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Stephen Hastings is a control freak.
Emmy Barton works for a dry cleaner?
Now I’m home, running my business, my life is perfectly ordered until I bump into her, divorced and struggling to make ends meet.
She says she hates me, but when we fight, it’s all heat and lust.
(STAY is a STAND-ALONE enemies-to-lovers, second-chance, marriage of convenience romance. No cheating. No cliffhangers.)
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“The best kind of humans are the ones who stay.”
-Robert M. Drake
Ten years ago…
Stop crying, kid. Life isn’t fair.
Humans invented fair as a pacifier, because they needed justice. Animals don’t know fair. In nature only the strong survive. You’re kind, loving, honest? Nice try.
If you’re weak, you die.
“What are you thinking, Esteban?” Ximena lowers herself carefully into a dingy-brown, worn-out armchair, and I blink these thoughts away. “You were always the smartest boy in the room.”
The gray strands outnumber the black in my old housekeeper’s hair. It’s thinner than it was when I was a boy, and she keeps it twisted in a low bun.
“Now I’m a man.” I kiss the top of her head. “And I’d wager the whole city.”
Her muscles tremble from exertion, but her eyes are bright. She still greets me with a smile, just like always when I visit. “Smartest man in the city. What is that like?”
“It sucks.” I look around her crumbling one-bedroom apartment.
It’s a second-floor walkup, outdated but clean. She works hard to keep it clean, even with the cancer eating her insides. Even with the years passing, drawing her closer to death.
The thought of her dying fans the darkness inside me. “Where’s Ramon?”
“He moved downtown. He got a good job, working at the shipyards.” Her accent is thick despite all the years she’s lived in Manhattan, her English sprinkled with Spanish.
“That’s a long way from here.”
He won’t visit. He might want to, but he won’t have the time or the energy to check on his dying mother.
Her neighborhood is shady as fuck, and she’s too weak to climb stairs. And I’m leaving for a long time. I’ll have to count on her neighbors to do what I can’t.
Slipping a fat business envelope from the breast pocket of my coat, I place it under a mug on her coffee table. “This should last a while. I’ll send more, but I won’t be able to check on you. I’ll be gone eighteen months, probably longer.”
“I’m so proud of you. So proud.” Her cheeks rise, and she slowly shakes her head. “A Navy officer.”
Every line in her face wrinkles with her grin. Her faded purple housedress is as thin and old as she is. I remember her fat and jolly, shining cheeks and hair, every word out of my mouth would make her laugh, even if it wasn’t funny. I didn’t understand her, how she gave love so generously to a boy who wasn’t hers. To the son of a man who didn’t even consider her worth his time, who thought he was doing her a favor hiring her to keep his oversized brownstone.
She takes my hand from where she sits, and I take a knee beside her. Every time I visit she’s smaller, slipping away. Her grip tightens, and the scent of her drugstore perfume drifts faintly around us, dried flowers and talcum powder. It draws a memory of me as a little boy sitting on her lap, crying against her neck after the death of my mother. She would hug me against her soft body, rocking and humming a sad song I didn’t recognize.
“Your father will cut you off if he finds out you’re giving me money, Esteban.”
I exhale a disgusted laugh. “Thomas is too proud to cut me off. It would make him look bad at the club. Unruly boys are to be tolerated, bragged about even.”
Her eyes close, and her head leans back as she exhales a weak chuckle. “Men are the same everywhere. Machismo.”
Pissing wars. I rise to standing in one fluid movement. “I’ll never forgive him for doing this to you.”
I blame him for her illness. I blame him for her deteriorating health. I blame him for her inability to find work after he ruined her reputation. No one would hire her after he branded her a thief in his home. All the Upper East Siders shut their doors in her face, and she was left to scrounge a living wherever she could.
I’ve brought her money from my allowance for five years, and I’d love him to come at me for it. Pompous bastard. So worried about his appearance. So offended by a missing watch.
“He did what he had to do.” Ximena still defends my father’s actions. “My son stole from him. Your father could not keep me in the house after he stole.”
“Ramon stole to buy you medicine. He didn’t steal to party or do drugs.”
He might’ve gotten away with it, too. If only he hadn’t stolen my father’s favorite Rolex—not one of the other seven he never wears.
“He did not put my son in jail.” She nods her head, as if my father, Thomas Hastings has the ability to throw anyone in jail.
He’s just a grown-up trust-fund brat who knows how to invest the massive wealth he inherited from our bootlegger ancestors. At least he’s good for something.