Authors: DC Renee
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, dead or alive are a figment of my imagination and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s mind's eye and are not to be interpreted as real.
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2016 DC Renee
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.
My acknowledgements are always the same, but that’s because the same group of amazing people have stuck it out with me through the years. My family! My hubby, my sister, my parents, and my in-laws are the reason I can continue to do what I love – write. They encourage me and support me on a daily basis. And my sister leaves her special mark in every one of my stories.
I’d love to say that I can do it all – write and create, but alas, I can’t. I have some special gals that take my story and make it a work of art. Big thanks to: my editor – Jenny Sims (Editing4Indies), my cover designer – Rebecca Marie (The Final Wrap), my formatter – Jenna Dixon, and my promo girls – Saints and Sinners Books.
You think it stops there? No way! There are SO many amazing people that help me along the way and I can never thank them enough. Catherine Gray, Suleika Santana, Janett Gomez, Monica Perez, Rebecca Bennett, Sheri Hursh, Heather Cicio, Elaine Hudson York, Jennifer Hagen, Shelly Wygant, Carrie Sutton, Erin McFarland, Jettie Woodruff, Jen Wildner, Tiffany West, Jennifer Raygoza & all the ladies at RBWB Author Group & my gals at DC’s Diamonds. I’m sorry if I missed anyone!
There are a bunch of blogs – too many to remember, but I want to thank them all! A few I do remember: All About Books, Author Groupies, Just One More Page, Three Chicks and Their Books, Nichole’s Sizzling Pages Book Blog, Red Cheeks Reads, Literary Love/Melt Your Heart Book Blog, Nerd Girl, BJ’s Book Blog, Just2Bibliomaniacs.
Most importantly, thank you so much to all the readers. None of this would be possible without all of them!
Babulya, I know you’re watching out for us every minute of every day. Thank you. We love you. We miss you.
And to my Deda.
It should have been one of the happiest days of my life. I should have worn a white dress. I should have had a room filled with smiling faces celebrating with me. I should have cried happy tears instead of painful ones. But, most importantly, I should have had a groom who looked at me with such love and adoration that any fears I had dissipated instantly. I would know this person was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I had none of those things.
I had thought about my wedding day, my marriage, even my ridiculously happy life so many times that I had every detail perfected in a scrapbook sitting in the drawer of what would be my old room. I had seen myself in an ivory mermaid gown with a sweetheart neckline, one that hugged my figure, crystals and beads adorning my bodice, making me shine extra bright when they caught the light. I had my hairstyle picked out—a loose curly bun with soft curls framing my face. I even knew that my centerpieces would be full of white flowers that spilled over the edge of the vase. I knew I’d have all my family and friends surrounding me as they ate, drank, and celebrated the night away with me. And the cherry on top was that I knew I’d marry for love. That was evident by the insane amount of hearts I had drawn and glued to my scrapbook that no longer had a use in my life.
The only smile I had on my face was when I took in the shocked faces and gasps as I stepped out in my black gown. I would admit that it was beautiful, long, flowing, and if it had been white, it might have passed for a wedding gown, but it wasn’t. It was black, as deep as the pit of despair I was feeling, as deep as the vile eyes of my groom, as deep as his very soul. I had taken a page from one of my favorite soap operas and it had paid off because my lips tipped up as my mother scowled at me. “Paige, you take that thing off and put on something appropriate before anyone sees you.”
I brushed her off and stepped out into the hallway for everyone to see, not caring about any tradition of not seeing the bride before the ceremony. “Too late,” I practically sang. I did feel just a tiny bit bad about nearly giving my mom a heart attack. It wasn’t exactly her fault I was in this mess. If anything, it was my dad’s, but even then, it was my choice. Not that I really had one but still.
My happiness was short-lived because as soon as my husband-to-be was within earshot, he whispered three loving words into my ear. “I hate you.”
Up until that moment, I’d had hope. Sure, it was false hope, but it was hope nevertheless. I knew Enzo Faust didn’t love me. Heck, he didn’t even like me. He blamed me for this marriage business we were in, but it wasn’t entirely my fault. In fact, it was barely my fault. I had agreed; that was it. And clearly, he hadn’t protested.
I had seen him a handful of times in the past three months, and none of the times was even close to pleasant. Before that, the last time I had seen him was when I was seven, he was nine, and he had pushed me down into the mud. I sort of hated him then. He had ruined my pink party dress. But kids’ minds forget easily, and as soon as my mom put me in a new dress, I didn’t remember he even existed. He was sent away shortly after. Boarding schools. Plural. He was kicked out … a lot. Go figure. With the kind of personality he exuded now, no one would be able to stand to be around him for an extended period of time. Yet I stood there, pledging my life to him as he shot daggers at me with his eyes. Maybe the use of the term daggers was even a bit mild.
I fought back tears, desperately trying not to show him just how much this day hurt me, but my watery eyes were probably a dead giveaway. The ceremony went by in a blur until it was time to say the words I wished never existed. “I do.”
Three months earlier…
Graduation day. Another of those “happiest days of my life” moments. Except nothing in my life had gone according to plan, or rather, according to my plan, so why would this day be any different? I had an older sister, a perfect older sister, Nora. She was three years my senior, and I loved her to death. I wanted to be her. I knew she absolutely adored me, too. It wasn’t her fault she was so wonderful, but it was incredibly hard to live in her shadow. No matter what grade I got, Nora’s had been better. No matter how interesting my project was, Nora’s was more fascinating. No matter how much praised my accomplishments afforded, Nora somehow got a freaking newspaper mention. And the worst part? No matter how much attention I got from a boy, once they got a glimpse of Nora, it was “Paige who?”
I know my parents didn’t mean to, or I hoped they didn’t mean to, but they showered Nora with all the attention, with extra affection, with all the love that I craved, that I needed. I figured in any other family, I would have been considered a rare child, a special one, a child who did everything right and made her parents proud, but not in this one. In this family, that was Nora, and I was the black sheep. I had lived my life trying desperately to get my parents to notice me, to love me, and to tell me how extraordinary I was that I actually missed out on a lot of special moments in life. When my friends had sleepovers, I didn’t want my parents bothered to drop me off and pick me up so I would say no. When there was something I wanted to buy, I would babysit or garden or do anything else to save money and get it myself. When I was asked on my first date, I told him I wasn’t allowed to date, even though I had never talked to my parents about it. I just didn’t want them to worry. See the trend?
Well, now I was officially done with high school and my parents had actually insisted on throwing me a party. I was shocked, amazed, nervous—every emotion in the spectrum. For once, I was going to be the center of my parents’ world. For once, it was going to be about me and not Nora. I should have known things weren’t going to turn out that way. My mother fussed about what to wear instead of how I looked. When my name was called, my parents yelled and screamed, as was customary, but I didn’t get any balloons or teddy bears.
“Oh, Paige, honey, I’m so sorry. I didn’t have time to get anything this week,” my mom had told me when she saw my friends with dozens of roses and flowers in their arms. I will give Nora credit. She had gotten me a lei, given it was made of Monopoly money, but it was a lei nonetheless.
“I’m proud of you, kiddo,” my dad had said, and I felt a tear drop down my cheek at his words. I had dreamed of those words for so long, and I finally got them. My moment only lasted a few seconds because he turned to Nora and reminisced about her graduation and how now that she was away at college, he never saw her.
The party my parents threw for me was really more of a get-together. All my friends were with their own families, so it was only my immediate family. And they were all busy talking politics and sports or hair and nails while I sat and watched TV for most of the time. Everyone congratulated me and I received more gift certificates than I ever thought possible. My eyes scanned the room, and I noticed my dad and Gerry Faust, one of my dad’s best friends and Enzo’s dad, having what looked like a heated discussion. A few minutes later, Gerry left, virtually storming out and my dad huffed away toward the kitchen with my mom following behind. Naturally, I followed, too.
“What’s he going to do?” my mom asked. I had missed the first few words of the conversation by the time I had made my way to the hallway. It was right next to the kitchen where I could eavesdrop without being noticed.
“I don’t know, Faye. I really don’t know,” my dad’s defeated voice stunned me. I had never heard him like that.
“But he’s your best friend!” my mom cried.
“Money changes people.” My dad’s voice was flat, and I wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than defeated. Gerry Faust and my dad had been friends from childhood. They went through phases when they were closer and others when they were more distant, but they remained loyal to each other throughout the years, staying friends for longer than I had been around. Gerry and his wife had only one child—Enzo, and supposedly, when we were kids, we were attached at the hip. That was until he realized girls had cooties and then he became mean to me. He became a troublemaker and his parents couldn’t handle him so they sent him to one boarding school after another, each promising to discipline him. None of them worked and from what I had heard, he was living off Daddy’s money, partying it up like a pseudo-rock star. He could afford to do that because Gerry was loaded. Beyond loaded, actually. He had apparently come from some money, but it was enough to allow for a comfortable lifestyle. Gerry hadn’t been content with that, so he invested and worked his way up. Now, he owned a large organization that managed smaller companies. He took his small trust fund and turned it into a Fortune 500 type of account. The guy was clearly smart, but his child, his son, his only son, was a big disappointment to him. He had wanted him to run the company alongside him, but Enzo was too spoiled.
Enzo never came to any family functions or came around the Faust family, at least not when I was present. Gerry and Connie, his mom, would make excuses about his busy schedule, but I had overheard my parents enough times to know that Enzo was probably hung over or too busy being a playboy to bother coming.
“How much do you owe him?” My mother’s question snapped me out of my reverie.
My father owed Gerry money? For what?
“What does that mean?” my mother shrieked.
“It means even if we sold the house and everything we own, it wouldn’t be enough.”
“Interest, Faye. Over the years, it amounts to a lot more than what we bargained for.”
“What are we going to do?”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of it. You and the girls.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’ll do whatever it is I have to do to make sure my girls are fine.”
I heard my mom’s quiet sobs and the rustling of clothes as my dad probably held her. I knew what my dad was saying, and I didn’t like it.
“We can’t survive without you. I won’t live without you,” her muffled cries reverberated through me.
I didn’t want to, either. I slipped away before they heard me and made my way to my room. No one even noticed. It took me a total of ten minutes to gather my wits and make a decision. I wasn’t going to let anything happen to my family. I would be lying if the fact that maybe I had an opportunity to finally shine bright for pulling us out of this dark time didn’t play a part in my choice. If I could do something about this mess we were in, if I could clear things up with my dad and Gerry, then my family would have to praise me.
I snuck out the back and borrowed my dad’s car as I made my way to Gerry and Connie’s house. They lived in a much ritzier area than we did, but it wasn’t that far, only about twenty minutes. I made my way to the gate and announced myself.
I walked into their mansion. Yes, mansion. There was no other way to describe their home. Gerry greeted me at the door with a huge smile plastered on his face.
“Paige, dear, what are you doing here? I know, for a fact, that you have several people at your place hoping to wish you well on your achievement today. Graduating high school, that’s a big feat.”
It was for him, considering Enzo had supposedly barely finished. As he enveloped me in a hug, I lost my thoughts in the momentary feel of true and honest support. I remembered this man as “Uncle Gerry” more than Mr. Faust at that moment.
I felt the tears fall down my cheeks as the realization of everything my life was about hit me all at once.
“What’s wrong, Paige?” he asked as he pulled away.
I swiped at the tears on my cheeks and glanced up at him. Steely determination made its way up my spine as I struggled to remember why I was here. “I know my dad owes you, Mr. Faust.” I had started calling him Mr. Faust a few years back when he purchased this new home and I finally realized just how different his family was from mine.
“I used to be Uncle Gerry,” he responded as he always did, a smile playing on his lips. The first time I called him Mr. Faust, he had flinched as if I had slapped him.
“What’d you call me, dear?” he’d asked.
“Mr. Faust,” I’d stated, my thirteen-year-old self responded without hesitation.
“But why, Paige?” he’d asked, sincerity and hurt lacing his voice.
“Because I respect you, Mr. Faust, and I respect what you’ve made of yourself.” Where that came from, I had no clue, but it sounded great.
He’d smiled wide and said, “Uncle Gerry is just as respectful.”
“No, Mr. Faust, it’s not.”
“Well, I used to be Uncle Gerry,” he’d stated again.
“And now you’re Mr. Faust.” It became kind of our thing. I would call him Mr. Faust. He’d say he used to be Uncle Gerry, and I’d tell him he was now Mr. Faust. But this time, I didn’t respond. His smile faltered.
“Why are you here, Paige?” he asked, seriousness creeping into his tone.
“I’m here to make a deal. I want to work off my father’s debt. I want to own his debt.”
“And what would I do with you? And do you even know how much he owes? It’s been years, and he hasn’t paid me back. How do you plan to do that? I’d have to find something for you to do as pity and then it will take years for the debt to settle, meanwhile continuing to collect interest.”
I didn’t know how I thought a seventeen-year-old girl, two months shy of eighteen, could pay off a debt my dad hadn’t been able to for years. I didn’t know where I found some fake confidence and assumed I could waltz in to see Gerry and make things right. I was a sham, a failure. I would have to tuck my tail between my legs, go home, and admit what I’d done because I couldn’t risk my parents finding out from Gerry. I would then have to watch their embarrassment and hurt, followed by probably losing my dad anyways. The tears were making their way down my cheeks as Gerry tsked.
“My dear, do not cry. We will work this out.”
“How?” I screamed, my voice hoarse as if I had been screaming the entire time.
Gerry seemed to think for a moment and then he laughed, chuckled really. He had an edge to his voice when he spoke again. “You want to take on your father’s debt?”
“Yes,” I nodded vigorously.
“You don’t even know the amount.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I steeled myself.
“Are you prepared to spend years, your life, in fact, paying it off?”
I gulped, the air feeling harsh as it made its way to my lungs. “Yes.”
“What if I ask you to pay with your life?”
“You wouldn’t, but even so, better mine than my dad. My family needs him; they don’t need me.”
I swear I saw his eyes soften and a small frown appear on his face. “That’s not true, Paige.”
“It is, but it doesn’t matter. I’m paying, and you’re collecting. What are the terms?”
“You have your whole life ahead of you. You have college, and work, a family maybe.”
“Not if my current family needs me.”
“Are you sure you want this?”
“Are you trying to talk me out of it?” I asked defiantly.
“I might be, but you’re a stubborn woman, eh?”
“Yes, Mr. Faust.”
“I used to be Uncle Gerry.” He smiled.
“And now, you’re Mr. Faust,” I indulged him.
He smiled wider. “Very well, then. Remember that I gave you a chance to back out. You said no. Your father’s debt is now yours and there is no going back.”
“Good. You will marry Enzo at the end of the summer. You will be eighteen by then and that gives you enough time to enjoy your single life for a little longer.”
“What?” I sputtered.
“Enzo needs a wife; you need to save your family. Debt paid. End of story.”
“But … I don’t … what?” I couldn’t find the right words. Why on earth would he want me to marry his son, a guy I didn’t even know? A person who didn’t know me. What was this guy getting at?
“I don’t understand.”
“Enzo, he’s well … a bit out of control. You have a good head on your shoulders. You’ll settle him. The families will merge, and your father will be safe. I have enough money to give you anything you want. Everyone will be happy.”
“But what about love?” I whined.
“What about it?”
“I don’t love him. He doesn’t love me.”
“Sometimes marriage is about more than love. You are too young to understand this, but you will. In fact,” he smiled to himself, “you’ll learn in three months.” He then laughed at his own private joke.
“I don’t want to do this,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. What?”
“I don’t want to do this,” I said louder.
“You don’t really have a choice, do you?” he spoke calmly.
“Good, we have an understanding. Now, go enjoy your summer.”