The Billionaire's Embrace Page 28

“Kids,” I said. “Really?” It surprised me. It wasn’t that I thought he would be a bad father, just that I’d assumed his dreams would be—larger. More ambitious. The governor’s mansion, the White House.

“Really,” he said. “Maybe a few dogs.” He shrugged. “I want a happy life. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

“Sure,” I said. I had never thought about it much. Happiness was just a word, and I wasn’t sure I believed in it—at least not the way that Carter meant, the kind of happiness that meant you lay on your deathbed and thought, Gosh, it’s sure been a good life.

“Cocker spaniels,” Carter said.

I squinted at him. “What?”

“I’d like some cocker spaniels. That’s the kind of dog I had, growing up. They’re good dogs. Calm and affectionate. Good for apartment living.”

“Cocker spaniels are cute,” I said.

He grinned at me. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you start picking out baby names just yet.” Then he laughed and said, “Look at your face! I’m just kidding. Or am I? You’ll never really know.”

I kicked him beneath the table, and he grinned again, unrepentant.

But he had already put the thought in my mind, like a seed he planted there, and it grew, while I finished my coffee, into a dangerously appealing fantasy of what our children would look like, with my brown skin and his blue eyes...

I couldn’t think about it. “I should probably go,” I said.

“Of course,” he said. He leaned across the table and kissed me. “I’ll miss you. When do I get to see you again?”

We made tentative plans to have dinner in a few days, and then Carter had his driver take me home. It was still early enough that I had a couple of hours before the time I would usually even get out of bed, and I decided to make some more coffee and scrub my bathroom; and so it wasn’t until past noon that I finally sat down and checked my email.

I had to refresh my inbox three times before I understood what I was seeing.

It was an email from my mom, in her familiar broken English. For some reason I had never understood, she refused to write in Tagalog.

It was the first time she’d attempted to communicate with me since I left California six years earlier.

My grandmother had died, she said. She was asking me to come home.

* * *

“Take my jet,” Carter said.

I shook my head, even though he couldn’t see me over the phone. “No,” I said firmly. “I’m going to fly coach, like a regular person.”

“I can come with you,” he said. “If you want.”

I cringed. I’d been afraid he would say that. I could imagine it all too well: Carter standing in my mother’s dingy living room, the walls stained yellow from nicotine; Carter in the church, meeting my suspicious relatives; Carter eating pancit in someone’s back yard. It would be like setting a fox among the chickens, and Carter wouldn’t be the fox. He would do everything wrong, and nobody would cut him any slack. He probably hadn’t even been to a wake before.

So I said, “I can’t ask you to do that. I know you’re busy.”

“If you want me there, I can put everything on hold,” he said. “There are things in life more important than running my business.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I said nothing, and the moment dragged on too long, awkwardly. Finally I said, “Maybe not this time. My mom, you know. There are some family issues.”

“Sure,” he said, too lightly. I knew I had hurt him. I didn’t know how to apologize for it.

“I’ll be gone for a while,” I said. “Maybe a week. I have to—there’s the wake, and then the funeral, and—family stuff. And I’ll probably be pretty busy, so...”

“So don’t expect to hear much from you,” he said. “Right. Well.” A pause. “Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do?”

“No,” I said. “But—thanks.”

I had already called Sadie, who didn’t answer—she was at work—and Germaine, who did, and told me to take as much time as I needed. Now I checked Carter off my list. I still needed to buy plane tickets, pack, and email my mother to let her know I was coming.

I didn’t know why I was dropping everything to fly across the country and attend the funeral of a woman I hadn’t seen or spoken to since I was eighteen.

That wasn’t true. I knew exactly why.

Blood, after all, was thicker than water.

I flew out to California the next afternoon, Newark to Ontario with a stop in Phoenix. There was no fast or convenient way to get to San Bernardino; it was a dead end, somewhere people left and didn’t return to. The ticket cost enough to make me feel a little nauseated, but I reminded myself that this was the reason I had taken the job at the club: so that I could handle emergencies like last-minute plane tickets without having to worry.

It was only a few days before Christmas, and the airport was a madhouse. It took me more than an hour just to get through security. For a few dark minutes, trapped behind a woman arguing with the TSA agent about why she shouldn’t have to remove her shoes, I wished I had taken Carter up on his offer.

I had a window seat, at least. I had only flown a couple of times, and it was still sort of a novelty, watching the ground recede as we took off, and the huge, fluffy clouds. The woman sitting beside me cracked open a book as soon as we started taxiing. Fine with me; I didn’t want to talk. I balled up my coat into a makeshift pillow and did my best to sleep.

I was planning to rent a car in Ontario and drive out to San Bernardino, but when I rolled my suitcase out of the security area, one of my cousins was waiting for me.

I stopped dead, dumbfounded. I’d told my mother what time I would be arriving, but I hadn’t expected her to send someone to pick me up—much less JP, who had never liked me, and who had told me, when he found out I was moving to New York, that I had betrayed the family. Like we were the Mafia or something.

“Regan,” he said stiffly, and tried to take my suitcase from me. I backed up a step without meaning to, and his frown deepened. “Fine, carry it yourself.”

“Um, thanks for coming to get me,” I said.

He snorted. “Don’t thank me. It’s not like I had a choice. Your mom called my mom. You know how it goes.”

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