the pain now. She needs to get to Morrison.

She spots him and after checking if the path was clear, runs towards him and they grab hold to each other. A car comes to get them and she sees Kevin, the valet guy from the hotel she stayed in the Hamptons.

But that can’t be right? She tries to fight the fatigue overpowering her but loses to it after only a few minutes. She gets knocked out and falls asleep in under five minutes.

“Your secret will get out and it will destroy your already miserable life!” a deep voice echoes in her head.

She tries to wake up but she knows she’s in some kind of a dream or a memory.

“What did you say?” she asks the voice but no one answers.

She opens her eyes and she’s at some kind of amusement park. She’s a little girl and as she looks up at the person holding her hand, she sees her mother. Her very beautiful and radiant mother. She feels so happy that she clings to her mother’s fingers and clutches them for dear life, never wanting to let go ever.

“Honey, it’s okay, you can let go… Sometimes in life, you have to let go of some things in order to accomplish other triumphs. You can do it honey. You can let go…” her mother untangles her fingers from hers and kneels down to look at her eye to eye. “You’re so brave my darling girl. You make mama so proud,” she touches Cornelia’s fair hair and gently tucks them behind her ear.

“But I don’t want to let you go, Mommy. Please stay here with me,” her voice is that of a ten-year-old girl, albeit full of maturity, still a child – afraid and unwilling to part from the only family she’s ever known.

“I have faith in you, Cornelia. Just stay true to your heart. It will guide you to see the truth and towards a beautiful life. You deserve so much more. Don’t ever think that you don’t deserve to be happy because it is the one thing that you are worthy of having. I love you forever sweetheart… Now go!” her mother’s voice is strong but then her face and body starts to fade.

“No! Mommy, please…,” she tries reaching out but she can’t. It’s like those dreams where you suddenly fall from a high place, falling and falling into an abyss.

Cornelia jerks awake as Morrison adjusts the coat he placed on her shoulders back in the dock.

“Cornelia? Are you okay? It’s all right, you can go back to sleep. We’re not there yet,” he strokes her hair and tries to pull her head back to his shoulder but she remains where she is.

“No, I’m fine. I, ah, I just had a dream… Where are we going anyway?” she asks while straightening her all-too-crumpled shirt. It used to be white but now, it looks like a collage of black and red smudges with some yellow streaks or maybe rust-colored stains.

“I don’t know either. All I’m concerned of now is you. How are you, Cornelia. Did they, uh,  hurt you?” Morrison looks at her with sad but angry eyes. It’s evident that he’s trying very hard to control his rage towards the men in the docks and all Cornelia wants to do is to kiss him and hug him tight.

Now is not the best time…

“Morrison,” she stares right at him, “I’m fine. Yes, they roughened me up a bit, but no, they didn’t do anything else. They didn’t violate me or torture me, just starved actually…”

“Oh! I’m sorry, here, have a sandwich. Kevin was good enough to buy some on the way.” He hands her a sandwich, which she munches on right away.

“By, the, way…,” she tries saying in between bites, “Why is he here anyway? I recognize him from the hotel in the Hamptons. I mean, he was the one who drove me to your father’s house. Why is he with us?”

“Um, I’m right here.“ Kevin finally speaks up and looks at her from the rear view mirror and smiles.

“Oh! I’m sorry, I was just… I thought…,” she stammers while trying to gulp down the last bite she took off the sandwich. “Hmm! This sandwich is really good.”

Kevin laughs and says, “That’s okay, Miss Masters. I’ll tell you all the details once we reach our destination. We’ll be there in under ten minutes. Please, finish your sandwich. We’ll have plenty of time to talk later.”

She nods and already forgets what he said after taking another bite. She suddenly recalls the last time she got so hungry that she was close to passing out. It was when James found her and saved her from the streets.

“Morrison, I need to call someone… He might be worried about me. Do you have a phone?” she says seriously.

“James?” he asks with one eyebrow raised.

“How- umm, yes, him, but…” she stares at him with a confused face.

“He introduced himself to us when we searched your apartment after I got the warning about you being abducted. I’m sure he’ll be at the place where we’re going and he’ll explain further. Relax now, Cornelia, please. Just sit back and try to take another quick nap, will you? You’ve been through so much, baby… Please…” He caresses her face and showers her with kisses on her face. He doesn’t even care if Kevin can see them. He just wants to let her know that he cares for her more than she knows.

She sighs and leans her head on his shoulders again. “Oh Morrison… I don’t know what I’ll do if you didn’t get me out the way you did. I didn’t think I’d get out of there safely.”

And she is being truthful. She didn’t think he’d come and get her, especially if it was in exchange for something that could possibly harm his family. In the few hours that she stayed in that dark cellar, she was forced to think of her life and where it is heading.

She is conflicted by the fact that she has grown to love this man, the man who embodies everything she missed in her childhood. The one who was showered with attention, care, and love by the man who was her biological father. The father who may or may not know that he has brought a daughter into the world twenty years ago when he clearly had an affair with her mother. The mother whom she is bent on honouring by exacting revenge on the man who abandoned them all those years ago. The mother who died in crash where a hazy investigation was done and was eventually ruled off as an accident. One which she doubts as well as James, for they both know that there was foul play. She might have been too young to see the technicalities of forensic investigation but she was old enough to know that her mother was a very safe driver and one who would not have such a careless accident on her way to picking her daughter up from school. She never consumed any alcohol in all the years that Cornelia lived with her, and she definitely had no problems with any kind of drugs. She didn’t even smoke for crying out loud!

Her hatred for her biological father and the mere fact that her mother did not just simply careen off the highway that plunged her car into the cliffs plus the promise she made to James and herself that she will bring down the McElroys, are the drivers of her purpose in existing.

What kind of a purpose is that? She asks herself as the car continues to lurch and move as they approach their destination.

I haven’t even checked if Nick is really my biological father… But she knows in her mind, as clear as day, that he is. I can’t launch an official reopening of my mother’s case with me being Cornelia Masters. I would have to reveal my true identity to request for a reinvestigation… and I can’t… not yet. I have to figure out a way to sort all these things out and to eventually tell Morrison the truth. I love him enough to turn my life around and make things right… But I need to speak to James first. He has to know that there has been a change in my mind and heart. I don’t know how he would take it though…

She’s too exhausted to think about everything right now so she allows her eyes to close and her breathing evens out after a few minutes.

 

 

Chapter III

“How could you let them go! You stupid good-for-nothing worthless piece of –,” she continues cursing out loud, squeezing out her brains for every cuss word she could muster.

She got so angry when she learned what happened during the exchange. She gave specific instructions to use the girl as leverage on the McElroys and to retrieve the piece of evidence they somehow got their hands on. But her incompetent minions couldn’t follow simple instructions. What made her even angrier was the fact that they didn’t even get the documents in the first place. She had no intention of giving the girl back. She told Mike to dangle her in front of the McElroys like a prize and then once he gets the paperwork, he’d snatch her right back and dump her in the boat where they would have taken her into another location. She was her insurance! But she got away!

“Ma’am, they had some help. Someone was shooting up the place right after we brought her out there. We didn’t know where the shooter was or if it was just one man because my men got seriously wounded. I barely got out there alive!” Mike, the one in-charge of the “supposed exchange” clutches his right arm. He was shot when he tried going after Morrison. He was just thankful that the bullet passed right through his right upper arm, or else, he’d be strapped in a hospital bed, just like three of his men. One was still in critical condition while the other two had serious injuries as well. Only the driver of the boat, who had sense enough to cower and duck through the whole shoot out, survived unscathed.

“I DON’T CARE!!! I don’t give a damn if you lost an arm out there! I want those documents and I want her killed!!! You hear me! I’m paying you tons of money to get things done but all you have done so far is mess them up some more! I expect to see results on the next time we talk, you understand me Mike? Or I will be forced to terminate your wife’s medical assistance!”

That silences Mike, who has been very adamant in letting his employer know about the degree of difficulty of retrieving those pieces of paper. He thinks back to the time he met her…
“Please! Please doc! My wife needs that surgery or she will die! Please help me out! I- I’ll come up with the money. Just give me two weeks! Plea-, “he pleads while the surgeon just shook his head and gives him sad eyes.

“I’m sorry Mr. Leigh. I’m afraid we have to follow hospital rules and what it says is that we cannot operate on your wife without you paying for it. I would gladly do it for free for you sir but you still have to come up with at least a hundred thousand dollars to get it underway. Then you would have to have special care for your wife after the surgery, plus we have to make sure that she doesn’t reject the heart. As of now, we have available hearts that fit your wife’s but the policy is that we prioritize those who can pay for the operation. I’m really really sorry for this, Mr. Leigh, but my hands are tied…” Dr. Farris patted the sobbing man’s shoulders and walked away.

“Oh my, God… Oh God, please help me…” Mike Leigh was a construction foreman who made $20 an hour. He just started with a new construction firm and although he was thankful he got the job, he was still hard up on making ends meet. With his wife’s hospital bills and his own, it was getting really hard for him to catch up on his bills. And now, his wife needs heart transplant or she will just wither away and die, leaving him a more miserable man, left to walk the earth alone. He loves Mary and she is his life. They have no children because Mary’s heart couldn’t take it if she ever got pregnant and gave birth so they were thinking of adopting when her heart got worse two years ago.

Suddenly, a woman approached him while he was slumped on one of the grey-colored morbid hospital chairs in the hallway. It was the loneliest place in the world for a man who had nothing and no one to turn to in his darkest moment in life.

She appeared like an angel who was sent there to help him get up from the muck he was in. She spoke and he listened simply because he had no one else to listen to and no one else wanted to talk to him to help him. Even his so-called friends turned away from him when he sought heir help. She was the only one who offered a way out, a helping hand, a Godsend if you can call it that. Little did he know that her hand would ask more than he could give when the time came…

And it has come many times. She’s made him do lots of things he would never have thought of doing to his fellow man. But he had no choice, his wife is still dependent on the drugs she needs for her heart and his employer has been very generous to him so far. So generous that he never had to look for any other kind of employment since he met her.

So he learned to be evil. He learned to be unmerciful and hard to those who needed to be eliminated and to rid the world of. He needed to be a killer.

And it was time again to kill. He tried to scare her enough that her employer would not see the need to kill her but because she got away, it has become a necessity for she might recognize them. He was careful in not showing his or any of his men’s faces, but he made the mistake of calling one of them by his name. She looked like a clever girl. It wouldn’t be long until she figures out the real reason why her existence needs to be eliminated.

But until that time, he had time to plot and prepare for his next kill.

Yes, I have to do this. I can’t lose Mary. I can’t…

He puts his phone back inside his pocket and taps his finger on the dashboard of his black sedan. His mind is working double time on how to get the girl back or how to get her not to realize what’s happening. He needs to get her to shut up and to shut up forever.

The details inside those documents is the key to tracing the culprit of this whole charade, his boss. And she will move heaven and earth before she gets caught. Even cutting off his head if she needed to in fear that he might turn on her. But as long as she keeps the medicines and other needs of his family coming, he will preserve the hand that feeds him. Unless there is another hand that offers the same kind of refuge. But until then, she is his insurance and he needs to protect his source of livelihood. He needs to protect her.

“Pete,” he says into the phone, “Yeah, its me. I need you to come to meet me. Yes, right now! Come on Pete!” he argues some more as Pete tries to give him excuses not to go.

In the end, they agree on a time and place to meet along with Mike’s other requests. They needed to move fast before anything else happens, like the whole bust getting broadcasted over the television or if the police starts snooping around.

In the meantime, Cornelia, Morrison, and Kevin reached their destination at last. Kevin slowed down as they approached an old but beautiful house in the corner of the a wide road. They drove for about an hour and a half to reach that place and all she saw when she opened her eyes is the dark street and the sound of waves nearby. They were well into the coastal towns of New Haven as Kevin announced when they halted to a stop and despite the distance, he was able to take them there in record time.

It was still dark outside and Cornelia was still a bit groggy from the ride and from her earlier ordeal but she got out of the vehicle right away as soon as Morrison was on her side to assist her up to the house.

“Take it easy Cornelia.” Morrison looks at her with a face full of concern then he shakes his head and sweeps her off her feet. He gently balances her body in his arms but it looks as though she didn’t weigh anything from how he held her. She can feel his muscles ripple as he takes her towards the entrance of the beautiful Victorian house.

She squirms for a bit and says, “I’m fine Morrison. I can walk you know. You can put me down,” but he doesn’t listen to her and takes her all the way into the house’s living room.

He sets her down a soft couch made of expensive material and she lets her eyes adjust to the dim glow of the room, she gets even more impressed with the interior of the house.

“Ah, Cornelia, my dear. How are you?” James suddenly appears from one of the doors and walks towards her with arms outstretched.

“Oh, James,” she sighs as he sits down on the couch and gives her a hug.

“I was so worried about you, my dear. I’m sorry I was indisposed when you tried calling. If I had known…” he starts saying while waving his hand towards the butler who appeared as well, and started serving them drinks.

“No, don’t worry about it James. You wouldn’t have known otherwise. I- I just panicked and thought to call you because I knew that I might be in danger. But how – , “she asks while looking up to Morrison and to James with a look of confusion on her face.

“I found them in your apartment when I went there to check on you.” James touched his forehead like what he always does when a headache is plaguing him.

“Them?” Morrison said the same thing earlier and she wonders who “them” are.

“Yes, Morrison and I,” Barret’s low baritone voice echoes from behind her. He walks inside the living room with an expression of relief on his face.

“Oh, Barret. I- I’m sorry if you all worried for me. You didn’t have to, you know,” she faces him as he narrows the space between him and the couch where she is sitting.

“Cornelia, don’t be like that. You know that I consider you as a friend and my tenant as well so whatever happens to you is my responsibility too.” He approaches her and takes her in his arms all of a sudden.

She feels so much better that Barret is there with them as well. She lets him hug her as she lightly wraps her arms on his shoulders. His body gives her a comforting feeling and she appreciates his concern and sincerity.

“After you were attacked in the elevator, I promised myself that I would never let anything bad happen to you… Not on my watch,” he draws her away from him and looks into her eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay, Cornelia?”

“Yes, she’s quite all right, Barret, I’m going to take care of her now so you don’t have to worry about her anymore,” Morrison answers Barret with a firm and cold voice. “Come Cornelia. I’m sure you’re still very exhausted. I’ll help you get settled in. We can talk more when you’ve had some rest.”

Morrison offers his hand to Cornelia to take but she just looks up at him with a sombre expression on her face. She knows what he’s doing.

He’s marking his territory by appearing to tell me what to do and does he expect me to just obey? Well, he’s got another thing coming!

“Gentlemen, as I said, I am perfectly fine and able to take care of myself. Now, James, if you could please direct me to where my quarters are… I would like to rest for the night.” She stands up and doesn’t take Morrison’s outstretched arm.

“Of course, my dear. Please follow me and Jim – the butler – will bring in some food for you later on. I imagine you wouldn’t have enough strength to last through a meal at the dining room so I’ll have him take food up to your room. Take it easy for now, Cornelia. There is much we need to talk about in the morning.” Cornelia walks and follows James as he exits through the double doors and towards the next room but not before shooting both men a look of a tired, resigned face, then a hopeful smile.

“Thank you… both of you. And Kevin, of course, you’ve been great help. I thank you for my life.” She nods at Kevin and he nods back while she exchanges a smile with Barret. She finally looks over at Morrison and his face is a mask of calm ness, but the muscles on his arms and shoulders are tense and coiled.

“Take as much rest as you need,” he replies then walks out the front door without looking back.

She sighs and turns to follow Jim out of the room.

“What the hell was that?” Barret shouts at Morrison as he followed him outside a few minutes after Cornelia left the room.

“What? What the hell do you care, Barret? Go away. I’m not in the mood,” Morrison answers. He was looking out towards the sand. He went to the back of the house after walking out of the living room. It was a big house but he quickly found the pathway going to the backyard where a view of the ocean greeted him.

He stayed there, standing near the fence that separates the grassy backyard from the private beach front. Of course the green grass was probably imported and planted there, for aesthetic purposes for it was immaculate and finely trimmed and then continues on to the sands before the shore.

I don’t fucking care if you’re in the mood or not! But I do care about Cornelia. I know you guys are a “thing” now but you have got to tone down your level of jealousy if you hope to have a future relationship with her.” Barret’s voice lowered a bit but he still looks pissed at Morrison.

“And how would you know what hope of a relationship do I want with her, huh? What makes you think you know what’s going on in her head? What made you an expert with Cornelia’s feelings all of a sudden?” he snaps back at Barret advancing towards him but Barret stands his ground, facing him with full animosity across his face.

“I may not be what she wants right now but there might be a day when she does see me as more than her landlord and friend. And when that day comes, I will make sure that I’m there for her. And then you’d realize what a dick you are for wasting her time with your petty jealous nature,” he scoffs and stands down for he knows that Morrison is not in his right state of mind but he is so he’ll be the bigger man and will let it go, for now.

“Yeah, walk away Barret. That’s all you do anyway. You always wait around for everything to happen, you never take risks and that will be your mistake. You better back away from Cornelia if you don’t want me to see you as an enemy as well,” he says with murderous undertones.

When Barret doesn’t respond and continuous to walk away, Morrison turns back to the ocean and takes several deep breaths.

What the fuck are you doing again, Morrison? Why are you so riled up over Barret?

But he knows the real reason why he’s on edge and is taking it out on the people around him, especially with Cornelia.

He is scared. He’s so scared for Cornelia that he gets mad at her for not trusting him fully and just follow what he says. He wants her to be safe, to be so far away from their enemies. But that would mean that she would be far from him as well for he will not let his father and mother deal with their enemies on their own. He needs to be there, on the forefront, fighting with his father, to keep their legacy afloat and their lives intact.

He’s conflicted with what he must do about Cornelia and with his dad’s ongoing case.

At that moment, his phone rings.

“Hey, dad,” he answers with a sigh.

“Son. How are you? Where are you? Are you in a safe place? Did you hand off the evidence?”

“Yes, we’re safe dad. We’re somewhere safe but I can’t tell you where we are. Actually, I’m not even sure exactly where we are, which is probably for the best. How’s mother? Have you told her what’s going on?” Morrison knows that his mother overreacts most of the time and needs to be constantly reassured that Morrison is safe.

“You know your mother, always worried. But don’t worry, I’ve told her what she needed to know and nothing more. But what about the paperwork? Did you use it for the exchange?” Nick is hoping that he could still somehow retrieve those documents because it would seal the fate of his case and the company’s future would be secured again if the charges are dropped.

“No. I was supposed to but all hell broke lose when they wouldn’t agree to give up Cornelia first before I give them what they’re asking for. So I still have them in my person and I intend to use it on your case next year once everyone is safe. I have a feeling that this wouldn’t be the last time that those thugs would bother us so we better be prepared for anything, Dad,” he answers with a determined voice.

“I agree with you son and yes, you keep those documents safe for now until we need it. I’ll double the security for your mother and once you’re back here, I’ll make sure your security detail is doubled as well. As for Cornelia, what do you plan to do with her? I mean with all the threats and all, I assume you wouldn’t expect her to come back to the office and continue working for me – and I wouldn’t expect her to do that as well. She must have had a horrible experience, that poor girl,” Nick says in a sad voice. “Please give my regards to her.”

“I will father. As for her safety, I haven’t quite figured out the details yet, but you are right, she wouldn’t go back to the office to work for you for now. I’ll arrange for a suitable place for her to lay low until all of this blows over. I can’t risk her getting involved with this mess again. I’ll let you know once I have a definite plan. Thanks for checking up on us,” he smiles through the phone as they say their goodbyes.

He put the phone back in his pocket as James comes sauntering into the backyard.

“Ah, Morrison. Here you are. I wanted to talk to you,” he says as he approaches him. “Please,” he motions to the table with two chairs facing the ocean view. He sits on one of the chairs and waves to Morrison to take the one across from him.

“Thank you James for securing a place for us. I assure you, I only have Cornelia’s best interest at heart.” Morrison takes the chair and looks at James directly, making sure he is communicating and letting him know that he is being truthful and sincere.

“I know that Morrison and I thank you for getting our Cornelia back to safety.” James sighs and turns his eyes towards the waves and to the overcast skies. “She’s always been so strong. I’ve always admired her spirit and her determination whenever she sets out into doing something. And I have always supported her on the things she wanted to do.”

James smiles, but it’s a fleeting smile for he turns sad and serious afterwards.

“I have but one request which I know would be difficult to do and… to bear most especially. But it cannot be helped. I do not want her in any kind of danger whatsoever and the only way I can assure that is by you leaving her alone,” he says with a sad tone to his voice.

At first, Morrison looks at James like he has suddenly gone mad but as the silence stretches into minutes; he slowly realizes what James is thinking. He probably thinks that Morrison would drag her down and leave here hanging in the long run. So he tries to explain.

“James, I know I only know you as Cornelia’s friend but I respect that you’re concerned for her safety as if she is family to you. I want the same for her but I don’t think that me staying away from her is going to be the solution to this. The only way to ensure her wellbeing is for my family, especially my dad, to beat the sons of bitches who are trying to bury us with false accusations and bullshit claims!” he strikes the table with his fist which is exactly what he wants to do to the man who had Cornelia by the throat in the docks.

“I can take care of her, James. I’ll make sure that I protect her every move and keep her safe every minute. I’ll put her on lock and key of I have to, just to keep the dangers from entering her life.” He continues to argue his case as James remains silent. He continues to watch the waves as they crash into shore.

Finally, Morrison just lets the silence grow. It’s not uncomfortable, It’s actually soothing. Just the sound of the waves and the breeze tickling their hair and skin.

“I see that you mean well, Morrison McElroy. But the problem is, I know she will not agree to be put under surveillance or constant watch, and most especially under lock and key. It would undermine her free spirit and fierce independence. I just want to save you the agony and heartbreak when she finally realizes that this is not the life she wanted. That being free to do as she likes is better than being safe. I’ve known her for close to five years now and in all the time I have known her, no matter how difficult a situation may become, she comes up on top. She survives… And she will survive this, Morrison. She will survive heartbreak. What she won’t survive is a broken spirit.”

Morrison takes in every word James tells him and each time James utters another word the more he made sense.

He’s right. How could I cage Cornelia by restricting her life so she won’t be in danger? She would not understand and she will hate me for it. I would rather see her hate me for thinking that I left her rather than see her despise me for keeping her prisoner…

“I’m an old man. I only have a few years to live, if I’m lucky. And I want to make sure that she is well taken care of. I will make sure she will have everything she needs but I cannot guarantee her security as long as she is with you, with the McElroys. I may have filled her head with thoughts that I’m not proud of, but I’ve only done so to protect her.”

James thinks back to the earlier times when he told Cornelia about things that were not true about Nick McElroy. He was a bitter guy who lost a daughter and he wanted someone to pay. Who better to pay than the one who got her pregnant and left her? The one who created a rift between him and his daughter, causing her to run away and disown him because he wouldn’t bless their union in the first place.

He shook his head and decides to tell Cornelia all about the truth in the morning. It was time for her to know who she is, where she came from…

Morrison sighs and whispers, “I know that what you’re saying is not the best for her James but I think it is the best for her right now…”

He buries his face in his hands as he braces himself for what he needed to do next.

“I’ll leave her alone… for now. Until everything is settled, then I’m going back for her. I know she might not want me back after this but right now, this is what we all need. James?” he says, looking directly at the old man. “Will you promise me that she is going to be okay? Wherever you might take her, can you promise me that she will be safe?”

James smiles a sad smile and answers, “Yes, I swear with my life, I will keep her safe and she will continue to do so even after I am gone. I promise you that.” And it is the truth.

Morrison nods and gets up.

“Well then, James. I guess this is farewell for now.” He stretches out his hand as James stands up to take it. “I just want to see her one last time before I go. I swear I am not going to tell her anything about this. I just want to tell her all that I feel before I go.”

“Of course.” James nods and watches him walk up to the house.

 

He turns back to the ocean and sighs deeply. He truly feels sad for the two lovers. He knows he’s had a lot to do with Cornelia’s hatred for the McElroys, especially towards her father, but he was hurting then when he told those half-truths to his granddaughter. And he hasn’t even told her that he is, in fact, Julie’s father, her grandfather. He has been so afraid that she might reject him and push him away if she knew the circumstances why she and her mother were alone all those years. That he abandoned his only daughter and pushed her away just because she was in love with the wrong man. Well, at least he thought that Nick was never good enough for his Julie. He made sure that they were never together by always reprimanding Julie and never allowing Nick to see her when she was pregnant.

How could he? Nick was married to another woman and he still is! What could a father do at times like those? Everything! He would do anything and everything to protect his child and even if it meant breaking that child’s heart so she would see the truth. The truth he foresees!

And it was that Nick McElroy will never leave his wife and will continue with his lurid affairs and getting young and beautiful girls pregnant! That was the picture he painted for Julie to see and feel everyday for the nine months she was pregnant, until one day, a week before she was due, she couldn’t take it anymore and left, never to return and set foot in his house again.

She didn’t leave any letter or forwarding address.  James didn’t know where to find her and spent the next two weeks exhausting his resources into finding his daughter. Then, someone spotted her in New Jersey. At a small town near the suburbs.

She had given birth at the local hospital to a healthy baby girl.

He wanted so much to go to her and see his grandchild but he knew she would not agree into seeing him or let alone let him see her daughter. So he waited. He waited for another year before actually visiting her. He’s been keeping tabs on her through his connections and private investigators.

He knew she’s been working two to three jobs to make sure she puts food in the table and eventhough James sent her money, sending his men to stash some money into her mailbox or anonymously putting money into her account, she wouldn’t take it. At least she wouldn’t spend it on them. She would give the money to charity or to other people in the neighbourhood who needed it more than her. So she continued working her jobs, no matter how difficult it became.

So when Cornelia was one, James decided to visit them at her rented apartment. As soon as she saw him at the door, she slammed it on his face and didn’t open it again even though he knocked several times and tried talking to her.

James decided then to be in the shadows and not pressure his daughter into accepting him back into her life, into their lives, no matter how he longed to be a part of their lives. He buried himself in mounds of work and travelled worldwide for his business trips. He even lived for five years in Europe, Paris in particular, but he always had someone keeping an eye on his daughter and granddaughter.

Until ten years ago… He received the news while he was in the conference room of one of the tall buildings located at La Defence, otherwise known as the major business district of the Paris Metropolitan Area.

“Monsieur, vous avez un appel d’Amérique,” his secretary told him while he was in the meeting. She said he had a call from the U.S. He didn’t expect a call from Kevin for another week. He usually called to give him an account about Julie and Cornelia, or whenever he thought there was something important he should report. So far, Kevin had always reported that they were okay. Okay meaning that Julie still refused to take the money he’s been leaving for them and preferred to give it away to charity instead. She was stubborn as a kid and even more so when she grew up but James couldn’t help but be proud if his daughter for sticking with her decisions.

“Hello?” he answered the phone on his office, excusing himself from the meeting for a few minutes.

“Mr. W, are you sitting down?” Kevin’s voice was serious and not the usual matter-of-fact attitude, which was how he usually spoke as well as his demeanor. This time, there was something in his voice. There was sadness that was palpable even through the distance they had from each other.

“Why do I need to be? What do you have for me? Just tell me Kevin. I don’t have ti-,“ he was about to say he didn’t have time to dilly dally around when Kevin dropped the bomb on him.

“Julie’s had a car crash. She’s… dead…”

Then there was silence. The longest Kevin’s ever had to endure. He didn’t have the heart to just say goodbye and let James deal with his grief. He was not heartless, no matter how professional he tried to be.

“I can have someone fetch you there so you can go home for the day and when you’re ready, your flight will be waiting for you-,”

“No. I’m ready now. Have my flight ready in an hour. I’ll drive myself to the airport.” James was shocked about the news but he needed to be there for Cornelia.

“But, sir…” Kevin was concerned that his employer might fall ill on his way to the states but James had already hung up. He replaced the receiver and shook his head. “Poor kid…” he said in a low voice, pertaining to the young Cornelia who was taken in by her teacher for the meantime.

James had placed the receiver down a few seconds before his body hit the floor. He had had a heart attack.

James woke up after two weeks. He was in a comma and the doctors were not even sure if he would ever wake up from his comma.

“Wh-where am I?” James looked around and saw a familiar face. Kevin stood up quickly and went to his bed. Kevin had flown to Paris right after he got the call that James was taken to the hospital due to a heart attack and he’s been by his side ever since. He’s learned to care for the old man especially since James saved him from a life of drugs and violence.

Kevin was a troubled teenager when he tried robbing James in a dark alley one night. It was near the theatre in the city where most rich and famous people went to watch the shows. He spotted James right away because of his stance and the obvious expensive watch he had on. He walked out of the theatre alone and was walking on a side street, which was a short cut to the nearest bar. Kevin brandished a knife and declared a mugging but James had talked him out of it and ended up being treated to a meal at the nearest diner. James didn’t stop there. He even offered him a job as his personal bodyguard eventhough they both knew that he couldn’t defend him, at least at his age then. He was small but he was quick and James had somehow found something in him that was worth getting him out of the streets. Maybe James saw himself in the young lad. The look of determination in his eyes reminded him of his hunger for success when he was also just thirteen and someone  also gave him a chance like the one he gave to Kevin.

From then on, there was nothing Kevin wouldn’t do for James. He vowed to be loyal to his employer throughout his days and that extended to James’ family members as well, which in that case, was Julie and Cornelia. James’ wife passed away when she gave birth to Julie and James never remarried.

Julie disowning him had hardened the old man and made him more hell bent on building his business and his company. Kevin knew what the old man had to go through but he never intervened. He figured it wasn’t his place to tell James to try harder at reconciling with his daughter.

“James, it’s me, Kevin. You’re in the hospital. You’ve had a heart attack. Just relax for a bit. The doctor’s on his way.” He was calm and even smiled at James.

James was still a bit disoriented and looked around then his face became a mask of horror when he realized what happened that caused his heart attack.

“Oh my, God! Julie! Kevin, what happened to my daughter?” he was becoming hysterical and Kevin hoped the doctor would arrive soon.

“Julie was laid to rest the next day after I called you. I couldn’t attend her funeral because I was on my way here. I’m sorry James,” was his sombre reply. “I saw them the weekend before her crash. They were at the park and they were so happy when I last saw them. I- I should’ve followed her that afternoon when she was going to fetch Cornelia but I didn’t. I went against my better judgement and decided to visit them again the following weekend. If I had been there… she would still be alive…”

James had grown silent as tears rolled down his old and sad eyes. “No. I should have been there for her. I should have tried harder and forced her to see that I was sincere in becoming a part of their lives again… You only did your job. I asked you to look after them but not be too intrusive that she might notice you that’s why you only report to me once a week. It’s all m-my f-fault…” he began sobbing then as the doctor walked in and quickly gave James a sedative to calm his nerves. They couldn’t risk another attack coming on or even him getting all worked up is strictly prohibited.

The sedative worked after a few seconds and James closed his eyes again for the rest of the day. When he woke up the next day, he was almost able to function completely and by the end of that week, he was discharged from the hospital. He has sent Kevin back to the states a few days before he was released from the medical facility but when he reported back to him, he couldn’t seem to find Cornelia anywhere. He asked around about the teacher and the child but no one could tell them exactly where the child was placed.

“Should I go to the teacher and ask directly?” Kevin asked.

“No, just wait for me. I’ll be the one to ask. We have to know where they have placed Cornelia,” James said with a finality in his voice.

Whatever happens, I have to get Cornelia. I assume she has no knowledge of him whatsoever and might not trust me but that is beyond the point. She needs someone to take care of her and I will be that person. It’s the least I could do after being so careless with Julie…

“Oh, Julie. If only I could turn back time and told you that I was wrong and sorry for turning you away… If only…,” the old man cried of the wasted life of his only child. He lamented on the wasted time they had hating each other when what they should have been doing is forgiving each other. They were both so full of pride and both never backed down from their fight. Well, she was truly her father’s daughter.

He learned from his doctor that he was also plagued by a different kind of disease, one that won’t easily go away with just a few days in the hospital. His surgeon explained that they found cancer cells in his colon. He has stage two Colon Cancer. He could still have chemotherapy to try to avoid it spreading to other parts of his body and for the sake of his still missing granddaughter, he has agreed to do any means necessary to extend his life, at least until he’s made sure that Cornelia was found and taken care of.

James wiped his tears away and set out to the airport. He will do right by Cornelia if that’s the last thing he did in this world.

He went to the place where Julie set up her residence. It was his first time in the little town in New Jersey and he was pleasantly surprised at how tranquil the environment was. There were no busy intersections and zooming cars about. The people seemed to function at a much slower pace in that area and James smiled at the people he saw.

Yes, it was a great place to raise a kid and a nice place to exist, away from the hustle bustle of city life.

James had met with Kevin at the airport and was filled in with what the circumstances of Julie’s death was. He was suspicious of the accident because if there was anything Julie was so adamant about, it was about being careful and safe. And he never thought she would be so careless as to drive herself into a very high cliff.

No, there was something missing there and he would damn make sure that he finds out what. But first thing’s first, he had to find Cornelia.

He went to the old teacher’s place but she didn’t give him any information about Cornelia but directed him to Julie’s resting place. So he went there and paid his respects.

He then checked the records of where the system might have placed Cornelia for the teacher was clearly tight-lipped about it. She’s probably just protecting the child and he was sure Julie never mentioned a relative or her father to anyone there, especially since she wanted to hide from him.

To his dismay, there were no records of Cornelia even being placed in the system. He went to the police station to inquire about the accident but the cops were also not very helpful at all. He tried using his influence on them but was slapped with a court order to stop because apparently, adoption records were sealed. He was informed that Cornelia was adopted and since Julie didn’t place anything as next of kin in her public records, James couldn’t legally get Cornelia, if he ever found her, that is.

He nearly got another heart attack fighting the system and trying to locate Cornelia but to no avail. So as a last resort, which proved to be a long process, he set out Kevin and other private investigators to find the girl. But it was the same time that James was faced with problems of his own. He had to fight to keep his company and battled with other big corporations, preventing them into buying him out. He couldn’t bear to see his life’s work go into pieces, which was what big corporations do to small scale dying companies.

It took almost six years before he found her and if she didn’t run away from the orphanage she was buried in, he wouldn’t have found out about her being in that place in the first place. He was shocked, to say the least, to know that she wasn’t, in fact, adopted. She was buried deep in the records of the orphanage and they didn’t even use her real name. That was why they couldn’t find her in the first place.

“Someone had to have a hand in this,” James said to Kevin when they finally found out about it. It was a few days after she had run away. “We need to find her, Kevin. She must be kept safe!”

“Yes, Mr. W. I’ll make sure to find her as soon as possible. I’ll start with the nearest towns. She couldn’t have gone far, with her being barely sixteen with possibly little or no money. I’ll report to you whenever I reach a new town. What will you do in the meantime?” Kevin was getting ready to set out into locating the girl.

“I’ll help, of course. She’s my granddaughter. She’s my responsibility and I should have found her years ago! Anyway, no point in getting into that now. Once you find her, it is imperative that you do not pertain to me as her grandfather, not yet, at least. She might not believe you since I imagine, Julie never even mentioned me to her. Just tell her that I am an old friend of her mother’s and I have been looking for her for years now. Then wait for me and I will go to your location. I’ll let you know if I find her first.”

They agreed and went their separate ways.

James decided to start with the easiest transport system that a teenager would have access to, public busses and the trains. He spent hours and days stopping at each train stop and asking around for her and then as he was about to give up on the train and look for other avenues in searching for her when luck struck.

He’s been roaming the streets for about two hours on of the last train stopovers when he noticed a dirty girl looking for scraps. She was about the same age as Cornelia’s and she fits her description, albeit a lot thinner.

He convinced her to take his offer of helping her get to her feet and set her up with a place to stay and then finally, gaining her trust to let him help her get a job and even getting her an ID to help her get a job.

He was happy with their relationship, even though Cornelia doesn’t know that he is, in fact, a relative, his grandfather for that matter, he is still content that he is able to help her.

If he was being honest with himself, he’s afraid of telling Cornelia the truth because he’s afraid that she might turn him away just like what Julie did. He’s scared that if she finds out the real reason why Julie was left alone to fend for herself, that she might loathe him and sever any ties he has carefully developed between the two of them.

It wasn’t Nick who left Julie, it was James. He let himself be consumed by his pride that he couldn’t even forgive his daughter and ask for forgiveness himself.

 

He sighs again and smiles at the setting sun. “Oh how life had been for me, Julie. I would gladly go to you once I make sure Cornelia is taken care of. I  know I must tell her the truth, but it would have to wait for a better time. Right now, she has to face another heartbreak for Morrison would have to hurt her in order to save her. I’m sorry Julie. I have failed you again. I have allowed her to foster hate in her heart for so long all because I wanted to make that man pay! What I should have done is to deal with the fact that I was the one who left you…,” he sobs and wipes his eyes.

“Now, love has captured her heart instead and I am happy that it happened but alas! Another tragedy for she has to keep away from the McElroys yet again. Just like what I had warned you about before. I don’t know, Julie. I keep trying to see past the fact that the McElroys were trouble from the start but here we go again, Cornelia has become a target of their enemies and I cannot lose her too! I need to do everything possible to keep her away…”

With a determined face, James turns away from the peeping sun and goes back into the house. Morrison must be talking to her now. He would have them have their moment and then check on her later on. He would have to brace himself for her reaction to Morrison’s leaving her.

He just hopes that Morrison makes his case clear and makes her understand why he’s doing it. Cornelia is a volatile young woman and even though she’s been through so much in her young life, she might not take it if the first man she ever loved leaves her too.

 

 

 

Chapter IV

“Wh-what do you mean, Morrison?” Cornelia can’t believe her ears. No, she refuses to believe what he just told her.

“I’m sorry, Cornelia. I- I have to go. My father needs me… by my family. I can’t think of anybody else aside from my family, you understand? I can’t be weighed down by someone else in my life. I have to focus on my family, our name and our legacy is what matters most. I hope you can understand that, Cornelia,” Morrison says in a determined voice.

He pictured this scene in his head and kept rehearsing what he had to say to Cornelia. It took him fifteen minutes to think about it in the hallway, just outside the room she was resting in. He knew she wasn’t asleep yet because he could hear her walking around and even taking a shower.

He stayed there, seated in the chair outside her room. He contemplated on what to tell her and what words to use to let her think that he was doing this because he was concerned about his family name, and not much because of her. When in truth, he is so scared of her safety and would not be able to live with himself if something happens to her again because of him.

He thought back to what James told him, that he should be the one to leave because Cornelia would not allow it if he told her that he was concerned for her safety. She would just brush it aside and convince him that she can take care of himself and he would end up letting her talk him into letting her back in the office.

So he decided to tell half the truth of the real reason why he’s kicking her out of his life. He decided to hurt her, to push her away… for her own safety.

“You can’t be telling me this! No, you’re just worried about me. And I’m telling you, Morrison, I am a big girl. I can take care of myself, okay!” she insists back. She can’t believe Morrison has already wavered and wanted her to stay away from him. James probably talked to him and convinced him to tell her these things so she would go away and not be in danger.

No, you cannot control my life forever, James! I can’t let you

”Cornelia, I am telling you that I need to leave and for you to just move on and not come back to the office, to my life… because I… I can’t handle having someone right now. In fact, I don’t want you in my life because you’re just going to drag me down. You’re a target now and if they get to you again and use you against me, I don’t want to have to compromise my company’s existence just because of you! Frankly, you are not that important to me so I can sure hell let you go instead of my family’s company. A legacy that my family have worked for for many years! Can’t you understand that simple logic Cornelia?! You’re a liability to me!” he shouts.

He doesn’t mean to have a shouting match with her but he’s becoming so frustrated that she keeps on insisting to stay when every minute that she is with him, her life is in grave danger. He cannot have that! He’d rather be the asshole who dumps her than see her get beat up again because of him.

Cornelia stops talking altogether. She sits slowly back down on the bed, her eyes, on the floor, a solitary tear threatening to spill down her cheeks. She grip the floral bedsheets to keep herself steady when her heart and mind are in turmoil as the aftermath of Morrison’s words linger in her ears. It’s like she’s in a slow motion movie when everything is moving so slow. Her heart rate makes a slow but loud thud- thud- thud sound, while the ticking of the wall clock sounds like a thousand bells, hurting her ears.

“You’re a liability to me!” was Morrison’s last words and it still rings in her ears.

He doesn’t want me in his life because he thinks I’m just going to weigh him down? A liability? Whatever happened to our shared intimacies with each other and the words we have spoken to each other? Don’t they mean anything? Is he just playing me?

“Hey, don’t blame yourself if I no longer want you to be a part of my life, okay? It’s… We’re just not meant to be, you know. We don’t move in the same circles, you and I. I mean, could you take it if we ended up being together and attend hundreds of parties where all you do is talk about my company? I mean, it’s a tiring lifestyle and honestly, I don’t think you’d be up for it,” he continues slaying her with words while he stabs himself a thousand times in his mind.

Okay, the last words went a little too far… I’m sorry Cornelia. I am the asshole! Let me be the jerk here and don’t argue anymore because I don’t know how else to push you away unless I hurt you even more with my fucking lies!

He argues with himself if he just storms out and leave her or stay and make sure she gets the message. He can’t take the hurt in her eyes much longer but he has to make sure she believes him and stays away from him. It’s the only way to make her safe. As long as their enemies think that she is connected to him in any way, they will find her and use her to get what they want and the next time they get a hold of her, she might not be lucky enough to walk away with just bruises.

“Stop it…,” she whispers through her breaths. “Just go Morrison. I get it…,” she sighs as one big fat tear rolls down her check.

She feels like her very heart is being squeezed in her chest, making it very hard for her to breathe, and her legs and arms have turned to rubber. She can’t feel her face and her eyes are burning. She can’t let him see her bawl over losing him. She’d rather let him see her wrath than her grief.

“Go, you fucking asshole! I never want to see your face again! If you dare to even talk to me or look at me from a distance, I swear, I will beat you with a bat! Go!” she suddenly screams as his last words settled in and the sting from it was getting unbearable.

She stands up and shoves him to the door. “Get out!”

“Cornelia…,” he starts saying. He’s beginning to change his mind. He can’t take her hating him. He can’t take the look in her eyes.

“Shut up! I’ve heard enough and I want you out of here! Go! If you are not out of my sight in the next second, I will scream!” She is already screaming but she doesn’t hear herself over the turmoil going on in her head.

Why do they always leave me?! I should never have trusted this scumbag! I will never open myself to anyone ever again!

Barret shows up suddenly from behind the door and asks, “What the hell is going on here?! Cornelia, are you all right?” he proceeds inside the room and looks from Morrison’s sad face to Cornelia’s angry one.

“Barret, good you’re here. Would you please escort Mr. Ellis or McElroy or whatever the hell his name is, out of the premises. He wishes to go back to the city and be rid of us. Thank you for your assistance. I want to rest now,” Cornelia says in a sarcastic voice.

Morrison takes a step towards her retreating back when Barret stops him by putting a hand on his shoulder.

“I think you better go. Let her rest,” Barret tells Morrison as Cornelia walks back to the bathroom, leaving them both.

“Get your hands off my, Barret, or I swear to God, I will take out my anger on you,” Morrison’s low and murderous tone takes Barret by surprise but holds on to his grip on him.

“Not until you are out of this room, pal. You need to cool off and I can’t let you stay in this room,” was Barret’s reply.

Morrison shoves his hand away and storms out of the room. Barret follows suit, gently closing the door behind him and stands in front of Cornelia’s bedroom like a sentinel.

He gets a chuckle from Morrison who says, “Are you supposed to be her protector now? You can’t even protect her from a mugger and you think you can protect her from me? You are so out of your league, pal.”

“I may not have the training you’ve had and the money you were given by your father,” Barret gives emphasis on the last part, “but I know I can be there for her when it matters most and I won’t have any enemies that would do her harm. She will never be unsafe with me and you know it! So go and take your empty words with you McElroy. She doesn’t need you anymore.”

Barret’s words ring true and all Morrison could do is to walk away with his head hanging. His heart feels like it was being wrenched from inside and he can’t do anything about it. He hates himself for being so harsh with her but he thought it was the best thing to do. He would just have to live with the hurt he’s feeling and someday, when all of this is over, he would go back to Cornelia and pray that she takes him back because it would be unbearable not to have her in his life.

James sees these events take place in front of him and all he can do is shake his head. He walks towards his room, the one in the corner of the hallway of this two-story mansion that he commissioned for the exact reason that they were there now, it’s a safe house for Cornelia. And it’s going to be hers one day, when he passes away.

It’s an old Victorian house but it has been preserved and maintained all these years. James had always envisioned Cornelia to grow up to be a classy and elegant woman, just like a graceful Victorian lady. That was why he chose this house, and of course, because of the wonderful ocean view at the backyard. It comes with a strip of privately owned beach.

But the condition and view of the house is the least of his worries. He needed to convince Cornelia to leave the state or even have a much-needed vacation in another country if she agrees to it. He imagines it would be hard for her to still see the McElroys in the television so she needed a totally new place to mend her heart. A heart that’s been beaten and broken to pieces ever since her mother died.

He reaches his room and slowly closes the door. His leg began to throb again. He’s started walking with a crane after his accident back in Paris, ten years ago, after he’s been diagnosed with Stage Two Colon Cancer. His cancer has become a part of his life and he’s fought with it for the most part of the last ten years. He had surgery to remove the cancer cells followed by chemotherapy, also called Adjuvant Chemotherapy. He’s had success with it five years later but he found out just last year that his cancer came back. This time, he needed a much more intense chemotherapy treatment, which he’s been getting since.

His chemotherapy sessions usually leaves him weak and sick but his will to survive and ensure his granddaughter’s safety outweighs his sickness. But after what Cornelia went through, he has come to the decision to tell here everything and to finally admit his faults and bitterness towards Nick McElroy – that he blames the businessman for ruining his daughter and eventually destroying his relationship with her. That he had spawned half-truths and whole lies about the man and smeared his name to get her to hate him.

In truth, Nick had no idea what happened to Julie after she ran away from home. Nick had gone to their home and wanted to speak to Julie but James had been adamant that Julie never wanted to see him again because he wouldn’t leave Linda for her. It was a lie. Julie was willing to accept the fact that Nick couldn’t leave Linda right away because of their adopted son.

James was the one who couldn’t accept it and told Julie some lie that Nick contacted him to pay them off. That lie was the last straw for Julie, which made her run away.

So James orchestrated their whole separation.

“I’m sorry Julie…,” he utters, looking up at the ceiling of his spacious room. He remembers Nick’s grief-stricken face as he pleads to know where Julie had gone.

“Please Mr. Wilson. I need to talk to her. Please, where did she go?” Nick pleaded as he stood in front of the old man’s gate.

James wouldn’t let him in the property and was only speaking to him through the intercom.

“Nick, go home. I don’t know where she is and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you! She doesn’t want to talk to you anyway. You’ve already ruined her life, don’t ruin your child’s as well. Leave her alone,” was James’ last words to the man. He never entertained any of his visits or calls after that.

Meanwhile, he had already sent his men to find out where Julie had gone. It wasn’t hard to find her. She always wanted a quiet life, away from the city. They had money because James has a considerably stable company but they weren’t like the McElroys who owned half the city.

He called her after a few months but she just hung up on him when she learned it was him on the other line. He had then sent Kevin to watch over them and received reports from time to time. Kevin didn’t spend his whole time with Julie and Cornelia but travelled back and forth to James or wherever James needed him to be. That went on for ten years.

James never even noticed that amount of time had gone by. He had learned to live without his daughter beside him. He focused on his work and finding solace in different gambling places all over the world. That was his hobby, as he liked to call it. He didn’t run his business to the ground because of gambling though. He made sure he was just a conservative gambler, but a gambler nonetheless. He sent a monthly stipend to Julie, which, as Kevin reported, goes to different charity organizations. James didn’t mind. As long as he knew that Julie and Cornelia weren’t starving or stricken with disease, he didn’t step in or do anything else. To him, it was enough.

What he didn’t know was that Julie was a great pretender. She pretended to be okay on the outside, with Cornelia’s teachers, with other parents, even people from her different jobs. She was a friendly person who also kept to herself and she never dated. People always speculated that she was probably seeing someone overseas or abroad that’s why she never dated or that she was just a man-hater, like what other bitter and jealous women around her thought of. They were jealous of her beauty and her wits, which have gotten her numerous admirers. She turned them down though, in a good way, always telling them that she didn’t have time for dates or relationship because she was a single parent and wanted to focus on her daughter’s future. That always had them to back off and respect her decision.

He watched as Nick rose into power in the business world in the US as James slowly retreated from it, focusing instead on doing business ventures abroad like Europe and Asia. He got involved with merchandise and goods, imports and exports, that kind of thing. He made some fortune in it, enough to live a comfortable lifestyle and still save up for a rainy day. James realized in the whole ten years he had been focusing on his business and especially when he lost Julie, that had never really wanted to be filthy rich and grow old with money on his mind. But his realization came too late for his relationship with Julie, but it wasn’t for Cornelia.

He finally lays down on the bed and closes his eyes as he anticipates the morning. He will confess everything to Cornelia and he will finally put all his worries to rest and his secrets revealed to the most important person in his life.

 

 

 

Chapter V

She wakes up with a heavy heart. She almost doesn’t want to open her eyes for fear that she would be back in the dark cellar where she spent those gruelling hours, but most of all, she didn’t want to wake up to the reality of not having Morrison in her life anymore. The thought of him waiting for her was the only one that kept her from going insane when she was alone in the hands of her captor.

Now, she has lost him. He wants nothing to do with her anymore…

She throws away the covers and gets up. She figured there was no use delaying the inevitable. She has to get up and function. Her world doesn’t stop because Morrison Ellis McElroy has walked out of it.

Yes, he has become her world and she realized that when she was all alone and had all the time in the world to contemplate on where her life was heading. And when she was there, she liked where it was heading, with Morrison and with being close to finding out if Nick is really her father.

That thought jars her to move quickly in search for a laptop of her mobile phone. She needs to check her emails fast!

She can’t find her phone and there was no computer in the room so she puts on her robe and cotton slippers and opens her door. She peeks outside and sees the hallway. It’s white walls with brown accent gives her the feeling of being in a princess’ castle and she is the princess of the story. She tiptoes out of the massive bedroom door and into the wide hallway. The carpet is soft and muffles her footsteps. She looks out the window right across from her room and sees the ocean outside.

“Wow!” she gasps, momentarily paralyzed from where she stands. The view is so breathtakingly beautiful that she can’t take her eyes off it. The sun has just peeked out of the horizon and is slowly rising. She lets her senses take it in for a few minutes and closes her eyes to feel the moment even more.

“You look like a goddess. You’re so beautiful, do you know that?” Barret’s low voice whispers from behind.

Cornelia smiles while her eyes are still closed and turned to face him. “You, Barret, are a fresh of breath air,” she says and opens her eyes.

He looks into her eyes then, those intense blue eyes boring into her soul. She knows that he feels differently about her and try as she may, she cannot take Morrison off her mind.

“Ah, hey, good morning.” She breaks their eye contact and backs off a little from him.

Barret takes the hint and smiles back at her, the moment finally dispels in the air.

“Hi and good morning to you too! How was your sleep in this overly big house that could fit twenty people?” he laughs as she joins him. He was so impressed with the house slash small mansion when he got there the night before.

 

When he left his house the day before, determined to follow Morrison to wherever he would be going in order to save Cornelia, he was stopped by James when he called him first to know the exact location of the drop off.

“James, its Barret, Cornelia’s landlord,” he started to say. James had left them his contact number just in case they heard anything before Morrison sets out to the docks and Barret thought to call the number first before searching aimlessly all over New York to try to find out which dock he was supposed to go. He remembered that James’ bodyguard or whoever it was who was with him when he went to the apartment, knew exactly where the place was so he thought he’d find out to save time.

“Yes, Mr. Hannover, how can I help you?” James had a sad tone about him, which was understandable given the situation Cornelia was in.

“I need to know where exactly they would be making the exchange. I want to help. I want to go there… I have to do something, anything! I can’t just stand around here and wait for things to happen,” he exclaimed, sounding even more frustrated by the minute. He was so worried about her that he can’t think of anything else.

He knew that she and Morrison may or may not be dating seriously but he’s still concerned about her and he can’t help but feel protective when it comes to her wellbeing. Technically, she has been under his care over the last six months and she has never done anything bad to anybody. He can’t wrap his mind around her falling prey to those who hate the McElroys the moment she started seeing Morrison. And Morrison would need to seriously think about what he must do if he wants to keep having a relationship with her. In the meantime, he can’t stop his feelings for her so he vowed to help her in whatever way he can.

“Barret, may I call you Barret?” James asked in a calm voice.

“Y-yes, of course, James,” Barret answered taken aback for a minute with his calmness.

“Okay, Barret, thank you. I know you are worried about her and believe me, I am the first person in the world who worries about that child, but we cannot mess it up for Morrison and Kevin. They have to be successful at extracting Cornelia and the only way to do that is not to be distracted from their task. Now, if you want to do something, you can come to the address I will be giving you and wait here with me. There’s no use having coffee here alone so if you want to join me, you are more than welcome to.”

Barret thought about what the old guy said and calmed down himself.

“You’re right. Okay, I’ll get over there. What’s the address?” He jotted down the place where James was and drove over there.

It took him a couple of hours before he got there, which he didn’t mind because driving usually gives him unpressured time to think about things. He thought about what’s going to happen when Morrison and Kevin gets to the meeting place. Will the culprits give up Cornelia? Will they get out okay? Who are these thugs anyway? Those were just some of the things that went through his mind. And then there was Cornelia.

He can’t simply just forget about his earlier feelings towards her. She means something to him and even though he’s still figuring out how much exactly, he meant to find out when they get reunited. He wanted to make things clear between them and what she and Morrison are to each other.

Why am I doing this? Do I love her? I think I’m starting to, but why? I mean, I know she chose him over me the first time, but why am I still feeling this way towards her?

He asked himself these things while he was driving and he never came to any conclusion or clear answer to them. He decided to find out the moment she arrived and once he talked to her. All he knew was that, he feels happy when she’s around and he always wants her to be around.

“Barret, welcome. Come in,” James approached him as he parked in the driveway of the small mansion located in a pristine location near the coast. At first, he couldn’t believe it was the same house that James had told him to go to because he couldn’t have imagined how grand it would be. He didn’t know that James was rich but he certainly knew the moment he stepped foot in his property.

“Wow, James, this place is great!” he shook James’ hand as they walked inside the double front doors. “How long have you had this place?” He looked around the magnificent living room with its plush couch and fireplace. A big window was on the right side of the living room that looked out towards the gardens of the Victorian mansion.

“Thank you, Barret, but this is not mine. It’s – uhm – a friend’s house,” he stammered, not revealing that this was actually Cornelia’s house, or going to be when she learns that James is her grandfather, “I’m just borrowing it for the moment. She had graciously given this house at our disposal or as a safe house, one might say, until everything gets sorted out with the McElroys.”

“Ah, yeah… Speaking of which, have you heard from them? I mean I know that the meeting is not until midnight, but… wait,” he checked his watch and it was nearly midnight, “oh, it’s actually in just a few minutes. Are they there? Do they have a plan? What’s going on there?” he started to ask simultaneously, his worry for Cornelia’s safety increased ever second the clock ticked.

“Here, have a drink, Barret, before you get me all worked up,” James handed him a drink and led him towards the bar that was partly concealed at the corner of the living room. This part had another window, a smaller one than the one in the living room across the other side of the bar, but this one had a view of the ocean instead, which was another sight altogether.

“I- I’m sorry James. It’s just that I don’t like uncertain situations and I don’t even know if Morrison and Kevin had any plan on getting Cornelia back. What if they just stormed down there and messed everything up?” Barret takes a seat on one of the high chairs in front of the bar while taking in the view of the waters before him. Since it was dark, the water looked murky and ominous but as the light from a lighthouse touched the sea, it looked blue and promising again.

“I understand your concern and I know that Morrison and Kevin have a plan. Kevin has been my right hand ever since he was a young lad and he operates with precision and certainty so I’m expecting for everything to come out all right.” The old man was being honest. Kevin had always been loyal and protective ever since he gained his trust all those years ago. He would lay down his life for the old guy and any family he had. He was that kind of person and James was grateful that the young man tried robbing him a long time ago. His decision to help the poor lad was the right one because he completely turned his life around and became the good man James always thought he was.

“Okay, James. If you’re confident about your guy then I guess I’d have to take your word for it. As much as I hate Morrison’s guts right now for the mess his family created for her, I know he’ll do anything to get her back safely. I just feel so useless waiting around here…” Barret takes another swig of his drink as James poured him another one.

“I know and I feel the same way, believe me,” James took a sip of his concoction and felt a little of his worries ebb away. “But that is what we must do for now. We cannot do anything for anybody right now and we must not because it is up to those two men to do what must be done. No matter what the price…” He looked serious and his brows were drawn together. He faced the window that looked out towards the ocean as well and hoped that Kevin does what he asked him to do.

He had instructed the young man to resort to violence whenever necessary.

“If you think the situation is going south, do what you must. I don’t care about any casualties on the other side – it’s their fault that all this had to happen! Just get her out of there.”

“Understood.”

“So, how long have you been friends with Cornelia?” Barret distracted James from his reverie and brought him back to the present.

James faced Barret and smiled, contemplating if he should tell him the truth or not yet. If Cornelia trusted this guy, then he could too. But for now, until she gets there and he talked to her, he’ll play it safe.

“Oh, yes, Cornelia. I met her four years ago… It was a chance meeting when we travelled to the same place together and bumped into each other in the street. We were both lost and we decided to help each other out. She was very helpful to this old geezer and she reminded me so much of my own granddaughter…” his voice trailed off.

“Ah, I see. Where is your granddaughter now? Has she met Cornelia as well?” he was trying to find out if this man was telling him the truth or a bunch of lies. He likes James and he seemed genuinely concerned about Cornelia but until he talked to her and tells him James could be trusted, he’ll keep on probing for information.

“She’s, ah, not really talking to me right now. You know, family drama. She’s abroad, Europe, I think, backpacking in the countryside. You know kids…”

Barret smiled and remembered his own adventures as a teenager. “Well, I hope you get to reunite with her soon. Cornelia is a great girl. I mean, I’ve only known her for a little over six months but I know she has a good heart.”

“That she has. She has the purest heart who deserves to be happy. She’s had a lot of heart ache in her young life – ah, one which she has not shared with me yet – but I do have a feeling that she’s had struggles before and maybe still is going through some of them right now but she has been so great about her circumstance even at the face of adversities.” James couldn’t help but overshare about her but he stopped himself in time. He has become so proud of what she has accomplished and how she turned out to be that sometimes he lets his praises slip.

You seem to have spent a lot of time with her and I feel that she has certainly shared her life story with you then. I’m glad she has someone like you who treats her like family. I never saw anyone with her in her apartment before… well, before Morrison, of course, but not one visitor, man or woman, has ever spent a night there or even hours. She most certainly keeps to herself and as I said, I’m happy that she actually has a friend who knows her very well. It must be sad to be alone most of the time.” Barret thought of his own circumstances in life and that’s probably why he could relate with Cornelia. He only has his businesses to keep him busy but no wife, girlfriend, or kids. He only has his ex-wife, whom, fortunately, still likes him as a friend.

“Yes, we’re both lucky to have each other. She has been such a joy to be around and knowing that she has people like you who look after her welfare is very comforting,” James replied with a smile. He was glad that Cornelia has met people she can consider as friends and might even find love with one of them. But the situation where she’s in would be a struggle for she has to make some tough choices when the time comes.

James’ phone suddenly rang and it was Kevin. He said that they are on their way there and would tell him all about what happened once they get there.

“Cornelia, is she with you? Is she hurt? What condition is she in right now, Kevin,” he asked incessantly, worry showing in his guise.

“She’s with us. We got her, James. She’s a bit shaken up but otherwise unharmed. She’s asleep right now. Poor girl must be very tired. I’ll get them there as fast as I can. Don’t worry, she’s fine,” Kevin answered with a reassuring voice as James thanked him and hung up.

“Thank God she’s okay. I wouldn’t have known what to do if anything happened to her. She’s the only family I have,” James sighed and sat on one of the chairs at the bar.

Barret detected something more with what James said. It was more than a friend worrying for a friend, he was acting like she was an actual family member, a blood relation. Then he dared ask a question he already knew the answer to.

“Is Cornelia your granddaughter?” he asked cautiously.

James was right. The young man was not stupid. He saw through his guise right away. So he just stayed silent and looked out the window.

“You know Barret, there are things in my life that I regret, lots of things really. And the biggest one is letting my only daughter walk out the door and completely shut me out of her life. Just because I was so damn stubborn and heartless… I let my daughter slip through my fingers and I waited too long for her to come back that it was finally too late…” He buried his face in his hand and sighed deeply.

Maybe it was the alcohol – he’s not had one for a long time – or maybe the relief that he felt in knowing that she’s all right, but James suddenly had the feeling that he could trust Barret with his secret and he’s always been a good judge of a person’s character. So as an added push to finally reveal his secret, James pours himself another drink.

“Barret, I am going to tell you something I have never told anyone else, only Kevin knows this and I intend to tell Cornelia in the morning. I need her to take her rest first. And I know we have just met but I know that you are good at keeping secrets and that I can see you are a person of integrity and intelligence.” He started then paused as he lets Barret react.

“Wow. I feel flattered that you feel that way towards me with the short amount of time we’ve known each other. I do strive to be those things you told me about myself. But what makes you think that I am? I might be a crook or a liar for all you know.” Barret asked, trying to test the man.

“Well, I guess when you come to a certain age in your life, you tend to throw caution to the wind and trust your instincts instead. And that is what I’m doing now. Anyway, what I’m going to tell you won’t benefit you at all because it concerns another person.”

Barret nodded and smiled up to James. “Then, you can trust me with whatever it is you are about to tell me. You have my word that I will not divulge it to anyone unless you tell me to.”

“Thank you, Barret. Well, I guess you have surmised that Cornelia is not merely an old friend of mine. She is, in fact, my granddaughter and my only remaining close relative. Her mother, Julie was my only daughter and my wife, died giving birth to her. God rest their souls,” James whispered the last sentence and closed his eyes for a few seconds before going on. “As you can imagine, I was very protective about Julie and I was training her to be my successor. You see, I was deep into the mercantile business before and also with shipping goods. I started out with small business venture that turned out to be quite a success then I moved on to owning my own company and business. I was starting to become a recognized member of the cutthroat business world. Julie never really had any liking to the kind of world I operate in. She was more into the arts and music.”

Barrett stayed silent and just James talk about his past and the mistakes that he made when he was younger.

“It’s not that I don’t like Nick McElroy as a person. He is rather good in his field and he had really become his own man even if most people thought he was lucky to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But he married – and still is – to another woman when he had a relationship with my daughter. Julie, being young and naïve, believed with all her heart that Nick would leave his wife for her. But I knew better. I am a man and I am a businessman just like he is and I know what a good marriage means to a business. And Nick’s marriage is indeed very advantageous, especially to Nick. I knew he would never get divorced and marry my little girl. He will only break her heart even more if they stayed together, even if she was pregnant. So I did what any man could do, what any father would do for his only daughter!” he exclaimed, slamming his fist on the counter.

He still had the bitter taste of betrayal in his mouth. “I trusted Julie… I trusted them both to break it up and leave each other alone on their own, but no! They did not end their affair and instead, conceived a child. It was going to be scandal if anybody found out about it. So I forced my nineteen-year-old daughter to hate the man she loved by feeding her lies. I… I told her that Nick came to the house and offered to pay me money to keep quiet…” he paused as he remembered the hurt in his daughter’s eyes when he told her that lie.

“No, dad. He… he won’t do that. He loves me, I know he does… was my Julie’s response when I told her followed by days of weeping and solitude. I knew it was unhealthy for the baby in her womb so I tried my best to distract her for the next few weeks but there was no consoling her. She wanted to go to Nick. To talk to him and hear his explanation but I wouldn’t let her. I kept her inside the house, locked away from the world. Meanwhile, Nick kept calling and coming to the house as well but I’ve had my men stop him even before he stepped foot on my the premises of my territory. I had to get a restraining or der for him – of course, these were all done hush hush… The McElroys value their name more than anything else in the world does so when I had the TRO, Nick’s father had forced him to stop calling on Julie and to stay with his wife. Yes, Nick did stop, eventually, but not before coming to my house for the last time. And a week before he stood in my driveway, bleeding from the beatings he got for forcing his way inside, Julie had run away.”

“What did you do then? Did you tell him where your daughter went?” Barret asked. He was all ears to James’ story and he felt sorry for the lovers who fell in love in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“No. I didn’t know then where Julie was in the first place. And if I knew, I wouldn’t have told him anything! I was so mad at him for causing so much heartache to my family. No…” James shook his head and drank some more. “I was mad at him but I was even angrier at myself… I was disappointed with how I treated Julie that I drove her away. Not because she was heartbroken from Nick, but because I broke her heart… My princess… I broke her heart to a million pieces because of my pride… because I couldn’t believe what had become of my precious angel. I couldn’t and wouldn’t want her to just be a mistress! She deserved better than that! She deserved a man who loved her and put her first in everything, just like I did! I loved her very…” he sobbed, “very m- much.”

It was hard for Barret to see James that way but he understood the man. He knew the unbearable hurt of losing someone and he knew that for James, it was much harder because he never got to see his daughter alive ever again. He never had the chance to ask for her forgiveness.

“I- I’m sorry Barret. I guess the alcohol must have gone more to my brain than my stomach…” he tried to smile despite his tears but it was hard. His face appeared constricted and sad.

“Please do not apologize, James. I know it’s very hard to lose someone you love. Are you feeling all right?” he asked, concerned that the old man might grow weak because of the late hour and the drinks they’ve been drinking, although it wasn’t much.

They heard a vehicle approaching after some time of talking about how Cornelia and James met. James had just finished telling Barret about the time he had set up Cornelia with her first apartment.

“They’re here.”

“Yes. That must be them. I’ll meet them up front. You best stay here while I get them.” Barret nodded as James set out to meet the three.

 

“Barret? Are you okay?” Cornelia looks at him with a puzzled expression on her face.

“Oh, I’m sorry Cornelia, I was, ah, I was thinking about last night,” he stammers.

“I see. So, speaking of last night. How did you come to find this place? I know you met James back in my apartment, but I didn’t know you came here with him too,” she asks.

They start walking towards the main lobby.

“Yes, I met him there but I couldn’t just stand around doing nothing while Morrison and Kevin raced off to save you. I would have wanted to go with them but that might put the whole operation in jeopardy, you know. So, I stayed behind. When I contacted James again to see what else I can do aside from doing nothing, he then asked me to come here instead and we waited for all of you here,” he answers.

“I’m glad he had someone to wait with him. I’m actually quite worried about him. He’s been, I would say, unwell, for the past couple of months. I haven’t seen him since two months ago. We usually go out for a bite to eat every few weeks but not for the last few ones.” Cornelia sees that Barret is a sincere and real friend despite what him knowing what transpired between her and Morrison.

He’s a true friend and I’m just sad that I have to keep secrets from him, she thinks to herself.

As they go down the steps of the big staircase, they hear a commotion somewhere in the living room. They look at each other then start taking the flight of stairs by twos.

They enter the living room and begin searching for anything unusual like an upturned table or a broken glass furniture, which the room has an abundance of. But the sound did not come from there. Then Barret sees another door to his right, right beside the bar that where he and James had sat on the night before.

“There,” he motions to Cornelia who quickly joins him to investigate.

They enter the door that leads to another big room lined with bookcases and a wooden table right in the middle. It has great glass windows that look out to the ocean and they see James seated on one of the chairs at the corner of the room facing the fireplace. He is clutching his chest and seems to have a hard time breathing.

“James!” Cornelia exclaims and rushes to his side with Barret trailing behind her.

“C-cor-ne,” he struggles to say as she takes his outstretched hand.

“Don’t try to talk, please. Barret! Call an ambulance quick!” Cornelia tries to calm down and not panic as Barret gets his phone out and calls 911.

“Dear, my d-dear g-girl…” James makes to caress her face but the effort was too much so he just lets his hand fall to his sides. He attempts a smile but she knows that he’s having a hard time making even the tiniest movements.

“James, whatever it is, it can wait until you’re better. For now, please do not move too much,” she pleads with him and gives him a sweet smile to mask her worried face. She looks at Barret who is still talking to the person on the phone but nods at her meaning he’s relayed the message.

Barret cups the phone’s receiver and tells her, “They’re on their way. Just hand on there.”

The butler comes in and takes on the scene. He immediately alerts the staff and offers to have James driven to the nearest hospital but Barret informs him that the emergency personnel are just five minutes out. In the meantime, they placed James on the couch and made him comfortable.

“I think he’s had a stroke,” Barret whispers to Cornelia while they wait for the ambulance to finally arrive.

James’ breathing comes out in bursts and his eyes are closed.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him like this before. I always thought he was strong, you know…” Cornelia looks at James and feels so helpless. She couldn’t do anything to help him when he’s done everything to help her. She’s beginning to really worry about the old man. She’s starting to get scared of losing him. She wouldn’t know what to do if she did. He’s the only one who has given him direction all these years.

Kevin walks in on them together with the paramedics team who quickly works on checking James’ vitals and asking them questions on his condition.

“I- I don’t know if he’s had an episode before… I’m not sure if he has any existing conditions,” Cornelia answers the lady EMT but then Kevin speaks up and answers her questions.

“Mr. Wilson has had two other heart attacks before. The first one ten years ago and the other one just three years ago. I’m contacting his doctor now so you would have a full account of his medical history.” Kevin looks at Cornelia with a sombre expression and nods at her while he helps wheel James away from the study and into the ambulance.

Cornelia wanted to be go with James on the ambulance but Barret advised her that it would be best to follow them with his car instead.

“Okay, Barret. Please let’s go,” she urge him as they get in his truck.

They arrive at the hospital after fifteen minutes of fast driving through the streets of the town. James was immediately rushed to the emergency room and is now being evaluated by the doctors.

“What’s the news, Kevin?” Barret asks Kevin as they approach him in the hospital lobby.

“His doctor is flying in now as we speak. I don’t have any news for now but he’s stable. All we can do now is wait,” Kevin answers. “I’m gonna get a cup of coffee, you guys want any?”

“Yes, thanks, Kevin,” Barret didn’t wait for Cornelia to answer because she seems to be deep in thought.

“You bet.”

Barret goes back to Cornelia who is now seated and is staring at the floor like she was in a trance.

“Hey, there. Are you okay?” he asks her as she looks up at him.

“Hmm? Oh, yes, I’m okay. I’m just worried, you know, for James.”

“Yeah, me too. I’ve only known the guy for almost two days but I know enough that he means a lot to you and you to him. I’ve had the chance to chat with him last night and from what he’s told me and what I’ve seen, he’s really a stand up guy.”

Cornelia just nods and continues on staring at the floor, which worries Barret a little bit. He doesn’t want her to bury her feelings and to deal with them alone, which is what she’s doing at the moment.

“Hey, it seems that we won’t get to see him in the next hour or so, what do you say we grab a bite to eat, huh?” he attempts a smile but her grieved expression makes him stop.

He suddenly closes the gap between them and takes her in his arms. She rests her head on his shoulder as he wraps his arms around her shoulders.

“It’s going to be okay, all right? James is a strong man. He can take this. But we need to be strong for him. And I think that getting you out of here will make us all feel a lot better,” he draws her away from him and looks at her tired face.

She finally nods and that’s when Kevin makes his way back to them with three cups of coffee in his hand.

“Hey, Kevin, we’re thinking of getting some breakfast while we wait for the doctors. Want to join us?” Barret asks nicely as he takes their coffee.

“Nah, that’s okay. I’ve eaten an hour ago. I was running some errands for Mr. W when Jim called me up. You two go ahead. I’ll stay here and wait until you get back before I set out. I’ll call you if anything happens.”

They thank him and make their way out of the exit doors.

They decide to just look for a drive through and get some food. They pass a park just a few minutes from the hospital and both wanted to stay there to eat their food instead of the hospital.

After getting their food, Barret calls Kevin to see if there was any development. Kevin tells them that the doctor just got in and is examining him now. “They say it might take a while. Don’t worry about rushing back here. I got things covered here.”

Barret thanks him and stops at the parking lot behind the park. He tells Cornelia that they would still have to wait for any news and assures her that Kevin has the situation covered.

“Okay, but I don’t want to stay out too long. I want to be there when he wakes up,” she responds.

“Of course. We’ll just be a few minutes. You need a breath of fresh air especially with what you went through yesterday and today. It’s too much for anybody to handle so don’t be feel bad about taking a few minutes to yourself.”

She smiles at him and shakes her head while feeling amused, “You’re such a good friend, Barret. I’m so lucky to have you here.” Her voice starts to quiver and her eyes starts welling up.

“Oh no you don’t. Come on, let’s sit over there. Don’t start crying now, we haven’t even had breakfast yet,” he says jokingly while assisting her to a wooden bench.

“Fine,” she laughs and wipes her eyes. She sits on the bench and looks around the park. “Wow. This place is beautiful.”

And it is a beautiful place. The park offers a full view of the coast and the public beach a few meters beyond the buildings. But at the same time, it has lots of trees surrounding it and the ground is a sea of green grass. There’s a playground in the corner where children can play on. The day is still early so only a few joggers are making their way across the running paths in the park. There are benches spread throughout and they took one that’s close to the parking lot in case they needed to rush to the hospital.

The breeze tickles her hair and the salty air touches her face. She closes her eyes and lets the ocean fill her senses.

Barret stares at this beautiful creature and feels his heart leap from his chest. He still has feelings for her and he can’t help but show it to her. He knows that Morrison left the night before and although he doesn’t know the circumstances why, it was evident that the two had a misunderstanding of some sort. He doesn’t mean to take advantage of that particular misunderstanding but he’s happy that he gets to spend some time alone with her.

“Cornelia?” he asks.

“Hmm?” she opens her eyes and gets her sandwich from her take out bag.

“What happened to you before you came to New York? I mean, you told me a bit about your childhood and all but what made you go to New York? Was it only to make a better life for yourself?”

She stares at him and doesn’t respond for a few seconds. “Why do you want to know?” she asks. Her face a mask.

“Oh, nothing, just curious is all. It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me or anything. I don’t want to pry or anything. Just making conversation,” he says offhandedly as he takes a bite of his sandwich and smiles at her.

She sighs and responds, “Well, I have told you about me coming from New Jersey and that is pretty much it. I wanted to find out about the world and the opportunities took me to New York. I’ve never regretted my decision though. It’s been pretty interesting for me. And James has been very supportive of me. I’m lucky to have him as a dear friend.”

“Yeah, he is a great guy. What about last night? What happened to you out there? I know it must have been very frightening. Did you know any of your attackers?”

She shakes her head. “No, I don’t. I haven’t seen any of them before and I still don’t know their faces because they had their masks on the whole time,” she responds but lies about the tattoo she saw and the hair that she glimpsed on from the guy in-charge. She knows that he has a boss and that it’s a “she” and that boss must really hate the McElroys for resorting to that kind of crime to intimidate them.

“It was scary at first, especially when they took me to the cellar, which served as my prison for a few hours,” she shudders at the thought of being there and shakes her head to get rid of the memory of being crouched to the ground, not knowing what would become of her.

“Okay, let’s not talk about that anymore. I’m sorry I asked.”

She thanks him and they enjoy a few minutes of silence with just the waves and the sound of the seagulls flying nearby as their background music. They pack up after finishing their food and decide to drive back to the hospital to check on James and Kevin.

Kevin tells them that James is stable and has been checked by his personal doctor. “I’ve spoken to Dr. Johannsen and he told me that he’s doing fine now. He’s out of the woods but they’re keeping him here overnight for more tests.”

“Thank God,” Cornelia whispers. “Can I see him? Is he awake?”

“He’s resting right now so it would be best to come back later. You could both go back to the house and get properly dressed if you want to. I can stay here and look after him whole you’re gone,” Kevin replies.

“No, I want to stay here for another hour or two. I can just go back to the house later. You and Barret can go and just come back later.” Cornelia is not about to leave James when he needs her the most. She looks at Barret who has a concerned look on his face. “I know what you’re thinking, Barret. I’m fine. I have rested and I had ample sleep last night so go ahead and take a shower in the house. I actually want to be alone with James so if you could please give me some privacy, it would be much appreciated.”

After hearing that she wanted to be alone and spend some time with James, Barret can only look at her tenderly and give a resigned nod. “Okay, Cornelia. But I’ll be back after an hour or maybe earlier. You might think you’re okay but your body needs to continue resting for a couple of days. So I’ll pick you up after an hour, okay?”

“Yes, I’ll wait for you then. Thanks a lot, both of you, for taking care of James and I. I owe you a lot.” With that, she proceeds to James’ room to be with him in the next hour.

“Ah, such a sweet kid. I have a niece with the same age as hers. They grow up really fast, that they do,” Kevin says and walks off towards the exit, Barret following suit.

“Are you going back to the mansion?” Barret asks.

“No, I need to go somewhere. James asked me to look into those thugs who kidnapped her and it will be best for all of us if I  find out as soon as I can,” he replies and waves farewell as he gets in his car.

“Right…” Barret answers after Kevin closes his door. He walks to his own car in further along in the parking lot when he saw someone leaning on his car. It was a woman and she seems to be looking inside his vehicle.

Barret nears his vehicle and clears his throat before confronting the woman. “Can I help you with something?” he asks in a firm voice.

The woman looks up and Barret is pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the woman is. Her hair, brunet and short, like a pixie cut, did not dampen her beauty one bit. She has a slender build, a little too thin for his type but still has curves in the right places. She looks into his eyes and he could see an endless color of blue in her gaze. He’s completely captivated by this woman that he suddenly losses the ability to speak.

“Oh, hi there. I’m sorry. I was just, ah… You must think I’m a car thief or something. You see, my car is right here, beside yours and I lost my keys. My spare is inside the car. I just looked over to your to see if I could use something in it. Which, of course, sounds ridiculous now since I might have to break into your car to get it, right?” she finishes and blushes a deep red.

“Ah… N-no, I don’t think you’re a thief. Far from it really. You’d be the prettiest car thief ever if that’s the case.” He smiles and finally returns to his normal self. “Please, let me help. What happened exactly? Where did you last see your keys?” he asks while coming closer. He unlocks his pick-up and rummages for a wrench or any of his tools that he might use to pry open the car door if needed.

“Well, I really can’t recall. I was on my way out of the hospital, visiting a friend, and when I was fishing for my keys inside my bag, they weren’t there. I think I saw it last when I locked my car before going inside. Sorry to bother you… err… mister?” she asks, waiting for him to tell her his name.

“Barret, you can call me Barret miss?” he asks in return.

“Hannah. I’m Hannah Lange. I’m sorry for this. You know what. I’m just going to find a security guard or something. I have to get going.” She starts walking across the parking lot towards the hospital.

“Hey, um, Hannah?” Barret says before she gets halfway to back to the building.

“Yes?”

“If you want, I could drive you where you’re going. I’m on my way out as well. Where are you heading off to? Maybe I could drop you over?” He can’t resist the company of this woman so he offers her a ride right after meeting her for the first time.

What’s the matter with you? She must think you’re a madman or a serial killer for offering her a lift right away. He thinks to himself and decides to explain himself.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a maniac or anything. I just want to see if you could use my help. You could have a mechanic come over here and check your car or something. I think I passed a car mechanic shop a few blocks from here. We could go there if you want,” he scratches his head and tries not to sound so overly zealous to be with her some more.

He looks at this innocent angel and finds himself liking her every minute he’s with her. She’s not as tall as Cornelia and she’s thinner. Cornelia is more of the curvy athletic type but Hannah’s body can be likened to a model or the ones who wear fashionable clothes during those galas and shows. Although not to the point of an anorexic person.

She looks at him quizzically then her lips turns up to form a smile. “Oh, would you? Yes, I would really appreciate it if you drop me off at that mechanic shop so I can get this car opened.” She starts walking back to him and to his pick up truck.

Barret feels a pang of guilt for having some stirring feelings for this woman. He kind of feels like cheating on Cornelia. But they aren’t a couple, they are just friends, right? Cornelia obviously is still hooked on Morrison even though that jerk went off and left her alone to deal with her injuries and the trauma that she felt during her captivity. He was a cold-hearted asshole for storming off like that after he talked with Cornelia. Of course, Barret doesn’t know what had transpired in that talk but still, any decent man would not walk on a woman in her state last night.

He focuses on Hannah and opening the passenger door for her. He catches a whiff of her perfume and it’s heaven to his nose. He’s beginning to love everything about her. How could he feel that way all of a sudden for another person when he was sure his heart belonged to Cornelia a few minutes ago.

He’s still puzzled but got in his truck, nevertheless, smiling at her as they drove away from the hospital.

“So, Barret, what brings you to the hospital? Are you visiting a relative?” she begins asking him, her head cocked to one side and a sweet smile on her lips. She looks like a cute curious young teenager, asking her crush if he likes apples or some other fruit.

“Nah. I’m visiting a friend we just brought in actually. I think he had a stroke but he’s stable now that’s why I have time to get back to the house and get some stuff they would need in the hospital.

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry to hear that. Is someone watching over him while you’re away?” she asks again.

“Oh yes, I left my friend to watch over him while I…,” he pauses then thinks back. I never told her my friend was a guy. “How did you-,” Barret isn’t able to finish his sentence because he feels a sharp object pointed at his side.

“Oops, I’m sorry, I neglected to mention that I know why you’re at the hospital. Now, how do you know the McElroys?” she pokes the blade deeper into his ribs and Barret can feel it penetrate his shirt.

“Hey, easy! I’m driving all right! Do you want us to get into an accident?” he exclaims while desperately trying to work out a plan of how he would get out of the situation. “Who the hell are you lady?!” Barret tries keeping his eyes on the road but he can’t help but look at her while he continues driving. He can’t believe that the angel he thought he saw in her was actually quite the opposite.

“That is of no consequence to you. Now, tell me. Who is that girl? Who is that old man, huh? Who are they?” she presses on as they round a corner. Barret doesn’t know exactly where they are headed but due to the small town being deserted due to the off season, he can’t see any opportunity for him to stop and ask help. He can’t very well struggle with the mad woman while keeping one hand on the wheel.

No, I have to somehow stop this truck or we’d both drive into a ditch.

“Lady, whoever you are, if you aim to get information from me, you’d best get it when I’m alive and not steering the wheel! You’re fucking crazy!” he shouts at her and she momentarily shuts up.

She thinks it over and realizes that he’s right. “Fine! Pull over here.” She points to the side of the road. They have reached the woods and no one is around. It’s a road less travelled but cuts to the town and towards the house. It’s where the ambulance drove through and he just followed it.

He pulls over cautiously and slowly looks over to her, the knife still sticking to his side.

“Okay, please, take it easy. You can unstick that knife at me and talk calmly. I’m sure whatever you want to find out, I can help you figure it out,” he puts his arms up to near his head while still being star struck with the woman’s deceptive beauty.

“I can unstick this at you when tell me what I want to find out. Now, start talking!”

Ugh! She looks even more beautiful when she’s angry. Damn it! What is wrong with me?

He has a better view of her now that he’s facing her up close. He gets a whiff of her perfume again and he’s transported to a sea of green grass on a breezy summer day.

“Hello? Are you sleeping?” she exclaims, cutting him off from his daydream.

He must’ve closed his eyes unknowingly when he smelled her scent. Now he thinks he must look like a total idiot. And for the life of him, he doesn’t want to look anything like a fool in her eyes.

What is it about this girl that has me so transfixed?

She has a totally different beauty from Cornelia. It’s not as obvious and palpable at first sight. It’s hidden deep in her green eyes, like she holds a whole world for that person who will have her heart. A loyalty and passion for something. And he suddenly wants to become that something or someone.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m probably praying because you’re holding me at knife-point!” he answers pointedly. “If you would lower your, ah, weapon, then we could have a discussion.”

She looks at him angrily but does as he said.

 

 

 

Chapter VII

Who does he think he is? Why is he talking to me like I’m some schoolgirl who’s lost or something? Do I really look that unconvincing?

Sally Halstone has been living in hate the past year. She’s been in hiding as part of Linda’s conditions when she paid her off to stay away from Morrison. She remembers that fateful day like it was just yesterday…

“So, you are the girl my son’s been talking about. You’re not bad looking, not that good-looking either. I wonder how you’ve managed to ensnare my son into your womanly traps,” Linda Ellis McElroy scoffed at her while she remained on the hospital bed, surprised that Morrison’s mother came to see her. She was delighted at first to think that Mrs. McElroy was kind enough to inquire about her but as it turned out, she came there to mock her and degrade her character.

“Wh-what are you talking about, Mrs. McElory. I… I have no bad intentions towards your son… We love each other and -,” she started to say but Linda cut her off angrily.

“No! He can’t possibly fall for the likes of you! He’s a McElroy and he won’t settle for a person of your stature. He’s got so much ahead of him and if you truly love him as you say, you would let him realize his future.”

Those words hurt more than her injuries from the car accident. She grew silent while listening to Linda’s spiteful words. She can’t unhear what she has heard and it hurt like hell. She stayed frozen, her eyes wide with disbelief, and her ears ringing from the words being shot at her by the mother of the man she loved.

“I…,” she tried speaking but her throat just constricted and no other words came out of her mouth.

“You don’t have to say anything. I understand now,” Linda’s expression softened and gave Sally a look of pity. “Of course, no woman could resist my son when he sets his sights on her, and he’s young. He hasn’t quite figured out what he wants in life yet. And I guess, he just changed his mind with his future with you. Men can be so fickle aren’t they?”

“Wh-what do you mean,” Sally croaked.

“Oh, I forgot to mention that I spoke with him and he voiced out his doubts with me… you know, about you and what all of this,” she swung her arms around, giving emphasis to what has happened to them so far, “with the accident and all. I think my son just had an epiphany that he wants something, ah, how should I say, different with his relationships.” Linda walked closer to her bed and looked her straight in the eyes. “In other words dear, he doesn’t want you anymore.”

That was the arrow that pierced her heart in a million pieces. She couldn’t believe her ears and at first, she wouldn’t. “No! He loves me. We love each other. I won’t believe anything you tell me. I want to speak with him! Morrison!” she started shouting.

“Oh would you shut up! If you don’t, I would have you thrown out of this place, even if you’re still in bandages. And don’t think I won’t do it!” Linda’s face changed from being amiable to an angry dragon protecting her eggs. “Now, if you don’t believe me. You can wait until he wakes up again but I’m telling you, you’re not going to be happy about it so I strongly recommend that you take this,” she hands her a white wrinkle-free envelope.

Sally didn’t make any movement to take it and maintained a defiant face. Linda placed the envelope on the edge of the bed and sighed. “Well, I’d hoped this would end in an amicable settlement but you really are forcing my hand, you little gold digger. So, you want to play dirty, and then I will.”

“You can threaten to pay me all you want but I am not leaving her without talking to Morrison. Now, if you’re done with your tirade about me being with your son, you can leave me the hell alone!” Sally said defiantly.

“Oh, I will leave you but I believe you have a brother in prison waiting for the judge’s decision on his early release…. About his case on breaking and entering…” Linda let the sentence hang and smiled as she saw the horror in Sally’s face.

“How did you… h-how did you find out about him?” Sally whispered.

“I do have my resources and I have very powerful friends who could hand me out favors with just a phone call. You do want your brother out, don’t you?” Her perfectly shaped eyebrow raised as if taunting her to say “No” when they both knew that Sally would do anything for her brother.

How did she even know? I haven’t even told Morrison yet… she thought to herself.

She has not told Morrison yet, not because she was ashamed of her brother getting a stupid mix up with his friends, who thought it would be cool to check out a shop’s merchandise when it was already closed up for the day. It was because she didn’t want him to think that she’d need him to bail her brother out or something. So, she kept it to herself and went out to parties with Morrison. She wanted to let him think that she was a carefree young woman who had everything going for her and a person who enjoyed life… She didn’t realize that all she had to do was be true to him.

Of course, she didn’t know that then. At first, she got so furious at Johnny, her younger brother, for being so stupid as to be coerced into breaking and entering a shop nearby, but as she calmed down and thought about it, it was partly her fault for not being there for him. Johnny was a very sensitive kid when he was younger and he retreated further inside himself when their parents died during a car accident. He never recovered from it and she did what every sister would do, she found a job and buried herself in it.

When she met Morrison, Johnny had been in prison for five months. It was ruled as a misdemeanour and the sentence could have been reduced even more if they had a good lawyer. But they didn’t. They were tried as a group and each of the five young men got less than a year’s sentence. Johnny was supposed to be out just two months from the time she met Morrison but then he got mixed up in a gang and got involved into all sorts of trouble. So instead of getting out, he got more jail time and added another six months to his jail time. It broke her heart but she was then determined to tell Morrison when they were going on their vacation. She didn’t want to keep anything from him anymore. She wanted him to know everything about her. That she was serious about their relationship enough to share the truth behind her smiles.

But then, tragedy struck and their car pitched off a cliff. Linda happened to hold the upper hand and all she could do was cry as Linda smiled. She knew she had won. She would use anything against Sally just to get her off her son’s life.

It wasn’t because she hated Sally in particular. She hated people who were not in the same stature in life as they are and would dare get themselves associated with her family. She has worked long and hard in keeping her family intact. The sacrifices she has made to make sure their name was not tarnished had cost her a lot but she never regretted making any of those decisions. She did all those things because she loved her family dearly and like any mother and wife, she would fight tooth and nail for her family.

“Why a-are you so mean? I never did anything to you… I love your son…,” Sally sobbed.

“Honey, that’s just it. You love someone that love dearly but I don’t think you’re going to be good for him and I definitely don’t think you have what it takes to be his girlfriend, let alone his wife. You would grow bitter and sad from all the high standards it requires to be a woman of society and a woman of a strong businessman. I’m telling you this because I am one and I was lucky enough to be bread this way from the start so I have what it takes. But you, my dear, are so innocent and, well, naïve, actually, to take on that role. So, I’m doing this in the best interest of everybody,” Linda replied. She actually looked serious in her speech and believed that she was doing them a service for tearing them apart.

“You don’t know that… You make it sound like a tired and lonely life. Why are you doing it then if you hate that life so much?” Sally looked up with tears in her eyes.

Linda was on her way out of her room, having left the money where it was, on the foot of Sally’s bed, which was still untouched. She looked back at the sad girl with the beautiful eyes and said with much conviction, “Who ever said I hated it? And as you can see, Sally, I have no choice…” And with that, Linda left Sally’s hospital room, taking with her all the hope Sally had in having a family with Morrison.

You have won this time, Linda McElroy, but I will get you the next time. I will get my revenge and make you feel all that I felt at this very moment!

Sally took the money Linda left and packed up her things. She was out of the hospital in just fifteen minutes. Her doctor wanted her to stay for another day for tests but she insisted on being released so they had her sign a waiver and released her despite her still-healing injuries.

That was over a year ago. Her brother, Johnny, was finally released and as much as she didn’t want to use the envelope of cash Linda left, she did. She used it to get her brother out and to set them up with a decent apartment. She helped him get a job and made sure he was through with his destructive ways. He was truly remorseful for his mistakes and promised her that he would steer clear from things and people that are not good for the life he wanted for himself.

She and her brother moved out of Chicago and to a small town in Cleveland, Ohio as soon as Johnny got out and they’ve lived there ever since.

She had gotten a job right on the first day she set out to look for one. It was on a pizza joint, a local restaurant just a few blocks from where she and her brother rented their apartment. She still had some cash from Linda’s so-called “trust fund”, but it was depleting fast so she needed to find a job fast.

She took the job right away when it was offered to her because the newest waitress just up and left after only a week in. She was so grateful to the owner and promised to work hard. It was going great for the next few days until the fourth night.

She was closing up for the night. It was around eleven in the evening and she and the owner were the only ones left in the restaurant.

“Great job today, Sally. You really know how to move fast,” Larry said, winking at her from across the room. He was counting their earnings for the day as she was fixing the blinds on the windows.

“Thanks, Larry! I really enjoy working here, you know. It’s the first time I really get to talk to people and get them what they need. It’s a fulfilling feeling to hear their gratitude after I serve them,” she exclaimed with much enthusiasm. She was enjoying her job and it was the first time she didn’t feel very tired at the end of the day, even after walking and moving so much the whole day.

“Well, I’m glad you like it and the people seem to like you too! I like you too… very much,” Larry was suddenly right behind her as she turned around to clean up the table behind her.

“Whoa! I didn’t see you there. Sorry,” she said looking up at him. She elbow brushed his stomach when she turned around and as surprised as she was at seeing him at such close proximity, she didn’t want to be rude and chastise him for it.

Larry was known to be sweet and close to his employees, especially with his female employees. She didn’t think there was nothing wrong with it since he seemed to have a very likeable character and he was really good-looking as well. Women usually flock to him because of his baby blue eyes and his easy demeanor.

“Oh, don’t be sorry, Sally. I like my women rough and unapologetic.” He touched her arm then, sliding down to her hands and took the cleaning cloth from her fingers. He flung it aside and used his body to pin her to the wall. “Don’t be afraid, Sally. I’ve seen you eye me from the first day you came here and I like you too,” he lowered his face towards hers but she pushed him aside.

“What the hell are you talking about Larry? Get away from me!” she exclaimed then stalked off towards the locker room to get her stuff.

He followed her to the backroom.

“Don’t tell me you want to be coy now? Come on, we both know you want this. Sally, oh, Sally, come here and give me a kiss,” Larry leered at her as she gathered her bag.

“You know what, Larry, I don’t like you that way, okay? So please, just let me go home and let’s forget all about this,” she said uncertainly as he blocked her way out the door.

“Oh, don’t break my heart, Sally. I know you want to. It’s okay, the other employees wouldn’t mind us having a relationship while working together.” Larry got closer to her and caressed her face.

She turned away and propped both hands out in front of her, as an attempt to push him away from her. But he was too strong for her.

“Please, Larry, no… I want to go home, please,” she sobbed but Larry didn’t hear her and did what he wanted anyway.

After the deed was done, he got up and threw her clothes at her.

“Get dressed. You look like the whore you are,” he laughed and strode out the door.

Sally stayed where she was for a few more minutes, contemplating between killing herself or going after Larry and killing him instead. But she came to her senses and gathered her clothes and things. She opted to go home and cry herself to sleep, her will to ever be happy again lost in just one night.

She never told her brother in fear that he would wind up doing something that will get him thrown back to jail. She never went back to that restaurant and she never pressed charges eventhough she wanted to make the asshole pay. She never even approached a lawyer because it was going to be too much for her with the lawyer’s fee and all the expenses for filing a case. No, she had other things in mind that were more important. More important things to use the money she had left for.

So she looked for another job, one that had a lady boss. It was for a big financial firm and she served as a call agent. There were lots of people who worked there and they rarely interact because they were so busy answering the phones and talking to customers. It was the ideal work for her because she could just clock out at the end of the day and go straight home. She didn’t have to talk to anybody face-to-face, just over the phone. She liked that. She never wanted being that close to anybody anymore that she kept people from approaching her and being close friends with her even they wanted to. She had acquaintances and the occasional lunch partner, but never friends. She never had anybody come over and share a lovely dinner or a fun night out. She lived by herself then because Johnny had decided to move out and make it on his own as well. He had met a girl that he liked very much and they decided to live together after a few months. He really turned his life around and Sally was so happy for him. She wouldn’t do anything to disrupt his path to a good life. Even if it meant keeping a secret buried deep inside her.

One day, she saw Morrison’s face on television. It was because of a scandal about his father’s company. She looked at his handsome face and thought that the heavens have finally realized that the McElroys had had enough of the good things in their lives while they did bad things to other people. It was finally time for a payback. And by God, she will do her part in getting back at them for ruining her life and driving her out of New York. She left her job and her life back there all because of Linda and her concept of family! And Morrison… He never even attempted to look for her. She never heard or seen him after their accident. She guessed that Linda might have been telling her the truth about Morrison not wanting her anymore. She had accepted it and decided to just get over him and his dreadful family, but that hatred was renewed after she had gone through what she had with Larry.

Yes, she has gotten over Morrison, but not the pain she felt when she was degraded and her whole personality stomped on by that vicious woman! When she laid on the ground as a monster of a man took her whole world and forver destroyed her concept of happiness! She vowed to get back at her, at him, at THEIR family for causing her pain and suffering.

So she went back to New York a different woman from the Sally who left. She was a totally different person. She had been toughened by circumstances in her life and she must now learn how to use coercion and even violence in getting people do what she wanted. It’s the only way to fight the McElroys and she will use anyone to get to them.

She traced Morrison to his office and to his apartment and saw him leave the night before, getting into a black sedan and drove off somewhere. She had travelled from New York just a few days before and just finally located Morrison’s place that day. She wanted to scout the place out when Morrison left but got curios because she saw the expression on his face when he left. He looked like he wanted to murder somebody.

So, she followed him to the docks near Flushing Avenue and saw what happened with the shootings and their daring escape. Morrison seemed to have his hands full with those people who had the woman captive.

Sally didn’t interfere or let herself be seen. She was a silent and invisible expectator. She didn’t want Morrison to die though, just to suffer as she did. She thought dying would be a useless and easy way out, a fact she realized after the night in the restaurant.

When the scene was over, she also followed them to the Hamptons where they hid in a big house, probably a mansion and probably owned by the McElroys as well. She stayed in her car the whole night and due to exhaustion, she fell asleep until morning.

She was awakened by the sirens of the ambulance that passed her car as they made their way into the driveway of the mansion.

“What the-,” she stammered, rising from the driver’s seat and rubbing her eyes to finally awake from her sleepy guise.

The ambulance wheeled away an old man, followed by a man dressed in a black suit, and drove towards town. They were then followed by the woman, who was held captive the just the night before and another man, a rather serious-looking man but has a pleasant way about him. He looked worriedly at the woman and she got the feeling that he likes her.

“Hmmm, he must be a boyfriend or something… But where is Morrison?” she asked herself while trying to look normal inside her car. They weren’t paying any mind to her at all eventhough her car was the only one parked at the end of the street.

Shoot! I overslept! Now I don’t know where the hell he is. What am I supposed to do now?

She soon realized that she didn’t have a choice but to follow the pick-up truck where the woman and the guy piled into, following the ambulance.

They arrived at a nearby hospital and Sally decided to follow them further inside. But after much slinking around, she didn’t really get to find out anything about the old man or the woman or any of them for that matter. The nurses weren’t allowed to give out any information and had gotten nowhere with the EMT who brought them in as well when she tried interviewing them on their way out. She obviously needed to talk to any of them directly if she wanted to find out their connection with Morrison.

She kept close to the hospital lobby, pretending to get coffee and sipping them slowly to get as much time as possible to be around the trio who were talking about the old man. She overheard them but still couldn’t get any related information about Morrison. The pair drove off somewhere to get the food as the man in the suit was left to wait for results of the tests made. She attempted to talk to the man in an offhanded way but he was tight-lipped and was not really very receptive of her.

She has to find another way. Well, she could very well just go back to the city and wait for Morrison at his apartment.

But then what? Confront him? Ask him why he suddenly forgot about her all of a sudden? Maybe he had amnesia? That is so far-fetched.

She shook her head as if to clear her head.

No. I want to find out about this woman. Why is Morrison so concerned with her? If she has feelings for him, then I better warn her about him and his family, especially his vindictive mother, the infamous Linda McElroy.

But the woman stayed behind, along with the old man, so she wasn’t left with much of a choice. She had to talk to the other guy who acted like the woman was the most important person in his life. Of course, if that was the case, then she would have to resort to other means aside from using her charms.

And it turned out that she didn’t even have to point a knife at him because he was more than willing to spend some more time with her, just so he could gaze into her eyes.

Barret had fallen head over heels over Sally and he couldn’t stop himself even if he tried.

She looks at her knife as if it was the first time she saw it.

Oh my God, what am I doing? She asked herself all of a sudden.

She lets go of the pointed blade and covers her face with her hands.

“Oh my God! I- I…,” she starts saying.

Then Barret does the unthinkable. He draws her to him and wraps his arms around her.

She sighs out of relief for it has been a long time since someone held her that way. Then her eyes opens wide and she pushes him with all her might.

“Let go of me! Get your hands off me!” she starts yelling and flinging her hands all over the small space of the pick up truck.

“Hey, hey!” Barret tries gently to hold her arms but she resists him with all her might. “It’s okay, lady. Hannah, hey, you’re all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Sally seems to come back to her senses and realize that she’s in the cramped space of the restaurant’s locker room and the man in front of her is not Larry. She stops resisting and stays still for a few seconds.

Barret senses her surrender and lets go of her hands. “Look, whatever your problem is, it’s obvious that you’re not sure of what you’re doing. And as crazy as this might sound, even to me… But I want to help you, Hannah…”

“Huh?” she asks.

“I said…,” he starts to repeat what he said.

“No, what did you call me?” she asks again.

Barret is seriously considering that she might be having some mental problems or that she might be on drugs because she looks disoriented and couldn’t quite understand what he was saying.

“Hannah. That’s what you told me your name is, remember? Back in the parking lot before you took me hostage? What is your deal lady? I’m trying to be more than reasonable here but you’re really very confusing,” he shakes his head.

“I lied to you back at the parking lot… I didn’t mean to, you know, to stick that thing on you. I don’t even know why I needed to do it. I’m sorry. I’m just… Forget it. I’m sorry mister,” she suddenly opens the passenger door and hops out of the truck.

He was surprised at her sudden movements but quickly opens his door and goes after her.

“Hey! What’s your name then?” he calls out to her. She’s walked a few steps ahead of him, towards the direction where they came from. “Hey, miss! You can’t walk all the way back there. It’s too far!” he continues to yell and breaks into a sprint to catch up to her.

As he finally does, he sees her in tears.

“Oh, come on, please don’t be like that. Please stop crying. Listen, I’m confused as hell with what just happened and your actions don’t make sense at all but all I know right now is that I want to help you. Please trust me. I won’t hurt you.”

Sally stops and wipes her tears. “Why do you want to help me?” she utters in between deep breaths of air.

She can’t possibly fathom why she ever went out there in the first place. She just left her apartment and decided to go out there and look for Morrison. She didn’t’ think. She didn’t plan. She just thought that maybe if she saw him and made him hurt like she did then she would eventually have peace of mind.

“Because you look like someone who needs someone who needs help. You look lost and from my own experience, you don’t away a person in need.” He smiles at her in a non-sexual way, which made her trust his words.

“Okay. I’m sorry about what happened earlier. I made a mistake in coming here. I should have never come here,” she whispers as he leads them back to his truck.

He sees a fallen branch that’s wide enough to sit on.

“Hey, let’s just sit here for a second, okay. We don’t need to go back to town right away. Let’s just talk. I can’t let you go anywhere with your condition right now.” He motions to the branch and she follows him, sitting a safe distance from where he sat.

“I guess you’re harmless enough,” she snickers and he chuckles at her joke.

At least she knows how to joke around, he thought. He was afraid that she had totally gone out of her mind. She would hate to drag her back to the hospital to get her checked or something. Now that he has stopped her from committing a felony and not reporting her to the cops about it – kidnapping and possessing a deadly weapon – he feels all the more morally responsible for her now. It’s like the Chinese saying that was once relayed to him by a family friend. They believe that once you save someone’s life, they become your responsibility forever. That’s exactly what he feels for Sally. And he has every intention of fulfilling that concept.

“Yes, I am harmless, as you already know. I could have knocked you out earlier or just rammed the truck into a tree or something. But I am not careless about people’s lives, especially if that involved me as well. Hah!” he laughed, joining her in making the situation lighter after their serious altercation.

“Fine. I give you that. But aren’t you afraid that the person you have saved might turn around and take advantage of your kindness? I mean, you don’t even know me. How could you trust me that easily?” she remains skeptic of his intentions, which he understands. Some people just don’t believe in the goodness of others anymore.

“Me? No. I’ve always believed that there is something good in all of us. I don’t want to waste my time by being doubtful. So, what’s your story? Why did you want to cut me earlier so you can find out about my companions?” he asks.

“First of all, I didn’t really want to cut you. I just miscalculated the length of the blade and accidentally drove it harder than what I intended to do. Sorry about that. Are you okay, by the way?” she replies looking remorseful. She tries to look at his side to see if she had drawn blood when she used the blade to try to extract information.

He looks at his side as well and there was a tinge of blood that marked the spot where he was nicked. “I’m fine. It’s just a prick. Don’t worry about it. What’s your name, anyway? Your real name, that is.”

She tucks a lose hair behind her ear and looks up timidly, “My name is Sally Halstone. I live in Chicago and I, ah, I dated Morrison before…”

He looks stunned at her revelation and after a few seconds, realization dawns on him. “Oh, so that’s why you’re asking who the lady was? Are you an angry ex-girlfriend who wants to get back at him? Because if you are, I am certainly not helping you in that department.”

As much as he likes looking at her and much more, being close to her, he doesn’t want to help a bitter woman who wants to get revenge on the guy who swept Cornelia off her feet. Eventhough it would have been such an ideal situation for him in order to get Morrison back for stealing Cornelia, he isn’t the vindictive type. He doesn’t want to partake in that sort of thinking. He believes that things are meant to happen and if Cornelia ends up with Morrison in the end, then he couldn’t do anything about it. Besides, as he realized when he saw Sally, he likes the idea of being the one who helps Cornelia in her times of need as well as Sally. Maybe he has the “Knight-in-shining-armor Syndrome” and can’t help but go for the damsel in distress.

And now, he has met another woman scorned by Morrison’s charms, he might say, just like Cornelia. Boy, he really has to hand it to the guy.

Well, any self-respecting billionaire heir could leave a woman or two pinning over him, right? I guess they do have it all then… And I’m left to pick up the pieces. Not that these women aren’t worth it, because they are, but it just sucks that I have to be the next guy after their major heartbreak.

He sighs and gets up from his seat on the branch, clearly disappointed.

“Wait… I don’t even know your name. Also, I’m over him. I’m here to… Actually, I don’t know exactly. All I know is that I can’t let his family ruin another person, another woman, because she got involved with Morrison. I know you might not believe everything that I’m saying but the McElroys are not who they seem to be. They are a manipulative and evil bunch who use their power and money to get what they want!” She starts sobbing again, which brings Barret back to where she sits.

“Barret. My name is Barret Hannover. And again, I don’t want to see you crying, okay? So, please, stop. Tell you what, its getting close to lunch time, if you want, you can accompany me to where I’m going and give me some time to get cleaned up and then I’ll drive you over to the hospital where you can talk to Cornelia face to face. She, by the way, is the woman you saw with the old man. If you’re so keen on warning women about Morrison and his family, then I suggest you talk directly to her then,” he says with a serious face and he meant what he said.

“Umm… I don’t know… Maybe it’s not wise for me to talk to her right away. Maybe, since I’ve told you, you can tell her yourself?” she suddenly feels uncertain.

“Well, then you could tell me all about yourself on our drive to the house. Seriously, I need to take a bath,” he chuckles and gets up.

She follows him with a smile on her face. She can’t believe how genuinely nice this man is. Nobody in their right mind would help a person who, just minutes ago, took them hostage.

I nearly stabbed him with a knife, for crying out loud! But here he is, going out of his way to even make me laugh because I’m such a stupid idiot and keeps breaking down in front of him! Nicely done, Sally, you’ve successfully looked like a fool in front of this nice man. He is rather good-looking in a neat, geeky way. Oh stop it!

They reach the mansion in under ten minutes and as Barret pulls up the driveway, Sally thought it would be best to make another confession. It surprises her that she suddenly became so honest with this stranger.

“Barret?” she asks while he puts on the brakes.

“I kind of stalked Morrison all the way here and that spot right there,” she points to the corner of the street just a few yards from where they are, “was where I waited in my car and where I spent the night last night.” She gives him a guilty look like a little girl caught with her hands in the forbidden cookie jar. “I swear I didn’t follow him to confess my love for him or anything,” she quickly interjects as he raised an eyebrow at her as if saying, “So, you’ve resorted to stalking him now?”

“I didn’t say anything, Sally. And it’s not my business what you feel about him. I’m just concerned that you’ve reached this point of being desperate just because you had a bitter ending to your relationship,” he replies. She didn’t tell him about their relationship yet but he has seen a lot from her eyes to know that something happened between them that drove her to be like this. He caught a glimpse of a woman who had humor in her eyes when they were back in the woods but was quickly replaced by this sad, angry person. He wants to get to know the latter more than the former, but he knows deep inside that if he really wants to know this mysterious woman, he needs to find out everything about her. And he feels that a big chunk of her old self was taken away from her when she met Morrison, or maybe when they parted ways. He doesn’t know exactly but he’s sensitive enough to know that whatever happened between them, it has tainted her personality big time.

Barret likes to fix broken furniture and turn them into something new and something better. This is a reflection of his true nature for he is continuously drawn to people who feel broken and he has the involuntary urge to mend these broken human beings and possibly build them up into new and better people.

“You do have an extraordinarily good heart to still be talking to me and not judging me,” she answers.

“Well, you just met me. What if I turn out into an asshole after an hour or something?” he replies.

“We’ve been together, alone, in this pick-up truck for over an hour now and so far, all I’ve seen is how good of a person you are. I actually have not met anyone like you, Barret. Thank you for showing kindness to me despite all that I have done to you.” Her words resonated her thanks and all he can do now is nod and smile back.

There is something so sweet and vulnerable behind her smile that Barret just wants to wrap her in his arms and shield her from her fears, whatever and whoever they are.

They walk up the steps of the foyer and she looks up at the grand staircase that greeted them as they entered the threshold.

“Wow! This place is magnificent!” she exclaims and covers her mouth when she realized she had spoken out oud.

“My thoughts exactly when I first saw this grand house. Cool huh? It’s a friend’s house and we’re lucky enough to be staying here for the meantime until… ah, I’ll tell you about it soon. Now, please make yourself at home. I’ll let Jim know you are here. Please, tell him what you need. I won’t be long,” Barret leaves her in the living room. She just nods in agreement and continues to gawk at the expensive furniture and classic fixtures of the room.

“The backyard holds more view than this miss. Would you want to have a drink? What could I get you?” Jim, the butler appears from the kitchen with a ready smile and a friendly demeanor.

“Oh no, please. You don’t have to. I- I’ll just remain here and wait for Barret. I’m okay,” she stammers, taken aback by the friendly formality that the house butler had accorded her.

“Mr. Hannover has advised me to make you comfortable and I must say that the view of the ocean puts anyone in a very relaxing state. Please,” Jim motions towards the doors going to the backyard where she can hear the waves and smell the fresh ocean air.

“That would be lovely indeed. Jim, isn’t it?” she asks, not wanting to be rude as not to know his name.

“Yes, madam. Please allow me a few minutes while I get something for you.” He didn’t wait for her protests and proceeded back to the kitchen after leading her out of the house and towards the spacious backyard.

She stares at the vast ocean and walks closer to the edge of the fence that surrounds the backyard garden.

She closes her eyes and breathes in the warm sea air. She feels the wispy bursts of air in her hair and the tips of her eyelashes. She has never felt so relaxed and calm before. She wants to stay in that kind of state for a long time… To be at home with her surroundings and feel safe…

But reality hits her when she remembers that she is not home, that this place is an entirely different place than her chilly Chicago home or even her apartment in Cleveland. And she is most definitely not safe from the dangers of Linda McElroy. Once she finds out that she’s in near proximity of Manhattan, she might seek her out and God knows what she’s going to do to her.

That woman knows no boundaries! And she will stop at nothing at keeping her so-called “family” away from people of unfavourable circumstances, just like me.

She looks around the gated house and realizes that whoever owns that place must be rich, like them. But then she thinks about Barret and his incredible trust in her even if he just met her. And to think that she even held him hostage with a stupid knife.

It takes such faith and bravery to trust a person who has hurt you, she thinks to herself and she can’t help but think about what happened to her before.

Yes, Linda and Morrison have hurt her big time and led to her further demise with other people but did holding on to that grudge give her any satisfaction?

No, it has only brought more pain and suffering, especially in my mind and heart. I don’t want to continue living like this for a long time. I don’t want to hold this grudge for any moment longer.

She suddenly senses someone approaching from behind. The wind has changed its course and a new warm breeze tickles her hair and nape.

Sally?” a very familiar voice echoes from behind her. She would recognize that voice wherever she went and knows who it is before she even turns around to look at who said her name.

“Oh, it’s you,” she says nonchalantly but her heart starts beating uncontrollably that she’s afraid it might leap from her chest.

I guess I have to face the music sometime…

 

 

Chapter VIII

“Sally? Wh-what are you doing here?” Morrison stammers, not quite believing that she’s here.

“I, ah, I…,” she starts but doesn’t know exactly how to explain her sudden appearance.

“I ran into her in the hospital earlier and she says she knows you. I invited her over because she lost her keys. What are you doing back here, Morrison? I thought you’d left for the city?” Barret walks out of the house towards their direction.

“I was. I heard about James and I wanted to see how he was doing,” Morrison answers him but quickly turns back to Sally with an incredulous look. “What were you doing in the hospital, Sally? Why haven’t you contacted me? I didn’t know you were back here. Where have you been?” Morrison couldn’t’ help the barrage of questions that he had unleashed. He was still in shock at seeing her there, in person, after more than a year of no communication from her. He needed an explanation.

“Hey man, maybe you both need to sit down and talk things over… at another time because right now, I need to get back to Cornelia at the hospital. She hasn’t had a decent meal and a bath yet so if you two would like to come with me, now is the best time to tell me because I’m heading out,” Barret says a little sarcastically. He isn’t sure why he’s beginning to feel pissed at seeing Sally and Morrison together.

They dated before so I guess I shouldn’t feel off that they are talking to each other, right? He starts trying to convince himself not to be jealous of the two but he can’t stop the feeling of annoyance at the thought that they used to date.

“Cornelia, yes,” Morrison clears his throat and looks at Sally uncertainly before turning to Barret. “How is she?” he asks, concern etched on his face.

“She’s fine, Morrison. If you really want to find out, we had better start moving and get back there.” Barret starts walking back towards the living room and out the front door without waiting for their answers.

Why is that asshole back here anyway? Why does he have to mix up everybody’s heads? Especially the women?

Barret is not jealous of Morrison and his effect on women but he’s beginning to get angry at his ways of letting these women down. He doesn’t have to trample on their feelings and then show up all of a sudden and mess with their heads again.

He shakes his head but hears them coming out of the door as he opens his truck.

“Barret, I think Sally should ride with me to the hospital. I need to, uh, talk to her…,” Morrison sends him a look asking him to let him take Sally.

“Sally, are you okay riding with Morrison to the hospital?” Barret asks, not paying Morrison any mind.

“Yes, Barret. I’ll be okay. Thanks for asking,” she replies looking determined and firm.

Fine. If she wants to go with him, let her. But I won’t take her in my arms again if she comes crying to me about him.

Barret shrugs and gets in the truck, muttering, “Fine. Let’s go then.”

Sally and Morrison pile into his sports car while Barret pulls away from the driveway, looking pissed.

He wants to get angry at her but he knows he doesn’t have the right to. He isn’t anyone important in her life and she doesn’t need to explain anything to him.

She’s just a girl I met, that’s it. She doesn’t mean anything to me so she can do whatever she wants, no matter how incredibly stupid it is!

“Morrison-,” she starts but then Morrison speaks up as well.

“Sally-,”

They spoke at the same time then silence…

“Sorry, you go ahead, Sally,” Morrison finally says while peeking at her from the corner of his eyes. He couldn’t look at her fully since he’s driving but at the same time, he doesn’t know what to expect from her and feels slightly anxious of what she might expect from him.

It has been more than a year since the accident and many things have happened ever since. Back then, he had so many unanswered questions and promised to himself that if he ever saw her again, he would surely get all the answers he needed. But now that she’s there, in front of him, just a few meters from his touch, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to ask all those questions.

She’s at a loss for words as well. She knew she would see Morrison eventually and she would eventually confront him about what happened more than a year ago, but she didn’t realize it would be that soon. She was still contemplating on how she would ask for an explanation for his behaviour then but out of all the things that she wanted to say, she is tongue-tied the moment they are together again.

She clears her throat and finally speaks.

“Why, Morrison? Why did you not love me all of a sudden? I understand your mother but you?” she asks in a tone that was not accusing but more of a person who was hurt.

“Me? What about you? Why did you just up and leave me in the hospital? Wait… My mother? You’ve met my mother? When?” he raises his eyebrow, confused at how she had possibly met his mother then.

“Of course I met her. She came to my hospital room the day she paid me money to leave and not to see you again!” she spats the words to his face.

A look of shock and disbelief registers on his face and she knew then that he truly does not know what happened and what his mother did to make the situation worse for them.

“You didn’t know, did you?” she shakes her head and laughs sarcastically. “You didn’t know that your angelic mother had the gall to come to me and tell me that you’ve suddenly changed your mind about me… about us…,” her voice broke at that moment. She didn’t realize until she was face-to-face with Morrison that she was still hurting inside, not because of their lost love, but because of what had happened to her life after that.

“What are you talking about, Sally? My mother never even met you… She came to the hospital to see me so I told her that she would have a chance to meet you too because we were in the same hospital, remember? But I never got a chance to get you guys together because you left!” Morrison says out of frustration and confusion. “Tell you what, let me pull over so we could talk straight. I can’t understand what you’re implying if I continue driving.

So Morrison does pull over by the side of the road and turns to face her fully. “So, what’s all this about you meeting my mother when she was with me the whole time?”

“Morrison, you were out cold for, I don’t know, a few days. How could you possibly know what exactly happened during those times? All I know is, your mother came to me telling me how unfit I am for you and even offered me money to leave you! I am not lying to you. You can ask your perfect mother if you want!” she exclaims.

“Hey, wait a minute, Sally. Don’t talk like that about my mother! You don’t know her,” he replies, getting a little pissed for hearing how unpleasant his mother was when all she’s ever done is to love him and his dad, and take care of them all her life.

He sighs after several seconds as they both remained silent. She’s looking out her window as he looks ahead towards the road. They stopped in a strip of secluded road that connects the main road to the house. Barret has gone ahead of them and might probably approaching the hospital by then.

Morrison shakes his head and runs his fingers through his hair in frustration, “Listen, Sal,” he starts, “I am not your enemy here. I want answers just as much as you do. I was in shock that you just left me then and I couldn’t find you anywhere after that. I was… devastated that you left me… I had to go abroad, to Europe, to forget about you.”

Sally faces him with a look of anger on her eyes, not the reaction he was aiming for. “Well, Morrison, I’m sorry that you had to go to Europe and have a grand vacation time while you got over me but believe it or not, I went through hell in order for me to forget you and what your family has done to me!”

Her eyes start to well up in tears and as much as she hated crying in front of Morrison, a few big teardrops fell from her eyes.

“Oh, Sal… Please don’t…” Morrison starts to come closer to take her in his familiar arms but Sally places both hands up to ward him off.

“Please, Morrison… I don’t want your pity and I surely do not want your comfort. As I have said, I have gotten over you and I don’t want anything that might possibly remind me of what we had before…”

“I… I…,” he stammers, his arms still in the act of hugging her then he let them fall to his sides. “I’m sorry if you had a hard time afterwards… but I still can’t believe that my own mother had anything to do with it…”

“Well, believe it Morrison. I never wanted to take the money,” she confesses in a low voice, “but I was forced to. When I refused to take the money and leave and insisted on seeing you first, she pulled a hard one on me. The one thing that she knew I could never say “No” to.”

His forehead creases and asks, “What?”

“I never told you I have a brother… And the reason I didn’t was because I didn’t want you to think that I’m taking advantage of you,” she replies.

“What do you mean? How could you take advantage of me if you told me about your brother?” he asks, confused.

She sighs deeply. “Because he was in jail that time. He was serving less than a year’s sentence for Breaking and Entering. He was in a bad mix. He had bad company so he got hauled up together with his friends in that misdemeanour charge. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of him or anything. I just didn’t want you or anybody to think that I was with you because of the advantages you might bring to his case… to our lives… Come on, let’s face it. You’re filthy rich and I was what? I was working a nine-to-five at your company, broke, and with a brother in jail! I mean I couldn’t be more than a gold digger than that, right?”

Morrison shakes his head, “No, Sal, you were never a gold digger. I never saw you that way and no one did! Believe me, my stature had nothing to do with our relationship before. It never mattered to me that my family owns a corporation and yours didn’t. I never wanted to have a relationship out of convenience!” He wants to make sure that she understood that he was serious with her then and money never mattered to him.

“To the likes of you, who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, it’s easy for you to say that money never mattered to you… But to common people like us and the rest of the ninety-nine percent of the world, it does, and having people use your lack of money against you is the most effective way to get what they want! She threatened to do something about my brother’s case… implying that she had friends in high places and that she could just call in a favor that would be detrimental to my brother’s case! Who wouldn’t be scared of that? If it was just about me and nobody else, I would have fought her tooth and nail and could have just thrown the money at her face but she talked about my brother! The same one that you didn’t know about yet. I was going to tell you about him during our vacation but as you can imagine, it was cut short…”

He remains silent. His mind is still processing her words and what they mean. “So, you’re saying that my mother, whom you have never met before that day in the hospital, threatened you and your brother’s future and even offered you money just to stay away from me? Why?”

“She said that she didn’t want “my kind” associated with yours. That you had a bright future ahead of you and that you deserve someone… better. And by better, she meant a girl with her own set of diamond jewellery and a string of companies with it, I presume,” she answers bitterly.

As she talks to him, she feels that she’s no longer angry with him for she realized that he never knew anything about it… but feels sad for just a wasted time in their lives. All that’s left is sadness in her heart. She’s not even mad at his mother anymore for breaking them apart. She didn’t really know what’s going to happen to her and Morrison if they continued on with their relationship.

“I loved you then Morrison but I think that we both know that we wouldn’t last… not the happily ever after anyway. And quite frankly, I don’t think it would be you that’s the problem or your family or your mother… It’s just the circumstances that we have in our own lives. We were meant to have that time together and we are meant to have this talk now that its over.” She smiles at him finally and feels for the first time that she has finally let go of the past and the events that happened then.

Morrison looks at her with a smile of admiration and respect. “You know what Sally? I feel that we were a good couple when we were together… but we were at our best when we were friends…” the corners of his eyes crinkle as he smiles. “Friends?” he holds out his hand and waits for her to take it.

Sally, having brought out all the things that she has kept in her heart and mind, takes his hand and replies, “Yes, friends… I can handle that.”

Morrison starts the car again and drives to the hospital. “So, what happened after you left? Did you go somewhere? I tried looking for you but nobody could tell me where you went.”

She tells him that she moved to Cleveland with her brother and has been living there ever since. She doesn’t tell him about what happened to her in the restaurant she first worked in. She felt he didn’t need to know it and its something that she intends to keep to herself forever.

“I’m happy that you’ve made a life for yourself and your brother there but have you ever considered moving back to Chicago and continue with your career here since, you know, we’ve talked and cleared some things up?” he asks sincerely. She was a brilliant employee at his old office in Chicago and he wants to help her get back in track with her career.

“Hmm. I don’t know. I might think about it. I’m okay with my job now… pays the bills and all. Plus, my brother’s probably getting married in the next few months and settle down there, so I’ll see if moving is an option for me.” She honestly never thought about moving back to Chicago or any major city again after Linda threatened her.

“If you’re worried about my mother, you don’t have to. I apologize for what she has done to you and I will talk to her when I get back to New York. I will make sure to clear it up with her. I know it must have been hard leaving all things behind a year ago, but I will make it right, I promise.” He reaches out across the seat and squeezes her hand.

She closes her eyes and smiles. It was a good feeling to be comforted by her ex-lover and now friend, and it was even better that she has finally released her feelings of hatred and uncertainty. It was like a big block of ice was lifted from her heart and now that its gone, it left her feeling warm and hopeful for a better future.

“I appreciate that Morrison. It was unbearable to leave my home and love some place else but it has taught me how to be tough and that I have to take care of myself better and cherish the ones around me. What your mother did was inconceivable but I’ve learned to live my life after it. I actually came out here to somehow make you pay for what I thought you’ve done to me but as we talked and once I learned that you didn’t have any knowledge of it, I realized that all of that pent up hate was all for nothing. I guess I just needed to see you and hear what you had to say to make me see that holding on to grudges would only bring me down.” She feels that she’s grown up from the first time she arrived up to that moment.

“Wow. I really admire you, you know that Sally.” He pulls up at the hospital parking lot and they get out of his car.

Sally remembers about the woman he was with in the docks and asks him about her. “So, what’s all this about this girl? I must admit, I followed you yesterday from your apartment to the docks and to the house where Barret took me. Yeah, yeah, I was in stalker mode yesterday because I thought you were this evil and heartless villain I have pictured you to be all these months. And I saw you rescue her from some men. What was that about?”

“Whoa! You were there? You saw the whole thing?” he asks incredulously as they made their way towards the hospital’s entrance.

“Yes, I did. And it was pretty intense, I must say, like straight from an action movie. I was so scared I couldn’t move from inside my car. It took me a couple of minutes to move after you’ve all driven off and decided to follow you.”

“It was very intense. I was thinking I got hit on several parts of my body half the time on the drive to James’ house. Cornelia. Cornelia is her name and yes, it was because of my family’s enemies. I’m sure you’ve heard what’s been happening in the news or on the papers. It’s a really a difficult time for my family right now with the case and all, but most especially because of these people who want to hurt us by hurting those we love.” He tells her more of the incident and Cornelia’s involvement in it. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this because, well, we have history…”

“Oh come on, Morrison. I’ve said I’m over you and I am. The only reason I had you on my mind for the past year was because of my derision of you and your mother. But other than that, I’ve moved on. As you told me earlier, we are better at being friends more than lovers,” she says sincerely and Morrison can’t help but love her for their renewed friendship and how open and forgiving she had become.

“I really appreciate you being so mature about this, Sally. Please know that I will never do anything to hurt you or our friendship ever.” He meant what he said.

“I know you won’t,” she replies. “So, do you love her?” she winks at him as if coaxing him for more information like high school friends do.

“Well… yes, I do. I love her and I want to make a life with her. That’s why I rescued her from those thugs. I couldn’t live myself if anything bad happened to her. She was kidnapped and held hostage. All because some people wanted to get their hands on the evidence that would help my dad’s embezzlement case. We don’t know yet who the brains of the operation is and the other people involved but I will make sure to get to the bottom of all of this. I cannot tolerate them targeting people that I love!”

“Wow. That is terrible. I never thought I would say this, but I hope you sort things out. If we hadn’t talked about your knowledge or lack of it in our break up, I would have rooted for the other guy but now, I know you don’t need any more animosity. How does she feel about all this though? Does she love you back is the right question, I guess,” she asks, raising an eyebrow. She had wanted to warn the poor girl but if she really does love Morrison, she guesses that she’ll find out soon enough about his mother’s aversion to the underprivileged kind. “Has she met your mother? Please Morrison, if you are serious with her, you might want to give her a fair warning about Linda. I don’t want her crumbling from your mother’s wrath.”

“Sally, I appreciate the concern about my mother but as I said. I’ll take care of her. I would have to talk to her about what you accused her of – and don’t get mad but she’s my mother and as her son, I owe it to her to ask her about it face to face. In that way, she won’t be able to lie to me if it were true. Until then, I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

She doesn’t say anything but nods at his request.

“And Cornelia can actually hold her own. I know she won’t be easily intimidated by anybody. But… that’s the thing, I left the house yesterday and told her goodbye because I couldn’t bring myself to get her more involved with family’s affairs. She was already targeted and kidnapped because of me, because of my family, and I don’t want to find out what they are willing to do next. I had to make her think that I didn’t want to be with her anymore so she won’t be in danger anymore. James had asked me to do this and as much as I despise myself for letting her think that I’m an asshole, I had to. I had to because I agree with James. Until all of this is over, I can’t be with her yet.” He hangs his head in despair. They had stopped at the front of the hospital door, near the lobby entrance.

Sally feels sorry for Morrison and what he had to do for the person he loves. “It’s going to be okay, Morrison. If you just tell her the whole truth, then I know she would understand and wait for you as well. I know I haven’t met her formally but from what I saw in the sincerity of her face when the ambulance wheeled her friend away, she is a reasonable and rational woman.”

“Hah! And she is as stubborn as they get as well. She would never let me go through this alone. I know she would not consent to it if I had asked her to lay low and just sit there and let me fix all this. She would volunteer to help even if it meant that she would continuously be the target in order to hurt me. No. I can’t let her be around me right now.” He proceeds on telling her about what he had said to Cornelia the night before. He tells her about the hurtful words he spat on Cornelia’s teary-eyed face.

“Whoa, you’ve got yourself a dilemma right there. On one hand, you’re saving her from further danger, but on the other hand, you’re making her hate you for because you led her to believe you don’t love her anymore. You want her to stay away from you because you’re afraid of her safety and you think that driving her away with hateful words would do the trick?” she asks looking at him like he was some stupid shmuck.

“Well… yeah,” he admits realizing what a stupid shmuck he really is.

“Tsk tsk tsk… A woman scorned is a dangerous one, Morrison, believe me. The only thing that happened to me all these months of being alone and not having any explanation for what you did, was building a revenge plot for you and your family, especially your mother. Silence and distance had made me vengeful and bitter and not until you and I talked, I kept myself a prisoner by that kind of feeling and thinking. Don’t let that happen to her as well. If she is special as you think she is to your life, then tell her the truth and accept whatever she decides to do afterwards. Warn her of all the things she will go through if she sticks with you and if she still does want to stay, then you’ve got yourself a keeper. If she doesn’t then you will know that she is not worth it and you can have some peace of mind in letting her go for good.”

“But I just want what’s best for her. I don’t want her to go away. I want to keep her safe but the only way is for her to be away from me,” he continues to argue his case.

“I know what you’re saying Morrison and if you think that will work then go for it. But here’s my question, isn’t keeping her close to you better at keeping her safe rather than letting her be unprotected and unguided? I mean, yeah, you can’t keep her under watch twenty-four seven but at least for the most part, you’ll have her close to you. Don’t you think that would be better? And who’s to say that when you leave her alone, the bad guys won’t go after her still? Even if they knew you were not together anymore, you clearly would still be concerned about her safety. It’s not like you flicked a switch and you suddenly don’t love her or give a damn about her anymore, right?”

Morrison contemplates on her words and the longer he thought about it, the more it made sense.

Yes, the enemy wouldn’t think that I won’t be concerned about her anymore if we broke up after a day or a week or even a month. She would still be a target then, unless she moves all the way across the globe and remain there until the trial was over. Something that I know she won’t do.

“That could work but I don’t know if she will ever talk to me again after what I’ve told her last night. But it is worth giving a shot. Thank you Sally… for your words of wisdom and your forgiveness. I would always treasure what we have,” he says sincerely while gazing into her eyes.

He gathers her in his arms and hugs her tight, kissing her on the forehead to show his platonic affections.

They stand there, in each other’s arms for a minute until she finally draws away from him. She looks up at Morrison and then her eyes turns to the side, looking at something or someone behind him.

Her looks turns serious and a little confused. “Umm, Morrison?” she asks uncertainly.

“Yes, Sally? What’s wrong?” he looks at her expression and then turns around to the place where she was looking at.

“Cornelia?” his voice wavers and he suddenly lets go of Sally and fully turns around.

“Oh, so that’s her. Well, I should get out of here because from the looks she’s giving us, we might as well have burned and melted into the ground. Goodluck, Morrison.” She turns to leave but he stops her by holding her arm gently.

“No, it’s okay Sally. I want you to meet her and I want to reassure her that we’re just friends,” is his firm response.

She nods at him and they face the entrance at the same time but Cornelia is nowhere to be found.

“Where is she? Did you see where she went?” he asks her as they both enter the threshold.

“Nope. I just saw her a second ago but then you asked me to stay and the next instant, she’s gone. Maybe she went back to the hospital room where your friend, James, is,” she replies.

“Yeah. That’s probably where she had gone. Let’s go then.” They went up the steps towards the hospital rooms and located James’ room but then they see Barret in the hallway. His head hangs in his shoulders and he looks as if a huge rock has just been dropped on him.

“Barret, hey, have you seen Cornelia? Is she back here?” Morrison asks as they approach him.

Barret stays silent and continues to look at the empty floor.

“Hey, Barret. Are you okay? What’s going on?” Sally asks as she places a hand on his shoulder.

He finally looks up and they can clearly see sadness in his eyes now.

“Haven’t you heard yet?” he asks sadly at them both.

“Heard what? What is it Barret?” Morrison asks more forcefully this time.

“He’s gone. James is gone…,” answers Barret.

The three of them fell silent and Sally sits down beside Barret to rub his back as he laments on the loss of his friend.

“I’m so sorry to hear that, Barret. Is there something I can do?” she asks.

Barret looks at her and thanks her for the concern. “It’s ok, Sally. I’m okay. You don’t have to stay here or offer me assistance really.”

Sally hears a tinge of sarcasm in his voice but dismisses it. He’s probably just tired and sad. I should afford him more patience and understanding.

But Barret is a bit pissed at them for coming too late and for being together. He can’t quite fathom why Sally is still talking to him after what he and his mother did to her. However, he figured it wasn’t his business anyway.

Then why are you so fucking mad at seeing them together?!

“What exactly happened Barret? I thought James was fine? Jim told me he was out of the woods according to Kevin. What happened?” Morrison paces back and forth and still can’t make sense of the situation. “Cornelia? Where is she?” he suddenly remembers that she might have been storming out earlier, sad and grieving about James, and she saw him and Sally hugging at the entryway.

Oh shit! I have to find her.

“I don’t know exactly. I came here around fifteen minutes ago and saw her crying and hysterical as the doctors tried to get her out of the room. I tried calming her down but she kept on telling me that James was gone.”

Barret remembers her grief-stricken face as she told him that her life has been a lie. She said that James told him the truth about her and that she is truly his granddaughter. She was not making much sense after that because her words came in gasps after each sob and Barret tried his best to comfort her and not be overcome with sadness over James’ passing as well.

“Cornelia, I know it’s hard right now but you have to relax for a second. I’ll get you some water okay?” he said gently to her as he coaxed her into sitting on the hallway chairs. It took him several minutes just to stop talking hysterically about what James had told her but it seemed that she had finally calmed down.

He left her there, sitting and staring at the floor and got a bottle of water from the nearest drink dispenser. It was only a few steps from where she sat but when he came back, she was not in her seat anymore. He looked for her in the hospital rooms beside James’ room but she was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, James was officially declared dead at one-thirty-eight in the afternoon due to a sudden and fatal cardiac arrest.

He tried calling her through her cellphone but she wasn’t answering. She tried the house as well but Jim said she hasn’t come home yet. He delivered the bad news to the kind butler and he could hear the poor man gasp and his voice wavered as he thanked him and said goodbye.

He hated to be the bearer of bad news but he didn’t know where Cornelia had gone and Morrison and Sally haven’t arrived yet. So he sat quietly on one of the seats in the hallway and thought of the places Cornelia might have gone. He wondered if James had told her everything. If he did, then she probably wouldn’t have stormed out of there so quickly. That thought made it even more imperative for him to find her quickly to explain everything James told him.

That was when Morrison and Sally saw him sitting on the chair with his head trained on the floor.

 

Morrison grabs him by the lapels of his shirt all of a sudden and asks him again, “Where is she? I need to talk to her now!”

Barret grabs Morrison’s hands and flings them aside, jerking himself away from his grip.

“Let go of me! You don’t deserve her, you jerk! Just last night, you left her alone and now you want to talk to her like you had a right to even look at her!” Barret can’t believe how highly Morrison thinks of himself and how arrogant he is in thinking that Cornelia would even want to see him now.

Morrison puts both hands in front of him and opens his palms as if to say that he’s backing off, “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, Barret. I just need to see her right away. Can you tell me where she might have gone? Please…” he pleads.

Sally looks pleadingly at Barret as well. “Please Barret. She might have seen us in an embrace earlier and she might have gotten the wrong idea.”

“Look, I want to help you but I, myself, don’t know where she went. I called Jim back at the house but she’s not there either. So, you figure out what other places she might think of because I can’t think of anywhere else right now.” He puts his head on his hands, shaking it as he remembers what Sally said.

Hugging? Why would they even be hugging? And here she is, rubbing my back and acting like she wants to give me a hug herself. I’m seriously confused with this chick, he thinks as they all fell silent for the second time.

“Okay, I’ll check her apartment back in Brooklyn and other places. Give me a call if she shows up, okay? I really need to see her, Barret.”

Morrison nods at Sally and leaves. Sally stays with Barret as Morrison walks to the parking lot.

“I’m sorry, Barret. Morrison and I just talked along the way and we cleared some stuff up about what happened between us before and-,“ she starts explaining.

“And what? Huh? You’ve forgiven him just like that!?” he says accusingly, frustration showing on his face.

Sally is taken aback by the animosity in his voice and feels herself get mad at him being that way towards her.

“Hey, I said I’m sorry for arriving here late but I don’t appreciate you yelling at me because I’ve straightened out my issues with Morrison. I actually thought you’d be happy for me… That you’d take my hand and wish me better times and tell me that now, I can finally move on just like how you were earlier this morning…” she whispers the last words because she feels hurt by his behaviour right now.

She can’t explain why he suddenly has such a great impact on her. They just met that morning but to her, she feels like she’s known him for some time and now that he’s being like that to her, she couldn’t help but feel like she’s losing a friend.

“Why are you angry, Barret? I know your friend just died and I’m sorry, I would’ve wanted to meet him. But please, don’t take it out on me…,” she says sadly. “I… I better go then. I wish you luck and thank you for… for this morning.”

And with that, she stands up and starts walking towards the entrance of the hospital. She waits for the automatic doors to fully open, hoping that Barret follows her and stops her from going but he doesn’t. She sighs deeply and puts one foot out the door.

She’s feeling mixed emotions as she locates her car in the parking lot. One one hand, she’s happy that she got to talk to Morrison and told him what she had to say. But on the other hand, and one which is hurting her for reasons unknown to her at that moment, Barret’s coldness towards her had considerable doused the happiness she had felt about her patching things up with Morrison.

Why is that though? I just met him this morning but he’s affecting me so much that it makes me sad that we parted ways that way…

She rummages for her keys in her pocket and in her distracted state, she drops the keys on the pavement.

“Be careful. You might actually lose your keys there,” Barret says from behind her, picking up her keys from the ground and handing them out to her.

“Oh… I- I thought you… I, nevermind. Anyway, I have to go. What do you want now?” she asks with one eyebrow raised. She didn’t want to appear so affected in front of him even though her heart is racing.

“Sally… look, I’m sorry for how I acted back there. I just see red whenever I see you with him, especially back at the house. I guess I’m just confused as hell because one minute you hated him and his whole family and even went to great lengths in coming here to get information on him. And then the next, I see you with him all chummy and even shared a ride with him. I’m sorry to be blunt but what is your deal exactly? Am I missing something here?” he exclaims frustration evident in his voice. He rakes his hair with his fingers to keep himself from taking her in his arms again because she looks like a lost innocent lady as he berates her.

“I am a mess, aren’t I? Please don’t be mad Barret. I realized back in the house when you were getting ready – even before he came- while I was gazing at the ocean, that life is too short to hold grudges and live on hate. Which is what has kept me fighting for the past year. I realized it was the wrong motivation to persevere. I should be moving on and looking forward to other possibilities that life has to offer me. Just like what you did when I held you hostage. You didn’t hold on to the fact that I hurt you back there but instead, you listened to me and gave me the one thing that I thought I couldn’t give to someone else, you forgave me… Without even thinking about it, you forgot all about it and even went out of your way to get to know my situation. You looked past the ugly thing I did and dared to peel a layer to know what’s underneath. I will be forever thankful for that moment that you’ve taught me a great lesson…”

He grows speechless at her honesty. He lets her go on while he stays in his place. He’s so scared of taking a step towards her because he would surely take her in his arms and tell her to stop explaining and just kiss her right there.

“Morrison told me he never knew anything about what his mother did and he tried looking for me but I disappeared, which I did. I went away to make a life for myself and my brother, using the money Linda McElroy gave me. Then we realized that we were eventually going our separate ways even if Linda hadn’t interfered. We always felt that we were a good fit as a couple but we came to realize that we are best at being friends. I couldn’t have handled being his long time girlfriend or even his wife. I can’t stand snotty people and the socialites, ugh, they are the worst. Plus, I haven’t been really honest with him to begin with. I hid the fact that I have a brother and that he was in jail that time… Bottomline, I couldn’t trust him fully to reveal my real self and that’s a big factor in relationships.”

She plays with the edge of her shirt but continues.

“And you, here you are, all trusting and open about yourself and believing in the goodness of others and all that stuff… I- you… I guess what I’m saying is, you got me so rattled inside. I have never met anyone like you and I don’t want to lose you… I want to stay friends with you, if you would still want to. But I can’t take you being mad at me. I am not with Morrison and I have forgiven him, yes, because I want to forgive myself too. I want to move on.”

He finally takes a step and within seconds, they’re in each other’s arms.

“Oh Sally. I am so glad that you told me this. I’m sorry for looking like I was mad at you. I was mad at Morrison and thought he had gotten you back. I couldn’t stand seeing you with him. But I couldn’t bear not seeing you at all so I got mad at myself for feeling this way. I know we’ve only just met but I know that we have something. Do you feel it too?” he draws her away from him only to gaze into her eyes as he wipes a stray tear from her cheeks.

“Yes, I feel that there’s something promising. I normally don’t just hug people I just met and pour my heart out like this but I guess we could say that we met under unordinary circumstances,” she smiles up at him.

“Yes, you could say pointing a knife at me and threatening me, unordinary.” He chuckles and hugs her back to him.

They decide to walk back to the hospital to see what they can arrange for James. Barret tells Sally about James and who he was. He didn’t tell her the part that he is actually Cornelia’s grandfather because it wasn’t his place to do so. He worries for Cornelia, as he tells Sally, and hopes that Morrison finds her soon.

“She must be so confused and hurt right now. Oh Barret, I want to find her too. I want to let her know that what she saw was not what she must think.”

“Don’t worry, Sally, I’m sure Morrison can find her. If there isn’t anything he could do, he can definitely find a person he wants to find with all his resources and influence. But I agree with you. Once we get everything arranged for James. I promise we will try to find her too.”

Barret talks to the coroner and to Jim who is back at the house. Cornelia has not gone back there and she didn’t call either. Jim tells him that he would take care of James’ legal papers and have his attorney notified.

Kevin has also gotten back from his errand and is saddened and at a loss for words when Barret tells him the bad news.

“I owe James everything I have and what I’ve become. I actually thought he would live far longer than this,” he confesses to Barret. They just finished talking to the people in-charge of his upcoming funeral. James had wanted to be cremated when the time came and they are going to honor his request. His cremation and funeral ceremony is scheduled to be held the following day.

“How did you come to know James?” Barret asks, curious as to where Kevin’s loyalty came from. Sally had gone back to her car and went in search for a nearby hotel. Barret asked her to spend the night at the mansion but she refused saying that she didn’t want to make the situation worse if Cornelia comes back and then sees her in the same house.

“He saved me from the streets after I attempted to rob him,” he chuckles at the memory. “Then he offered me a job and I have been his right hand ever since. I can honestly say that he’s a good man. He’s not perfect but he has always done what he thought was best for his daughter and granddaughter.”

“Cornelia…” Barret whispers.

Kevin looks at him with a questioning look on his face.

“Yes, James told me about her and his real relationship with her. I guess he had a feeling that he needed to tell someone of his secret before… before it was too late and I’m so honoured that he trusted me with that information. So what are your plans now?”

“I haven’t really thought about that. My allegiance is still with the Wilson family. That is his real name, Mr. James Tudor Wilson,” Kevin explains further upon seeing Barret’s confused face.

“You mean he’s the owner of T.W. Merchandising?” Barret asks.

T.W. Merchandising is one of the leading companies in the world, not commonly known in the US but carries an American brand. They mainly operate in the import and export of different kinds of goods. Barret has heard of the company because of the furniture business he has. He’s been trying to get major exporters to take a look at his furniture to possibly market them abroad.

“Yes, you’ve obviously heard of the name. He’s the owner and the head of the board but he’s been out of the office for some time. Only appearing when needed because he also went on Chemotherapy sessions as well. He’s been battling cancer as well, aside from his heart complications. But he  didn’t make it public, not even his doctors are allowed to disclose any of that information to the press or anyone for that matter. I always think that he felt like he  deserved all the sicknesses he had because of what happened to his daughter and to Cornelia and taking care of Cornelia was his last ditch effort to gain his daughter’s forgiveness, even from the grave. I know they are there together and he can finally rest knowing that he has found Cornelia and made sure her future is secure.” Kevin was not only James’ right hand; he was also his confidant. James had told him long ago that when the time comes that he meets his death; Kevin must make sure that Cornelia gets what is stated on his will and to protect her from those who might want to take the company from her.

“Yes, of course I know about that company. I just didn’t realize that James was the owner and, well, technically, Cornelia is now. I wonder if she knows though. She stormed out of here right after they took James’ body. I mean, she was really hysterical and shocked with what happened. And right now, Morrison is out there looking for her. Is there something you can do to help?” If James was the owner of one of the biggest corporations in worldwide, then his right-hand man has the resources to find one person, right? Barret thinks to himself.

”I will try my best to locate her but unless she really wants to be found, I wouldn’t be able to find her. From the years that I have been keeping an eye on her, there were plenty of times that she disappeared on me for days but she always came back to a familiar place once she wanted to be found. James didn’t want her to feel confined with me lurking about watching her every move so he affords her those stolen times of being alone and doing whatever she wanted without us knowing. She’s a good girl. I’m sure she has grown to love James and is now hurting because of losing him this early. And if what you told me is true, with James confessing that he’s her grandfather, then she is all the more grieved by his passing. I think we should look for her and once we see that she’s basically unharmed and relatively safe, we should still keep our distance until she comes out on her own. What I’ve learned with Cornelia’s personality is, she doesn’t want to be rushed into anything.”

“I guess you’re right Kevin. I just hope that she’s all right. I better get back to the house and check on Jim. Would you be going there too?” They walk out to the parking lot and Barret gets in his truck.

“I’ll go there later on. I need to do something first,” Kevin answers, unlocking his car. “Barret?” he says, looking up from his seat.

“Yes?”

“Thank you for being there for him last night. He needed a chat to get those things off his chest. He’s been plagued by his guilt for many years and having you there, not judging and just listening to him, meant a lot to him… and to me as well.” Kevin’s eyes get a little moist while he talked about James.

“It was a pleasure, Kevin. I was honoured that he thought I was worthy enough to keep his secret.” With that, Kevin starts his car and drives away, waving to Barret from his rear view mirror.

Barret smiles to himself and thinks about Sally. It was ironic that he met her under those circumstances. It felt like a whirlwind from the moment he woke up that morning until that minute that he’s sitting in his truck at the almost empty parking lot of the hospital.

He shakes his head and starts his truck. He can’t wait to see her again.

 

 

 

Chapter IX

Where are you Cornelia? Come on, answer the damn phone!

Morrison slams the phone down on the passenger seat for the ninth time since he got in his car and started driving towards the city. He learned from Barret that she still has not returned to the hospital and she didn’t show up at the house as well.

He called his father earlier and informed him of what happened and that he needed help in finding Cornelia.

“Don’t worry son, I’m sure she’ll turn up soon enough. She might just want to be left alone to grieve on her own especially since you told me that she was very close to this man, almost like family.” Nick was back in his office in Manhattan, trying to sort things out with his lawyers. Now that they have the documents back, he’s confident that they will win and that the perpetrators will be revealed soon.

No matter how clever they may seem to think, there would still be papertrail somewhere and I’m going to find it. It’s just a matter of time.

Now, he’s more worried about Morrison and Cornelia. He learned from Morrison that Cornelia’s dear friend had died and she’s now missing. He wanted to help Morrison himself because he has grown very fond of the young woman but was too busy with his case and other stuff in the office.

Linda has been really anxious for the past few weeks for some reason. He tried asking what was wrong but she would just smile at him and wave her elegant hand in the air as if dismissing whatever it was that was in her mind.

“Nothing, sweetie. Just something with the charity girls, you know how they are,” she would say or something similar to it.

Nick don’t normally see Linda so worked up about something in her charity balls. She would always have her friends around to do what she wanted for the events she was organizing so it was really surprising for him to see her that way.

As he packs up his things and is about to walk out of the building, he gets another call. He doesn’t bother to look at who it is and just presses the answer button.

“Hello?” he says, still looking distractedly at the doors, trying to locate his driver.

“Don’t be too comfortable Mr. McElroy. You’re in for a big surprise,” then comes the click. Whoever it was just hang up without uttering another word.

“What the-,” Nick looks at his phone and checks the number. It was unregistered. The voice was definitely a man but he doesn’t recognize him. He shakes his head and walks on and finally saw his driver.

Meanwhile, Morrison has finally arrived at Cornelia’s Brooklyn apartment after about two hours of very fast driving on his part. He parks his sports car haphazardly on the curb and runs through the grass and gate that surrounds the building.

He takes the steps two at a time and finally reaches the elevator. “Come on, come on, come on…,” he keeps repeating while waiting for the elevator to reach her floor. He gets out before the door even opened fully, racing down the corridor and finally pounding on her door.

Cornelia hears the first knock and jumps. It was too loud and she knew it must be Barret wanting to talk to her about James’ passing. She had walked out of the hospital shortly after Barret arrived because she couldn’t contain her emotions. She had to get out of there or else she would have exploded.

She shakes her head as the incessant knocking goes on.

“Cornelia! Open up, I know you’re in there. Please Cornelia. Let me in…,” Morrison’s pleading voice penetrates through  the walls and travels to her ears, shocking her into realizing that it was Morrison and not Barret at the door.

She wipes a tear from her eyes and stops packing her things for a second.

What is he doing here? Why has he come back?

She just arrived herself after hitching a ride with a couple on their way back to the city. She was lucky because they were also in a hurry on their way to a wedding so she got there very fast. But apparently, Morrison was fast as well because he’s now pounding the door as if he wanted to knock it down.

“Please Cornelia, I know you’re there. I’m not going anywhere. I-I’ll stay here until you come out. You can’t go out the window so if you don’t want me to cause an even bigger scene-,”

The door finally opens with Cornelia’s grief-stricken face. Morrison doesn’t waste time and takes her into his arms in a tight embrace. They stand there at her door for a full to minutes before he draws her away from him and she retreats back in her apartment. He follows her inside and gently closes the door.

“Cornelia, honey, I’m so sorry for what happened to James. I- I was there earlier t-to come see you and him because I heard what happened through Kevin.” Morrison makes a move to get closer to her but she turns around quickly and flashes an angry look.

“Yes! I saw you there! Locked in an embrace with another woman and from what it looked like, you had some connection with her. Tell you what,” she says angrily at him while he remains at mid-step on his way to get closer to her. “I am not even angry about that! What makes me mad is you waltzing back in there like you had any right to be near James or me! You walked out the night before and I never expected you to come back! You gave the message pretty clear. So, I guess the burning question in my mind now is, What the hell are you doing here?!” she yells the question at his face, anger and frustration evident in her voice and especially her face.

Her mascara had run down her face because of all the crying she made on her way to her apartment and more so now that she faces Morrison. She didn’t care that her only piece of make up is making her look like a clown. She didn’t care that she hasn’t changed since she woke up that morning and was thankful that she slept in her jeans the night before or she would’ve looked weird travelling in her pajamas. She didn’t care about any of that. The only thing on her mind right now is the fact that James was her real grandfather. And that all this time she had been lonely thinking she didn’t have any family in the world. She never knew that she had her only living relative so close by. She remembers her conversation with James before his demise.

 

“Cornelia dear…,” James whispered her name upon seeing her seated on the chair beside his bed. He stretched out his arm to her as she came closer to him.

“James, oh, James, please don’t talk. You’re still weak. Please have some rest,” she caught his outstretched hand and held it with both hands. His hand was a little cold to the touch so she rubs it using her palms.

James smiled up to her and thought to himself that she had grown up to be the granddaughter he always envisioned her to become.

“I’m fine Cornelia. How are you? Did you talk to Morrison?” he asked her while taking labored breaths. He had an oxygen pipe attached to his nose to help him breath better but it was evident that it was still hard for him to take a breath.

“I did last night but I don’t want to talk about him. I want you to stop talking and sleep. You need all the strength you can get so you can get out of here. Hospital gowns don’t suit you.” She made an attempt at humor and he indulged her with a laugh. He then coughed a little which got her to worry about him some more.

“I told you. Take it easy James.” She adjusted his pillow and sat back on the chair.

James turned serious all of a sudden and looked her straight in the eyes.

“I have something to tell you and don’t interrupt me while I do so or I won’t have the courage to go through it and it might be too late if I wait some more…,” he started saying while patting her hand that was placed on top of his.

“Okay, but after you tell me what it is, please go back to sleep,” she replied.

“I will, I promise,” he answered.

“All right, you have my full attention.” She scooted closer to him and waited for what he had to say. She thought it might be something about her mother, a story when she was still alive or maybe during their time together. She had never asked specifically how James had known her mother. She was satisfied with knowing that her mother had a true friend when she was still alive, although she had never seen James before she met him in the alley back where she was going hungry in the streets.

“Cornelia, I knew your mother since she was a baby. I have been with her ever since.” James said in a low voice.

“What? But how could that be? You were friends with her parents perhaps?” she asked, feeling a little confused with what he said.

“No, I’m not talking about her parents. I’m talking about her. She was my second love. Her mother was my first. After losing her mother due to childbirth, I knew I would never love anybody else that way. So I poured all my love to our daughter, my second love…,” James looked as if he was reliving the story he was telling her.

Cornelia was speechless as her brain realized what James was talking about. She pulled her hands away from his out of shock. But she kept quiet and let him proceed without interrupting him any further for fear that he might say it was all just a lie.

He’s the father of my mother, Julie. He’s my-

James continued, “Your mother brought so much joy to my life that I wanted to shield her from all the bad things in life. I tried, believe me, I tried. I worked like a horse to build my company up and be the source of our livelihood. We were comfortable because of the company I put up but she never really wanted the same things I thought every teenage girl wanted. Things like beautiful dresses, cool cars, and fancy stuff. No, she wanted something else like travel around the world, help the needy, and focus on her love for arts and music. She was a true artist, your mother.”

James kept talking and had a glassy look in his eyes as he told Cornelia more of her mother.

“She would tell me, ‘Dad, please stay for the weekend. I rarely see you. I have a painting I want to show you’, or ‘Dad, you look tired, maybe we should go away for the weekend, just the two of us!’ She would squeal in delight whenever I had indulged her in our trips out of town, before I got so busy with my business. I think the last time we went somewhere just to have fun was when she was thirteen years old. We went to the Grand Canyons because she wanted to see if they were really red. I nearly had a heart attack then when she leaned so close to the edge of a cliff.” James shook his head and smiled.

He finally looked at her and saw that she had tears in her eyes.

“Oh, honey, don’t cry. I miss her so much too. I know you’ve been looking for answers and I know you’re waiting for me to tell you why I’ve waited so long to tell you…”

She just nodded, unable to speak.

“My dear Cornelia. Your mother, as loving and artistic she was, she also had a very independent spirit and when she fell in love for the first time, she thought that that would be it. That she had met her match in this world and was not about to let him go. She was nineteen when she met Nick,” he finally said his name.

“So, he really is my dad?!” she exclaimed, not able to control herself. Not sure if she was relieved or angry at being sure of who her biological father was.

“Yes. He is your biological father. Linda met him in one of the conferences I had when she accompanied me. She just came barging into my hotel room one night and told me that she had found her true love and that it was this guy named Nick McElroy. Of course, I knew who Nick McElroy was. Eventhough he was a young lad himself that time, he was old enough to have a wife. I tried talking some sense into Julie but she wouldn’t heed my words. She continued seeing Nick even after that conference and we were back at home. We have a house in Upstate New York because I didn’t want to live in the city then. She lived a sheltered life there and all the freedom she could ever want.” He shook his head again as if regretting that he spoiled Linda when it came to doing what she wanted to do in her life.

“I guess it was my fault, her stubbornness and wild spirit. I wanted her to think for herself and let no one tell her what they thinks she should do, to follow her heart and reach for her dreams. And as it turned out, Nick had heart and he became her dream. She was so convinced that Nick would leave his young wife for her despite my warnings against the possibility of it ever happening. She continued seeing him and she ended up getting pregnant… with you, my sweet Cornelia.” He smiled sadly at her but her expression remained blank. Her mind racing with the thoughts and images of James and her mother together as father and daughter.

“So your mother insisted on still believing that Nick would leave Linda but I couldn’t bear to see her so sad and pinning for a man who will never be hers. So…,” he heaved a sigh and took a deep breath, “I told her a lie. I told her that Nick had called and didn’t want to have anything to do with her anymore and even offered to pay for her silence about their child together or better, yet to have you aborted. She was so angry then and wanted to talk to Nick but I wouldn’t let her out of the house. She was getting bigger by the day and I used her pregnancy as an excuse to keep her indoors. I told her doctor to advise her not to go out or she will lose the baby. I had to resort to lying flat out just to avoid her going to him. I couldn’t let my only daughter be the other woman! I won’t have it!” he exclaimed, remembering the anger he felt during those times. He was so angry that he couldn’t see reason and thought that his cunning ways of keeping Julie and Nick apart was the best way to keep his daughter from further hurt and disappointment.

“Nick also came calling almost everyday, wanting to see Julie. But as a father, I couldn’t let that kind of man inside my home! He destroyed the most precious person to me and I won’t have the likes of him to take hold of Julie ever again. So I also told him lies about not knowing where Julie was and not entertaining any more of his visits and calls. Eventually, he stopped. I guess he gave up as well… The truth is my dear, I drove your mother away… I tore her apart from the person she loved and even though I knew that Nick wouldn’t have left his wife, and I still think that, I didn’t have the right to make those decisions for her. She should’ve been able to figure that out on her own and not feel pain and hurt because of my lies. I’m sorry Cornelia…” James took another deep breath. He had been taking more deep breaths for the past few minutes.

Cornelia grew concerned but still didn’t stop him from going on. She needed to hear his words. She needed to find out the truth about herself, the truth about her whole identity, and to know the truth from the lies.

“Your mother ran away when she was about a week before delivering you and thankfully, she was able to have a safe delivery and you came out healthy and screaming for all the world to hear. I wasn’t there to witness that miracle but I knew in my heart that it happened just like that. I was so proud of her making it on her own, even though she had cut all communication from me and basically disowned me as her father. I had Kevin locate her and keep an eye on her until her…,” he stopped to take another breath and a tear rolled down his eyes. “Until she died. I attempted to establish our connection but she was adamant at not having me involved in both of your lives. So I backed off and focused on developing my company and travelling abroad almost eighty percent each year. I let myself so engrossed into getting my business recognized all around the world that I nearly forgot about my daughter and my grandchild.”

Cornelia had tears running down her face too and the gravity of his words have been hitting her like bricks of cement, building and piling up on top of her heart that it was getting very hard to breathe.

“I- I tried finding you right after Julie died but for s-some re-reason, you were lost. No one knew where you went after your teacher took you and I had my men scour the nearest cities and towns but no one could tell them where Cornelia Lewis or Cornelia Wilson was. I knew Julie switched to her mother’s maiden name after running away. It took me six years to find you finally. When the news of a runaway broke the noontime news. If you hadn’t run away, your hazy picture wouldn’t have been posted on television and I wouldn’t have recognized you. I immediately had my resources look for you and I set out to look for you as well when my men still couldn’t find you after a week. Then, one fateful night, at a station where I made my next stop, I saw this scraggly looking young teenager, hungry and shivering, in the street. I couldn’t deny the spur of recognition I experienced when I looked into your eyes. You have the same eyes as your mother, you know, just like your grandmother.”

“B-but why didn’t you tell me who you were then?” she stammered, trying hard to speak despite the tightness in her chest.

“I was afraid you’d run away when I told you the tr-truth. I know that Julie had not mentioned me ever and s-so I thought telling you the t-truth then w-would not be the best route.” James’ breathing got worse. It came as bursts then and Cornelia, despite her shock and the building anger she’s feeling towards James, came closer and held his hand.

“Okay, relax. I think that’s enough now. You can tell me the rest of the story once you’ve gotten some rest,” she suggested but he wouldn’t rest until he told her the rest of his story.

“No, Cornelia, you have to hear everything. You deserve to know who you are. I was so scared that you would refuse to have anything to do with me too when I tell you who I really was and what happened with your mother and me. I couldn’t make the same mistake. So I led you to believe that I was an old friend of your mother’s instead. And I was able to help you by doing that. I was still angry at Nick then and I had no intention of telling you who he was but you had your mother’s old photograph with Nick so I just hinted that he might be your father. I told you more lies about him, slandering his name to you because I wanted to dissuade you from knowing him. When I realized that there was no stopping you, I fed you anger at him and egged you to have your revenge. I felt that if you were successful at bringing him down, I would have honored your mother’s memory. But I was wrong… I shouldn’t have fed your rage. I should have told you the truth years before… I’m t-truly s-sorry for ever-,” he took a breath, “for everything. If I was given a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have hurt your mother so deeply that caused her to run away and cut me off from her life.” James began to cry then. Uncontrollable sobs came from the old man and he looked like he aged ten years.

Cornelia couldn’t believe all that she heard. James’ revelations had cut to the core and it caused her to rethink everything that had happened in her life so far.

So, Nick is my father and he is not the despicable man that I thought he was… Does he know I exist? Does he know me?

“I only want to get you back and to take care of you, Cornelia. I wanted to make up for the lost time – the time that I wasted when I let my heart grow cold for your mother. I j-just ho-hope that you would fi-find it in your heart to forgive m-me…,” he let his words hang in the air.

Cornelia stayed silent and finally grabbed his hand, stroking it to show him that she was not angry with him.

“Oh James. I’m so glad that you told me the truth. I am not angry. I… I forgive you. I’m so happy that I have found you, grandpa…,” she tried the word out and it sounded so right for her to call him that.

James smiled despite the pain and stroked her beautiful face. “I am so proud of you Cornelia. I couldn’t have asked for a better granddaughter. You truly are your mother’s child and I- I only hope that t-this wo-world treats you better be-because you deserve the best…,” he said then closed his eyes with a smile on his face.

Cornelia smiled back at him and felt the so happy that she had finally found a part of her, her only family. And that she knew about what really happened with her mother and father. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around the lies that James told her about Nick but she didn’t care because whatever James did, it was what he thought was best for her. And she loved him for it.

She hugged him and he placed his hand on her head. She looked up at him after several minutes and saw that he was smiling but there was something wrong…

He had stopped breathing.

“Nurse! Nurse! Please come in here! I need help!” she screamed as hard as she could but it took the nurses several seconds to come rushing into the room. The moment they arrived, the doctor started shouting orders to resuscitate him and one nurse urged her to get out of the room while they worked on James. She saw red then and started resisting the nurse.

“No! I want to stay here! He needs me! Let me go!” she struggled away from the nurse but two orderlies came through the door and tried getting her out of there gently but she was fighting with all her might.

No! I can’t lose him now! I just found him. After all this time of being alone… I can’t… No! I just can’t lose him!

But she did lose him. The doctor called the time of death as Cornelia shrinks in the corner, at the same time that Barret came into the room and looked at the situation. It didn’t take him long to realize what happened. When he saw Cornelia still being held by a nurse for struggling, slowly sitting on the floor, he went to her immediately and grabbed her to him.

He got her out of the room and had her sit on one of the chairs out on the hallway. Her mind was blank. She couldn’t think straight. Her heart felt like it was being crushed from the inside and then wrenched from her chest… over and over…

She was talking about what James had told her to Barret but she wasn’t making any sense. She couldn’t stay there. She had to go somewhere or else she would burst.

So when Barret’s back was turned, she got up and walked aimlessly towards the door. She somehow gotten a ride to the city and then she ended up in her apartment. She thought about what was next for her during her ride to the city.

What now? What do I do? What do I do with the information James had given me? She had asked herself many times.

Then when she sat on her bed, she looked at the framed picture of her mother, Julie, on her bedside table. She knew what she needed to do…

So she began packing and gave someone a call to arrange what she had planned to do. She didn’t expect anybody to find her back in her apartment, let alone Morrison…

 

“I came here to see you. To tell you that I am here for you and I was wrong about last night. I was so scared that you’d be in more danger when you’re around me that I thought pushing you away was the way to save you from my enemies. I was wrong Cornelia and I am asking for your forgiveness. Please…,” he gets down on his knees in front of her but she walks away, turning her back to him.

“Don’t,” she whispers.

“It’s going to be okay, Cornelia. I will help you sort things out and I will keep you safe. I realized that you will be safer when you’re with me…,” he keeps telling her that it would be all right but she knows that everything has changed. She’s not ever going to be the same again. And the fact that she saw Morrison with another woman in an intimate embrace when she walked out the hospital, had made everything worse.

“Morrison, look. I need you to listen to what I have to say and do what I will ask you to do without asking me why. I don’t want you to stop me so please just don’t…,” she finally answers after a few seconds of silence.

“Anything, Cornelia. Please tell me what I can do for you and I will do it right away,” he responds with hope in his eyes. Hope that they would pick up the pieces and get on with their lives.

“I never want to see you again. Please leave this place and never come back. Please don’t ever come looking for me. I do not want you in my life.” She said the words with so much conviction and with a very steady voice that Morrison couldn’t respond right away.

“B-but, honey… I thought,” he stammers.

“Whatever you thought was wrong. I have told you my request and I want you to honor my wishes, Morrison. This will be the last time we will see each other.” She can’t bring herself to tell him that they were practically step-siblings. That his adoptive father is hers and that as much as she loves him, she can’t be around him anymore. Now that she knows who she is, she can’t turn away from the fact that they can never truly be together.

She does not know exactly what to do with Nick yet. She has thought of confronting him when she was on her way to her apartment but she thought, “For what? What could it possibly do to my life? He has been absent from my life so far and he has never tried finding me.”

She was sure that he knew what happened to Julie because he has her painting up on the wall of his study. So that meant that they had some form of communication somehow. But he didn’t even come and see her after Julie died. That makes him a lousy father and not worth her time. No matter what James had told her about his lies about Nick, he was still right on one thing. He wasn’t good enough for Julie.

Morrison stands in the corner of her living room, looking like he was hit with a baseball bat. He couldn’t feel his face. He feels numb to the core. He couldn’t be hearing those things Cornelia just told him.

She doesn’t want me in her life… Those same words that he spat at her the night before were being thrown at his face now.

“You can’t mean that. Look, I-I’m sorry about what I said last night and I understand you’re upset-,” he started talking but she starts shaking her head.

She faces him now and with eyes full of certainty, “No, Morrison. I meant every word. I don’t love you, simple as that. And it took James’ death to make me realize that there are more important things in life than men and love. So, please go before I call security or the cops for trespassing.”

His ears begin to ring and his palms become sweaty.

Shit! She really means it. Fuck! I messed it up! I really did it this time. Shit!

He hangs his head and looks down on the floor for a second before composing himself and giving her one final look.

“I am sorry Cornelia and you can choose to forget me in your life but I will never forget you and I will never stop loving you. I will wait for that day when you find it in your heart to save a place for love in your heart… a place for me. Until then, I will leave you alone to deal with your grief your own way but please know that I am just a phone call away. I will drop everything and run to your side if you just give me a chance to do so…,” he says with a gentle and sincere voice.

She remains silent and her stare hits him like a block of ice, hard and unyielding. She has begun putting up her walls again and reinforcing them with ice. It’s as if Morrison can see her physically surrounding herself with her walls and she won’t let anyone enter. Not even him.

He turns towards the door after not getting any response from her. She turns her back and faces her window, into the streets of Brooklyn.

She hears the gentle closing of the door and she lets herself break down.

Morrison closes the door gently and leans on it for support. He can’t take the pain that’s gripping his heart at the moment but he can’t let Cornelia see it either. He needs to be strong for her and that means that he needs to show her that he can take whatever it is that she throws at him. And let her know that he is not giving up. He’s just giving her her space…

But it was damn too hard to let her go… He composes himself and walks to the elevator. He turns to look at her door and feels that it’s going to be the last time that he will ever look at that door again…

The Past that Haunts You Part 2

Chapter I

 

What are you doing Cornelia? Are you sure you’re willing to do this?

Cornelia Masters asks herself as she holds on to the seat belt of Nick McElroy’s expensive car. She’s seen the look on Morrison’s eyes as the car drove away further along the road, away from her apartment, away from him.

Oh, what must he be thinking now? Surely, he’s thinking I’ve gotten back together with Nick and continued with our “supposed affair”.

Cornelia Masters, an orphan, a young woman with a very beguiling face and body, who can get any man she wanted, looks on ahead, her conflicting thoughts plaguing her as they drive towards the city. She’s been bent on destroying Nick McElroy, the father whom she has never known, until her mother’s untimely death. She’s always suspected that it wasn’t just an accident. Her mother had always been a very careful driver and rarely went above sixty on the freeway. But she mysteriously had a vehicular accident when Cornelia was ten years old – that was ten years ago to that day…

And she has never forgotten. Her mother, sweet Julie, had so many difficulties in her life. First, meeting the man who got her pregnant and left her, raising her daughter alone without so much as a relative that was around to help her, then finally, meeting her unjustly death over a suspicious car accident. How could a person go through all difficulties in life without so much as a shoulder to cry on? That’s what Cornelia admired about her mother the most and that’s what pushes her forward.

There’s no time for crying or regrets, only plans for the rightful justice of her mother’s death… and of course, to find out if Nick McElroy is her father once and for all. And if he is, why did he leave them? Why would he let his unborn child grow up without knowing him? Those questions still burn in her head even until that day that she’s finally within reach of the father who abandoned her. But even with all the hatred and disgust over this person, she can’t seem to bring herself into asking him directly if he really is her father… not yet anyway. She has to get more facts and information to bring him down. The truth would come out eventually but for now, she has the opportunity to know more about him, without him knowing about her.

“So, Mr. McElroy – I mean Nick – where do you plan to go for dinner?” she asks as Nick continues to drive across the bridge.

“Oh, I don’t know. How about a modest little restaurant a friend of mine owns? It’s just over at Soho. It’s lovely over there and we have so much privacy,” Nick looks at her and winks with a smile.

I knew it! You perverted bastard! You really are a disgusting human being!

“I see, sure.” Cornelia tries hard to smile instead of getting mad at him.

She knows that lying to Morrison and telling him Nick and her had a two-month affair before was wrong, but she only blurted that out when he caught her sneaking around Nick’s study during the party he threw in Morrison’s honor. She was surprised to know that Morrison is actually Nick’s adopted son and didn’t know what else to say when she was caught, so she lied!

She met Morrison earlier that week when he ran her over with his bike during her early morning run at her neighborhood’s park.

Such a stupid idiot he was, she thought to herself as she recalls how they met.

“Ouch!” she said in a small voice as she felt a throbbing in her head.

“Miss! Miss! Are you alright?” a deep male voice asked with concern. “I’m sorry, I, ah, I didn’t see you past that curb. I should’ve slowed down. What an idiot!” he said, as he looked so guilty for he had his full helmet gear and reflective glasses on while she was lying on the ground, all banged up.

He looked at her with concern and mostly guilt in his eyes as he continued on a string of curses directed to himself for not noticing her running towards the curb.

“Hey, I’m fine, stop cursing already,” she was more annoyed at his string of words than being hit by his bike.

When she started to sit up, he suddenly grew silent all of a sudden like he’s just seen a ghost or something. He continued staring at her through his annoyingly bright sunglasses, which he had not taken off yet even though he’s been talking to her for several minutes now.

Then he finally uttered something like, “Wow”, but grew silent again. She asked what the heck he was doing for not slowing down while rounding a curve and biking through a runner’s lane. He couldn’t seem to answer her so she just waved her arms out in front of him, hoping to get his attention back. He seemed to have faded out into his own universe of something but he finally snapped out of his trance and apologized profusely.

She wanted to go home but he insisted that they go to the hospital so she can be checked for any concussion or if it was serious. She went along with it because he wouldn’t take “No” for an answer.

Despite being hit and having some minor bruises and cuts, she was intrigued by Morrison and more so when he took his sunglasses and helmet off. She didn’t expect a movie star to appear from that helmet but he was close. He was, surprisingly, a gentleman too with his subtle ways of chivalry all throughout their way to the hospital. He even carried her to the car and inside the hospital – something that made her feel vulnerable but at the same time, safe somehow. Albeit his charms and acts of chivalry, she was still annoyed with him and she can’t understand why he had such an effect on her. So as soon as he and his driver dropped her off her apartment building, she jumped out of the car and was about to race to her door were it not for Barret being there and ready to help her.

“Whoa there!” Barret exclaimed as he caught her on time before she hit the pavement. In her rush to get out of Morrison’s car, she underestimated her body and lost her balance for a second.

When Barret caught her, she took the chance to use him to push Morrison away. She made a play of acting weak and agreed to be carried inside her apartment by Barret. There was a moment when Barret and Morrison looked at each other with animosity and if Charlie, Morrison’s driver, hadn’t cleared his throat to dispel the palpable tension between them, it might have resulted to more than sharp stares between them.

When she saw how Morrison looked at them when Barret carried her up to the apartment building door, she felt a pang of guilt but quickly dismissed it because he couldn’t possibly feel jealous about Barret carrying her. She just did it to piss him off because he was acting like she was his girlfriend or something, when clearly she wasn’t! They just met for Christ’s sake. Plus, she doesn’t like it when men order her around like they had a right to tell her what to do, so, she just annoyed him back.

As soon as they were out of earshot and as Morrison’s car pulled away from the driveway, she asked Barret to put her down because she was feeling better.

“Cornelia, are you sure you’re okay to be alone?” Barret said as he gently placed her feet back on the ground.

She said she’ll be fine and apologized for even asking him to carry her, which he said he did gladly. They parted ways and she went up to her apartment building and did more thinking about her plans the next day, the party at the Hamptons, in Nick McElroy’s house.

She didn’t know that Morrison was Nick’s only son, his adopted prodigal son, until he caught her snooping around his father’s study in the new house. The party was in full swing when Cornelia decided that it was the best time to get some evidence against the older McElroy, or the Moneymaker, as the people so fondly called him.

Except that he was a crook, as far as Cornelia thinks. Nick was up for a lawsuit being filed at him for money laundering and from stealing from his clients using his local bank, Missions Bank. That lawsuit is going to be the perfect downfall of the man who thought he could own the world and not be responsible for any of his actions. All she had to do was find out his dirt. She needed to look at his files or anything indicating any offshore accounts where he might have stashed the money of his patrons. Since Missions Bank declared bankruptcy a year ago, there have been many talks from the customers and the shareholders as to where the funds went to. There were no investments made or any proof of where it went. The firm claims that it went to bad investments and unpaid loans that their clients took out but there has to be something more to it.

That’s what McElroy will be tried for.

Cornelia made her way to Nick’s study by actually climbing up to it and swinging herself to the foyer since it was on the second floor of the McElroy Manor. She used the diversion from Nick’s speech to do the deed, thinking no one would be paying attention until the speech was over. What she didn’t know was that Morrison had been avoiding his father’s formal speech and just wanted to escape the party altogether. It was just unfortunate for Cornelia to be caught red-handed as she was snooping at the study by Morrison, nonetheless. They already had an early run in with him saving her at the gas station and driving her to her hotel. The least she expected to happen that night was to see him at the McElroy Manor and then eventually finding out that he’s Nick’s son.

In her panic and shock- at finding out that the guy who ran her over with his bike and who’s continuously becoming the bane of her existence – was Morrison himself, she blurted out a complete and utter lie about being supposedly involved with Nick McElroy. She used her knowledge about Nick’s whereabouts to convince Morrison who actually believed her, at least she thinks he did.

Morrison was angry and shocked at first but she was very believable or at least he’d like to think she was the innocent who got corrupted by his father’s worldly pleasures. He took pity on the girl especially when she cried in front of me. He could never stand women crying so instead of telling her that she was just lying and was just destroying his father’s name, he did the opposite, believing her and even comforting her in her pain.

I must be an idiot! He thought to himself as he even invited her for a tour or a day out to explore the better parts of the Hamptons the next day, which she accepted to his pleasant surprise.

He had no idea that Cornelia plans to use him against his father…

Cornelia hasn’t quite made up her mind yet as Nick’s car drives away from the stunned face of Morrison from the rearview mirror. She’s torn between being a moral person and from being a good daughter who is willing to do anything to make sure justice is done right for her mother.

As she snaps back to the present, she looks at Nick’s smiling face as he rambles on about his meanderings in town, going to business meetings and talking to potential clients. She thinks to herself, Is this man really my dad? Is he really a disgusting womanizer who happens to be good at hiding it? Or does he just have a good heart and just decided to give a ride to an employee whom he happened to see while she was walking by herself? Did he really not have anything to do with my mother’s death?

It is almost too excruciating for her to think of all the answers to her own questions, but there is one thing that she’s certain of at that moment… She has finally broken Morrison’s trust and she might never get it back ever. That thought actually makes her sad and she almost takes a double look at the rearview mirror and just stop the car altogether… but she doesn’t.

No, you can’t like anybody, remember? She reminds herself while trying very hard not to look up at the mirror. You have to think back to what mom went through. You have to find out what really happened and if you do confirm that Nick is your dad and had something to do with her death, then you have the right to exact your justice unto him!

She gives a final shake of her head and breathes in deeply. Now, she’s ready.

“So, Nick… is it okay to call you Nick even outside the office?” she asks while smiling at him.

“Of course, Cornelia! I’d very much prefer you to call me Nick. Or if you have something else better in mind to call me, just let me know. Ha ha ha!” he chuckles loudly as she pretends to laugh with him. She can’t put her finger on it, but either Nick is borderline flirting with her or he is just a darn jolly fellow.

Whatever he’s doing, she has to keep up with the pretense of not knowing anything much about him and possibly gain his trust.

“So, are you and Morrison dating?” he asks suddenly.

Cornelia is surprised at his question, but thinks that it is just natural for a father to inquire about his son’s lovelife, right?

“Well… not exactly,” she says honestly. She doesn’t quite know what Morrison and her are, at the moment, but she’s sure it’s not good after what he saw.

Why? Have you gone out for a while?”

“The time you saw us together was actually the first time we went out and it wasn’t exactly a date. He just wanted to show me around since it was my first time to visit the Hamptons.” At least that was true, she thinks to herself.

“Ah I see. So how did you like it so far?”

“It’s a great place. I don’t get out much so being in a lovely place was very refreshing.”

“I meant your “not exactly a date” with my son? How was it?” he winked jokingly at her, as if letting her know that he was the cool dad who wanted to know the real score between them. “I don’t mean to intrude or anything. It’s just that my son has gone through a tough time with his – ah – ex… I just don’t want to see him go through that again, you know what I mean?” Nick looks serious for a second as he looks ahead towards the beaming lights of the city.

She doesn’t know quite exactly how to respond because she has not figured out her feelings for Morrison either. “I enjoyed his company but I’m not sure if its every going to happen again. I- I’m really trying to focus on my career so dating is not really something I’d want to do now. Don’t worry about him being heartbroken over me, Nick,” she gives a short laugh, “I’m sure he’s forgotten about me now.”

“Oh, don’t be so quick to discount my son’s sincerity. If he really likes, you, believe me, he will find a way to see you again. I’m sorry for my prodding. I just wanted to make sure you know what he’s been through so if you’re not seeking for a relationship, then just let him know the soonest so he won’t be pinning over you. Sorry for my bluntness.”

Cornelia looks at him as he talks and she can’t shake the feeling that everything he said was out of concern for his son. But her hatred for this man is not letting her fully believe that he has good intentions in asking her those kinds of questions.

She squirms in the leather seat of the sports car that Nick is driving. They drive through the busy streets and gets caught in mild traffic. The whole time, Nick regales her of stories from Morrison’s early childhood and they share a laugh when he tells her about Morrison’s favorite cowboy boots that were pink.

“He never wanted to take it off. He would wear it anywhere, even in his bed! I mean, I was beginning to think that he’d marry those boots!” he chuckles and Cornelia can’t help but laugh with him as she imagines how Morrison looked like with his pink boots.

Hey, why are you laughing with him? It seems like you’re having a good time with him! What gives?! Her inner voice checks her because she seems to have forgotten about her whole purpose in getting in the car with him in the first place. She stops laughing subtly and focuses on what information she needs to get from him. She needs to lead the conversation and not the other way around.

As they pull up at a modest restaurant in the streets near Soho, Nick sighs and says, “Ah, finally we’re here. Come on, if you want to taste authentic good food, then come with me!” he says enthusiastically as he gets out from his side and opens her door to let her out.

He offers his hand and she takes it, not wanting to be rude and so he can be more comfortable with her. She didn’t feel at all creeped out by taking his hand and his assisting her out of the vehicle. For one, she feels like he’s sincere in just having dinner out with her, not on a date or anything, but just to share a meal with someone.

She looks up at the two-story building made of wood, mostly. It looks like a kind of cross between Italian and Western cuisine. It isn’t like those five-star restaurants that most rich and famous people go to. It’s just a normal, cozy restaurant, tucked in one of the homiest streets in Soho.

As they go in, the person on the counter, which is probably Nick’s friend because they greet each other like old friends, usher them in and leads them to a table in the corner. The ambiance of the place is very homey, with the yellow dim lights and the plush sofa in the middle of the floor, facing a small fireplace. It looks more like a home than a restaurant and there are just a few tables around.

The chairs and tables surrounding the small space are made of wood but not just ordinary furniture lumber. They are made out of driftwood and fashioned into comfortable chairs and tables.

Cornelia is stunned for a few minutes and doesn’t say a word until Nick clears his throat and asks what she wanted to order.

“Oh, I’m sorry Nick. I was just blown away by this place that I forgot we had to eat here,” she apologizes and looks at the menu.

“That’s quite alright. I was the same the first time I went here. I used to frequent this place a long time ago…” he stops and looks like he is remembering something or reminiscing about something in the past, “but nowadays, I just come here when I can…like tonight. After a grueling day, I just need to go somewhere familiar and a place I feel a lot more at home with.”

He looks at his menu for a second and decides on the clubhouse sandwich.

“Wow, their food look amazing. I don’t exactly know what to get…” Cornelia thumbs through the selections and decides to just try their bestseller. “I think I’m going to get this,” she points to the order and Nick gives a nod of approval.

“That is a great choice! Their pastas are one of a kind. Now, let me just tell Antonio over here and we’re good to go,” he calls over the waiter whim he knows, of course, and gives their orders.

“So, Cornelia, my dear. Where are you from?”

Why is he probing again?

“I am originally from Jersey but moved here when I was sixteen and lived here ever since,” she answers honestly. She figures that it wouldn’t do any harm to be a little honest with the man. Maybe he’s just checking if she will tell him what’s in her employment file, which he has access to. So, she thought she’d better stick to her work profile.

“I’ve been to Jersey lots of times before… on business mostly, but also for pleasure. I love it there. It’s not as fast-paced as New York, but not as far away as I’d like it to. It’s a balance between the tranquility of the outdoors and the bustling city lights, both of which are just an hour away.”

He talks like he’s back in that place again. Cornelia studies him while he talks about her hometown and feels that he enjoyed being there. She risks a personal question to possibly incite him to talk more about himself and get more personal.

“Is that where you met Mrs. McElroy?” she asks with a smile, pretending to be interested with his wife.

He turns serious for a second then breaks into a smile as well, shaking his head as he replies, “Nah. I met Linda in the South, where her family lives. I worked with her father before and he thought it would be a good union so we got married.”

“Oh, I only said that because it looks like you really love Jersey and, naturally, might have found someone there that you love as well.”

“Yeah, unfortunately, I didn’t find anybody there who wanted to spend her life with me. So I moved on and accepted Linda’s father’s proposal.” Nick looks at her with a look of bewilderment on his face. “You know, I only just met you a couple of days ago but I feel that we will get on quite nicely. See, I’m even telling you my personal life!” he laughs at the thought as she smiles sweetly at him.

“I really appreciate your honestly Nick. I guess we’re two peas in a pod, you and I,” she laughs as well as their food is served.

They spend a good full hour just enjoying the Italian dishes they ordered and telling each other tidbits of their lives. Of course, Cornelia just tells him half-truths and full lies about her childhood and where she’s been, but still, that dinner began to let her realize a number of things. Things that are so life changing that she doesn’t want to analyze it right there. She needs to be by herself and think things over afterwards.

She then politely bids him goodbye and declines his offer of driving her home. She prefers to get into a cab so she can have more time alone while she mulls things over in her head.

She waves at him as the cab passes by his car. What just happened?  She asks herself. Why is Nick being so nice to her all of a sudden? Is it really because he wanted to know how she feels about Morrison? Or is it something else?

She tried many times to loathe him while they were having their dinner but he was very accommodating, nice, and cool about things. She never expected that he would be like that in real life. She always sees him in his impeccable suits and polished shoes, walking in a brisk pace, as he enters the elevators.

Cornelia shakes her head as if to clear her mind because certainly, she’s all confused now with what to make out on the time they shared in the restaurant. It was actually… pleasant.

No! That’s what he wants you to think! They’re all liars, these lawyers. They will get you to like them to gain your full trust, then use it against you! No, Cornelia. He is a phony. Don’t believe his pretense and find out more about his dirty secrets before he finds out about you.

Her conscience and inner voice has always led her to the right path and she is listening to it yet again. She knows herself and right now, she is getting confused on who Nick McElroy really is. Is he a friend or a foe like he has always been?

She enters her apartment and sags down on the floor as soon as the door was closed behind her. She doesn’t know what to feel and what to think of her dinner with her father.

She thinks back to their conversation and a smile creeps into her face. But she squashes the funny thought as soon as it hit her. Julie’s face comes into her mind and all her doubts about Nick’s personality are set in place again.

She stands up and gets undressed. But she suddenly sees something under her door, a piece of paper. She shrugs her shoulders and goes to it, opening the folded paper and starts reading what is in it.

“You are playing with fire Cornelia. Be careful. If you get too close, you might burn yourself in the process. – J.W.”

Of course, it’s from James. He’s probably worried that I went out to dinner with Nick.

“Well, James, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m a big girl, I can handle myself,” she says outloud. She knows that he’s watching her and wants only what is best for her, like what he’s always done in the past, but this is a battle she has to go through. She has to know what really happened to her mother and if her father had anything to do with it… if Nick is really her father to begin with.

She has to make sure once and for all that he is so she won’t have to second guess everything about their relationship. She nods her head as if to agree with herself then makes for her bedside table. She needs to make a plan to have a DNA test done for her and Nick.

She just needs to get his DNA…

“Hmm, that would be a problem…” she says as she tries to think of ways on how she can obtain some. She decides to go online and find out how she can get some DNA out of a person.

For the last six months that she had been working for the firm, she only went as far as gathered information about Nick’s whereabouts, his business, and other affairs. But she is yet to make her first step into actually confirming if he is, in fact, the father she always searched for.

She tinkers with her laptop for a couple of hours and when she’s satisfied with what she got, she powers it down and lies down on her bed, eyes still open and her mind still reeling.

Then she thinks about Morrison. That old familiar pang of guilt hits her head on and she doubles over with the thought that she had unequivocally broken his trust. His expression as they drove away will be forever etched in her mind.

“I’m sorry Morrison… I know you will probably never going to talk to me again after this but I am truly sorry…,” she whispers to her pillow as a lone tear slides from her eyes to the pillow. She’s heartbroken that they will never have a future together, no matter how they like each other’s company, and no matter how they make each other laugh with their silly acts and funny stories.

She realizes that now that she has to embrace the fact that they can never be together, it makes her long to have a relationship with him, any kind of relationship… She realizes that he’s a genuine person and he was a good friend eventhough she fed him lies about her affair, he still gave her a chance to be his friend.

There aren’t many people like him in this world anymore, that much I know, but I only have one life and I must use this life to honor my mother, who had always put me first in everything in her life. Nobody has time for love anymore.

And with that final thought and one final tear, she succumbs to the darkness and enters the world of Morpheus where she dreams of the life she has and what she wants – a life that she can never have.

 

 

Chapter II

 

“I can’t believe she would go with him! Shit! I can’t….” Morrison says angrily to the wind as he walks back to his car. He saw her face on the rearview mirror and he knows she saw him. “But why didn’t she get out? She knows that I know of their affair. Why would she risk me seeing them together again? Isn’t she afraid that I might tell on them?” But he knows that he won’t.

He gets inside his car and in his anger, punches the steering wheel.

“God damn it woman! What are you doing to me?!” he yells inside the car. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He knows he’s being irrational with his feelings towards her. How could he feel so attracted to a woman who is having an affair with his father? Is he that desperate that he would go for the same woman his dad is screwing?

Shit! What the hell have you gotten yourself into? Would you snap out of it already? She chose him. She saw you but she never batted an eye. She’s already forgotten about you Morrison… so forget about her.

He opens his eyes and tries sorting out what he wants to do moving forward. “Okay, so she’s obviously chosen him over me. No point in crying over spilled milk, as they say…,” he says trying to talk himself into not feeling anything about the encounter but at the back of his mind, he still can’t accept it. He is still intrigued and attracted by that mysteriously independent woman. What he can’t figure out is, she comes off as independent and strong, but why would she latch herself to a married man?

Then it dawns on him, his confusion now turns into understanding. Of course! She’s just like any other gold digger. She wants him for his money. Who wouldn’t? He’s just one of the richest and most successful businessmen in the country!

“I can’t believe I fell into her trap,” he whispers to the interior of the car. His expression turns into something serious and hard. He starts the engine and drives off. “Fine! If she wants his money, she can have it. I won’t tell the world about their secret because it will surely destroy mother, but I will damn make it a hard existence for them both!” He revs up the engine and drives like a maniac, his frustration showing on how he’s driving, not caring if he hits something along the way.

Right now, Morrison Ellis McElroy is going to be every bit the billionaire playboy everyone pegs him to be. And he is bent on showing Cornelia what he’s really capable of.

The office is bustling with people as Cornelia walks in the next day. She decided early that day to come in early and get settled in even before Nick comes. She also secretly wanted to avoid any run ins with Morrison in the elevator or anywhere within the premises but as she stares at her colleagues running around in her old floor, she feels something big is happening. She stopped there first before going to the top floor, to Nick’s offices, just to get some stuff she left behind in her desk.

“Katie!” she calls out seeing her old boss open her office and is on her way to the boardroom. “What’s going on? Why is everybody running around like there’s fire or something?”

“Well, you can say that. Haven’t you heard? Today, Mr. McElroy is going to trial for the allegations against him and we are in the midst of finding out any evidence that might help him.” Katie frantically juggles the file folders she has on both hands.

“But the hearing is not until January, right? It’s only November. What happened?” Cornelia asks and helps Katie out with the folders. From the reports and news she has heard over the last several months, Nick’s hearing was to be scheduled on the following year because the Judge still had to look at the evidence against him and all other preliminaries, she wonders what had caused the sudden change.

“We don’t know yet. That’s what we’re trying to find out. Quite frankly, I think Mr. McElroy knew about the change in dates but I don’t know why he kept it from his company and the press. Well, anyway, you better get up there. I saw him come in a few minutes ago,” Katie waves at her as she runs off to the opposite direction.

Oh shoot! And here she thought she was early. She dashes off towards the elevators and as soon as the doors open, she sees Morrison look up and stare at her from his spot inside. There is one other person in the elevator and since she’s rushing, she doesn’t have a choice but to get in.

Morrison doesn’t look at all rattled by her presence in the elevator. In fact, he looks calm and collected. Something that puzzles Cornelia as she continues to stand rigidly beside him. He doesn’t say anything to her and so she decides to start the conversation.

“Ah, hi, Morrison. How are you today?” Yeah, stupid question Cornelia. Of course, he’s pissed at you dummy!

“Oh, hi, Cornelia,” he greets back as if seeing her just then. “I’m sorry I was preoccupied earlier, I didn’t see you come in. How am I?”

Oh no, here it comes. She nearly cringes at his answer but to her surprise, Morrison gave her a toothy grin.

“I’m wonderful! Other than feeling sad by my father’s early hearing, of course, but otherwise, good. I have a good feeling about my dad’s case. I’m sure they’ll just throw that accusation in the garbage where it belongs. He’s going to wing it. Now, how about you, lovely Cornelia? What have you been up to?” he looks at her with his right eyebrow raised but he doesn’t look angry or pissed.

“Oh… ah- ha! I, I haven’t been up to anything actually,” she laughs nervously as she is still wrapping her head around his demeanor that morning.

What has gotten into him? I’m positive it was him who saw us drive off last night. But why is he acting like he didn’t see anything? Like he doesn’t know that I got into his dad’s car last night.

“Okay, if you say so,” he beams then turns his attention to the lady on his right – a pretty brunette who works in her old department, a new one so Cornelia hasn’t even spoken to her yet – then starts up a conversation with her. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we haven’t been formally introduced yet. The name’s Morrison.”

“Oh, hi, Mr. McElroy! Of course, I know who you are, sir, who doesn’t? I went to your father’s house last weekend. Wonderful house!” she starts chatting away and finally gave him her name, Gloria or something like that. Cornelia doesn’t really care about her, but she is all ears to their conversation because, well, if she’s being honest with herself, she’s shocked at Morrison’s sudden complete disregard of her standing there. Didn’t he just ask her out that weekend?

“Well, I guess you should start reading up on your job, now shouldn’t you?” she mutters as Gloria-what’s-her-face said something about still being confused with her tasks and what-not.

Morrison suddenly looks at Cornelia and asks, “Hold on Gloria, sorry. Umm… Sorry Cornelia, what was that? We’re you saying something?”

Oh you! You insufferable little – Then it strikes her. Hah! He’s trying to piss me off! He wants to get back at me, that’s it! Well, two can play this game.

“Oh, nothing. I just thought you’d want to know that we passed your floor. You are working in the thirtieth, right? I should know, I’m all the way up to the top. Tough luck being late on your first day, huh?” she answers pretending to look sorry but is really going for the opposite.

“Oh shit! Ah, Georgia –, “he starts to say as he quickly punches the button for the thirty-second floor.

“Gloria,” the new girl replies looking a bit annoyed at him.

“Yes, sorry, I have to go, but see you around!” he nods at Cornelia but doesn’t smile then saunters off towards the stairs going down to the thirtieth.

Cornelia hides a smile beneath her hair and looks up to the elevator buttons. Nick’s offices are on the top of the building, the fiftieth floor, and it’s going to take her a few more minutes to get there. She’s hoping that Nick has a very hectic day today so she can snoop around some more.

Pretty brunette gets off on the fortieth and the elevator goes up the rest of the way. Then suddenly, the elevator stops without her pushing anything.

“Whoa!” she exclaims as the feels it sway a little. “What the heck – “ then she remembers overhearing the security guys talking about a faulty elevator that they had to check on as she was making her way inside the building lobby. “Shoot! Why the heck didn’t they block this elevator off if it needed repairs?! Oh my God,” she squeaks as the elevator threatens to give.

Then she hears ringing in the background. She grabs her phone and answers it. “H-hello? Help! I- I’m in the elevator and I think it’s broken… ah!” another swaying and she hears the metal ropes breaking.

“Cornelia! Hold on. Help is coming. Just stand still!” Morrison’s voice echoes through the receiver but she just stares at it for a few seconds.

How did he even get my number?  She snaps out of her confusion and responds to him in an uncertain voice.

“O-okay. I’ll be s-still.” She slowly goes down on the ground and hugs her knees. She has to remain perfectly still to prevent anymore breaking in or around the already-busted elevator.

“It’s going to be okay, Cornelia, just hang on,” Morrison’s earnest voice echoes in her head as he continues to talk to her through her cellphone. He’s keeping her busy by asking her all sorts of questions so she won’t panic while the rescuers are making their way to her.

“The building is fairly new but just a week ago, an employee reported something loose with that particular elevator,” Morrison tells her. He only just found out from the maintenance guy who is beside him as he continues to talk to her.

“But why wouldn’t they close it off if there was a reported problem? You got on it from the ground floor right? Did you notice any sign?” Cornelia is puzzled with the fact that the no one placed any warning signs near or around the elevator doors.

“I didn’t see anything. I wouldn’t have gone inside then. Georgia or Gloria, was already on it when I arrived. It’s good that she’s okay, she’s here with me now…” he stops for a second but ignores the voice inside telling him to stop making her jealous.

“Oh… yeah, it’s good that it was me instead of her who got stuck here. God knows what would have happened if she was ever in danger!” sarcasm in her voice, she decides to end the call and just ignore him.

What an ass! He didn’t have to rub it in! What does he see in her anyway? They just met for goodness sake! She distracts herself from her thoughts and tries to focus on the problem at hand. She thinks first about the elevator itself.

The elevator leads directly to the top floor, making just a few stops along the way, for those who have access to it. There are a number of people who have access to it, like the bosses in each division, who use it for faster transport from the lobby and of course, to the whole top floor, so it was hard to pinpoint who damaged it or if it was really a mechanical failure. She has access to it because she is one of the secretaries of the CEO. Some of the bosses can give special access to their secretaries or people who are directly servicing the bosses of each division, but not all are given that privilege.

Cornelia’s phone rings again, but this time, she answers it because it might be important.

“Hello?” and Morrison’s voice comes on again.

“Cornelia, what happened? The connection broke earlier and I’ve been trying to call you back since. Are you okay? Are you hurt? The rescuers are on the thirty-fifth floor now. They can’t risk using the other elevators because there might be a problem with all the wirings but they’re not far away, just hang in there.”

“Yeah, I guess there’s poor reception here,” she lies as she fumbles with her shoes. She’s still on lying low on the ground with her knees close to her but it’s becoming hard to stay in that position. “I’m not hurt, thanks for your concern,” she says rolling her eyes in the process. I don’t need and want your concern pal! Just give it to little Miss Oh I’m so confused with all the tasks… blah blah blah! She gives a poor imitation of the girl Gloria but makes sure she doesn’t let Morrison hear her.

“Sorry, what was that? Your voice was muffled on the last part.” Morrison sticks his ear closer to the phone to hear better.

“Ah, nothing, I just thought I heard something. Anyway, I think it’s them. Gotta go now. See you later… and thanks Morrison,” she says more seriously as she presses the “End” button of her phone.

“Miss Masters? Are you there?” a male voice shouts from behind the elevator door and she answers earnestly. She’s anxious of getting out of there and her feet and body are tired from crouching low to the ground for several minutes.

“Yes! I’m here. I’m okay, but please, get me out of here!”

It takes about five minutes for the rescuers to pry open the door, secure the elevator cabin, and get her out of harm’s way.

She is rushed towards the side of the floor stairwell and is being interviewed by the paramedic for any signs of trauma, shock, or any kind of injury when Morrison suddenly appears from the stairs and grabs her by the shoulders, the paramedic courteously moving away to give room to him.

“Are you hurt? How are you?” he looks her up from her head down to her bare feet and places his palm on her cheek. “Ah, thank God, you’re finally out,” he sighs with relief as he gathers her in his arms.

She pushes him away before he can even embrace her fully, “Um, I’m fine, Mr. McElroy, there is no need to worry more about me,” she says, discreetly putting some distance between them.

Morrison clears his throat as he realizes that there are people looking at them. You’re in the office premises, control yourself. He silently lectures himself as he nods and asks the paramedic back to continue checking her.

“Okay, since you’re okay, I shall go about my business and not worry anymore… a- about the incident, with the- ah- elevator.” Go! Before you make yourself even more of an ass!

As Morrison exits the floor and goes down to his floor, Cornelia can’t help but long for the would-be embrace, but stops herself as she spots Gloria from behind one of the office doors, a phone on her ear and talking in a hushed voice.

Maybe it was her boss or a family member, Cornelia shrugs and gives her attention back to the paramedic.

As the commotion ended, the employees went back to their work stations and resumed work for the day.

“Okay, people, we still have some work to do remember? Let’s make sure to help out in any way we can about Mr. McElroy’s case.” Katie’s voice echoes amid the chaos on the thirtieth floor.

Morrison’s office is at the back of the floor, windows facing the Manhattan skyline. He sits on his chair, contemplating what had happened earlier that day.

“Uh, Morrison?” Katie’s head appears from outside his door and he is jarred from his thoughts.

“Yes, Katie?” he swivels his chair around to face her, “Please come in.”

“No need, I just came here to tell you that the documents you requested from me are ready. I’ve sent it to your email. I guessed you haven’t even seen your emails yet with all the commotion so I decided to let you know personally. Plus I do need some people from your staff. Can I borrow Phil for a day? I need his tech specialties,” Katie’s friendly smile comes on as Morrison gives her permission.

“Okay, okay, since you’ve caught me off guard, I will lend him to you for a day. And thank you for sending over what I asked. Sorry for the bother.”

“Oh, pish posh! No prob. Gotta rush! Bye!” And with a wave of her hand, Katie closes his door and dashes off to where Phil is.

Morrison opens his laptop and searches his mail for Katie’s email. And there it is, Cornelia Masters’ profile and evaluations from Katie.

He knows it’s unnecessary to do some background checking since the company does that to every employee they ever hired, but he has a feeling that she might be holding something back, or rather, keeping something a secret. He doesn’t want to stalk her either, just checking on her credentials, strictly professional matters.

“Okay, so who are you Ms. Cornelia Masters?” he says absentmindedly as he moves on to the next pages of the documents. From her file, Cornelia joined the firm about six months ago. Her previous job was a secretary for a J.Wilson, a private entrepreneur and she came with a great recommendation and excellent feedback from his employer. Prior to that, she graduated high school in a school in New Jersey, but didn’t go to College, however, her former employer allowed her to study  while working, earning her an associate’s degree which she completed in less than two years. “Hmm, impressive. At least I know she’s got a good head on her shoulders,” he says outloud although he already felt that about her when he first met her.

He continues browsing through her accomplishments and becomes even more impressed as he finally reaches the end of the document.

Okay, no skeletons in here.  However, company profiles don’t always have everything jotted down in it. He has to dig deeper if he wants to know more about her. But what’s the point? He asks himself, standing up and going towards the wall-sized window. Obviously, he want to find out if she is really having an affair again with his father, but he can’t right now, due to the chaos caused by the hearing and all, but he can’t seem to believe that Cornelia would just disregard the time and conversations they exchanged when they were in the Hamptons. She seemed so genuinely interested in him there and he likes her company more than he likes any other woman he’s ever met before. She makes him feel… something… He can’t stop thinking about her and the thought of her going out with his dad is driving him crazy!

A knock comes from outside his door and he answers curtly, “What?!”, as the doors opens.

“Oh, I’m sorry… Maybe I should come at a better time…” Cornelia’s face appears from the door, looking embarrassed for intruding. She turns back and about to close the door again when Morrison stops her.

“Wait! I’m sorry. I was,” he looks at his laptop and Cornelia’s face is plastered all over his screen. He quickly closes it and turns his attention back to her, “I was thinking about the case. Sorry if I sounded rude. Please come in. How are you? I was thinking you went home after your ordeal earlier.”

He walks towards the bar and pours water on a glass. He hands her the glass, their fingers slightly touching, and walks back behind his desk.

“T-thank you, Mr. McElroy. I’m fine. I would hardly call it an ordeal. Just a delay, I should say so,” she takes a sip of the cold water. She can still feel the warmth in his fingers as they brushed hers earlier. She feels her cheeks flare and quickly feigns a cough to cover her face with her hands, hiding her cheeks.

“You were stuck in a defective elevator, it’s not merely a delay, Cornelia.” His voice is as cold as steel as he points out the danger she faced.

“Well, nothing happened, alright? I was rescued and everybody went back to their own business, case closed. Anyway, I came here to thank you for, well, for calling me and calming me down. I must admit I was pretty nervous at the beginning but you, err, distracted me from it… So, ah, thank you!” Why does my voice sound like a squeal?

Her voice gets a little high-pitched when she’s nervous or tense, possibly from being such close proximities from Morrison.

“You’re welcome. It was my pleasure to help you out. I only just learned about it because I bumped into the maintenance man as I was going down to the thirtieth and he told me not to use the elevator I just used.”

“I see. Then it was very fortunate of me that you had a warning. You certainly avoided even more chaos by showing you’re a good boss. I’m sure all the employees will be talking about how well you handled the situation.”

Morrison holds himself back from telling her exactly why he did it, instead, he agrees on her what she surmised, “Yes, I wanted to show everyone that panicking in these kinds of situations doesn’t help anybody, much less the person who was in danger. I think they got the message. Thanks to the rescue team who got there on time.” He thinks back to the scene when the line was cut and he couldn’t get Cornelia back on the line. He was freaking out and everybody in his floor saw it. Were it not for Katie who calmed him down and explained that it might be a connection issue, he would have raced to the broken elevator and hauled her out of her there himself.

She nods and then stands to leave, “Well, that’s what I came here to tell you so… Thanks again.”

Morrison remembers that he asked her out that weekend and he still wanted to go out with her, for the life of him, even if she was having an affair with Nick, he would want to find out from her himself.

“Ah, Cornelia, are we still on this weekend? Was it Friday?” he tests.

Her back is turned so she hides the smile that crept to her lips. “Oh, do you still want to go out? Aren’t you busy this weekend? With the case and all?”

“I have time. Besides, I already asked you out and I still want to go out, so what do you say?” he winks at her.

She’s getting confused with his demeanor because earlier that day, he just semi-flirted with the Gloria girl and now, he acts like she is the only girl in town. Maybe he’s hiding something, I better find out on this date.

“Sure, make that Saturday. I have a prior arrangement on Friday,” she replies remembering just in time that she has a date with Barret that Friday too.

“I see…” he raises his eyebrow, as if saying, “Really?” instead. But he stops himself on time and just let it go. “Sure, I’ll pick you up on Saturday then, around seven?”

“Sure,” she answers detecting that he wanted to say some more but didn’t.

“Great then! See you Saturday,” he says a little too cheery for his taste. Why am I acting like an excited little boy?  He shakes his head as she makes her way out the door.

Whatever you’re hiding Miss Masters, I will find out this Saturday, one way or another. He follows her retreating form from his office towards the exit of the floor, and is again reminded of how very attracted he is to her.

No, Morrison, don’t let yourself be blinded again from seeing the truth! You’re just going on a date with her to find out the real score between her and Nick, that’s all. He mentally reminds himself, then as an afterthought, And what will you do if you find that they are having an affair? It leaves him stumped for a while but decides he would worry about that when the time comes.

Now, he sets his focus on his father’s case. Why would the judge move up the date of the hearing? He asked himself that question earlier that day but has not spoken to his father about it yet. He hasn’t seen him yet but his secretary said he arrived before Morrison. He makes it a point to see him in the next hour, he just needs to sort out his schedule for that day, which was interrupted with the elevator commotion earlier.

He quickly calls for his secretary, Simone, and set up a meeting with the other leaders of his division after he’s talked to his father so they would know what next steps to take. It takes him more than an hour to set up his day and when he finally concluded the meeting with his secretary, he makes for the elevator – a functional one – and presses the top floor.

As the elevator door dings, signaling the top floor, he arranges his tie and brushes his dark hair. Cornelia will surely be there so he makes an effort to fix his attire, although he stops himself again and reminds his brain to stop doing things for her.

“Hi, Michaela,” he says rather sweetly to his father’s long time secretary.

Michaela politely ends her call and turns her full attention to Morrison, whom she secretly has a crush on ever since she saw him, “Hi, Morrison darling.” She reaches over to his standing position and gives him a peck on the cheek.

Why do they have to do that in my presence? Cornelia, fuming, thinks as she then pretends to rummage for something in her drawer. She can’t believe that Morrison is back to his old flirtatious self just an hour after he confirmed his date with her. What a jerk!

“I want to see my father please, is he available?” Morrison knows that he doesn’t have to ask if Nick was available to talk to him, and he certainly didn’t need to ask Michaela but he does it anyway just to annoy Cornelia. He knows she can see them and plays his role well as he continues to compliment Michaela.

“And I want to see you beautiful! It’s been a while since we’ve spent time together, love. How is your so-called boyfriend these days? I hope you’re not still together?” he laughs as he jokes with Michaela.

“Oh you! He’s fine and yes, we are still together. I couldn’t wait on you forever!” she flirts back and laughs daintily as Morrison pretends to have been hit hard on the chest with what she said.

“Ouch!” he says, turning sideways to see if Cornelia is still watching them, which she is pretending not to.

Oh would you just get a room! Cornelia tries to stop herself from hurling her stapler at him and when he looks over, she gives him her sweetest I-don’t-care-what-you-do smile.

“Go in, Morrison! Stop plaguing me with your smiles,” Michaela tells him as he saunters into his father’s office.

He knocks politely and opens the mahogany door. He knows his father might be preoccupied with all the developments in his case but he has to talk to him so he can help in any way he can.

Nick is on the phone but waves him over as he continues to speak into the mouthpiece. “I know Richard. Just fix this. I’ll be waiting for your call,” Nick says before hanging up the phone.

“Ah, Morrison. I’m sure you’re here to ask me about the hearing and all,” he starts. “but I don’t have time to explain everything now. I have a business meeting in a few minutes and I’d like to get there beforehand. I’m sure our shareholders are panicking right now so I need to assure them that things are just a little tense but I’m confident out lawyers will sort things out.”

Morrison looks at his dad who appears to be calm and collected amidst the lawsuit being slapped at him. “What do you mean things are just a little tense? Dad, you’re being sued for stealing money from your patrons, how is that “a little tense”?”

He doesn’t mean to lecture his father about the implications of that lawsuit to all his businesses, not only the bank, but he can’t help not to after seeing him not overly concerned about the matter.

“You should make this your top priority Dad! You can’t go running around in business meetings, we have to meet, all of your board members and lawyers, now!” Morrison is still standing, not wanting to sit because he can’t treat this as a courtesy call, but an urgent one.

“Would you relax, son. I’ve got it all handled, trust me. Now, all you have to do is to assure everybody that everything’s going to be all right. We’re just in the spotlight but we will fight this and win. Now, if there’s nothing else, I need to call Cornelia to come with me to the meeting.”

That catches Morrison’s ears as he turns to leave, and stops in his tracks. “Why Cornelia? Michaela’s been here longest and knows you better, why not take her? And why did you even hire Cornelia in the first place?”

Nick has the phone to his ears again and is currently talking to someone. He covers the mouthpiece and says, “Because she’s a competent secretary from what I heard from Katie and she seems genuinely interested in the company, so I thought I better show her the ropes myself when it comes to my business meetings. I’m on the phone now, son, sorry, but just call me later once you’ve met with everyone. I’m trusting you on this, Morrison, calm them down and tell them we’re handling this.” With that, Nick goes back to his phone conversation.

Morrison is left standing there, doubting his father’s words and having this awful feeling in his stomach like he’s been kicked in the gut. He retreats from his father’s office, closing the door behind him rather soundly and storming into the elevator.

“I hope you en – ,” Michaela starts to say but seeing his angry face, she stops talking altogether and goes back to typing in her laptop.

Cornelia sees him stride off purposely and quite angrily and pays him no mind. Hah! Whatever happened there certainly wiped that smirk off your face, good! She starts to smile to herself then he comes walking back to her office, ignoring Michela who asked her if he needed anything else, then slams the door behind him after entering her office.

 

Chapter III

 

“What do you think you’re doing?!” she starts to say as she gets up from her chair.

Morrison rounds her table and comes face-to-face with her, his breath coming in short bursts, and she, holding her own in shock at his blatant behavior.

“What the hell is going on between you and Nick?!” he asks accusingly, planting his fists behind her chair as she sinks back into it.

She is shocked by his behavior because she’s never seen him like this, but she isn’t shocked by his questions. She’s seen it coming and she’s been expecting it, but not him asking her like this.

“Wh-what are you doing Morrison. Nothing! There is nothing going on with your father and me! I told you, it was over!” she answers as she pushes him off her chair so she can stand. She hates being caught off guard and being literally cornered like that.

“I don’t believe you,” his voice suddenly mellows down to a cold one. She’s not quite sure if she likes the shouting better because he sounds murderous and the look he’s giving her feels like he’s stripping her of her defenses.

“Yes, it’s true! Look, we’re both not in the right place and time to discuss this. I-I’ll explain more on Saturday, okay? Now, please Morrison, leave…” she feels drained all of a sudden from their exchange or probably from her earlier bout with the elevator that she feels dizzy all of a sudden.

“I’m not going to fall for your damsel-in-distress acts anymore Cornelia, explain it to me now!” he says but then quickly goes to her when her eyes starts to close and she is sliding to the ground. “Whoa! Cornelia! What – Are you okay?”

He catches her in time and props her back in her chair. She comes to her senses and tries to sit up. “I – ah – I’m sorry… Must be t-the h-heat…” she starts to say weakly.

“No, don’t get up Cornelia. Let me take you home. You’re obviously not fine. I’ll take you home.” He flips open his phone and talks to Charlie for a few minutes, arranging their transport, then he scoops her up in his powerful arms and carries her to the elevator leading straight to the parking lot. “Michaela, please tell my Dad that Cornelia has fallen ill and I need to take her home now. Thanks.” He doesn’t wait for her response and gets on the elevator.

“M-orr, she tries to say but he cuts her off.

“Shhh. Don’t try to talk now, love. Just close your eyes. I got you,” he whispers in her ear as she rests her head on his big shoulders. He carries her like she doesn’t weigh anything and she feels safe in his arms. A feeling she hasn’t felt like ever since her mother died. She gives in to the overpowering feeling of fatigue that suddenly came over her.

He could kick himself if he could. How could he lose his composure like that? And to confront her right there? What was he thinking? He berates himself all the way to the parking lot and feels guilty for causing her distress. She can’t be faking it because she looks really pale and he’s never known her to be that shallow to feign sickness just to end an argument. He didn’t give a damn with the stares that other employees gave them and continued to the parking lot where Charlie was.

“Charlie, please take us to my apartment,” he says to Charlie who quickly springs into action as soon as he sees them coming. He nods and puts the car in gear. He drives off into the busy streets of New York and heads for the Upper East Side of the Big Apple. They get there in record time and Morrison quickly carries Cornelia to his loft.

He signals to the guard to open the doors as he carries Cornelia inside. She’s still groggy but otherwise, half awake.

“W-where…?” she starts to ask but he shushes her again as the elevator goes to the penthouse where his apartment is. He’s been living there for just over six months and eventhough he thinks it ridiculously extravagant, he likes the comfort and privacy the place has over others.

“Don’t worry Cornelia. I’ve taken you to my place for now. I don’t know if anyone will take care of you back in your place, plus mine is nearer. Relax, I’m not going to kidnap you or anything.” He brushes her hair away from her face as she suddenly protests. He assures her that she’s safe and despite her growing feeling of dread, she slumps back in his arms and stops resisting.

As he steps in the threshold of his home in the city, he takes her to the nearest sofa and gently puts her down. He dashes off to the fridge to get some water as she recovers from her nausea.

When he made his way back to the sofa, she’s already sitting and rubbing her head. He hands her the glass of water and some medicine for her headache.

“Here, I thought you’d have a headache afterwards so I got you some Advil,” he hands it to her, which she takes willingly.

“Thank you, Morrison,” she says weakly as she hands him back the glass. She closes her eyes and draws her head back on the sofa for a few minutes. “I’m sorry for the bother. I don’t know what got into me. I’m don’t usually have fainting spells. I’m sorry you had to see this and,” she opens her eyes suddenly and looks around, “Wait a minute. I’m in your place! Wh-,“ she stands quickly stands up but as soon as she did that, her head starts spinning again. “Ow…” she places her hand in between her eyes and tries massaging it as she sits down slowly.

“Please Cornelia, just try to relax. You’re safe here.” He sits her down, gently rubbing her back to ease her pain and then stops because the act seems all-too familiar. He used to do that to Sally whenever she wasn’t feeling well.

“I’m okay now. I would rather go to my place to rest. It’s not good for you to bring me home like this. What would the other employees say?” she asks while willing herself to feel better faster.

“I don’t care about what people might say, Cornelia, haven’t you realized that by now? I don’t want you going home looking like that. You look like all the blood has been drained from your face. Rest a while. At least until we’ve had dinner, please.”

She thinks about what he said and sighs. “Okay, but take me home right after. Gosh, does Nick know that I’m here?” What she means to say is that, does he know she was gone for the day, but Morrison’s expression starts to change the moment the words left her mouth. She doesn’t think correcting herself will do any good, so she just stops talking altogether.

“Yes, I’ve told Michaela you’re not feeling well and that I’d take you home. I didn’t specifically say that I was taking you here, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m sure my father won’t miss you if you were gone for just one day,” he spits the words at her as he stands up and takes a drink from the bar.

He is clearly pissed and he isn’t hiding it.

“It’s not what you think – “

“Well, what is it then?” he retorts, cutting her off and looking her straight in the eye. “Tell me. We’re alone. No one will hear you if you confess so go ahead, explain to me what you and my father did after you got into the car with him last night!”

She is stunned at how angry he seems to be over her getting in Nick’s car but answers calmly.

“Nothing happened. He saw me walking home by chance and asked where I was headed. He doesn’t know where I live and I didn’t want him to know so I said I was looking for somewhere to eat. He then offered to take me along where he was headed, which was a little restaurant in a lovely street in Soho.”

He smirks and asks sarcastically, “So how did you enjoy that little Italian restaurant, huh?”

She looks surprised at him for a few seconds.

“Yes, I know that little quaint restaurant where he takes all his conquests to. Believe me darling, you’re one of his.” He acts as if he meant it but he really doesn’t know for certain if his father did take girls there or if he had other affairs before Cornelia. He just happens to know that restaurant because he took him there before when he was small. He said that out of spite because how could she just agree to dinner just like that. What if it was a complete stranger? Would she go in the car and have dinner with the guy? His expression remains the same irritated angry look.

“Oh, I didn’t know he takes his girls there. I thought he just didn’t have anywhere to eat. Well, no matter. We just had something to eat then I took a cab home. I didn’t want to impose further by asking him to drive me back, and again, I don’t want him to know where I live, okay! Now, can we just drop it?!” she is beginning to get tired of all his questions when she should be the one probing him more about Nick.  But for obvious reasons, it has become a sensitive topic so she’d leave out her questions for now. She needs to get him off her case or the next thing she knows, he’ll be launching a full scale investigation on her.

“No,” he says adamantly. “I don’t believe that’s just it. Come on, you were together for two months, no matter how short it sounds, you were still together so don’t tell me that you both have just forgotten about that just like that!” he tries keeping his voice calm but he’s failing at it.

Cornelia’s head seems to hurt even more instead of it getting better. She tries to remain amiable and apologetic but he’s making it hard for her to stay calm. “What do you want me to say? That I’m having an affair with him… again? Well, if that’s what you’re waiting for, you would have to wait forever because I am not.”

“So why would he make you his personal secretary? He didn’t just up and leave for work thinking, ‘Hey, what if I make Cornelia my secretary and make it even more obvious to the world that we’re having an affair?’.” Sarcasm has become his favorite emotion aside from anger when it comes to her. He can’t help it. He’s frustrated at his point for wanting so much to believe her but the evidence points the other way.

“Well, maybe he thinks I am capable of doing that job? Haven’t you thought about that, mister know-it-all?”

“Please! Anyone having less than a college degree can never get a position so close to the CEO, let alone a two-year course!” Shit! Good going, you just buried yourself in a big hole! He tries to look nonchalant as Cornelia’s eyebrows draw together.

“Have you been spying on me?!” she exclaims, the look of utter betrayal etched I  her face. “How dare you? You have no right to check up on me!”

He starts to explain but then, he decides to be tough and fight her on the subject, “Well, that’s where you’re wrong because I only looked at your job profile and not your personal life. It’s not unusual for the son of the CEO and member of the board to look at employee records from time to time.”

For the life of her, she can’t argue with that defense. He did just say he knows her educational attainment and nothing remotely personal but she can’t help but be mad at him for pointing out how inadequate he thinks she is.

“Still, you shouldn’t take people’s abilities and capabilities so lightly. If you think me so incompetent for that job, then I would rather leave! I refuse to stick around and hear you rant about my “undeserved” position.” She takes her things and gets up, trying hard to ignore the pounding in her head, and heads for the elevator doors.

He quickly goes to the elevator and blocks her way, “Okay, I’m sorry Cornelia. It’s not what I meant. I am not insulting your credentials; I know that you are very much capable of performing your tasks well. What I was wondering was, why now? I mean think about it. Is it because he saw you with me? I’ve never known my father as a jealous person and we’re not really… close, as you might see. I think he’s doing this to get you away from me. That’s what I am mad about! I’m not mad at you…” He rakes his hair with his fingers in frustration, his face looking pained and angry at the same time. “Well, I am annoyed at you just getting into the car with him. I thought you didn’t want to remind yourself of your tryst with him but there you went, got in his car and drove off to some secluded restaurant! How could you be so naïve?!”

“Oh stop it Morrison! I never had an affair with your dad okay!” She can’t handle his pressuring her anymore so she just blurted out the truth.

Morrison is silenced for once that day. “W-what do you mean?”

“You heard me,” she says uncertainly.

“So you lied? Why?” He finally calms down as he moves away from her path. She clearly is not leaving after what she said.

“I, ah, I wanted to move up in the company and I thought if I met him personally, alone, outside the office, and talk to him, he might consider me for, ah, the post – the one that I have now.” Okay, keep going Cornelia, this lie is much better than the first one.

“So you thought that by going into his study during his party, you could catch him alone and what? Dazzle him with your secretarial skills?” he’s starting to sound sarcastic again.

“No, of course not! I, I don’t know. Maybe if he heard me talk and how inspired I am to work in his company, I might make a mark in his mind, you know. There are tons of people working in McElroy and Burns, and so much more in his other businesses that I can never stand out if I stay behind a desk. I needed to find a way to stand out. And so I thought I’d pretend to get lost and end up in his study and dazzle him with my knowledge about his firm and… Gah! There’s no point explaining this to you because you’ve never felt this way before. You’ve never felt the need to find a job to feed yourself and the thirst to do so much more to ensure your future and your family, if you ever decide to have one someday!” she lets out a huge sigh after saying her piece and looks down on the carpet floor.

Morrison can only smile and feel relief wash over him as he looks at her downtrodden face. He walks nearer to her and puts his finger under her chin, “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic. And contrary to what you might believe, there was a time that I had to work for food and lodging as well. But that was a long time ago. My point is, I understand. And you don’t have to lie to me anymore. Okay, Cornelia?”

She looks up at him and is genuinely surprised that he fell for her lie again! He really does trust her still. Enough to believe one lie after the other. She smiles inwardly for her clever wit, but the other part of her feels so much guilt over lying again to the man who obviously is enamored by her and would readily believe anything she says.

“O-okay. I’m sorry for lying about the affair and all. I was just scared that you’d let security drag me out of there. I didn’t know what to tell you… I -,”

He cuts her off by hugging her to him, which immediately shut her up. Eyes wide and heartbeat getting faster, she lets herself be comforted for once. It’s the first time that she let herself feel safe after her mother’s passing and it feels so good to just surrender and let go of her fears and plots even just for a few minutes.

She finally draws away from his arms and clears her throat. “Um, I think I should be going now. I’m sorry for intruding,” she starts to move away but Morrison stops her by grabbing her arm gently.

“No, Cornelia. Now that I know that you’re not in any way having an affair with my dad, I’m not letting you out the door without us going back to being how we were when we were at the Hamptons. Please, stay. Have dinner with me now. Let’s not wait until Saturday. You’re here now. The least I can do after yelling at you and treating you badly is to cook for you, right?”

He looks so much younger when he grins and she likes seeing the old Morrison she spent the day with in the beach. She can’t say “No”, and she doesn’t want to. Please, give me this day. I just want to feel human again, even just for a day…

Okay, dinner it is. I hope you’re as good a cook as your arguments. I don’t want to have to order this early.” She also misses herself being this carefree. Come to think of it, she has never been this way, even when her mom was still living. She was always the detached loner who enjoyed her own company more than others. But Morrison is stirring things inside her that are new even to herself. At the back of her mind, she frets that if she’s not careful, she might get too attached to Morrison and forget her reasons for existing. It was also different from her night with Barret because it was more of a fun and carefree night shared by would-be friends.

They spent the whole day in the apartment, cooking, and exchanging stories, just like what they did in the day at the Hamptons. By late afternoon, Cornelia was in such a good mood that she forgot she had tons of work she left in the office.

“Oh shoot! I forgot to file the Lorenzo account and inform Nick of the meeting next week. I must call Michaela and tell her,” she dashes to her purse and looks for her phone.

“Relax Cornelia. I already told Michaela that you’re not feeling well and knowing her, she will take charge and do what is needed to take care of my father’s affairs for the day.”

She slowly puts her phone down and asks curiously, “How long have you known Michaela? Did you date before?”

“Michaela? Date? No, never. Although I have asked her several times before. That girl’s as loyal as they come. She has this long-time boyfriend, whom I have never met before, and eventhough she admitted that she liked me before, she wouldn’t trade him for me. So, that’s that.”

“Hmm, I see. You two just seem so close and familiar with each other that I thought you went out before,” she continues looking nonchalant, her heart secretly rejoicing.

“Jealous, are we?” He comes over to her and leans his face near hers. He is taunting her and checking if she will blush. If she does, then she’s definitely interested in his dating life and her asking about his relationship with Michaela wasn’t just an offhand question.

She tries to contain her blush but it creeps slowly to her cheeks and spreads all the way to her nose. Now she looks like a person with a terrible cold.

“Huh? Me? Jealous? Over what? It’s not as if we’re dating…” They look at each other after the words left her mouth and for a few long seconds, they stare into each other’s eyes and are mesmerized with one another.

Look away, Cornelia! Don’t let him trap you in his gaze. You can’t be with anyone right now, remember?

Just grab her and kiss her already! No, don’t do that. Don’t scare her. Just take it easy. You’ve got all the time in the world.

Cornelia looks away first, giving in to her inner voice. She turns the conversation into something light instead, commenting on how sad their dinner looks at that moment.

“At least your omelet looks…,” she picks up her fork and plays around with the soggy egg and chuckles, “It looks good really. I can never make anything so I commend you for getting all these stuff ready.”

“Now, you’re just making fun of me. I mean, come on! Can you eat that?” he points at the food he laid out on the table. Some look inedible while the others look undercooked.

She laughs out loud and he joins her as they share a few minutes of pure laughter.

After about half an hour of taste testing or more like food throwing, they decide to order in some food.

“Um, what do you want?” Morrison asks as he thumbs through the listings for restaurants nearby. By that time, they are famished and need food served near his apartment.

“Tell you what, since we’re already starving, why don’t we just saunter into those cute restaurants just beside your apartment and enjoy the evening air. Plus, your place smells of burnt food right now,” she pretends to wrinkle her nose and be all bratty about it as he throws some more food at her plate.

“Fine. Let’s go out then. But are you okay to step outside? Do you still feel dizzy?” his face changes from smiling to concern as he places his palm against her forehead to check her temperature.

“I’m okay now Morrison. Thanks to you. How did you learn how to care for sickly people anyway? I’m sure you’ve never been a nurse before. Did you have pets when you were little?”

They pick up their jackets as they make their way to the elevator. She looks one final look at his place and is still in awe of the place. It has all the makings of a bachelor pad slash businessman-type abode. It doesn’t have any flashing disco lights or a revolving bed or bar, but its comfortable sofas in the living room and the huge lazy boy in the middle of the room says “Bachelor” in bold letters. However, at the same time, the kitchen looks really homey and as terrible as Morrison cocked, it seems that he really uses his kitchen and not just a display for women to use after a night’s tumble.

Speaking of that, it has come to her mind that she might not be the only girl he’s brought here so, naturally, she doesn’t treat it as a special thing for Morrison.

Morrison, on the other hand, treats this incident as a pleasant surprise and very rare. Yes, he’s taken girls here before but they never slept over or at least spent a considerable amount of time talking and laughing. Usually it was all just physical and then a casual “goodbye” afterwards. It was a nice experience for him to bring Cornelia there and have that kind of bonding moment with her.

He stares at her as she looks at his apartment one more time, wonder in her eyes, and he thinks to himself, I would want to gaze into her eyes everyday and have her here with me always. He tears his gaze away from her innocent face and reminds himself to take it slow. It puzzles him that when it comes to Cornelia, he always reminds himself to control himself, take it slow, don’t act too rashly for she might get scared, and all that easy talk, but he ends up doing the opposite.

He hands the jacket to her but as she is reaching for it, she doesn’t see the step ahead of her and nearly trips. Morrison catches her quickly and steadies her on the wooden floor.

“Hey, are you sure you’re okay?” he asks with a frown and concern etched on his face.

“Yes, I’m okay. I just didn’t see the step, that’s all,” she smiles up to him like a schoolgirl and he is overtaken by the urge to kiss her right there.

And he does. He gathers her up in his arms and gently nears his face to hers. Panic begins to register on her face then surprisingly, she slowly closes her eyes and lets him come closer.

He is taken aback by her reaction as well. Just moments before he finally kisses her, he was half expecting her to slap him on the face but she never did.

Their kiss is gentle and sweet. He doesn’t want it to deepen and turn it into a more intimate kind because he knows that by her letting him kiss her is already a big step for Cornelia. He doesn’t want to rush it and ruin her trust. So he just ever so gently kissed her closed lips and pulls away after a few seconds.

“Wow…” he utters as he opens his eyes to look at her. Eventhough it was short-lived, their lips meeting like that felt so right for Morrison. He felt a shock go through his body as their lips met. It was something he has never felt before. And seeing the same expression she has on her face, tells him that she, too, had experienced the same electricity he did.

“Uhm, we b-better get gong o-or else we’ll faint from starvation,” she laughs nervously as he ushers her inside the elevator.

He agrees with her and does not mention the kiss for the remainder of the night because he doesn’t want her to overthink things. At least they are making some progress.

They drop by a little restaurant just two minutes from his place and both of them decide to take their dinner there. They are ushered to a table out front for all the tables inside are already filled. They’re fine with the table because they have a great view of the streets and the setting sun.

“Hey, what’s your favorite part in New York? I mean a place here in New York that you absolutely love or always like to go to?” Morrison asks as they made their order.

“Well, that’s a tough one for me because I haven’t been outside for a long time. I haven’t even gone to the Empire State Building for crying out loud!” And that’s the truth. She’s always wanted to go because it is one of the main attractions of the Big Apple but she never found the right time or she wasn’t usually in the mood to go adventuring by herself. She would rather work her ass off earning her keep than go traipsing around the city.

“Wow! You’ve been here for what? Months? Maybe years? And you’ve never been?” He looks stunned at her confession. “I must take you there soon! I cannot allow you to go on living here without even taking the historical tour there! I know it’s cliché and overrated but it’s one of the best things in New York. You have to come with me this Saturday!” he says excitedly as if the thought just crossed his mind, which it did. He was thinking of things they can do that Saturday that would take her mind off things at work and climbing the Empire State Building would be a great way to distract her.

From their talks in his apartment and even back in the Hamptons, he feels that she’s keeping a big secret inside and she’s building her whole life around it. She’s very secretive about her childhood, never giving away anything apart from the fact that she was from Jersey. She never talked about her parents or her school, just the work she’s done before landing the one being Katie’s assistant. She does talk about a friend of hers, James, who seems like an elderly guy who looks after her. But he didn’t pry for details. He lets her take her time and she also had many questions for him. Like what it was like growing up in a grand house and having a very beautiful and elegant mother, not to mention having one of the richest men in the country as his dad.

He answered as honestly as he could and he even told her of her two-year travel to Africa. That really spiked her interest and the smile on her face when he told her about the outreach activities he’s done and collaborating with charities, was pure joy. He loved her reaction when he told her about the time he had to work in a flea market to get some money and her amazement that I even survived a year there, let alone two.

“Well, I am known to be persuasive and persistent when I put my mind to it. I love to go back there someday and do some more charity work. What about you? Have you ever done anything that involved charities?” he threw back the question to her and she became quiet all of a sudden.

“Uhm, not exactly.” She looked guilty over not having the same experience as he had that involved helping people.

“Hey! Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you would love to do some one day. It’s not yet too late to do so,” he nudged her and she smiled again. He didn’t see her expression as he looked away. She remembered her time in the orphanage then when he mentioned about charities. She was a recipient of those charity organizations and yet she has never done anything to give back. Yes, she had a difficult time there but still, the orphanage was her home for six years. Who knows if her old orphanage still stands but at that moment, she decided to go back there someday and look back at her old life.

Their orders arrive in time and they dig in with much enthusiasm. There is literally no conversation for a few minutes as they eat their food. As their hunger is sated by the sumptuous dishes, they start to pick up from where they left off at the apartment.

“So, my dad decided to marry my mom for a good business partnership with my grandfather and years later, they adopted me. They never had any children of their own and frankly, I don’t think they had the time. They were both so busy, even my mother, with her charity groups, all those auctions and galas she hosted and are still hosting even now. I grew up wearing tuxedos and suits even as a young boy. Maybe growing up having most of everything made me think of those who were not like me. Those who had so little of anything.”

Cornelia is transfixed at this dark-haired billionaire philanthropist. What more can a woman ask for? He’s super sweet, very caring, and he carries me around like I weigh nothing! Why are you so perfect?

They continue talking while they ate and as the night wore on, they still kept telling each other stories and anecdotes from their lives. Cornelia can’t help but like the guy and Morrison can’t help but fall for this fair-haired beauty.

After several hours, which seems like minutes to them both, Cornelia looks at her watch and is surprised that it is already eleven at night.

“Oh, wow, look at the time.” She looks at Morrison and she gets a glimpse of regret in his eyes as he realized what she meant.

“Yeah, wow, time really flies these days,” he chuckles and looks at his own watch. “Wish it stood still but we both have an early day tomorrow so I guess I should take you home then.” He sighs regrettably and he doesn’t even want to hide his disappointment at having to end the night so soon.

“I guess so…” Cornelia is half relieved for ending their night but half of her also wants to extend the hours so they can talk some more. As soon as that thought crosses her mind, her voice of reason quickly squashes that feeling and she reminds herself that they can never be more than what they are now, him being the son of her boss, and her tool in getting the revenge she’s been longing for.

He gets the bill, waving her hand away when she reached for the bill, “Don’t be ridiculous, Cornelia. I got it. I still am a man of the traditional world.” He winks at her and she feels a flutter in her stomach.

“I can take a cab to my apartment, Morrison, you don’t need to take me all the way back there,” she tells him as they walk out of the restaurant premises.

“No, I will take you home, Cornelia. You don’t know how safe the cab is and I won’t let you taking off in someone else’s car again. I’d like to think that from now on, the best car for you to get into, is mine…,” he says suddenly, drawing her close to him as he whispers those words in her ears.

She feels goosebumps all over her body and she feels her face flush from his intimate words. “Uhm, Morris- on, I, ah,” she stammers as Morrison draws in a breath, smelling her hair as she struggles to get the words out of her mouth. “Please, Morrison…” her voice cracks and he stops in fear that she might get mad at him for being so forward.

Take it easy Morrison. Don’t scare her away, idiot!

“I’m sorry Cornelia. It’s just that… I like very much spending time with you and I can’t stop thinking about you when you’re not with me. And I hate confessing these things to you when we just had our “unofficial” first date! I’m going crazy over you, Cornelia, can’t you see?” he rakes his hair with his fingers and looks at her with blazing eyes.

“I… I don’t know what to say, Morrison,” she replies, honestly not knowing how to react to what he just said to her. “We just met each other and I don’t want for things to move so quickly… but I like spending time with you too…” she can’t help but be a tad bit honest with him as well. No matter how much she tries to remind herself that there can never be a future for them, she can’t stop herself from liking him.

“You don’t have to say anything, Cornelia. I’m not asking for any confessions from you as well. I just… I just wanted to get it out of my chest and to let you know my intentions. And maybe you’ll understand why I acted that way when I saw you and my father. I’m sorry for blurting this out. Tell you what, let’s just forget all about this and go from there, what do you say?” He tries to make light of the awkward situation, which he has caused, and hopes she doesn’t run away from him after this.

She smiles and nods, “Yes, let’s.”

They decide to call it a night and as they stand in front of her apartment, she leans over and gives him a kiss on the cheek.

“Well, it’s better than a slap,” he chuckles as she lightly slaps him on the shoulder for good measure.

“Or a kick, but you’re pushing it!” they both laugh and with that, she thanks him for the ride and they part ways. She leans her head at the back of her door as she closed it and sighs but smiles to herself. She must admit that she really enjoyed her time with Morrison and secretly wanted to invite him in but decided against it at the last minute.

Hmmm, it is better than a slap or a kick. At least now I know that she doesn’t mind me feeling this way, otherwise, she would have told me to stop right then and request not to ever see me again. Yes… Today is a good day… Morrison nods to himself as he gets in his car. Little does he know that a pair of eyes are looking at them and the person is not pleased with how the night turned out to be.

“Oh, why do you have to be together like this? It could have been a lot easier to dispose of her…” the shadow whispers as the window of the car rolls up and the black sedan drives away as soon as Morrison pulls away from the pavement and drives back to the city.

 

 

Chapter IV

 

The next few days flew by and as Friday comes near, Cornelia gets ready for her date with Barret. She has not seen him the whole week and is wondering what had happened to him. She still doesn’t know what she feels about their date on Friday; Will it be like those platonic dates? Will it be a romantic one? Will it be filled with laughter like what she had with Morrison?

As she lays her head on her pillow on Thursday night, she reminisces the days following her impromptu date with Morrison. He was a true gentleman all throughout the rest of the week and has always smiled in her direction whenever he strode into his father’s office.

The case has progressed and Nick’s attorneys are scrambling to find the culprit of the supposed money-laundering scheme that Nick is being charged with. The CEO of McElroy and Burns is adamant that he has never cheated his customers of any money and that his investors can attest to that as well his employees. She recalls his statement in the press the day before which was aired earlier that night before she went to bed.

“I have never stolen money from anyone because I know how it feels like to be robbed of his own property. I have worked hard to build this company and I will not let it go to waste because of someone who is trying to destroy me. I will not rest until I clear my name,” he said with conviction while looking at the cameras.

The television anchor then appeared as Nick walked away saying, “There you have it. The Moneymaker’s fall from the high tower of the rich and the powerful. We hope that the truth finally comes out and the guilty party be punished for their crimes.” The anchor signs off and the channel switched to a commercial.

Right now, she doesn’t exactly know what she thinks about Nick anymore. She is conflicted if he is truly innocent of his crimes or that he is that good to conceal them. So far, James had not contacted her since the letter he left under her door and she’s not expecting him to communicate with her for another month. He usually lets a month go by before checking in on her, unless she contacts him through his private number. He never calls her back though, just messages via mail or emails. Maybe he doesn’t like phones or something, she always thought.

But since he has not made himself available for a chat, she is left with the trepidation of wavering in her quest to bring Nick down because it seems that someone else is trying to destroy his life and whatever he’s built for himself.

“Should I just let them tear him apart with this scandal? Should I add more to it?” she says outloud, then adds another one that she, herself, is surprised that she even thought of it, “Should I help him?”

She sits up all of a sudden and shakes her head to get that thought out of her head, “No Cornelia. What is wrong with you? He is the enemy!” she tells herself.

She finds solace in her mother’s words once again as she recalls her saying, “I love you, Cornelia and I will always be with you wherever you go, even when I’m gone. No matter what you do, do it with a clear conscience and an open heart.”

I miss you mom. I wish you were here to tell me that everything’s going to be all right.

Cornelia whispers more words into the night like a ten year-old girl, longing for her mother’s love and presence. She finally falls asleep with the thought that tomorrow is going to be better for her.

The next morning, she wakes up early to get everything done in the office before taking off for her date with Barret. She still has no idea what to expect from him and what she should tell him about her and Morrison.

She stops while putting on her shoes. What is going on with me and Morrison? We shared a kiss – more of a peck on the lips really – but it was awesome, at least for me. And then what? He confessed that he wanted more than friendship with me and I didn’t react. Do I want to be more than friends with him? But he would certainly get in the way of my plans. Am I still going through  with my plans anyway? I’m so confused!

She resumes strapping on her stilettos and grabs her tote bag as she closes the wooden door behind her. The ride on the elevator is the usual three-minute ride until a man enters on the tenth floor.

He wears a black cap on his head, maybe to hide his reddish hair, and he stands just a few inches above Cornelia’s head. There is no other person on the elevator except the two of them so there’s a lot of space but he chooses to stand right beside her. She doesn’t give it any care for she is busy typing on her phone, organizing her day ahead, when suddenly, he grabs her by the arms and covers her mouth with his other gloved hand.

He lowers his mouth to her ears and whispers in a chilly voice, “Stay away from the McElroy’s. I know who you are!” he bangs her head on the wall, pitching her backwards. As she fell, he quickly presses on the elevator button and the doors open. He dashes outside and disappears from view. They’ve reached the lobby but since it is still early, none of the tenants are up yet. She can’t believe that she was just attacked inside the elevator in her own building!

She scrambles to her feet and as she opens the front door to try to catch up with her attacker, she runs into Barret’s hard chest.

“Whoa! Hold on there, Cornelia. It’s still early, I assure you,” he chuckles as he tries to steady her on her feet.

“I’m sorry, Barret,” she tries to catch her breath as she holds on to him for support.

He notices that her dress is a bit disheveled and a trickle of blood starts to show on the side of her head, the part where it hit the side railing of the elevator wall when the mysterious man banged her on.

“Are you, okay, Cornelia? You’re bleeding! Here, why don’t you take a seat while I check you, okay?” he says soothingly as he leads her back inside and sits her on the lobby sofa. He fishes out a hanky from his back pocket. Who keeps a handkerchief in his person this day and age? She thinks to herself but otherwise feels relieved for having him there. He always seems to pop out of nowhere when she needed him the most.

“What happened? Why are you rushing out and why the hell are you bleeding?” he asks, his voice going from asking to getting mad. “Who did this to you, Cornelia? Tell me now and I will make sure he pays for even laying a hand on you!” he hisses as he continues to dab on the blood on her head.

“Please, Barret. You don’t have to do this. I- I’m okay. I j-just bumped my head on the elevator wall before going out. I’m such a clutz!” she gives him her very own fake laugh but he doesn’t seem to buy it.

His eyebrows are still drawn together as he asks her more questions, “Where exactly did you bump your head? The elevator is made of wood. Only the side railings, which are above your head, if my measurements are correct, are made of steel. And even if you were running out of the elevator to God knows where, you still can’t get that injury by just bumping on it with that small of a space to leverage with.”

She decides to tell him the truth because he doesn’t look like he’s going to let her out of his sight without getting a plausible answer.

“Okay, fine. I was attacked when I was inside the elevator,” she blurts out as she takes the hanky from his hand and dabs her own forehead.

“What!?” he exclaims, jumping to his feet with every intention to chase whoever attacked her.

She pulls him back beside her on the sofa and tries to calm him, “Relax, Barret. I’m okay, just a little banged up, but otherwise, fine.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You’re bleeding for God’s sake! Who attacked you? Do you know him? What did he look like? What floor did he get on?” he asks her a string of question that she has to put her hands up to stop his barrage.

“Barret, one at a time please.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. But first, are you sure you’re okay? I can take you to the hospital. It’s just a few blocks from here,” he starts to pick her up then but she gently waves his arms away.

“Barret, I’m fine. It’s just a little flesh wound. They always look worse than they really are,” she says offhandedly pertaining to bleeding in general. “Please, come and sit back down so I can tell you what happened.

Barret complies and looks at her with concern, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. Why do guys feel the need to do that? It’s so utterly intimate that it makes me more interested in them. She admits to herself as she looks into Barret’s golden brown eyes. She feels so much safer now that he’s here.

She tells him about the mysterious red-head who entered the elevator in the tenth floor. “He looks like he wanted to rob me or something but when I didn’t want to give my bag, he banged up against the wall and ran out as soon as the doors opened. That’s why I was rushing out the door so I can get a better look at him. It was a little dark inside the elevator that’s why I couldn’t see his face, plus he had a cap on.” She lies about the attempted robbery part and that she didn’t see his face. She had a partial look of his face, the lower part of his face that is. He had a big mole on the right cheek and his lip was pierced. Other than that and the red hair, she doesn’t have pretty much to go on. But even with those tiny details, she doesn’t share them with Barret because she doesn’t want him to file a police report on it. Filing a report means that the cops would have a record of her living there and since she changed her name, they might find out that she was really Cornelia Lewis from the New Jersey community orphanage who ran away. It would be too risky for her to be known anywhere and that would mean that she won’t be able to find out more about Nick and his connection to her mother’s death.

But those two incidents of her nearly falling to her death in the elevator at work and now this, couldn’t be a coincidence anymore. Plus, the guy gave her a warning to specifically stay away from the McElroys. He knows them! But what does that mean? Could it be Nick telling her to back off? But he made her his secretary for goodness’ sake! Morrison couldn’t possibly have sent him because he confessed his attraction to her and his intentions. She hasn’t even met the Mrs. McElroy so she wouldn’t know Cornelia. So who could have sent that guy to stay away from them?

“Hey, Cornelia?” Barret’s voice jars her from her thoughts and she is forced to forget those questions for now and focus on what Barret is telling her. “Are you okay? Are you dizzy? We need to report this to the authorities. Come, I’ll go with you.” He starts to stand and offers his hand to her.

“No!” she says rather loudly. “I- I mean, it’s no use because I didn’t see his face. What will we tell the cops? That a mysterious man whose face I didn’t see, came at me, wanting to rob me but ran away with nothing? They would just laugh at us.”

“No they won’t. I’ll make sure of that. But, Cornelia, he hurt you and he could have done worse if you stayed longer in there. This is my building and I won’t have my tenants be harassed, robbed, or taken advantage of anytime! And most especially you…” he pauses then continues on his speech. “I made this place so that people can feel safe and protected and make this place their homes. Not a place where evil men can lurk and surprise them from out of nowhere!” he looks to be angry now that Cornelia decides to tell him something to convince him not to report it anymore.

“Relax Barret. I’m okay and I won’t mention this to anyone. Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. The moment that I recall something about my attacker, may it be his face or anything note-worthy about him, I’ll tell you and we can both go to the police station to file an official report. How does that sound?”

Barret looks at her fragile face and her sweet smile. How could he say “No” to that? “Okay…” he sighs and finally concedes. “The moment you remember anything, and I mean even the way he smelled or the way he dressed, you come to me and tell me everything, okay?”

She nods in response and picks up her bag. “Yes, sir. I will surely let you know. Now, I need to go to the office.” She looks down on the hanky that she used which is now partially stained with her blood, and says, “Umm, I better clean this first before giving it back to you…”

“No, please, keep it. Are you sure you’re still going to work after what happened to you?” he asks as he walks with her outside, feeling the cold morning on his face.

“Yes. Like I said, I’m fine. It’s just a little headache. Nothing that an Advil can’t fix and besides, my boss needs me real badly.”

“Are you going to be up for our date tonight? Why don’t we just reschedule it so you can rest instead?”

Cornelia thinks about his suggestion but decides to go against it. “No, I want to go out. I want to forget what happened today and what better way to do that than to go out and have fun, right?” Honestly, she doesn’t want to go out especially on a Friday night but she didn’t want to be rude to Barret because he is such a good friend. “Maybe you’ll take me back to the open cinema and we’ll pig out on hotdogs and lay lazily on the grass?” she suggests and then winks at him as a cab comes cruising by. She waves it over and luckily, it stops for her.

“I’d like that but are you sure you don’t want to go to the city and have a proper dinner in a restaurant instead?” he opens the cab door and waits for her to get in. He would have preferred to take her to work but she already got a cab and he had to talk to a client that morning.

“No, I just want to take it easy tonight. I’m not really up for a night in the city. If its okay, can we just stick around here or at the park instead?”

“Of course, Cornelia. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He gently closes the door after she agreed and wave at her as the cab pulls away from the curb.

What are you hiding from me, Cornelia? Why are you so afraid to tell me who you really are? Barret feels that Cornelia is hiding from a big wall and all that she’s showing is just her outer layer. She is like an onion, you need to peel through the layers.

Would you also sting my eyes and heart if I peel off too much of your layers? He asks nobody in particular. He shakes his head smiling and thinking that he’s really got it bad for that woman. He hopes that she feels the same way.

Cornelia leans her head on the cab’s window after telling the driver where to go. Her mind is numb from what happened in her apartment. She’s getting sloppy, she thinks to herself. She’s allowed people to notice her and now, they are slowly peeling away her protective layers. She has to think of a way to stop it. She has to put up sturdier walls.

That means that she needs to stay away from Morrison. Her job at the company is all professional but her connection with Morrison has gotten too personal that it’s gaining too much attention from the wrong kinds of people and that kind of attention will greatly hurt her. She has to think about herself again and not give in to her heart or allow herself to feel compliant, causing her to be careless. She has to be wiser on whom she talks to or whom she interacts with.

Yes, I have to stay away from Morrison. Not that she is going to give whoever wants her hurt, the satisfaction, but it’s for her own benefit. If she really is serious about finding out the truth about Nick and how her mother died, she needs to get her head on the game and be wise. Obviously, she hasn’t gotten any substantial enough facts from him and now, he’s becoming a liability to her and her goals.

So maybe this so-called date with Barret is a good thing because it would take her mind away from Morrison. And she could then easily tell Morrison to back off because she’s dating Barret.

She could use Barret to pretend that she’s no longer interested with Morrison. At least that way, she would have a good reason to stay away from him and it wouldn’t be too hard to believe her because she would have another man in her life whom she doesn’t really despise, but could use as a decoy for Morrison to leave her alone.

Cornelia looks out the window and she looks out into the world.

“If it were a different place and time, Morrison, we could have something, but I can’t risk everything I have built all these years just so you can come into my life. I have a purpose and I must fulfill that, if not for my mother’s memory, for my own identity…” are words she whispered to herself, strengthening her resolve in steering clear from Morrison.

Her date with Barret will be in a few hours but Cornelia is still in the office, sorting out files in her computer and trying to find those that Nick has asked for her to retrieve from the archives. She was given access this morning to the archived files through Michaela, who was especially friendly today, because she asked Cornelia to do all the work for the day since she had to run off somewhere. Of course, Cornelia was happy enough to take them on since that would mean she would have more time looking around and her access would be broader, but she didn’t realize how much work Michaela had asked her to do. So she ended up not having her lunch or any kind of break, except her short trips to the bathroom.

She had put together the Camden account and made sure that the Phillips account had no snags with it’s legal agreements with the company – they are very particular with legal clauses especially now that Nick’s company is at trial. They had a session at court that day regarding the trial of the people against Nick McElroy and Missions Bank. The trial for the allegations against Nick had slightly hit a milestone when Nick’s lawyers had produced some credible witnesses proving that Mr. McElroy had no knowledge of any stolen money and that he doesn’t have any offshore accounts that the opposition were claiming, that the accounts that were made under Nick’s name were all bogus. Another of his lawyers even said, “Your honor, if you were to steal millions of money from a large group of people, why would you create an account under your own name and start putting the stolen merchandise there? It doesn’t make sense and can only be construed as pure lies!”

That had the whole courtroom silenced for a few seconds then the angry crowd erupted and hurled more accusations at Nick’s camp. The judge had to bang his gavel a lot of times to bring back order to the courtroom. Since the tension was high, the judge had decided to adjourn and to meet back the following year, which was only less than a month from then.

“Due to the upcoming holidays, I’m sure you all would like to spend this time with your families so we will set the next court date on January fifth!” The judge bought down his gavel hard and that was the end of the hearing, at least for that day.

Cornelia was the one who attended the hearing because Michaela had then busied herself with other matters outside work. So the trial had already taken up half of her day, then she had to go back to the office and have everything documented so Nick would have his own record of the trial’s accounts. Nick, on the other hand, also went off somewhere with his lawyers, probably for another briefing, but said something to Cornelia before he took off.

“Cornelia, I would require your services later on tonight for something important, if you could indulge me.” It didn’t sound like a command, more of a request really, but she remembered that she had prior engagements that night.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Nick. I would have to decline because I have a date tonight.” She shyly smiled and wondered why she had to explain herself like she was talking to her father and asking for his approval.

“Oh, I see. Ah, I’ll just tell Morrison then. Have a great time then,” he waved at her and strode to his car, flanked by his two bodyguards. The security head of the company had imposed on adding his security detail for his safety especially during the trials. He has, in fact, received several death threats but no one was bold enough to really make an attempt to his life yet. And that’s why he was constantly surrounded by men in black who often give calculating and mysterious looks to people.

What would he tell Morrison? And why would he tell him that she couldn’t go? Is there something I should know about this service he’s requiring me?

“Um, what kind of service are you requiring Nick?” she asked as she was about to get on his car.

“Oh, nothing, Morrison’s mother is throwing him a surprise party tonight for his birthday. You can still come after your date if you like. I just thought you two were exclusive that’s why I asked. But don’t worry about it.” He waved at her and closed the door. She was left staring at the moving car.

Morrison’s birthday? But I have a date with Barret which he has asked me even before I met Morrison. And he wouldn’t expect me to know his birthday this early on, right? I mean, he’s not my boyfriend or anything…

But she feels a little guilty for knowing now and even more so for still not going. She stops herself again and reminds herself that she doesn’t owe him anything and certainly is not required to attend any of the important dates of his life.

Cornelia looks at her watch once more and sees that it’s past six o’clock, way past her office hours but she only has one more file to sort and prepare for the following week and she’d be free and clear to go home.

“Late night again?” Morrison’s voice echoes in the corridor. She didn’t even notice the elevator doors opening.

“Oh, hi!” she says feeling her heartbeat quicken. “How long have you been there? Sorry I’m trying to get all these stuff sorted out before I go. Michaela had to go to some important thing of hers so I finished her pile first.”

“Ah, did she?” he says doubting it because he saw Michaela in the hotel lobby of the Ritz earlier that day, probably meeting her boyfriend. “That was nice of you to think of her first before finishing your own tasks.” He teases, his lip curling up into a smile as he approaches her table.

“Ha ha, yeah, laugh if you want. Maybe I’m just that nice. Or maybe I’m just trying to be friends with the only other person on this floor except my boss.”

He smirks and teases her some more then asks, “Are you free tonight? I, ah, I was thinking maybe you could accompany me to some dinner or something. Just something my boring old family cooked up.” He tries to sound nonchalant. He doesn’t want her to know that it’s for a birthday dinner his mother planned for him and some close family friends, well, more of business connections who grew close to the McElroys.

Cornelia stops what she’s doing and slowly looks at him guiltily. “Umm, I kind of, have a date tonight…” she says uneasily. Why are you feeling guilty about going out with other people? It’s not as if you’re going exclusive with him, right? He’s not your boyfriend so you shouldn’t feel bad for not going to his party for another guy… right?

Morrison’s face changes when Cornelia told him about her date that night. “Oh…” he looks down on the carpet as if to hide the jealous look he has on his face but she already saw it. He couldn’t hide it fast enough, a shadow comes over his face and his voice as he realizes what that means. So she’s going with other men but it takes her a hard time to even decide if she wanted to go out with me?

“I see,” he nods then smiles, the one that he uses for the ladies, masking his true feelings with his charming grin.

“I’m sorry, Morrison. I didn’t know you had something like this planned…”

“No, please, don’t apologize, Cornelia. We both know that we’re not technically “dating” so you don’t have to explain anything. You’re free to make commitments elsewhere as I am. I actually am taking someone already but, hah!” he laughs as if not knowing why he even asked her, “I guess I just thought you didn’t have anywhere to go tonight so… nevermind. Anyway, have fun tonight!”

He doesn’t mean to deliver his message like how it came out but doesn’t feel the need to explain himself either. He is uncomfortably jealous with the guy she’s supposed to go out with that night instead of being with him on his birthday. But then again, she’s not his girl to begin with. No matter how much he wants it to be that way, it just isn’t so.

Cornelia feels his anger palpate through his words but instead of feeling even sorrier about the situation, she feels anger as well. Yes, we are free to have other commitments. I am not tied to him nor he to me so I should not feel guilty about my date with Barret tonight.

“Yes, I sure will. You have fun tonight too!” she doesn’t mean to sound so uncaring and insensitive but she can’t stop herself from feeling hurt that she isn’t even his first choice. Why would he even bother asking her in the first place if there was already some girl waiting for him?

He turns his back on her then, making to enter the elevator doors when he stops for a second and says in a hushed voice, “Just make sure you take care.” Without turning around when he said it, he enters the threshold of the elevator and pushes the button. His back is still turned as the doors close.

“W-wait…” Cornelia whispers but it is too late for the doors are closed and she is all alone in the office premises. She sits back down on her chair and contemplates what just happened. “Did we just have a fight?” she asks the wind.

She looks at her watch again and scrambles to her feet, exclaiming, “Shoot! I really need to go.” It’s nearly seven in the evening so that means she only has less than an hour to prepare for her date with Barret. She closes up her office drawers and powers down her laptop. She makes sure to check and double check everything before leaving for the elevator, feeling satisfied that she had all her work, plus Michaela’s, done for the day.

The ride to her apartment was swift and in just a few minutes past seven, she is delivered at her doorstep by the friendly cab driver. She gives her cab fare and tip to the driver and gets off, nearly running towards the apartment building. As soon as she enters her apartment, all of her clothes go flying and she moves like a whirlwind as she tries doing everything as quick as she could.

By the time her doorbell rang, she had just put on her earrings and strapped her sandals on as she makes her way to the door. She showered, picked out a decent dress, did her hair, and her makeup in record time of just forty minutes. She checks her image on the mirror hanging at the back of her door, and then opens it.

“Hi!” she greets Barret as he smiles at her stunning form standing in her doorway. He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. He just remains standing there, staring at her like someone who just saw a ghost or a beautiful apparition.

She looks at him uncertainly, not knowing if there was something on her face or if he changed his mind about their date. She waves her hand at him catching his attention. “Umm, Barret? Are you okay?”

Barret can’t believe that this beautiful woman is going out with him that night. He already knows how beautiful Cornelia is but he didn’t expect her to look so good on their night out. She had on a simpler dress than what she had on the first time they went to the park. She wore a black number then, but now, she has on a red dress that hugs every part of her body. It looks so right on her body and it isn’t even remotely showing any skin. It has a square neckline and its sleeves come up to her elbows. The hem of the dress is not short as what she wore on their first night out together, but ends on her mid-calf. The whole dress looks so elegant and sophisticated, making her look even lovelier and classy.

“Wow! I’m sorry Cornelia. I was just, ah, speechless!” he chuckles feeling like a complete idiot for ogling at her. “You must think I’m a total pervert for staring at you. You are just so lovely… wow!” he exclaims, still mesmerized at how great she looks.

Cornelia blushes from his praise but waves her hand as if to dispel the moment. “Oh, please, this old thing?” she chides as she steps out of her door. “Shall we?”

He offers his arm and she takes it gratefully. “So, I hope you’re in for a fun night ahead!” He’s trying to add excitement to their date night in fear that she might get bored of his company if he remained quiet. But it looks like he’s looking like a blabbering idiot.

“Barret, you don’t have to entertain me.” She can feel that he’s nervous and he’s trying to fill in the dead air between them. “Let’s just relax and have fun, okay?” she says good-naturedly while gently nudging his arm.

“Hah! Sorry if I seem a little on edge. It’s just that you make me nervous looking all so made up. Now, I feel so underdressed.” He looks down at his cowboy boots, jeans, and navy polo shirt.

“No! Please, don’t feel that way. I feel so overdressed with this silly thing. You know what, maybe I should change my outfit into a more fitting one.” She starts to turn back but he stops her, holding her hand in the process.

“You look perfect, Cornelia.” They look into each other’s eyes as the moment stretches on between them.

She looks away first, clearing her throat to clear the air. “Ahm, we better go. We don’t want to hit traffic…wherever we’re going… Where are we going by the way?”

The moment might be over but Barret’s heart is still doing cartwheels in his chest. He could have kissed her right there but held himself back for fear that she might slap her and would never want to see him again. But at that brief moment as they were standing in the hallway of his apartment building – him in his stupid cowboy boots, and Cornelia in her regal red dress – it felt perfect.

“Yes, we do need to get a move on if we want to catch the show.” He didn’t want to bring her to the park again because she might think it’s the only place he liked and he doesn’t want to appear cheap or boring. He booked tickets for The New York Philharmonic who was playing in town. They are going to be there for three nights only and he was lucky to secure two tickets just a few days ago. He likes music and he’s never personally seen the symphony. Being a hopeless romantic all his life, Barret thought Cornelia is the type of girl who likes this kind of music and who wants spending the night listening to the orchestra play their musical masterpieces. He also didn’t know if he was dressed right so he just threw on his ever-reliable boots and polo shirt. He hasn’t exactly been polished into going in these kinds of events and he’s been out of practice when it comes to the dating scene, being divorced, and having a non-existent social life. He doesn’t have any sisters as well to ask for fashion advice and he can’t very well ask his ex-wife, even if they remain friends after all that’s happened between them.

“Wow, looks like you’re taking me some place fancy tonight huh?” she jokes but he actually nods at her.

“I know you said you just wanted to stay near but you might say that it’s not the usual thing you see in these parts,” he winks then opens the building door to let her out first.

Cornelia wraps her shawl around her shoulders and breathes in the evening air. It’s a bit chilly tonight and her outfit is just the right one for the weather. Although she does envy his boots as she wriggles her toes in her strappy sandals.

“Could I borrow your boots though? I knew I should’ve worn mine!”

They both laugh as he guides her through the wet ground towards his pick-up truck. But instead of getting on the truck, Barret leads her to another car parked beside it. A shining BMW sits on the spot near Barret’s truck and since the pick-up was big, it easily hides the much smaller, but sleeker car beside it.

“Wow! I didn’t know you owned another car.”

She looks impressed! Always a good sign. Now you just need to survive the rest of the night without looking stupid in your already embarrassing clothes. He whispers to himself as he tries not to mess up until they are safely inside the ridiculously small car. He never liked small cars but he’s always been a car buff. That meant that he has an admiration for all kinds of cars and a sports car is every guy’s dream car, no matter how traditional he must seem to be. So a year ago, he was feeling a little down with the divorce and all that’s been happening with his life so far that he went out and bought the vintage BMW on a whim. But he must admit that he’s never regretted it once, even if he doesn’t drive it often. It was still a good investment for him, and now that he has officially started dating again, it’s a plus for any girl.

Well, Cornelia is not like any other girl. She actually prefers to sit on the comfortable big seats of the pick-up over the cramped and low seats that usual sports cars have, except for Morrison’s, of course. His car has plush seats, but it was very comfortable and just right for her medium height.

Why am I thinking about another man’s car anyway? You’re with Barret tonight, okay? Please don’t think of him now or ever again. He’s surely not thinking about you.

 

But Morrison was thinking about her an hour ago and is still is at that very moment.

He moves towards the balcony of the exclusive hotel and resort that his mother has rented for his birthday bash. He knows about the surprise because his mother has always been big about celebrations, especially his birthday. He remembers their conversation a week before.

“Mother, I’m twenty six for crying out loud!” he said, exasperated with what her mother had cooked up for his upcoming birthday. “I am not some teenage boy who’s coming out into the world. Please, don’t throw another one of your surprises for me, okay?”

“But Morrison, darling, you know that it’s my only joy… For you to have a good time on your birthday with your friends and family. Don’t you want that?” Linda McElroy had put on her most convincing motherly face to convince her son to agree to her idea. She didn’t want to make the same mistake of not informing her son of any planned surprises beforehand – not after her failed surprise when he went bounding off to Africa. She had planned his eighteenth birthday to be held at their vacation house in Hollywood but then he broke the news of going off to some faraway place just days before the said event. Of course she couldn’t very well cancel when she’s already invited many of her famous friends and business acquaintances of her husband. In the end, they still had to throw the party with the absentee birthday boy.

Morrison looked at his mother’s pleading face and didn’t want to break the old woman’s heart. “Fine, but don’t expect me to hang around for long. I have tons to do with the cases that I need to review. I am not a full-fledged lawyer yet so I need to really work my butt off and learn the ropes before I even decide to go to law school – if I still want to, that is.” Morrison has been learning a lot about his father’s business and as much as he loves being an environmentalist and dreams of being an environmental lawyer, he must admit that he’s been enjoying himself so far with the business side of things and less on the legal side. But his passion for doing something about the environment and doing what he can to preserve the world is still there and it will never leave him.

“No, of course not. You just need to be there in the beginning of the party if you want then you can go off to your other engagements, if you have any planned afterwards. It’s just that I have already invited some of our close family friends and Sandy, you know, Hilda’s daughter from England, is going to be in town. I would very much like you to meet her and get reacquainted. I’m sure you’d love her dear.”

Sandy Morgan is one of Morrison’s childhood friends. Well, her mother is his mother’s friend, which makes them childhood friends by association.

“Sandy? I haven’t seen her in decades. I remember her as the tall girl with pigtails and braces. I used to tease her a lot. How has she been?” He honestly cannot remember how Sandy Morgan looked like but he faintly remembers her as the awkward one out in class and who always got picked on because of her height. She was the tallest of the girls, even taller than most boys, and skinny as well.

“She’s just finished her degree in Economics and Management at Oxford University and is taking a short break before going off to Paris for a graduate course as well. You must meet her! She’s grown into quite a lovely girl, you know.” Linda hopes for a romantic union between the heiress and her son. Sandy stands to inherit her family’s amassed fortune and group of companies that catered to shipping businesses and freight. Her family’s company, Morgan Industries, is one of the leading and sought-after companies in the whole United States and they have since the nineties, expanded their business overseas. Sandy’s mother, Susan, has been Linda’s closest friend in their charity group or their so-called group of “Elite Wives’ Club”, as they are dubbed by other aspiring and envious housewives of the rich and famous. The two mothers have long since talked about a union between their children but with Morrison’s wandering ways, and Sandy’s thirst for academics, the mothers’ dream of that union has not been fulfilled.

But it will be soon, as long as my plans go according to plan. Linda will do practically anything for the two to meet and will make sure that they spend as much quality time as they can with each other – without any nuisance women throwing themselves at her son’s feet. No, I will have none of that! Especially with that Cornelia girl! She cannot have any part in my son’s life.

Linda McElroy is not one to be messed with, especially when it comes to her family. She doesn’t allow just anyone to get too close to them because she wants to preserve her family’s “untainted” blood. Meaning, she doesn’t want any gold-digging whores and those who take advantage to get near them. She believes that everybody wants something from everyone and that any relationship has to serve a purpose on each side. So every transaction, every friendship, every family ties that she’s built over the years have always been to serve a bigger purpose. A purpose for the family she has strived to grow and preserve, and she will never let anything or anyone destroy what she has built so far.

So if you don’t have a purpose in Linda’s life, you are set aside and discarded. If you are a threat to the peace and tranquility, she has surrounded herself and her family – no matter how superficial and pretentious it may be for others – then you are to be dealt with accordingly. Her years of experience in thwarting would-be gold-digging girlfriends of her son and countless efforts of screening women who come into his life, has earned her many tricks up her sleeve. She wasn’t about to let any slut catch her son’s heart and ensnare her vise grip around his neck. No! Her son would marry a woman from a reputable family – meaning also rich and famous, preferably one of her friend’s daughters – with a good head on her shoulders and shares the same values as she does. Family has always been her identity and without the essence of family in her life, she would cease to exist, socially at least.

You cannot blame Linda for her tenacity in keeping her family safe, but her ways have landed some people a lot of misfortune and even death.

She looked at her son then and was hoping against hope that he at least look at Sandy and talk to her. She was sure the educated lady will have his attention right from the start and if that doesn’t do it, her looks will surely do. She was quite pleasantly surprised when she herself, saw Sandy after many years of not seeing even her shadow in the U.S. She has bloomed quite nicely and her height only adds to her chic look and model-worthy physique.

“You would love her, Morrison. She has changed quite a lot and a quick wit, I must say!” she talked animatedly, making sure her son was all ears to her praise of the young academic.

“I’m sure she is mother. Anyway, I can only spare an hour, maybe two at the most so please don’t be disappointed if I suddenly go off somewhere. I will make sure to let you know when I decide to leave, okay?” he walked the short distance of the study towards his mother and gave her a peck on the forehead. “You stress yourself too much on these parties, mother. You should be sipping coffee somewhere sunny, not planning ridiculous birthday parties for grown men.”

“Pish posh! Oh please, dearie, I remember you used to love these parties. Your tuxedos and cute suits are still in the basement of the old house. You looked so cute on them I didn’t have the heart to throw them away.”

“Mother, I’m a grown man, I think it’s safe to throw my baby things away now, or give them away, that’s much better. Anyway, I have to go. Please,” he gave her an imploring look, “not too many people and not too extravagant. I would rather have a birthday party thrown in a charity ward of a hospital if you had asked me first.” Morrison would have liked spending his birthday in Africa if he was given the chance, with his old friends and possibly making new ones. He suddenly missed being in the simple lives of those people he met in the jungles of Africa.

He tosses the remains of his champagne glass on the flowerpot beside him, set the glass on the ledge and decides he can safely leave the party now since he’s been there for more than an hour. He is beginning to feel tired because of a hard day at work and is about to turn around to make his way to his mother for his polite exit when a tall woman – clad in black, her hair swept up in a bun atop her head, classic Audrey Hepburn glasses on her small face, and a glass of champagne on one hand – stands not too far away from him, staring out into the lovely ocean view in front of them. She must have not seen him because she is oblivious to his presence as she continues to sip on her glass whole looking out to the blue and green colors of the sea.

Morrison has never seen her before – certainly not one of his mother’s usual self- proclaimed prospects that she sets him up with – and she isn’t from the office as well. She might be a celebrity with her looks and poise but he’s never seen her face on television before. It makes him very curious as to know who this mysterious lady is.

She finally notices him as she glances his way. He is still staring at her like some idiot who just saw a beautiful woman. She smiles at him and raises her glass then makes to leave.

“Wait!” he suddenly calls out, stepping towards her to get a closer look. “I believe we have not yet been introduced. The name’s Morrison, and you are?” He uses one of his charming smiles to show he is harmless and extends out his hand to shake hers.

She looks down at his outstretched hand and offered hers as well. “Sandy, Morrison. Of course I know you and you know me too… well, not as well as you knew me then, apparently.” She chuckles as Morrison remains rooted to his spot as he still holds her hand on his. Her British accent is lovely and Morrison can’t take his eyes off her face. She’s completely the opposite of what he was expecting when Linda told him about her coming back to the U.S.

What? Sandy? Sandy Morgan turned out to be this hot?! His mind is still reeling at the complete transformation of the awkward ugly duckling who literally turned out to be a lovely swan.

“Wow!” he exclaims as he laughs at his own ignorance. “Forgive me for being such an idiot! I… I can’t believe it’s you Sandy! I mean, hah! It’s been decades since I last saw you. I believe it’s way back in middle school?” Morrison scratches his head with his one hand while still holding hers on the other.

She looks down on their hands and politely says, “I would need my hand back if that’s okay with you, Morrison.”

“Oh! Sorry! Wow! I seem to have turned into a mess now that I know you’re the Sandy I’ve gone to school with before,” he laughs nervously, hoping that he hasn’t messed up that big for her to avoid him.

“Oh, stop it Morrison. I haven’t changed that big. I’ve only, well, grown, to put it literally.” They both laugh at her quip as they start reminiscing their time back in their old school.

They talk for about an hour before they decide to go in and have a few more drinks at the bar of the resort.

“You know, I was starting to dread this night until you came out of that balcony,” he tells her while they sit on a comfortable spot near the big windows.

“Aww, now I feel guilty for having to tell you that I must be off in half an hour. I have some prior engagements in the morning and I actually just dropped by to wish you a happy birthday. When I couldn’t find you earlier, I decided to have a whiff of the sea breeze that’s why I went out there.” She smiles guiltily at him.

For the life of him, Morrison doesn’t want her to go so soon. He is surprised that he was actually enjoying his party for once because of Sandy and she’s leaving in a few minutes. “Oh that is too bad. You’re going to break my heart Sandy. Now that I’ve finally found someone I could talk with without having to politely excuse myself after several minutes, you’re going to leave me this early?” He pretends to stab himself on the heart and leans back on his chair as if he is actually hit with something.

“Don’t be such a baby Morrison. You can talk with these people,” she looks around at the sea of color before them. There are lots of people dressed in those high fashion outfits while they sway to the sound of the music and dancing around them. “Well, some of them perhaps.” She looks back at him with a sympathetic expression on her face.

“Please Sandy,” he reaches out across the table and takes her hand in his. “Don’t leave me alone with them!” he pretends to weep as he pleads for her to stay. “Or at least let me take you somewhere closer to your place so you could spend a few more minutes with me, please?”

She seems to consider his offer then finally nods. “Fine! Since you’re the birthday boy and I don’t have the heart to leave you to these teenagers who seem to have drowned themselves in liquor this early, you can accompany me on my way back to my hotel.”

Yes! Morrison quickly stands and goes to her side to help her out of her chair. He wanted so much to get out of that place and even if it will only be a few minutes for them to talk some more, he would gladly take it rather than spending another hour in that place.

“Let me just have a quick word with my mother and we’ll be on our way.” He makes his way through the throng of people towards the VIP lounge where his mother is having some cocktails with her friends.

“Oh, Morrison darling! How are you enjoying the party so far? I didn’t know what type of music you wanted son I just had the DJ play something you kids like these days. Thank God for soundproofing!” Linda laughs as her friends laugh with her.

“Hello mother. I have been enjoying it for a change. Thank you for arranging this but I need to scoot off somewhere. So if you would all forgive me, I will be on my way and call this a wonderful night.” He gives his mother a peck on the cheek and hurriedly exits the lounge.

Linda was about to call him back when she saw who he exited out the front doors with. “Oh my! Susan, I believe that is your lovely girl Sandy?”

Susan Morgan leans to look at whom Linda is pointing at and nods with excitement. “Yes, that is her with your Morrison dear! I guess your predictions are turning out to be true Linda!”

Linda’s smile widens as she realizes what it means. “Yes, I told you my son would notice your girl. Besides, she has grown up into such a beautiful woman. Morrison can never resist her now. Ah, just think Susan. Sometime next year or even sooner, we could be celebrating much more than a birthday party! Am I hearing wedding bells?!” They both giggle like they were back in their high school cheerleader uniforms, trying to ensnare the richest and handsomest guys in the football team. They both went to one of the most exclusive schools in the South, where their families have established their million-dollar empires and they have been best friends since high school.

Linda takes a sip at her glass and silently laughs inside. You think you can win Cornelia Masters? Think again. You can never have my son and I will make sure that it stays that way!

 

 

 

Chapter V

 

The orchestra plays beautifully as Cornelia’s eyes nearly water from the beautiful music the symphony is making. It is her first time to be in an actual live performance and the experience has been magical for her.

Barret looks at her while the orchestra plays on the background and he’s thankful that he thought of this instead of another boring night in the park or some restaurant. He’s sure that with a girl like her, she’s probably gone to exclusive hotels and fancy restaurants on dates so he had a hard time thinking of where he could take her to make things special for her. It was a good thing that he saw the commercial on television featuring the New York Philharmonic playing in town and he thought that Cornelia would probably like to go. And he was right! Thank God for infomercials.

“How are you liking it so far, Cornelia?” he dares to ask as they take a short break for the next few songs. She looks at him and beams.

“I love it, Barret! I never thought I’d like the orchestra but I love it now that I’m hearing them play live!” she sounds ecstatic and happy. It is the first time that Barret saw her in that light. She had always been the quiet type, always keeping her emotions in check and rarely shares anything personal with anybody. He couldn’t help but observe her ever since he saw her come in the apartment with her sad eyes. There’s something about her that bring out his sense of protectiveness as if he wanted to shield her away from the world – to keep her safe in his arms. She doesn’t appear to be the victim type, on the contrary, she appears to be a strong and independent woman, but he sometimes, he catches a glimpse of her vulnerability. Like whenever she goes to the bakeshop owned by those sweet old couple or when she plays with her neighbor’s baby. She tries to hide her soft side but he can see through her tough exterior. Especially now that he’s seen how happy she is.

“I’m glad you like it. I honestly decided to get the tickets on the hopes that you won’t totally hate it. I wanted to take you somewhere special, some place beautiful and majestic… just like you.” Shoot! There it goes, the first shot.

Oh no! He’s starting to flirt. What do I say? Am I going to flirt back? I’m blushing again, aren’t I?

“Haha! Good one Barret! I almost believed you there.” She decides to respond with a friendly banter because she doesn’t quite know what she feels about the situation yet. She likes spending time with him, she feels safe with him around like he’s always got her back no matter what. But is that enough? She doesn’t feel the same heart-thumping kind like how she is with Morrison but that one could also mean that Morrison just gets on her nerve most of the time. She doesn’t feel the same comfort when she’s with Morrison either. Whenever he’s around, she’s always on her toes and her heart does cartwheels then summersaults, and all sorts of activities. There is nothing like the silent, calm, and relaxing kind that she feels with Barret. What does that mean exactly?

She’s trying to play it safe again. Maybe you’re moving in too fast. Anyway, it’s only your first date, except that time in the park. But that does not constitute as a date since they just happened to run into each other and shared a night watching old movies.

“It’s true! You don’t believe me? Well, you should. You’re one of a kind Cornelia and I’m lucky you even went out with me.” He is being honest and he hopes that she could see that he is genuinely interested in her.

“Thank you for your kind words, Barret. I’m lucky you asked me out. It’s not everyday that a handsome guy asks me out to listen to a full orchestra!” she tries to keep the conversation light and he is amused by her efforts to dodge his words of admiration.

“Well, thank you very much miss! I have been known to sweep ladies off their feet so be forewarned!” he tries his best James Bond impression which draws out a giggle from Cornelia. He begins to find out that he likes the way she laughs and the sound of her voice is becoming something he looks forward to hearing everyday. You have it bad for this girl, man. He shakes his head as they go back to listening to the music they came to hear and see.

They drove to a restaurant that Barret knows well in the neighborhood and ended up introducing Cornelia to the regulars of the restaurant. It’s a family-owned business and the owner happens to be one of Barret’s good friends.

“Eddie! Hey man! I’d like you to meet Cornelia Masters.” Eddie, the owner, has a big build, more like a body builder and he stands taller than Barret. Everything about the guy is massive. From his shoulders to his enormous hands. It is clear to see that nobody messes with this guy.

“Hello, Cornelia! Come here and give big Eddie a hug!” he snatches Cornelia like she was a rag doll and hugs her to him.

Cornelia is shocked at the guy’s build and how strong he was but he was like a big teddy bear when he gave her a bear hug. “Whoa! Hi, Eddie!” Cornelia greets him with a big smile. They exchange some more friendly banter then finally settling on a table in the corner. Eddie set them up on what he calls, “the best seat in the house” because it was far away from other customers and set on the mini-balcony of the place. The whole structure is two-stories high and the restaurant sits on the ground floor as the upper floor serves as a bar for those who want some drinks. Out front, just in the middle of the first and second floor, is a landing with a table and two chairs facing the streets. Since the place is set on the corner of the block, it faces the whole street and one could see the old brick houses and cozy apartment buildings that are not the modern types with elevators and stuff. Just the traditional apartment style houses in Brooklyn.

“It’s a wonderful view!” Cornelia gets her breath taken away for the second time that night. First with the orchestra they saw and now, the breath-taking view of the streets of Brooklyn. She can even see the Brooklyn Bridge on her perch.

“I’m glad you like it because this is one of my favorite places in town. Aside from the park, of course. I love this town. I grew up loving this town even though I’m not originally from here. You’re from Jersey, right?”

“Yes. I was but then I moved here a long time ago,” it was actually just four years ago but it feels like decades for her. She tries to forget her old life in New Jersey and move on but sometimes, nightmares of getting beaten by older kids and starving, still haunts her in her sleep.

“How has New York been treating you so far?”

He’s trying to get to know me. Relax, you can be honest with him to some point.

“Well, I can say that it hasn’t been easy, especially at first, but I’m hanging in there and it gets better every year.”

Their orders start arriving as they thank their waiter.

“You, how long have you been here?” she asks in return, wanting to turn the questions on him and get the conversation focused on his life and away from hers.

“I’ve been divorced for a more than a year now and I’ve taken over the family business since I was in my early twenties and have been developing it since then. I wanted to branch out to other parts of the city and probably buy an old building to develop into an apartment as well or a small condominium but the competition is tough and most of the lands in the city are either already acquired by huge corporations or by the city government. I think I’ll stick around here or maybe look into other states nearby. I’m still trying to build my furniture business as well so I do have a lot on my plate with that one.” He lets out a sigh and looks at her apologetically. “Sorry, I’ve blabbered on about my five-year plan, haven’t I?”

“No! Please, I like hearing your plans and what you want to do with your business. I, myself, am not a business-minded person so hearing you talk about your dreams in building your business so passionately inspires me. So where do you plan to take your furniture business if you were given a chance?”

“Hah! Don’t be too nice, Cornelia. I know I’m probably boring you out of your mind with all these stuff. Let’s talk about you. What do you like to do? What are you passionate about?”

Getting justice for my mother’s death and getting back at the man who abandoned us.

“I like spending time with orphans – I know it sounds cliché – but I feel good in helping others.” Which is partly true because she does sympathize with orphans since she is one and she likes helping people out, just not everybody. Her feelings about Nick are still the same. He is getting what he deserves and slowly, his empire will fall. All those buried skeletons in his closet are starting to come out and sooner or later, she will know why he had up and left them a long time ago and why her mother cried for a week before she died from a car crash that looked like there might have been foul play. She had dug deeper when she got out of the orphanage and with the help of her friend, James; they were able to look up old files about the accident ten years ago. It looked like some wirings were loose in her mother’s car, which caused the car to careen on the side road before being pitched off the cliff.

“No, I don’t think it’s a cliché. You have a good heart, Cornelia.”

You are totally mistaken, Barret.

They talk more about their background, Cornelia telling him small lies about her childhood and her parents, Barret, talking about his mother, and how he loved her cooking. She tries to steer clear from very specific information about her and her past and subtly diverts the topic back to Barret. He doesn’t seem to notice the slight manipulations she makes when it comes to the flow of the conversation. They seem to have plenty of things in common. At least Cornelia tries to be as honest as possible about her likes and dislikes.

They like the same kind of food, which is anything Italian, the same type of movies, action and adventure, and oddly enough, they like lions too. Cornelia likes the way lions hunt their prey, while Barret likes their silent, but protective nature.

“Although I must admit that I have not seen one in person.”

“I have when I went to the zoo. Haven’t you been to any zoo yet?”

It’s a simple question but it strikes something in Cornelia’s memory.

They were walking in a crowded place with lots of children giggling and letting out squeals of delight as they navigated through the many attractions that were showcased in that year’s circus parade. She has been waiting for the circus to come to town for months now and her mother promised to take her on the very first day, which was that day. The first instant she stepped out of the bus and on the pavement where the circus tents were set up in their entire splendor, she felt an overwhelming sense of happiness. Of being completely content with what she had that day. She’s always been fascinated with the world of circus performers where they lived in a place of magic twenty-four-seven. Where everything was possible, even flying in the air and being friends with animals. She doesn’t quite remember how old she was then but it was certainly a time when she still believed in Santa Claus and happy endings.

“Are you excited to see Leo the Lion?” her mother asked her as they made their way into the huge tent where the final act was about to be shown. It promised a two-hour fun-filled adventure ride featuring all of the favorite acts of that said circus – Holly the Hunchback, The Amazing Trampoline Brothers, The Wonder Kid, and many more, plus her favorite, Leo the Lion. Leo the Lion became her favorite act when she saw it one time on television and she’s been mesmerized by that adorably furry creature ever since.

As she thinks back to that old, almost forgotten memory, the gut-wrenching feeling of missing her mother came back with it. Then she shakes her head at her naiveté when she was young, thinking she could pet the lion if she had the chance. Of course, she didn’t know of the dangers of wild lions yet but she felt like she was like Leo in a way. Always moving from place to place, never really creating long-lasting relationships. But that is how she must live in order to achieve what she wants to get out of her measly life.

Barret is still talking about his country roots and how he misses spending time in his old town but Cornelia’s mind is elsewhere. Thinking about what she has to accomplish the following week. She still has not found time to get Nick’s DNA because he’s been out of the office almost all week. The longest time he went in was Wednesday, where he met with her and Michaela, briefing them about what they needed to do with regards to his office affairs as he takes care of some details about the case against him and the company.

She somehow pities Nick, especially now that he’s faced with this controversy, because whenever he talks to his employees, he takes time to assure them that their jobs are secure and that they should not worry about the case, but behind closed doors, she sees him lamenting on what is happening. Like what she saw when he came in the office.

It was early last Wednesday when she decided to go to work early. She walked out of the elevator and went straight to her office. She was about to go into his office and try to snoop around again when she noticed a light in Nick’s office. She peeked through the crack of his office door and saw him. His head was bent and his hands were covering his face. He didn’t look like he was crying but his facial expression showed much grief as he lowered his hands and folded them on top of his table. He whispered something in the air but she didn’t quite hear it so she pressed her ears closer to the door and she heard him pray.

“Ah, alas, God, I seem to have a dilemma for which I do not know what to do. I wish I still had the people I trusted to guide me in this…”

Cornelia couldn’t believe her ears. She didn’t know that he prayed, or knew how to. For her, Nick was just someone with so much power that he might not know that there is someone even more powerful than anyone or anything in the world they live in. Cornelia then slumped to the ground, realizing that there might be something more to the guy she has hated for ten years now. She, herself, acknowledges the supreme power above and knows that she is doomed no matter what she does because of the hatred in her heart.

She stood up and went to her office, banging the door a little bit so Nick would know she had arrived. She then busied herself with her tasks and after several minutes, Nick stepped out of his office and greeted her, looking all made up and cool like he had no worries in the world. Michaela also walked in then and they resumed with their everyday tasks.

“And I had to chase the cow around for like an hour! Can you imagine that! I must have looked so stupid with those ridiculous ropes, swinging them worthlessly to the air and catching nothing!” Barret is still going on about his early childhood experiences in his old home and laughs about his own antics as Cornelia smiles at his anecdotes.

“Wow! That must have been great! Growing up in a place like that!” she comments while letting out a laugh. It’s good that she can keep up with his stories while thinking about other things. It was a skill she learned as she was growing up in the orphanage. She used it before when the other big kids were teasing her and beating her up. She learned how to channel her mind elsewhere so she wouldn’t feel the pain but still attuned to what was happening around her, so she could escape when she saw the chance. Now, she uses it to distance herself from those around her. She uses her walls to block herself from feeling, from getting the idea that there was a chance for her to be happy amidst everything she is going through and after what she has planned to do.

“You bet it was! I had the best times in my life in that place. I wish I could go back though, but business and other things keep me here in New York.” Barret then looks at her and she knows the table has turned and it is her time to tell her own story or tidbit about her childhood. “So, what about you? Any other juicy facts about your early life’s embarrassing moments you’d like to share with me? That is, if you’re brave enough to tell me.” he said, raising his eyebrow to taunt her.

“Hah! You can’t trick me Barret. But as much as I want to oblige you, I don’t have much to tell about my childhood. I just had a pretty normal, average, childhood just like everybody else. Well, except you, of course. I mean, who would want to pet a cow and ride it? It’s not a horse you know.” She rolls her eyes to tease him back and they both laugh at her comment.

They enjoy another fun evening, chatting and laughing mostly about Barret’s embarrassing moments and fashion fails, especially when he was still dating his ex-wife. Out of respect, Barret asked Cornelia earlier if it was okay to talk about his ex, and she immediately stopped him saying, “Barret, please, don’t filter anything about your stories. I want to know about you and I know that it includes things and people in your past. I’m good. I’d tell you if I’m uncomfortable or anything. Besides, based on your stories, she was good to you and she seems to be a lovely person.” She smiled to him then as Barret smiled back.

Barret thinks he’s hit the jackpot with this girl because she was so cool about everything and she paid attention to everything he was telling her. Although she still has her walls up because she tried to steer clear from personal questions he asked her and instead, redirected the conversation back to him. He also noticed how she, sometimes, drifted off inside her head while still looking at him. And he admires her for that. She must be thinking about the things she shouldn’t tell him and still tried being polite by paying attention to his worthless chatter.

As the night wears on, they finish their food and start walking outside the restaurant.

“Hey,” Cornelia nudges him on the shoulder, “thanks for this evening. You really made me laugh a lot and the show was perfect.” Cornelia means every word as she gives him a peck on the cheek. She is surprised at herself for doing that but that was how she felt doing at that moment.

Barret stops in his tracks and stares at her. They are standing in a dimly-lit part of the street, with cars buzzing by and a handful of people walking by, but they don’t seem to notice that as Barret moves closer to her.

Cornelia knows what’s coming next. He is going to kiss me. Should I let him?

He takes her hand in his and holds her waist with the other. He draws her closer to him and is about to lean down to kiss her, when a car drives by, blowing his horn so loud that it interrupts their moment.

“Get out of the way!” the driver from the tinted black car shouts as he whizzed by.

Barret and Cornelia look at each other and laugh.

“Well, that guy is certainly a party pooper!” Barret says still laughing at their thwarted romantic kiss. “Maybe we should get out of this street and go someplace less busy. What do you say?”

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea too!” she giggles as they cross the street. Barret hails a cab back to the park where they shared their first evening together. He had wanted to take her somewhere else because she might not want to go back to the same place but she actually suggested it, which was very convenient for both of them since it’s only a few minutes’ walk to her apartment building and to his own house.

They arrive at the park after several minutes and as they get off to start their leisurely stroll, they see a few people making their way home from the park. Cornelia looks at her watch and is surprised to see the time.

“Wow, time does go by fast when you’re having fun. I didn’t realize it’s almost midnight.”

Barret feels disappointed that she told the time but understands that she might want to rest from being at work most of the day. “I see. Well, let’s go straight to your building then so you could rest. I know how much hours you put in your job and I’m telling you, it’s not right. Take some time to rest, Cornelia. It’s not healthy to spend more than ten hours in the office almost everyday.”

And how does he know that exactly? But instead of being all defensive and suspicious of how he got that information, she says jokingly, “Hmm, someone’s been keeping tabs on my while I work, huh?” She smiles and raises an eyebrow.

“Huh? Me? I never…” he replies with the same smile and puts his hands up in the air as if to surrender. “Fine, fine. Yeah, I see you go out everyday and I see you get home in the late hours with take-out bags of food. So I figured you’re probably spending so much time in the office that you don’t even have a decent meal every night. I would have, of course, invited you in my house for some hot meal but you looked so beat everytime that I didn’t have the heart to invite you over when you should be resting in your bed.”

“I appreciate you looking out for me, Barret, but I’m fine. Besides, I like working for McElroy and Burns. I want to be busy, plus I need the overtime money. I’m saving up for my future like every other gal out there!” she says in her best “Valley girl” accent.

Barret laughs at her failed attempt but turns serious again as they approach the bench they sat on before. “But still Cornelia, you should take it slow sometimes. It’s harder to get sick even if you have tons of money. I should know, that’s why I gave up my nine-to-five job before. I had ulcers developing in my stomach because I rarely ate and when I do, it was never on time. I used to be busy as well, with my career and my dreams of moving up in the corporate ladder, but after five years of doing the same thing everyday, I realized, I wanted to be my own boss and not be constrained by these hours. So I quit and took over the family business. And I never regretted my decision one bit.”

They gaze over the waters of the pond in front of them as Barret’s words echoes in her head. She does feel sick on some days but she always managed to stuff some medicine in her stomach, which kept the dizziness and weakness at bay. She takes her rest on the weekends but during weekdays, she pushes herself to be productive at work and to keep herself busy during the most part of the day, leaving almost no time to eat, but only to sleep. She likes being tired because that means that she doesn’t think. She doesn’t mull over the things that she should have done in the past that might have helped her mother or the stuff she should have done to avoid being beaten and picked on when she was in the orphanage. And most especially, things that she must do in order to avenge her mother’s worthless death and the unjust life she had and is still living at that very moment. She doesn’t have any family or friends that she considers are real, and she doesn’t have a future to look forward to. Only her hate and her desire to see people she hates fall and be destroyed as she watches on.

“I wish I had the same freedom as you have…,” she says absentmindedly.

“You do, Cornelia. You just need to make yourself the priority, not your career. You can always have a job in another company if you like. But do things that you enjoy doing at a considerable amount of time. Don’t let it be your life or else, life might just pass you by and you just wake up one morning, at fifty-something years old, wondering where your years went, and end up regretting choosing your career over having your own family and building lasting relationships.”

Barret’s words were like knives stabbing every ounce of her body. She knows that what he told her was true and that she should not be living in a lie and feeding off the hatred in her heart, but for the life of her, she can’t stop herself from feeling that rage, that emptiness, that Nick has caused. If he hadn’t left them and let them fend for themselves all those years, her mother might still be alive and she might have had a normal childhood, indeed. Nobody deserves to be treated the way she was treated in life – orphaned at an early age and knowing pain and torment in her early teens, then starving, homeless in the streets of New York. If it was not for James, she would have died in that same street she stayed in during the first few days after she ran away from the orphanage. She owes James her life and all she wants to do is to find out what happened to Julie and make those people responsible pay.

“I guess if we were in a different world, I would take your advice, Barret. Who knows, I might do exactly what you said in a few years. But right now, I like what I’m doing and I feel fine. I’m still young and I want to take advantage of my youth to do more than what is expected of me, more than what I expect from myself. Now that I still have the passion to do so.”

He looks at her with admiration and nods his head in agreement. “Okay, but if you get tired – which I know you do, everbody does – take a day or two to rest and unwind. And you can always call me to take you out and keep you busy having fun while relaxing!” he chimes in, giving her a friendly nudge.

They talk some more about what they want in the future and what they would have changed in their past lives. They always seem to agree on things as if their minds travel in the same wavelength. They share lots more moments of laughter as the night wears on.

Finally, the huge clock in the park strikes the hour of one in the morning and they decide to call it quits and turn in for the night.

They walk the short distance from the park to her apartment, still talking and not paying attention to their surroundings too much. An elderly guy is slumped on the ground in the street they are walking on and as they pass him, he suddenly grabs Cornelia and brandishes a knife in front of Barret while locking her in his arms, nearly choking her as he keeps her near him.

“Give me your money, now!” he screams at Barret as he swings his knife back and forth in front of Barret’s face.

“Okay, relax, man. There is no need to be violent here. I will give you my wallet but you have to let her go, now.” He is strangely calm, as he talks to the man who is actually not old but probably in his late twenties, dirty and ragged. He is covered in dark, tattered clothes, and his face is too dirty as if he had intentionally smeared tar on his face to appear like a homeless old man.

“Give me the wallet or I will cut her throat right here! Quick!” he demands nicking her throat to emphasize his point.

“Okay, okay, I get it. Please, stop. I’ll give you my wallet. I’m just going to reach into my pocket and get it out. Please don’t make any sudden moves…” Barret waits for the man to nod in agreement then slowly reaches into his back pocket.

All of a sudden, an arm reaches into the homeless guy’s neck and pulls him backwards while another one grabs his hand with the knife and hits it with something hard, causing him to lose the knife and stumble backwards, loosening his grip on Cornelia.

“Let her go now,” Morrison’s deathly cold voice echoes near her ear and she is as shocked as the guy who holds her captive in his arm. “I’m not going to tell you again, mister. Let her go or your arm breaking is the last sound you will hear before I break your face.”

The homeless guy lets go of Cornelia and steps back as Morrison tightens his grip on his throat, drawing him away from Cornelia’s slumped body. She collapsed to the ground as soon as her hostage-taker let go of her.

Cornelia coughs a couple of times and tries to stand on her two feet. Barret comes to her side right away and holds her upright as she recovers from her ordeal. She suddenly remembers that Morrison is there and is currently tackling her assailant.

“Now, I could beat you up and take you to the police and you’ll still be charged with attempted robbery and assault, but I’m a busy guy so I’ll let you decide. Are you going to do this again or will you straighten out and work for a living? You’re a grown man preying on young innocents. What kind of a living is that? Now, go and man up! Get a job for crying out loud!” Morrison lets go of the struggling man, tossing him away from him like he was some rag doll as the man scrambles away and breaking into a run.

“What the hell is the matter with you? Why did you let him get away? He might just turn around and rob another person from across the street?!” Barret can’t believe Morrison could just let the guy go after assaulting Cornelia like that.

Morrison looks at Barret with a stare that could have easily said, “Back off!”, then turns his attention to Cornelia. He goes to her side and holds her arm gently in his, taking her away from Barret’s arms. Barret, of course, just let him do it, although his possessive side starts kicking in. He stems his urge to draw Cornelia back in his arms because he doesn’t want to cause more of scene than it already is.

“Are you alright, Cornelia? I must take you to the hospital. Charlie!” Morrison shouts all of a sudden then sure enough, Charlie, his ever-present driver, arrives at his side, ready to take on his orders. “Get the car around. I’ll take Ms. Masters to the doctors. Make it quick Charlie.” He says with a very serious tone as Charlie nods.

“Of course, Mr. Ellis, right away,” Charlie answers quickly before running towards where their car was parked.

“No, you d-don’t ha-have to… I’m f-fine, Morri-,“ Cornelia starts to say but Morrison won’t have any of it.

“No, Cornelia, you have to listen to me this time. I can’t have you go home like this. You, on the other hand, can. Thank you but I’ll take over from here.” Morrison faced Barret while he uttered those last words.

Barret wasn’t about to let this guy give him any orders and was about to protest when Cornelia holds up her hand and says, “It’s okay, Barret. You had better get on home. I’ll just let him take me to the hospital then I’ll be on my way home as well. Thank you for this lovely evening and I’m sorry it ended this way…” she looks at him apologetically, imploring him to drop the issue and be on his way, which he understood so he nods his head, gives her a hug, and with a final “Take care”, walks towards his house.

Morrison watches them as Barret gives her a hug but looks away for he didn’t want to make a scene by yanking the guy from her. Who was he that he could just give her a hug just like that? Yes, they were on a date but it doesn’t mean that he suddenly is her boyfriend now! It infuriates him to know that she was just out on a date with him… on his birthday nonetheless! But he can’t give in to his jealousy now because he needs to take care of Cornelia, and from what happened, she had conceded to him and sent the other guy away. It was a small victory but he is still the one with her at the end of the day.

“Now, can you please let me carry you to the car so we could get there faster?” he asks her, more like not giving her a choice on the matter.

“Do I have a choice?” she answers as he scoops her up in his arms and the familiar quickening of her heart starts happening again no matter how hard she tries to stop herself. “What are you doing here anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be at your birthday party in some fancy place?”

“I was. I was actually having a good time with one particular miss but I had the sudden stupid urge to check on you.” He looks at her then with eyes so intense like he was fighting something inside him. “I’m trying to stay away from you Cornelia, and I know that you have some date tonight but I… I don’t know! I just wanted to see if you were all right, okay?!” he says feeling frustrated for having to confess like that.

He puts her down gently on the ground, holding her arm to support her while Charlie opens the door and they get inside the limousine. He wasn’t driving his usual sports car that night because he used a limo to get to his party so he didn’t have a choice but to leave the party with the same car. He gets in on the other side and instructs Charlie to take them to the nearest hospital, which was the same one he brought her in over a week ago, when he ran her over with his bike.

Cornelia can’t believe he’s been spying on her! Well, not exactly, but who does he think he is, showing up out of nowhere and saving the day just like that? She thinks to herself as she looks out the car window, eyebrows drawn together and fighting the urge to touch her wound. The homeless guy cut her quite good but she hopes it wasn’t deep enough that she needed stitches. Barret had wrapped a handkerchief around her neck to stem the bleeding but it still hurts like hell. She looks at him sideways and upon seeing that he is facing the window on his side too, reaches to her throat, and touched the handkerchief that’s wrapped around her neck. The handkerchief has been nearly drenched with her blood. It was a good thing that it’s dark blue, otherwise, she would have panicked at seeing too much blood. The last time she saw a person bleeding was on the operating table at a hospital in New Jersey. Her mother laid on the table, bleeding from all parts of her body but managed to still smile at Cornelia when she walked in, giving her strength when she already knew that she would die at any minute.

Cornelia quickly tightens the handkerchief around her neck and prays that they reach the hospital soon or else she would be bleeding all over the plush seats of the limousine.

“Stop fidgeting with your wound Cornelia.”

She nearly jumps out of her chair as Morrison took her hands and deftly took out his own handkerchief from the front pocket of his tuxedo, and replacing the already drenched blue one from Barret. He chucks the blue – or rather red – hanky out the window and gets a first aid kit from under his seat.

“Oh, why did you throw it away? I was going to give it back to Barret…” she suddenly realizes that Morrison doesn’t want to hear anything about Barret from the way he looked up at her with piercing eyes, and of course, his clear words.

“I don’t care and I don’t want to know about your “guy” friend, okay? I’m sorry Cornelia but I don’t want to know about your date or how it went so please, just… just let me take care of you, okay?”

Morrison is losing his cool. He went to her apartment because of a nagging feeling that he needed to see her, even from afar, on that day. Maybe it was him being sentimental about his birthday but as it turns out, it was a good decision to go to her place on a whim, even if he was having a blast with Sandy. Sandy was a great girl to be around with. Her quick wit, sexy body, and beautiful face are qualities that every man dreams of in a girl or a date, but he was looking for something more that night, not anything physical or sexual, but something more than the beautiful and intelligent girl he’s been talking with for the most part of the night. So, he sought out Cornelia because she’s never left his mind ever since he met her.

When Charlie rounded the corner of her apartment, he meant to just stay out there for a couple of minutes, just being in the same space as her was good enough for him. Then he decided to walk for a few yards to feel the wind in his face and clear his head. He’s had a few drinks but he wasn’t drunk or tipsy. Then he heard a commotion just a few blocks from where he was walking and immediately saw Cornelia being held captive by a dirty, probably homeless, guy. She was held by her throat with a knife as the guy covered in dirt screamed at another man for his wallet. Morrison broke out into a run, bounding towards the scene. He recognized Barret, her landlord, and figured he was her date, talking to the guy calmly but then the dirty man shouted and pressed the knife on Cornelia’s throat, drawing blood. That’s when he lost it.

He waited to be right behind the dirty guy, moving stealthily as some onlookers stared silently. When Barret distracted the dirty man with the knife by reaching into his back pocket, Morrison saw the opportunity to strike and he grabbed the guy’s arms from behind, knocking out the knife from one of his hands, and making him let Cornelia go by twisting his arm from behind.

He was so outraged that he could have beaten him to a pulp but the sight of Cornelia slumped on the ground, bleeding from her neck, stopped him and instead of taking out his anger on the assailant, he let him go instead so he could take Cornelia to the nearest hospital. But not before glancing at the guy’s jacket and seeing a name stitched to the inside pocket. He memorized the name and vows to make sure to have the man searched to find out if it was a simple attempted robbery or an intentional one. He has made some inquiries about the elevator incident and the men he had appointed in looking into it have found some interesting facts surrounding the matter, but he decided to keep those facts to himself until he finds out more information about the incident.

“Fine! You don’t have to be so rude about it!” she spats the words in his face as he ties the handkerchief around her neck, securing it in its place. He hides the growing concern on his face but not from his touch. His fingers linger on her neck and brush the hair out of her face.

She looks at him while he caresses her hair and tries not to swoon from his intense gaze. She clears her throat instead, breaking the intimate moment they shared. “I- I think we’re here…” she whispers, pertaining to the hospital.

Morrison breaks his gaze and looks out the window. “Yeah, we better get inside. Don’t move.” He gets out of his end as the car stops and gets to her door in seconds. He does move fast.

She still can’t believe how fast he was when he apprehended her attacker. The whole confrontation was over in just seconds when he came. He must have had some training at it because he looked and moved calmly with precision when he tackled the guy.

He carries her to the stretcher waiting at the emergency wing and talks to the nurse who came to assist them.

“She’s been cut, I don’t know how deep, on her neck and she might have lost a lot of blood. Please nurse, make sure she’s all right.” Morrison sees Cornelia being wheeled into the emergency room with her bleeding neck and most of her upper body having blood on them too. She was wearing a red dress so it was hard to see the blood on it. Morrison hardly noticed her dress before then because he was so concerned about her well-being but now that he sees how it hugged her body, he begins to feel jealous all over again that she dressed up like that for her date with her landlord.

Why would she even bother looking good for him? What does he have that I don’t? She is so frustrating to figure out!

He reigns in the ugly head of his jealous nature and tells himself to stay calm and focus on getting her better. He’ll deal with her about her dressing up like that once she’s fit.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Ellis, we’ll take care of her. Now, would you please clear the room so we could assess her further. I’ll be with you as soon as we find out how she is,” the nurse says as she waves him away from the room. She closes the curtains so Cornelia could have more privacy as the nurses and the doctor in-charge looks her over.

Morrison can only step back from the curtain and wait at the lobby. Charlie walks in at the same instant with a curious look.

“I’ll be staying here for a while, Charlie. I need to stay until they’re done examining her. You can go ahead with the limo. I’ll just get a cab later.”

“I can wait with you, Mr. Ellis,” Charlie protests, approaching Morrison to sit on the available seat.

“No, you don’t have to, Charlie. You should go home to Kate and the kids. Say “hi” to them for me, okay?”

Charlie smiles at his employer and nods. “You are very kind, Mr. Ellis. I’ll make sure to tell them you said “hi”. If you ever need me though, you can just call me on my cell.”

“That’s okay, Charlie. I won’t need you for now at least. Go home and get some rest. I’ll probably be home later on. Thanks and take care.” Morrison pats Charlie on the shoulder as he makes his way out of the emergency room.

The nurse decides to appear from the curtains then and talks with Morrison about Cornelia.

“Well, the good news is, she’s going to be fine. A little traumatized perhaps, but otherwise, physically fine. We wanted to do some blood tests but she refused. She said she just wanted to go home and rest. We’re just dressing her wound and she’d be fit to go home.”

“Thank you, nurse. I’ll take her home after you’re done with her.”

The nurse goes back to Cornelia as Morrison sits back down on the chair at the waiting area.

What are you doing, Morrison? You’re back here… with her… She just came from a date with another guy for Christ’s sake! What the hell are you still doing here helping her and going crazy with concern and jealousy?

He covers his head with his hands as he struggles with his inner voice. He’s very confused about his feelings for Cornelia but there was one thing he was sure of, he can’t seem to keep himself away from her even for a day. Even if he’s already having a good time with another great girl… Cornelia still came to his mind earlier that evening which made him say his polite “goodbyes” to Sandy and his mother. He can’t stand to be there, while Cornelia is out with another guy. At first, he just wanted to see if she arrived home safely but when he saw that her apartment was still dark, he decided to wait a few minutes just to make sure she got home safely. Just when he was about to turn back from his walk, he sees what was happening just a few blocks from where he stood. And when he saw it was Cornelia being held at knifepoint, he just lost it and raced over to the scene.

He suddenly remembers that he needs to give instructions to Charlie about the name he saw on the inset of the assailant’s coat and will have him look him up. He takes out his phone and sends a message to Charlie, which he responds to after several minutes.

Cornelia walks out from behind the curtains with a bandage on her neck.

“Uhm, maybe it’s time I go on home. Thanks for, ah, staying behind…” she adjusts her bandage and cringes as she hit her wound.

“Stop touching it, Cornelia. Just let it heal. Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Why does he always have to sound so demanding? I get it, he’s used to ordering people around but it’s so infuriating when he does it to me. He’s not my boyfriend or anything!

They walk out of the hospital with Morrison leading the way and Cornelia trailing slowly behind. He hails a cab and they get in. As they make their way to her apartment, he remains silent as she looks out the window, contemplating on what happened that night. She still feels a little dazed from the whole thing but with a little rest, she’d be back to her old self.

“I’m sorry for being…ah…so forceful. I’m just worried about you, naturally. And well, I just wanted to make sure you’re safely out of harm.” It was the best sort of apology he could muster for he is still a bit pissed about the whole Cornelia-dating-some-other-guy issue.

“You don’t have to worry about me, Morrison. I am perfectly capable of handling and taking care of myself. But thanks for the concern…” she says the words in the most polite way she could muster because even if he was bossy and downright infuriating, he still saved her life and she owes him now for that. Something she hates, especially with him. She never imagined owing him something, much less her life and it’s making her very uncomfortable. Why did he have to be the dashing knight-in-shining-armor?

The drive was short because the hospital was just a couple of blocks from her apartment building. They arrive at the building and she lets him accompany her up to her apartment unit.

“Are you sure you want to invite me in? You know, after your date with the landlord of this place…” he can’t help but still be annoyed by her date and can’t resist saying something about it.

“Barret? Why would me dating him stop me from inviting people I want to invite inside my apartment? We just had dinner, okay? It wasn’t like he became my boyfriend or anything. He’s a good guy.”

That gives Morrison the hope he needed in seeing a future with Cornelia. So, she’s not blown away by their date tonight, that’s a good sign. Very good, indeed! But I’m still freakin’ pissed at him!

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what he thought about it too.” He snickers, thinking about Barret, and how he looked at Cornelia possessively when he stepped in to take Cornelia to the hospital. He swears that if Cornelia were unharmed, that Barret guy would never have let him take her out of his sight without a fight. And Morrison sure will never back down.

“What are you doing in these parts in the first place? Aren’t you supposed to be at your party?” she looks at him sharply, ignoring his condescending tone because she is still pissed at him for being the knight-in-shining-armor that she never wanted him to be.

They walk inside her apartment, Cornelia looking frantically at her living room, searching for anything she had carelessly discarded that night. So far, nothing embarrassing is displayed anywhere in her living room. Whew! That’s a relief!

She ushers him inside as she asked the question that she’s been burning to ask since he swept her off her feet to bring her to the hospital.

He enters the threshold, feeling elated for seeing her place for the first time. Then he stops himself. Why would I feel excited in seeing a girl’s apartment, anyway? Then Cornelia clears her throat. She is still standing beside him, her eyebrows raised as she waits for the answer to her question.

Morrison thinks of an excuse and decides to just blurt out the truth. “I was waiting for you. Okay? I wanted to check if you’re safely home… and not home with some guy…” he adds, looking away from her. Why are you baring everything to her? Isn’t it enough that she’s going on dates and did not consider your birthday as an important enough day to see you?

“You left your party to come and see me?” she asks gentl