The Lady Bountiful was a full 200 feet in length, had four decks above the waterline, two decks below, a helipad, two VIP suites in addition to the owner’s suite, a pool and jacuzzi, a movie theater, a massage parlor and beauty salon, a playroom, a bar, and a library.
Jacob had been the son of a billionaire all his life, but this felt like a step above luxury. He fought the pride that tore through his chest. He followed closely at Nicholas’s heels and tried to emulate his presence, confidence without haughtiness, if that were possible. Jacob wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to master the art of true humility like Nicholas, but he’d like to try.
They met up with Adele, and their parents near the dock where their new home at sea would take them on the maiden voyage to Cancun, Mexico. They intended to put down roots there, for how long, he didn’t know.
There would be a celebration that evening with a cocktail party and official launch, but this afternoon was for the family to meet the crew and get settled in their state rooms.
Just as they were about to board, Liam called from the deck overlooking the docks something that sounded like “Wait for us.” He and Rachel held hands as they ran like kids through the sand to meet up with the rest of the family.
They were laughing and happy, and everyone reached around the group giving hugs, Adele patting her sister’s growing baby bump, Liam punching his brothers in the arms affectionately, giving hugs to their mother and father, and lifting baby Joseph from their mother’s arms to nuzzle him.
“I missed you, little brother,” Liam cooed at baby Joseph.
“See, Nicholas.” Jacob elbowed him. “I’m no longer the spoiled little brother.”
“Dude, you will always be spoiled,” Liam said.
“How was your honeymoon?” Adele asked her sister Rachel.
“Figi was incredible,” Rachel said. “Oh, and hanging out with this big lug wasn’t so bad either.” Rachel wrapped her arms around Liam’s waist and held him close.
“You made it home just in time to come aboard and meet the crew,” Father said, holding out his arm toward the ramp leading up to the yacht, and they all followed him.
The lineup of men, and a few women, was impressive, as if staff from a small resort were commissioned to care for this vessel and its owners. A man slightly younger than father stepped forward and offered his hand.
“Mr. Cohen, I’m Captain Jeffrey Arnold. Welcome aboard the Lady Bountiful.”
“Thank you, Captain Arnold.” Father shook the pro-offered hand and turned to introduce the family. “This is my wife, Sarah, and she is holding our youngest, baby Joseph.”
“The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Cohen.” Captain Arnold nodded regally.
“This is our oldest son, Liam, and his wife, Rachel, our son, Nicholas, and his wife, Adele, and our nineteen-year-old son, Jacob.”
“Ah, Master Jacob, you are the same age as my daughter, Maryam.” Captain Arnold gestured to his right where stood an elegant young lady with dark brown eyes and chestnut waves of hair so dark brown it was almost black. “Perhaps the two of you can become friends.”
“Maryam,” Jacob whispered, suddenly lightheaded. “What a beautiful name.”
The adults surrounding him laughed and Maryam lowered her gaze, biting her lower lip, her olive skin deepening in color. Jacob cleared his throat, mortified that his first encounter with the captain and his family had been so embarrassing.
“Anyway, this is my wife, Valerie,” Captain Arnold continued. “She is matron of the interior staff, with Maryam as her assistant.” The captain pointed out the rows of housekeepers, the chef and his staff, the deck crew, the engineers.
Jacob wasn’t paying any attention to the remaining introductions. His eyes were locked with Maryam’s, whose tiny smirk answered his unspoken question.
How soon do we set sail?
“You’d think they’d be back by now,” Jacob said, lifting the last of his suitcases onto the cart. He handed a one hundred dirham note to the concierge, grateful for the help.
“They’re on their honeymoon,” Nicholas reminded him. “They’ll come back when they’re good and ready.”
“Yeah, but we’re leaving Dubai in less than a day,” Jacob said. “We’re boarding the yacht this afternoon.”
“Trust me, they’re insufferable to be around. The longer they stay away, the better.”
Jacob shuddered. “How are we going to stand being on a boat with them for four weeks?”
“As long as they stay sober, we should be okay,” Nicholas said.
“She’s pregnant. Of course, they’re going to stay sober,” Jacob said. “Well, at least she’ll stay sober.”
“Sir, is there any other way I can be of assistance?” the young man helping with the bags asked. He stood at attention beside the cart.
“I’m sure that will be all for now,” Nicholas answered, also handing the young man a dirham. He nodded with respect and gratitude.
“I will see that these get to the dock.” The young man exited Jacob’s suite.
Jacob watched as the cart rolled down the hall, piled high with everything he owned. “Do you think I have more stuff than the rest of you combined?”
“Other than mother, probably. But she’s packing for baby Joseph as well.”
“I wish Lyle and Miriam were coming with baby Ishy.” Jacob sighed. “I’m gonna miss our little nephew.”
“They’ll be along in a few months when he gets stronger and able to travel,” Nicholas said. “Besides, there are only six staterooms on board. We’d need a superyacht to fit our whole family.”
“Isn’t the Lady Bountiful large enough to be considered a superyacht?” Jacob asked.
“Yeah, probably, but it’s on the low end of them.”
“I thought I saw Prince Marcos’s eyes light up when you were telling him about our trip after the wedding last month,” Jacob said.
“His yacht was the second to be commissioned when father bought the company last year. She should be ready to sail next March if all stays on schedule,” Nicholas said.
“I’m excited to sail on the maiden voyage of the first yacht made by our father.”
“Hey, this was my design,” Nicholas said. “And the workers built the boat, not father.”
“Well, it’s father’s company,” Jacob said.
“Father may have been the financier, but your brothers run the company. You need to start taking ownership of our businesses,” Nicholas said, then poked Jacob on his sternum. “In here. In your heart. We will someday own these companies and we need to run them as if we already do.”
“That makes sense,” Jacob said. “You’re really smart, Nick.”
“Thanks, little brother. Now come on, let’s go help my lovely bride gather the rest of her things.”
“Will she have twice as many suitcases as me?” Jacob asked.
“Heavens no, Adele is a simple girl.” Nicholas chuckled. “You are the spoiled youngest son of a billionaire. There’s no comparison.”
“Not anymore,” Jacob said. “Baby Joseph will grow up twice as spoiled because all of us older brothers will coddle him all his life.”
“I don’t know. Some of us will have our own babies to coddle.” Nicholas puffed up his chest. “Might have to let you be the big brother this time.”
“Is Adele pregnant?” Jacob grabbed Nicholas’s arm to stop him.
“We don’t know yet. We might just be getting excited over nothing. Don’t say anything to mother yet, okay?”
“I won’t say anything,” Jacob said.
“We’ll make an announcement if and when we actually know for sure.”
“I’ll be praying for you, my brother.”
“Thanks.” Nicholas reached over to give Jacob a hug. “Now, enough of this lovey-dovey crap. Let’s go meet the crew of our new yacht.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Note to Reader: Jacob’s story is Part Three of The Billionaire’s Sons, Book One of the Sayid Family Saga. All of these characters are introduced in Parts One and Two of Book One.
Other than Jacob and Maryam, the other main players in this part of the story are Liam (Jacob’s oldest brother) and his brother Nicholas, the esteemed philanthropist who plays at least a minor role in almost every story in the series. After this opening scene, most of these characters fall off the page. I’m showing you this chapter because it really brings out character development for the main characters.
Background: Nicholas and Adele were childhood sweethearts reunited as adults in Part One of The Billionaire’s Sons. Nick’s older brothers took a liking to Adele’s older sisters and within a year they’d all paired off and gotten married. This opening scene is Liam’s wedding to Rachel, who is pregnant (I know, scandalous!). All the other weddings take place in Parts One and Two of Book One. I hope you enjoy the chapter even though there are a bunch of characters you don’t need to remember. Feel free to ask me for clarification. As always, any feedback, positive or negative is greatly appreciated. -Julie
“How many weddings can you cram into one year?” Jacob leaned over and spoke quietly to his brother, Nicholas. They both wore black tuxedoes and stood at the front of the atrium where they’d stood together to watch their older brother Lyle marry his wife, Miriam almost a year ago to the date, and where their brother Sam had married Miriam’s younger sister Leanne three weeks ago.
“I’m very sorry Daniel has run out of daughters,” Nicholas said, patting Jacob on the back. “You’ll have to marry outside the family.”
“Pretty sure I’m a little young to be thinking of marriage.” Jacob chuckled lightly. He was only nineteen and barely finished with his schooling, if he could call it that.
As much as they’d been travelling the past few years, calling his learning home schooling was a stretch. More like unschooling. Learning things the hard way, being dragged to work by his father and brothers, letting mom rely on him to help take care of his baby brother while she attempted to cram English and math lessons into his head alongside Hebrew and Arabic and world history. She’d finally called it good and declared him graduated, for whatever that was worth.
Schooling was a lifelong pursuit anyway, and Jacob kept studying even without her guidance. Being the son of a billionaire, he’d never need to work outside the family to make a living, but there was always the need for scholars. Jacob was good at journaling and storytelling like his brother Nicholas and more often tagged along to whatever Nicholas was working on.
“Well, there’s still Ruth,” Jacob mused. “About ten years too old for me, but still…”
“Hadn’t you heard?” Lyle leaned over from his spot on the other side of their brother Sam. “She’s marrying Zach.”
“Seriously?” Jacob spoke a little too loud and drew the attention of the few friends and family gathered together. He shrunk back and hunched his shoulders.
“Do you guys mind?” Liam took a step forward to look at all his brothers at the same time. “You’re ruining my wedding.”
“Like you ruined mine?” Lyle baited him.
“I ruined your reception,” Liam said. “There’s a difference.”
“Your wedding hasn’t actually started yet,” Jacob pointed out. The pianist was playing softly in the background as people took their seats and prepared for the simple ceremony. “Technically there’s still time to run.”
“And have father and Daniel fight over whose shotgun to use?”
“Well, these tuxes will work just as well for a funeral as for a wedding,” Jacob said.
“Very funny,” Liam grumbled.
“You know, if you guys would stop having sex before you get married, you could choose when to get married rather than be forced to get married because your girlfriends are pregnant.” Nicholas lifted his chin, then his mouth pulled into a tiny grin. “Like Adele and I did.”
“Yep, you’re perfect, Nicholas,” Liam said. “We’ve established that over and over.”
“Adele pregnant yet?” Lyle asked with a gleam in his eye.
“I dunno…” Nicholas pinched his lips together, obviously trying to hide a smile.
“Look at that cheesy smile, you sly dog,” Lyle teased. “It’s been what? Five months? You should be celebrating by now.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Nicholas said under his breath.
Their three older brothers started laughing but Jacob wanted to crawl under one of the pews in embarrassment from the entire conversation. “You guys are hurting my virtuous ears, and delicate countenance.”
“Eh, you’re going to love being married just as much as the rest of us, little brother,” Sam said, reaching around Nicholas’s back to shove Jacob’s shoulder.
“That would require me to grow up, oh, and meet a girl.” Jacob felt a little flutter in his stomach at the thought. All this talk about marriage and what came after, or in Liam and Lyle’s case, before, the wedding had gotten Jacob a little more excited about the prospect. Maybe being married wouldn’t be so bad. Something to look forward to.
The music shifted into a traditional wedding march and the brothers straightened into a line, standing at attention like the upstanding young men they should emulate.
Within a few moments, Rachel appeared at the other end of the aisle in a soft pink gown with a high waist that almost hid her growing midline.
Jacob peeked over at his brother, Liam, noting the grin that spread onto his face at seeing his bride. The circumstances may not be perfect, but at least Liam and Rachel were in love.
Love. Something even more important to look forward to.
After the Coast Guard deposited the families back to the marina, taken statements from each of them and recorded the necessary documentation of the day’s events, they left everyone and returned to their regular duty station.
Maryam had arrived and gathered Alondra and Aloise into her arms, as if they were the daughters she’d never had. She insisted the Cohen family had plenty of room and both girls could stay as long as needed while obtaining the necessary legal documentation to become permanent residents or return home to Mexico.
Manny had every intention to jump through whatever hoops were necessary to keep his wife by his side, even if they had to return to Mexico and wait in the proverbial line to obtain permanent status. He vowed never to be apart.
They waited almost an hour before the Ashish’s sailing yacht came into view. The sisters broke into sobs of relief and held each other as they watched their parents lower the sails and motor slowly into the marina, parking in the same boat slip they still had rented.
Without even assisting to secure the vessel, Shira Ashish rushed off the boat and into her daughters’ arms.
Manny and his father instinctively hurried over to help David secure his yacht, along with assistance from Evan and Warren. Within ten minutes they had the boat docked and settled and Jacob stood before David with his hand extended.
“Ahalan, baruka ha-shav,” Jacob said.
Manny was startled to hear his father speak in Hebrew to this man who had been his enemy for many years, welcoming him like a long-lost friend or brother.
Jacob and Maryam had taught their son many languages, saying he needed to remember how far their families had come in three generations since they’d left Israel. Since moving to Dubai, they’d spoken mostly English and some Arabic, and the many years they’d spent in Mexico had the family fluent in Spanish.
Very few people standing near the dock at the marina in Alpena, Michigan would understand the phrase and even fewer would understand the significance. Jacob was extending a message of peace and reconciliation dating back to when both men lived in a simpler time in their lives, before the fighting and violence.
“Harbe zman lo hitraenu,” David returned the greeting, acknowledging that they’d been apart for too many years.
The exchange nearly brought tears to Manny’s eyes, and did bring tears to Shira’s.
Maryam pulled Shira into her arms like a long-lost sister even though they’d barely known one another, and they had a fifteen-year age difference.
“Um… what are they saying to each other?” Aloise asked, probably echoing the thoughts of her sister and Evan and Warren.
“They’re welcoming one another after many years apart,” Manny said, pulling his wife into his arms. “Our families are together now. Everything will be okay.” Manny kissed the top of her head, barely taking his eyes off their parents.
Yeah, everything would be fine now. A peace entered his heart and he couldn’t help taking a tiny bit of credit for what he and Aloise had done by choosing to get married. He pulled away slightly and looked down into the most beautiful brown eyes he’d ever seen. He leaned forward to whisper in her ear.
“What do you say we go home… and come back for your things tomorrow?”
“I would like that very much,” she said.
With barely a word of goodbye to the others, Manny helped Aloise up into his Jeep, backed out of the parking lot and held his wife’s hand the entire seventeen-minute drive home.
Petty Officer Haskins, the Officer of the Day at the Alpena Coast Guard station was much more responsive to the billionaire mayor than he had been to his son. The officer had a helicopter ready to launch before he’d gathered everyone onto the rescue boat.
“My guess is they’re heading due east,” Manny said. “He’s probably trying to get to international waters before we can stop him.”
“We won’t let that happen, son.” The same aggravating petty officer who had dismissed him earlier had a much nicer tone. Manny wanted to snap at him for his earlier behavior, but still needed the man’s full cooperation if they were going to reach Aloise in time.
As the helicopter lifted into the sky, and the captain made ready to launch the rescue boat, a man’s voice called from behind him.
“Evan?” Manny watched as Evan and his brother, Warren, came running up the dock.
“We’re coming with you,” Evan said.
“Alondra’s on that boat too, you know,” Warren said with a smirk. “She called me the minute they took off and we high-tailed it down here.”
“So… you and her…” I raised my eyebrows.
“We’re talking.” Warren shrugged and his face flushed.
“Come on, gentlemen,” Manny’s father said. “Do you want to rescue these girls? Or discuss relationship status? Get on the boat.”
“Yes, sir,” Warren said, the first to hop on the boat. Evan and Manny quickly followed.
Smooth as silk, the coast guard cutter motored away from the dock and out of the marina. Within seconds they were at top speed bouncing over and through low waves heading due east.
None of them spoke over the noise of the boat motor and rushing wind, but Manny’s eyes scanned the horizon. He guessed that the helicopter pilots would find David’s sailing yacht before they would, but it didn’t stop him from searching.
Forty-five minutes passed. The chance of catching up to the yacht before reaching international waters was dwindling. The racer could probably top speeds of fifteen knots. The Coast Guard helicopter could top one-fifty. If David stayed on course, the helicopter would find him. If David veered north or south, the Coast Guard would be searching for a needle in a haystack.
“Relax, son.” His dad wrapped his arm around Manny’s shoulder and spoke over the noise of the motor and rushing wind. “These guys are professionals. They know what they’re doing. Trust them.”
“It’s been too long,” Manny answered. “We should have caught up to them by now.”
“You don’t know that. The Coast Guard has a search and rescue system and protocols to follow. They’ve probably practiced these rescue missions thousands of times in training. They’ll find her. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Dad.” Even as he lost hope, he leaned against his father for support. Manny might be a man in the legal sense, but he still needed his mom and dad to comfort him.
“There!” The helicopter had come into view and Manny wondered if that meant they’d found David’s yacht. The horizon was below their line of sight, but the helicopter was clearly hovering rather than sweeping back and forth.
One of the coast guard officers with binoculars turned back to make eye contact with Manny. “They’ve stopped the sailboat.”
Manny almost fell over with relief. Step one of getting his wife back. Now the hard part; convincing David Ashish to hand over his daughter.
His knee bouncing faster than the pounding of the waves indicated how nervous Manny was.
Within minutes they had reached the yacht and from the stern of the cutter, a fast response boat made ready to deploy.
“I want to come with you,” Manny said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, son,” Petty Officer Haskins said. “We’re trained professionals.”
“I’ve seen you take reporters out with you who were just as untrained as me,” Manny said. “That’s my wife on that yacht. I need to come with you.”
The petty officer looked to Manny’s dad for direction, and Jacob nodded. Manny decided he needed to run for a political office someday. The mayor received more respect and people followed his direction. Not that Manny was vain, but the level of respect his father received was notable.
“Let him come along,” Jacob said.
Manny didn’t wait for them to argue. He scrambled into the little fast response boat and when everyone was seated and ready, they slid off the back of the cutter and deployed. In less than a minute the little boat pulled alongside David Ashish’s sailing yacht and two coastguardsmen boarded the vehicle then helped Manny up onto the sailboat. The fast response boat pulled away and trolled around staying within proximity of the boat.
Without waiting for instructions or permission, Manny hurried down the side deck and around the front to where the stairs descended to the galley lounge. When he saw Aloise crouched in a ball lying in her stateroom with her father standing between him and her, Manny breathed a sigh of relief.
Aloise scrambled off the bed and pushed past her father, racing into Manny’s arms. Fresh tears streaked down her already tear-stained face and she cried over and over between kisses, “You came for me. You came for me.”
“I promised I’d never let you go. I promised.” Manny couldn’t stop the tears from falling down his own face. “I promised.”
“If you think for one minute that I’m going to let my daughter leave this boat with you, you are sadly mistaken,” David said, his arms folded across his chest. “As soon as your Coast Guard is done infringing on my civil rights, you need to leave with them, and I never want to see your face again.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I’m not leaving without my wife.” Manny’s voice was firm and confident.
“I do not recognize your sham of a marriage.” David stuck his nose in the air. “You have violated my daughter.”
“Mr. Ashish, I’m Petty Officer Haskins. We’re here because we received a distress call from one of your adult daughters who claims she is being held on this boat against her will.”
“Es ridículo! We are Mexican citizens and do not recognize your rights to board our yacht.”
“You are sailing in waters of the United States of America,” the petty officer said. “We have jurisdiction here and intend to conduct our investigation without interference from you. Sir, if you would step aside please, I’d like to have a word with your adult daughters.”
“I took her phone away,” David said. “There’s no way she could have called you. This man is the person who called for help, not my daughter.” David pointed at Manny with disdain.
“I called them, Padre,” Alondra said from the top of the stairs leading up into the larger salon. Her gaze drifted over to the guardsman. “Petty Officer Haskins, my sister and I are being held against our will and wish to leave this boat immediately.”
“¡Cómo te atreves!” David turned on Alondra. “You had no right to call these Americans and ask them to rescue you. You are my daughter.”
“Sir, please step aside so that I can have a word with your daughters,” the petty officer said. “I do not wish to restrain you, but I will if that is necessary.”
David took a step back and glared at Manny.
“Miss, for the record, could you state your name, age, citizenship and the reason for your complaint?” The petty officer spoke directly to Alondra.
“My name is Alondra Ashish, I am twenty-two years old, a Mexican citizen, and my sister and I are being held on this boat against our will by our father, David Ashish.” Alondra pointed to her father definitively.
The petty officer turned to Aloise. “Miss, could you also state your name, age, and citizenship as well, and respond to your sister’s allegation?”
“My name is Mrs. Aloise Ashish-Cohen.” Aloise lifted her chin with confidence. “I am twenty-years-old, a Mexican citizen legally married to an American citizen, and I concur with my sister’s allegation. She and I are being held on this boat against our wills. We both wish to seek asylum in the United States until at which time we are able to obtain temporary residency or return to our home country of our own free will.”
“Oh, esto es ridículo!” David shook his head. “I am not holding my daughters hostage. Esta es su casa.”
“Mrs. Cohen and Miss Ashish, do you each have identification?” Petty Officer Haskins asked. Each girl reached for her purse and wallet. Alondra handed her ID to the petty officer.
Aloise stepped forward with two items. “This is my driver’s license, and this is my marriage license.” She unfolded the document and handed them both to the petty officer.
Manny smiled down at her and sighed. She bit her lower lip, gazing up at him, and he winked at her.
Shira Ashish cried from the top of the stairs leading up to the salon. “You can’t take my daughters. They need to be with their madre.” Shira hurried down the stairs and threw herself into Alondra’s arms.
“Mamá, I don’t want to be away from you either, but we need to be free to live our own lives,” Alondra said. “We’re adults now. Please try to understand.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Ashish—” Manny stepped forward— “Come back to Alpena. We don’t want to break up your family. We want our two families to reconcile. To find common ground. My father and mother are willing to forgive you and ask for your forgiveness in return. I want you to have the chance to see your grandchildren someday.”
“Did you get my daughter pregnant?” David took a step toward Manny with hands balled into fists. Petty Officer Haskins stepped in between them and placed a hand on David’s chest.
“No, Sir, of course not!” Manny took a step back. “I mean, you know, nothing’s guaranteed to be 100% protection.” Manny’s face heated in embarrassment, remembering with fondness the sanctity of the previous night. He didn’t wish to speak of such things with his new father-in-law, or anyone for that matter.
“Por favor, David.” Shira rushed from her daughter’s arms into his. “I don’t want to be away from mis hijitas. Please don’t punish me, or them, for arguments that happened twenty years ago between you and your business partners.”
“Por favor, Padre…” Aloise stepped forward. “Please come back to Michigan and reconcile with my husband’s family. I want us to be together.”
“It’s not that easy,” David grumbled.
“It’s not that hard, either, Papi,” Alondra said. “Por favor.”
“Mr. Ashish, once your daughters leave this vessel, you are free to sail away or return to port. Unless your daughters wish to press charges, you are not under arrest.”
David glared between his daughters, his wife, and Manny, a scowl disfiguring his face. “I’ll think about it.”
“Gracias, Papá.” Aloise rushed forward and threw her arms around her father and mother, and Alondra joined them. They held each other in a touching family hug, then pulled apart and Aloise returned to Manny’s side.
“Are you ready to go?” Manny asked, searching her eyes. “Do you want to bring anything?”
“I have my backpack already,” Aloise said, tears filling her eyes. She looked longingly in the direction of her stateroom. “There are other things I wanted to bring, but they will have to be left behind.”
“Maybe we’ll have a chance to pack up the rest of your things if your parents ever return to visit.” Manny kissed the top of her head and fought the emotions pulling at his throat.
“I packed a bag too,” Alondra said. She grabbed her backpack and glanced inside her stateroom. “I hope they come back,” she mumbled.
“Adiós, Mamá,” Aloise said, reaching for one more hug from her mom.
“Adiós, hija mía,” Shira said, tears running down her face. Alondra also gave their mom a hug, and both daughters climbed the stairs along with Manny and Petty Officer Haskins.
They made their way down the side deck to the ladder and the fast response boat pulled alongside the yacht. Several officers helped the girls down first, Manny next, and then Petty Officer Haskins.
Not until they were all safely aboard the cutter and Aloise gathered herself into Manny’s arms was he able to breathe normally again. The ordeal was over. They were together again.
Manny decided this must be how love feels; setting aside one’s own life to rescue another. In the past two days Manny had met his soul mate, married her, and fell in love. A strange turn of events from hunting alone in his forest without a care in the world to rescuing the love of his life.
“Look, they’re turning!” Alondra, tucked in Warren’s arms, pointed to the east.
David had raised the sails and turned his yacht toward the west, heading back in the direction he’d come, back toward Alpena.
Aloise and Alondra had convinced their father to reconcile with Manny’s parents.
Manny gathered his wife closer, ignoring everyone around him, and pressed his lips to hers with a passion barely contained enough for mixed company.
“I’m sorry, son, that boat was registered to a Mexican citizen. They are not under our jurisdiction.” Petty Officer Haskins from the Coast Guard wasn’t making sense, and more important, wasn’t launching a fleet to go rescue Aloise.
“But they’ve kidnapped my wife.” Manny pointed in the direction where they’d disappeared over the horizon.
“Is your wife a United States citizen?”
“N—no… we got married yesterday.” Panic crushed Manny’s chest.
“How many months had she been in the U.S.?”
“M—months?” Manny stammered. “Two days. She’d been in the U.S. two days.”
“You married a woman you’d known for two days?”
Less than 24 hours, Manny thought, but didn’t tell him that. “I have a marriage license that says her parents can’t kidnap her.”
“I’m sorry, son, that’s not how it works. You’re asking the Coast Guard to spend thousands of dollars to rescue a non-citizen. There’s nothing I can do, son.” The man rested a hand on Manny’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off.
Son… he keeps calling me son. I’m not a little boy! he wanted to scream. He ground his hands into fists.
Father! City Hall, where his father worked, was walking distance from the marina.
Manny took off at a full sprint, arriving at City Hall faster than he could have maneuvered his Jeep out of the parking lot and down the street.
Throwing open the door to the building and skidding around the corner into his father’s outer office, Manny cried out to his receptionist, “I need to speak with my father.”
“I’m sorry, he’s in a meeting. You’ll have to wait.” Her calming voice only served to snap his last semblance of temper.
Manny shoved past the receptionist and barreled through the office to a closed conference room. He threw open the door to where a dozen men and women sat around an oval table with papers and laptops and presentation folders and cups of coffee and bagels strewn across the table. “Father, they’ve kidnapped Aloise!”
“Emanuel, I’m in a meeting.” Mayor Jacob Cohen stood and offered Manny a disappointed and angry glare.
“David Ashish stole Aloise and they are barreling toward international waters as we speak, and you have to get the Coast Guard to rescue her.”
“I thought I told you to say away from that girl,” Jacob growled.
“I’m sorry I disobeyed you,” Manny said in a calmer voice. “Now please, you have to help me get her back.”
“I don’t have to do anything for that family. Now if you’ll kindly close the door on your way out, we can talk about this when I get home tonight.”
“But she’s my wife.” Manny’s voice cracked as he fought to maintain composure.
“Your what?” Jacob’s eyes narrowed.
“We got married yesterday.”
“What were you thinking, Emanuel? I told you to stay away from that family.”
“David and Shira Ashish are not our enemies. What he and your brother, Liam, did was wrong, but it’s time you forgave them.”
Jacob pounded his fist on the table. “Don’t you presume to know anything about what my brother and David did to our family.”
“Father, don’t you understand? This is why Aloise and I were brought together. She and I were meant to bring a reconciliation between our families.”
A feeling of peace washed over Manny and he understood how all the pieces fit together now. How else could their experience be explained otherwise?
“Why else would she have run out of gas at exactly the spot in the middle of a forest where my hunting blind happened to be built?” Manny pleaded with passion. “Why else would I have been singing loud enough from the top of that hunting blind that she could hear me all the way from the road? Why else would she and I have been drawn to each other like a moth to a flame? Why else would we have gotten married less than twenty-four hours after meeting?” Manny sighed and his eyes softened.
“Your youthful fantasies and teenage hormones have just gotten you into the biggest mess of your life, Emanuel. Now you can live with the consequences.” Jacob pointed out into the office. “Now, pull that door shut so I can continue my meeting.”
A city police officer appeared at Manny’s shoulder and pulled his arm. “Let’s go, sir. You’ve been asked to leave.”
“No! Wait! You don’t understand!”
The officer pulled Manny’s arm behind him and took handcuffs from his belt.
“Father!”—Manny called over his shoulder— “If it were mother on that boat, what would you do?”
His father had told him the stories of how Grandpa Arnold had gotten angry and forced his daughter, Maryam, onto their yacht, leaving Puerto Aventuras, and Jacob, behind. Captain Arnold had told Jacob in no uncertain terms that he was not to speak to her again.
Jacob chartered a helicopter that very day and flew thousands of nautical miles to plead forgiveness and beg for Maryam’s hand in marriage. Twenty-two years later, their families joined in happiness, it was hard to remember what the original argument had been about.
The officer slapped a cuff on one of Manny’s wrists just as the mayor appeared in the doorway.
“Wait,” Jacob called to the officer. “Release my son. We need to go rescue his wife.”
Manny pulled his Jeep into the marina parking lot and parked beside the largest sailing yacht at the docks, where he knew his wife’s parents were likely seething with anger. He didn’t care. This needed to be done in order for Aloise to be free of their control.
He climbed from the Jeep and walked around the front to help her down, pulling her into his arms. Her beautiful brown eyes pleaded with him for reassurance.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” Manny said, leaning down to place a kiss on her lips, which were slightly swollen from the previous night when they had barely paused for breath.
“I’m not worried about them hurting me,” she said. “I’m worried they’re going to try to take me away from you.”
“I won’t let that happen.” He leaned down so he could look her directly in the eye. “As soon as we get your belongings off this boat, we will spend tonight in each other’s arms, and every night for the rest of our lives.”
“Is that a promise, Mr. Cohen?” Her flirty eyes nearly made him lift her back inside the Jeep and kiss her until he couldn’t see straight.
“Yes, that is a promise, Mrs. Cohen.” In the privacy of the open door to his Jeep, they shared one very long kiss before closing the door and walking hand-in-hand toward her parents’ sailing yacht. After only a few feet toward the dock, Manny stopped short. “Did they turn the boat around? Or am I imagining that the bow was facing west yesterday?”
“Yeah… they did. Weird.” She shrugged and they continued down the planks of the dock to where the mounting ladder sat ready.
Nothing seemed out of place, yet Manny had an eerie feeling. They started down the stairs to the galley salon.
“Mamá? Papá? Alondra?” Although she called to her family, Aloise headed straight for her stateroom and climbed up onto her bed, opening the furthest stowage cabinet. “Can you hand me that box?”
Manny shoved the box they’d brought from his house closer to her and waited by her door, wondering how soon her father would come around the corner with his shotgun. Manny refused to lift a weapon against another human, even in self-defense. All he could do was hope.
“You have a lot of nerve showing up here,” David Ashish’s gruff voice spoke as he descended the stairs.
“Thank you, Sir.” Manny nodded. “I like to think of myself as a courageous man.”
From inside her stateroom Aloise snickered and Manny fought to maintain his composure.
“You are just a little boy.” David stepped closer but Manny held his ground.
“My hope is that my youthful appearance will continue into old age,” Manny said without flinching.
“You will regret the decisions you made these past two days,” David said.
“There are many things in my life that I regret,” Manny answered. “But marrying your daughter will never be one of them.”
“We’ll see about that.” David turned and stormed up the stairs, temporarily blocking the sunlight streaming in from above.
“Is that true?” Shira Ashish said from the stairwell coming down from the larger salon. When she came into view, Manny noticed her swollen eyes from crying. “Did the two of you get married?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Manny nodded respectfully. “Yesterday.”
“She wasn’t of marrying age yet,” Shira said. “She needed to wait for her sister to find a husband first.”
“Twenty is legally old enough in the United States,” Manny said.
“We are from Mexico, not United States,” she said. “You have disrespected our values and ruined our daughter.”
“Your daughter is the most incredible woman I’ve ever met, and I will treasure her until the day I die.” Manny was impressed with himself for modulating his tone. “I wish you luck finding a husband for Alondra. I’m sure she’s looking forward to getting out from under your oppressive rules as well.”
“Manny, can you take this box to the Jeep and bring me that other box we brought?” Aloise interrupted their argument. “I guess I have more stuff than I thought I did.”
“I’m glad we decided to bring two.” Manny leaned down to lift the heavy box from her bed and turned toward the steps leading outside. The box was awkward and lopsided and carrying it along the side plank of the sailboat was a feat.
He stumbled down the boarding ladder onto the dock and looked up to realize his new father-in-law was beside him. Startled, Manny wondered why David hadn’t offered a hand if he was right there watching him struggle to get down the ladder.
The two men regarded one another but no words were said. Manny turned and stumbled along the dock and up the concrete steps to the parking lot. His keys were in his jeans pocket, so he set the heavy box on the ground and fumbled to unlock the Jeep.
“What the heck does that girl have in here?” he mumbled, lifting the box and placing it on the back seat. He opened the box. “Books?”
Classics. He lifted them to check the bindings. A Tale of Two Cities, Gone with the Wind, Pride & Prejudice, Twilight. Really? On top was a Bible. A small smile lit Manny’s face as he closed the box of his wife’s treasures, feeling he learned almost as much about Aloise from peeking into this box as he had during an entire night of lovemaking.
A different king of smile shifted on his face and he hurried to grab the other box before heading back to the boat.
The boat that had been docked directly in front of his Jeep.
The boat that was now exiting the marina and rounding the corner into the Thunder Bay River, nearly to the mouth of where the river flowed into Lake Huron.
The boat where his wife had been packing the last of her belongings to come home with him forever.
“No!” Manny screamed. There were no other patrons in the parking lot.
Dropping the box, Manny ran toward the marina, where the harbor master stood behind the counter.
“Call for the Coast Guard!” Manny yelled to the man, who immediately lifted the receiver of the phone beside him. “We have to stop that boat! They’re kidnapping my wife!”
Not waiting to hear the man’s conversation, Manny ran back out to the parking lot and watched David Ashish yanking the rigging to release the sails. Wind lifted the giant white sails, pushing his slim racing yacht further out into Lake Huron.
“If they reach the international boundary into Canadian waters…” Manny whispered to an empty parking lot. “I’ll never get her back.”
“Why did your father forbid you to see Aloise?” Manny’s mother asked.
“You probably know more than I do?” Manny answered. “What happened that split our family in half?”
Mom glanced nervously at Aloise, as if calculating how much to share with her. “Maybe we should sit down.” She sat at one corner of the sofa and Aloise boldly sat near the middle, facing her new mother-in-law.
Manny pulled up a chair from the little kitchen table and sat facing them so that they formed a triangle and able to communicate without craning their necks. Although still half dressed and counting the minutes for his mother to leave so he could be alone with his bride, this conversation needed to happen.
“Well, um, your father and his oldest brother never had a great relationship to begin with.” Mother twisted her hands in her lap, pulling at the bottom hem of her shirt. “Uncle Liam did and said a few things that were very offensive and started a heated argument which never fully recovered.
“When Grandpa Levi died, the brothers fought over the family’s fortune and who should run the shipping company in particular. David Ashish sided with Uncle Liam and Uncle Lyle, and they”—she glanced at Aloise— “weren’t very nice to the rest of the family.”
“What do you mean by ‘weren’t very nice’?” Aloise asked.
“Uh… they kind of… sabotaged the business,” Mom answered. “And made death threats. And then Grandma Sarah sold all her shares to your Uncle Nicholas, giving him a majority control.
“Liam and Lyle thought that they should wait for Grandma to die and have her shares divided evenly among the brothers. They were furious. Heated words were exchanged, sides were chosen, more threats were made. They accused us of stealing. We accused them of sabotage. Things got very ugly.”
“So, what happened?” Manny asked, leaning forward, engaged in the story.
“They finally dissolved the company, liquidated all the assets, and went their separate ways.” Mom shrugged. “But everyone left angry with each other. That was the year your father and I moved as far away from Cancun as possible. Apparently, we didn’t move far enough.” She glanced at Aloise.
Manny took his wife’s hand and offered her a soft smile. Although he couldn’t take his eyes off Aloise, he spoke to his mother. “I promised I’d explain why I needed my birth certificate.”
“I kind of figured it out when I started getting phone calls this morning from friends saying they heard it from someone else who heard it from someone else that you got married yesterday.”
“Yeah, we probably should have driven up to Rogers City or something before shopping. Everybody knows me in this town.”
“And no one knows her,” Mom said. “You should realize an out-of-towner stands out like a sore thumb. Especially such a beautiful woman.”
“Thank you.” Aloise ducked her head and bit her lower lip.
“I agree with her beauty.” Manny winked and then turned back to his mom. “Mom, I want you to know that her beauty is not what made me want to marry her. I’m not that shallow.”
“Why did you marry her?”
“We both felt compelled to get married,” Manny said. “Like it was the most important thing we needed to do for some reason we didn’t understand.”
“I’m not sure I believe in love at first sight,” Aloise said. “I’m pretty sure we’re not actually in love yet. We just had this magnetic attraction we couldn’t explain, like we were meant to be together. And it seemed imperative that we get married immediately.”
“I understand the attraction at first sight thing,” Mom said, relaxing a little. “Your father saw me from twenty feet away and he made a fool of himself drooling over me.”
“He’s still a fool for you, Mom.” Manny loved his parents and their relationship was inspiring.
“By the way”—Mom turned to Aloise— “You look so much like your mother. She was the most beautiful woman any of us had ever seen. I truly wish we could have met under better circumstances because I would have loved to meet the woman she is deep down.”
“Maybe you’ll have that chance now that your son is married to her daughter,” Aloise said with a soft smile.
“I’d like that.” Mom returned her smile.
Manny had a peaceful feeling in his heart that his wife and his mother were going to be fast friends. Now to convince his father.
Manny pulled up to the side of the house again, right next to the door of his suite. He checked that his living room was empty, then Aloise snuck into the bedroom. Before risking his parents walking in, he strode over to the door leading to the hallway and locked it.
As soon as he had unloaded all the groceries, he maneuvered to the back of his truck, lowered the gate, and unloaded his hunting equipment.
Most of the items they bought belonged in the bedroom and bathroom, so he quickly refrigerated the beverages and carried the rest of the bags into his bedroom, locking the bedroom door also.
When he turned around, he startled to see Aloise had already changed into the negligée they'd bought and was laying on his bed, propped up on one elbow. The sound that escaped from his throat was almost a whimper.
Both his ex-girlfriend and his wife had been correct when facing off at the grocery counter. He hadn’t been ready for this a few months ago, and meeting the right girl made all the difference. Although he’d never done this before, Manny got the impression his body would know instinctively what to do with his bride.
“I’m really glad we got married,” Manny said, climbing onto the bed and lying next to her.
“I wouldn’t be in bed with you if we hadn’t,” Aloise answered with a resigned expression.
“I’m really glad you weren’t ready a few months ago with what’s-her-name,” she whispered.
“I’m really glad I ran out of gas in the middle of a forest in this beautiful state that I can’t remember the name.”
“Michigan,” Manny said.
“Michigan is beautiful,” Aloise said.
“You’re beautiful,” Manny whispered.
“Can we make out now?” she asked.
“I have a legally binding document that says we can.”
Aloise leaned forward and Manny met her halfway, pulling her closer so their bodies were flush, and he could feel every inch of her body.
When their lips finally met, they didn’t part for a very long time.
Manny awoke the next morning to his wife’s insistent whisper.
“Manny, someone’s knocking at your door,” Aloise said. “Wake up. They’ve knocked a bunch of times. I think it’s your mother because she’s texted a bunch of times too.”
He groaned and accepted the cell phone she handed him. Among several other texts, one was written in all caps. I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE. COME OPEN THIS DOOR.
The text he sent back was two letters. OK.
Manny kissed Aloise on the forehead then reluctantly rolled out of bed and rummaged in his drawer for a pair of sweats, not bothering with a shirt. He pulled the door to their bedroom closed and padded in bare feet over to the main door, opening it halfway. He stood with one hand on the door and the other on the door frame.
“Is it true you got married yesterday?” his mom demanded.
“Would you really rather have had me join the Navy?”
“I would have liked to have known what you were doing.”
“I’m pretty sure, having been married for twenty-two years, you know what I was doing last night.”
She shuddered. “You know what I meant.” Her voice cracked. “Don’t you think your mother would have liked to attend your wedding?”
“We needed to do things our way,” Manny said. “Because father forbade me to see Aloise ever again, and that wasn’t an option.”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“No, what was he supposed to tell me?”
“Her last name is Ashish, well, was Ashish.”
“As in… David and Shira Ashish?”
“Her parents.” Manny nodded. “They are not happy about this either.”
“Can I meet her?” Mom’s voice cracked again.
“When I left her lying in our bed a moment ago, she was without apparel. I would really prefer we have this conversation later today… or tomorrow even.”
The bedroom door behind him creaked open and the most beautiful woman in the world stepped into the living room wearing her brand-new silky pajamas, her long brown hair draping over her shoulders in soft snarls and her dark eyes apprehensive. Manny fought the urge to take her in his arms and carry her back to their bed, kicking the door closed in his mother’s face.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cohen,” Aloise said, tucking herself under Manny’s arm and wrapping herself around his waist.
“I guess I could say the same to you… Mrs. Cohen.”
“Mom, this is my wife, Aloise.” Manny looked down at her with a smile and in a near whisper said. “This is my mother, Maryam Cohen.”
If Aloise was nervous about standing in a grocery store aisle in front of rows and rows of prophylactics, she didn’t let on. Manny was nervous but knew this was necessary. He let her take the lead.
“Ooh! Glow-in-the-dark.” She picked up a package and Manny fought to keep a straight face. “Those could be fun.” She tossed them in the empty grocery cart and turned back to the wall of condoms.
Manny tried to make a sincere attempt to study the choices, but his face turned red just reading the labels. Lubricated, ultra-thin, flavored? He had to turn around and nearly choked out the words, “Just choose whatever you want, and we’ll try them all.”
Just as he said that, and while Aloise held three different packages, jockeying to not drop any of them, Manny’s former high school principal, Mrs. Laker, came around the corner.
“Well, hello, Emanuel,” Mrs. Laker said with a smile, not having noticed what aisle they were standing in. When she glanced down and saw what Aloise was holding, her mouth gaped open. Aloise quickly threw the boxes in the grocery cart, which now contained at least half a dozen.
“Mrs. Laker”—Manny cleared his throat and then gently pulled Aloise closer— “I’d like to introduce my wife, Aloise. Mrs. Laker was my high school principal… four months ago.”
“Wife?” Mrs. Laker’s eyes darted back and forth between them then glanced down at their left hands, which clearly did not display wedding rings.
Manny leaned closer to Aloise. “We should buy wedding rings. Nobody’s going to believe we’re married.”
“I hadn’t thought about that.” She looked down at her left hand. “Is there a jewelry store in your town?”
“This is your town now too, babe.” His voice lowered. Aloise giggled as they stared into each other’s eyes.
“I hadn’t heard that you were getting married…” Mrs. Laker drew their attention back to her. “Your mother must be, um, thrilled.”
“She doesn’t exactly know yet,” Manny said.
“We just got married this afternoon,” Aloise said.
“Oh, you’ve eloped. How romantic.” Mrs. Laker glanced at the grocery cart full of condoms. “I guess that would explain your desire for, um, well…”
“We don’t want to get pregnant,” Manny said, dropping his voice lower.
“That’s a wise choice,” she said. “As young as you are.”
“Yeah, I bet you wish Tommy and Amy had made that choice over homecoming weekend, huh?”
Mrs. Laker shifted uncomfortably. “Their adorable little girl is… a blessing… in disguise.”
“Her water broke during our graduation ceremony,” Manny said, leaning close to Aloise and keeping his voice low. “In front of about nine hundred people.”
“Oh!” Aloise covered her mouth with her hand, then dropped her hands to her sides. “That must have been… a blessing… to have so many people around to make sure she got to the hospital in time.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Laker said, nodding slowly. “A blessing.”
“Anyway, we have some more shopping to do before we… go home.” Manny gulped. “It was very nice to run into you this afternoon, Mrs. Laker.”
“You as well, Emanuel. And nice to meet you, Louise.”
“Aloise,” Manny corrected her, and Mrs. Laker cocked her head to the side in confusion. “My wife’s name is Aloise. With an A.”
“Oh, well, I hope you have a lovely day.” She stepped away from them, backing her grocery cart with her.
“We intend to have a lovely day,” Manny said, pulling Aloise a little closer and gazing into her eyes. “Gracias.”
Mrs. Laker was gone by the time Manny was done kissing his wife while standing in the grocery store aisle across from a wall of prophylactics.
After a brief tender moment and then a lighthearted chuckle about running into Mrs. Laker, they strode over to the aisle where beach towels were sold and placed one on top of their other selections. Then had fun goofing off picking out different items that they might possibly need, commenting on their necessities.
A candle, bubble bath, massage oil, a box of Kleenex, various energy restorative snacks, sports drinks for electrolyte replenishment, matching silky pajamas, a negligée, and a romance novel with a half-naked couple on the front. Everything they could think of for a lovely day, as Mrs. Laker had pointed out.
By the time they got to the checkout lane, their selections weren’t any less suggestive than if they’d filled their cart to the brim with condoms. They also forgot they’d planned to use the self-check-out lane until they’d unloaded most of the groceries onto the conveyor belt.
The little old lady who was their cashier probably would laugh off their collection of paraphernalia. As Manny turned to the row of chocolate bars, a girl approached the little old lady and said she could take a break and the girl would take over for her.
Manny could have picked her voice out in a crowded room the size of a gymnasium. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. “This can’t be happening.”
“What’s the matter?” Aloise stepped closer and reached her hand up to touch Manny’s face, trying to comfort him.
“The girl who is our new cashier. Does she have red hair?”
Aloise slowly said, “Yyess.”
He spoke through clenched teeth. “She’s my ex-girlfriend.” Manny opened his eyes and met her gaze.
“If we can get through discussing family planning with your high school principal, I’m sure we can handle having your ex-girlfriend for our cashier.”
“Sure, we’ll go with that.”
Aloise pushed past Manny and strode right up to the girl, extending her hand. “Hi, I’m Aloise. I understand you’re friends with my husband.”
Lexi paused from scanning eight packages of condoms and glanced up to realize Manny was standing next to Aloise, one arm around her waist. She lowered her gaze to the box in her hand that read Glow-in-the-Dark, then scanned it and placed it in the grocery bag beside her. Lexi slowly lifted her hand and shook Aloise’s.
“Manny must have… changed his mind… about certain things he claimed he wasn’t ready for a few months ago.” She scanned the next box, and the next.
“Amazing what happens when you meet the right girl, huh?” Aloise didn’t wait for an answer to her rhetorical question, just turned back to Manny. “Did you pick out which candy bar you’d like?”
Manny held up his selection. “Snickers.”
“Fitting for the day we’ve had.” Aloise stepped closer and winked. Manny placed his hands on her hips and fought the urge to press his lips to hers again but changed his mind at the last minute.
“Let’s pay for these groceries so we can go home,” Manny said.
“I would like that very much,” Aloise answered in a voice that was almost a purr.
By the time they were done gazing into each other’s eyes with longing and fire, most of the groceries were scanned and in bags. As Aloise loaded the bags from the carousel back into the cart, Manny swiped his debit card and smiled at his ex-girlfriend. “Nice to see you again, Lexi.”
“Have a nice day, Manny,” Lexi said in her most professional voice.
“I’m sure we will.” Manny turned and walked away, ready to take his wife home so they could put into practice all the exciting things they’d discussed since that morning when they’d decided to get married.
In the amount of time they took digging up the required paperwork, the lunch hour had come and gone. But the same clerk was at the counter. She pursed her lips and looked pointedly down her nose. “You again.”
Aloise and Manny both laid their birth certificates on the counter along with their driver’s licenses and Aloise’s passport.
“Are you trying to get a green card?” the clerk asked. “Is that what this is about?”
“Ma’am,” Manny said with as much respect as he could muster. “There is a very specific reason why we need to get married today and I’m really not at liberty to say what that reason is. Please could you just process our paperwork?”
“There’s a three-day waiting period to get your license back.” She folded her arms across her chest.
“There’s no way to expedite the process?”
“Not unless you want to pay an extra $50 in addition to the licensing fee of $20.”
Manny pulled a twenty and a fifty from his wallet and slapped them on the counter.
“It’s $45 if you want us to perform the ceremony,” she said.
Manny calmly pulled another two twenties and a five from his wallet and placed them on his growing pile of cash.
“You need two witnesses.” She still hadn’t unfolded her arms.
“Hmm…” Manny glanced around the empty office then pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Scrolling through names on his contact list, he found the number for his best friend, Evan. He picked up on the second ring. “Hey man, are you at home? Can you and your brother come help me with something real quick?”
“I guess,” Evan said. “What do you need?”
“I need two witnesses for a document I’m signing at the county clerk’s office.”
“What, are you getting married?” Evan laughed.
“Yeah,” Manny said, wondering if Evan would believe him.
“Very funny,” Evan said. “No seriously, what are you signing?”
“Just get over here to the county clerk’s office, please. As soon as possible.”
“We’re leaving right now, man. Chill.”
Manny could hear Evan’s keys in his hands. “See ya in five.” He touched the screen of his phone to end the call and smiled at the clerk. He gently pushed the completed application, essential documents, and stack of cash across the counter. “They’re on their way.”
By the time the clerk processed the paperwork, Evan and his older brother strolled into the clerk’s office and stopped short.
“Dude, seriously?” Evan raised his eyebrows, staring at Manny and Aloise’s joined hands.
“I tried to tell you.” Manny turned and placed his hand on Aloise’s lower back, presenting his bride to his best friend. “Aloise, I’d like you to meet my friend Evan and his older brother…” Manny hesitated, blanking on his brother’s name.
“Warren”—he reached forward to shake Aloise’s hand— “Do you by any chance have an older sister?”
“Yes, I do, actually,” Aloise answered. “Why?”
“Because you are quite possibly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life and I would very much like to be introduced to your sister.”
“The largest sailing yacht at the marina.” Aloise pointed toward the lake. “Her name is Alondra. Por favor, take her off my hands.”
The guys both chuckled and Manny didn’t doubt for a second that the next place Evan and Warren would be heading was to the yacht club at the end of the pier.
Shaking his head and grinning, Manny turned back to the clerk. “Our witnesses have arrived.”
“Mom?” Manny called from the kitchen, listening for her to answer from somewhere in their expansive home.
“In my office,” she answered from down one hall. Manny headed in that direction.
The kitchen sat in the middle of the main house like the hub of a wheel. Hallways travelling out like spokes seemed to reach into the forest ending in a suite of rooms, each with three or four sides of windows, plus windows along the hallways.
“Mom, where do you keep my birth certificate?” Manny asked without preamble or explanation. She barely glanced up from her desk.
“In the fireproof lockbox in the mudroom off the garage.” There was no hesitation in her voice until suddenly there was, and she narrowed her eyes. “Why?”
“I need it for something.” Manny turned to walk away then hesitated. “Is there a key or combination or something?”
“Emanuel, why do you need your birth certificate?” She swiveled in her office chair and folded her arms across her chest.
“Would it be okay if I answered that question in a couple of days?” He bit his lip and held his breath, turning to meet his mom’s gaze with a confidence he was trying to pull from his nervous stomach.
“What are you hiding from your mother?”
“Mom, I’m a nineteen-year-old-guy. Sometimes nineteen-year-old-guys need to do things that they’re not comfortable telling their mom about ahead of time. Please, just, give me a day or two, okay?”
“Which branch of the military are you enlisting?”
“What makes you think I’m going into the military?” He wasn’t sure if she’d be more upset about him enlisting, or if she found out the truth.
“There are only a few reasons why a person needs their birth certificate at your age, and since you don’t have a girlfriend, I’m assuming you’re not getting married.”
Manny coughed, more like choked, and covered his mouth with his fist. After calming his coughing fit, he said, “That’s a reasonable assumption.”
“So which branch?”
“Please can we save this conversation for a couple of days? I promise I’ll tell you everything. But please don’t force me to explain my decision right now.”
“The key is on a blue keychain in the top drawer of your father’s desk.”
“Thank you for understanding.” Manny turned to walk away from his mom.
“I don’t understand,” his mom mumbled. “But I respect your privacy.”
Manny stopped but didn’t turn around. “I appreciate that, mom.” He hesitated a second more, then continued down the hall to the kitchen and common room. He turned down the hallway to his father’s office where he strode to his desk and opened the top drawer. A false bottom lay under a stack of file folders and he lifted them off and found the blue keychain. He replaced the files, closed the drawer and re-traced his steps.
The entrance to the garage was adjacent to the kitchen in the center of the house and Manny paused, panic crushing his chest and his hopes. How would he discretely sneak Aloise back out of his suite and into his Jeep? He’d think of something. First, he had to find his birth certificate.
The key fit easily in the lock and within seconds he found the file folder that was labeled, “Birth Certificates.” Much simpler than what Aloise had to do sneaking behind her parents’ backs and searching for ten minutes.
“Are you in some sort of trouble?” His mom stood by the entrance to the mud room and Manny jumped, dropping the keys and the most valuable document in his world.
“You startled me.” He pressed his hand to his chest and leaned down to grab the items he’d dropped. He stood and turned to face his mom. “No, I’m not in any trouble. Please trust me.”
“Okay,” she whispered.
“Would you do me a huge favor?” Manny handed his mom the blue keychain. “Would you return this to dad’s desk for me?”
She opened her hand without a word and her lips shook with unshed tears in her eyes.
“Mom”—Manny pulled her into a quick hug— “Trust me.” Before she could say anything else, he turned and grabbed the extra set of keys to his Jeep from the hook by the door and strode to his truck.
He backed out of the garage, not looking at the door to the mudroom, and pulled into the grass, driving carefully around to his wing of the house. He parked in a way that his mom would be able to see the back end of the truck through the living room windows, but not the passenger side door to the cab.
Coming around the car, he knocked lightly on the outside door and called softly, “Aloise, it’s Manny, let me in.”
Aloise opened the door and Manny grabbed his compound bow from just inside.
“Come sneak into the Jeep while I load some hunting equipment into the back end of the truck.”
“Why are you going hunting?” Aloise asked, grabbing her small backpack purse, and walking out the door.
“My mom’s suspicious. I just need her to think I’m going hunting.”
Manny lowered the tailgate and loaded the compound bow into the bed of his truck then went inside and grabbed a few other random hunting items and loaded them in as well. Checking to make sure the back door to his suite was unlocked, he made his way around to the driver’s side and climbed into the Jeep. “You ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” She giggled.
“Alright, crouch down in your seat while I drive past the house. I’d lay wagers my mom is watching from the window.”
Aloise crouched down so as not to be seen and Manny waved lightly toward the house to say goodbye to his mom, just in case she was watching.
“Stay in here until I get back, okay?” Manny led Aloise into his trophy room and handed her the television remote control, not thinking to ask if she even liked watching television, it just seemed like the thing to do. “You’re welcome to poke around and explore. Shove all the clothes to one side of my closet to make room for yours. Make a list of things you think you’ll need, and we’ll stop at the Walmart later. You know, bathroom stuff or food or anything. I want you to feel comfortable here.”
“What if one of your parents comes down here looking for you?” She bit her lower lip. Manny approached her and ran his hands down her arms then took her hands in his.
“One, they never come down to my wing of the house, citing that I’m old enough to need privacy. Two, my dad’s at work and I’m going down to the other side of the house to find my mom right now. And three, they’re going to find out you’re living here eventually and we’re going to have to figure out how to tell them… soon. Preferably not today. I really don’t want anyone else to try to talk us out of this.”
“Me neither,” she said with a sigh. “Hey, can I ask you a kind of serious question?” Aloise glanced toward the open door to Manny’s suite and he walked over to close and lock the door. He took her hands and guided her over to the couch to sit together.
They turned toward one another so their knees were touching, and they were facing each other as best they could while sitting side-by-side on the couch. Manny waited for Aloise to gather the courage to ask him whatever she was curious about, but he suspected he already knew.
“Have you ever… you know…” Although she maintained eye contact, she noticeably squirmed in her seat.
“Had sex?” He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “No. You?”
“Are you kidding? I’ve never even been allowed to have a boyfriend, remember?”
“We don’t have to… do… anything,” Manny said. “Until we’re ready. I’m not going to put any pressure on you. That’s not why I’m marrying you.”
“Why are you marrying me?”
“Because it feels like the right thing to do.” Manny shrugged. “I don’t know how else to describe the way I’m feeling.”
“Me too.” Her face lit up like she was relieved he understood how she felt. “I feel so drawn to you, like we were…”
“Meant to be together,” they said at the same time.
“Yeah.” She nodded.
“Okay, can I ask you a serious question?”
“If we’re going to be married in a few hours, we should probably feel comfortable asking each other anything we want, right?”
“How do you feel about… children?” Manny was uncomfortable asking this, but the topic was kind of important. “Should we, you know, get some sort of protection when we go to Walmart?”
“We probably should.” She nodded. “Not that I don’t want to have kids someday, but we are really young. And we’re going to get a lot of flak for getting married without telling anyone.”
“True,” Manny said. “Okay, so that will be the number one thing on the top of our grocery list.”
Aloise giggled. “Have you ever bought any of them before?”
“Is that going to be weird?”
“Probably.” Manny laughed. “Maybe we should buy one of each kind and try them all out to see which kind we like best.”
“We can only buy twelve different kinds because we are totally going through the self-checkout lane.”
“Agreed!” Manny offered Aloise a high-five and then pushed himself off the couch. “Let me go find my birth certificate or we won’t have any need to shop at all."
“Go,” she said. “I’m going to paw through your underwear drawer and try on some of your T-shirts.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Manny said.
“Why? Do you have holes in your underwear?” She reached for his waistband, as if she was going to look down his pants.
“No, you can look through my underwear drawer all you want.” He pulled her into his arms and nuzzled her neck. “But if I see you in just my T-shirt, we’re not going to make it to the county clerk’s office before closing.”
“You know what I just realized?” She cocked her head to the side and Manny waited for her to answer her own rhetorical question. “We’ve never made out. We’ve kissed, like a couple of times but that’s it.”
“We made out by my Jeep last night,” Manny reminded her.
“For a couple of minutes.” She shrugged.
“I’m going to refer back to my comment about you not trying on my T-shirts,” he said. “Let’s wait until we have a marriage license in our hands and then we can make out all night if you want.”
“Okay, go talk to your mom.” She gently shoved him away and he smiled at her as he exited the room and closed the door behind him.
“I should be able to find the birth certificate pretty easily,” Aloise said, entering her parents’ master stateroom. Behind the bedroom door, under a non-descript desk, she opened a cabinet that looked like it would contain file folders. Instead it contained a safe. She turned a couple of dials to line up the way she wanted them and then pulled the handle, opening the safe. “Our most valuable documents.”
“Not having a permanent residence would make me uncomfortable,” Manny said, tucking his hands in the pockets of his slacks, watching her sift through files. “I like having a place to come home to.”
“I think I’m going to like that too.” From where she was crouched on the floor, Aloise looked up at Manny with a thoughtful expression.
“You take my breath away.” Manny’s heart raced gazing into her eyes. “I love your snark and humor and feistiness, but also, you really are beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “I don’t think women get told that often enough.”
“What do you mean?” Manny leaned against the wall of the stateroom and folded his arms across his chest.
“That we’re beautiful. Men are so afraid of offending us or not valuing us for our brains and personality that they forget we also want to be told that we’re desirable physically.”
“Trust me, I desire you physically.” He chuckled. Do I ever? “I’ll be sure to tell you every day how beautiful you are.”
“Good.” She turned back to her task, thumbing through files. “We’ll have a very happy marriage.”
“But… what if I don’t know how to be a husband, and you don’t know how to be a wife?” Manny asked, vulnerability seeping through his tough exterior. “What if we fail miserably and you hate me, and your parents sail off into the sunset and you regret staying with me?”
Aloise shrugged. “That’s a possibility. There are no guarantees in life.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“Tell you what”—she looked up at him again— “Let’s plan to succeed and we’re less likely to fail.”
“Okay.” He nodded and she went back to work.
Outside a car door slammed and then another. A man and a woman were talking but muffled. Aloise startled and pawed through the paperwork faster. “Go sit in the salon,” she hissed. “If they get in here before I find the certificate at least you weren’t alone with me in their bedroom.”
Manny slipped out the bedroom door and lounged on the bench seat, propping up his feet and holding his cell phone, scrolling through social media posts. He tried to appear bored. He willed Aloise to hurry. He didn’t want to meet her parents alone. Nor did he want to try to explain why she was in her parents’ stateroom.
He forced himself to maintain his composure as her parents traipsed down the stairs into the smaller salon near the galley. They dropped some bags on the table, talked to one another as they unloaded groceries, and didn’t seem to notice him. Granted he was up one small flight of steps but if he could see them, they could probably see him if they glanced his direction.
“Come on, Aloise, hurry up,” he mumbled under his breath, bouncing his knee. He forced himself to hold still. The longer they stayed in the galley, the more likely Aloise would be finished and leave their stateroom.
After several minutes, Aloise’s mother noticed Manny and he waved lightly. She said something to her husband and looked nervous as if she thought Manny was an intruder.
Manny stood and slid his hands into his pockets, attempting to look as sweet and innocent as he could. As they came up the stairs Manny said, “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Ashish, I’m a friend of your daughter, Aloise. My name’s Manny.” He reached out his hand, hoping one of them would reciprocate.
“I’m David, this is my wife, Shira.” David shook Manny’s hand. “Where is our daughter?”
Manny hesitated. “Uhh…” Just then the toilet flushed in their suite and Manny took that as his cue. “She needed to use the restroom. She must have eaten something that upset her stomach.” He wrinkled his nose, impressed with himself for coming up with that off the cuff.
A few clunks sounded from within the suite, right behind the door, and Manny suspected Aloise was quickly locking the safe. He hoped she’d had enough time to find the birth certificate.
Aloise opened the door to her parents’ suite and took a deep breath. “Sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me. Papá, I found your spray, but you might want to steer clear of su baño for a little while.”
“Are you feeling better?” Her mom came and held the back of her hand to Aloise’s forehead.
“Yeah, I think I must have eaten something that disagreed with my belly.” Aloise stepped over to Manny and wrapped her arm through his. “I see you met my new boyfriend.”
“¿Novio?” David raised his eyebrows. “He told us él era tu amigo. When did you meet? We’ve been at dock less than 24 hours.”
“He rescued me when I got lost on a back road and my car ran out of gas. It was love at first sight.” She exaggerated a sigh and blinked her eyes at Manny playfully.
“You’re too young to know what love is,” David grumbled.
“You and Mamá have been such great examples of a loving relación.” Aloise wrapped her arm around Shira’s shoulders. “I know I’m going to make a great wife someday.”
Today, Manny thought, coughing lightly.
“No te casarás ante su hermana,” David said. “You will have to wait to prove yourself a good wife.”
“That’s not fair, Papi,” Aloise whined. “Alondra’s not even looking for a husband. And I’ve found a maravilloso man who loves me and wants to marry me.”
“You’ve known him for less than a day.” David raised his eyebrows.
“Like she said”—Manny reached for Aloise’s free hand— “It was love at first sight.”
“When is it you think you’re going to get married?” Shira asked. “We’re only going to be docked a few weeks.”
“Today, if possible,” Aloise said, smiling over at Manny. He returned her smile.
“Absolutamente not,” David said. “Lo prohíbo!”
“Padre, I’m an adult,” Aloise said, her voice less placating to her daddy and more standing up for herself as the woman she was. Manny was impressed at how quickly she flipped that switch. “You can’t force me to do anything.”
“As long as you live under my security, you will do as I say.”
“Está bien, Padre.” She nodded.
“Good, I’m glad we got that settled.” David turned and stomped back down the stairs. “I’m going to finish putting the groceries away.”
“As of today,” Aloise called after him. “I will no longer be living under your security.” She raised her chin with confidence.
David turned slowly, a fire brewing behind his eyes. “You will be cut off.”
Manny squeezed her hand to give her reassurance that she will never be destitute.
“I am aware of that.”
“I will take care of her, Mr. Ashish.” Manny tried to keep his voice respectful but confident.
“You are just a little boy yourself.” David started back up the stairs, his stance offensive.
Manny gulped and fought the urge to take a step backward, keenly aware that David was in between them and the door leading out of the yacht. He spoke very quietly out of the side of his mouth, hoping only Aloise would hear him. “Did you get what you need?”
“Yes,” she said.
Manny sighed in relief. “You ready to leave?”
“Glad to have met you, Mrs. Ashish,” Manny said, nodding respectfully to Shira. “I’m sorry we have to leave on such unfortunate terms.”
“You are not taking my daughter anywhere,” David commanded with a growl.
“You’re right, Padre,” Aloise said. “I’m leaving on my own accord.”
Aloise pushed past her father, dragging Manny by the hand.
David reached out and grabbed Manny, shoving him up against the wall. “You will not be taking my daughter.”
“Please remove your hands from me, sir.” Manny maintained firm composure, looking David in the eye. “You are on American soil now, and I have rights.”
“And I have a shotgun,” David said with a sneer.
“David, you can’t be serious,” Shira said. “Let go of that young man.”
David cocked his head to the side, finally looking more closely at Manny. “¿Quién eres?” He let up a bit and Manny shook him off, lifting his chin confidently.
“I think you already know who I am… don’t you?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Which of the little thieves is your father?”
“You’re a smart man, David. You tell me.”
David took a step back and looked Manny up and down. “Too old to be Joseph’s kid. Too young to be from Nicholas. Sam? Or Jacob?”
“You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting that right.” Manny didn’t give in.
“Padre, what do you have against the Cohens anyway? What did they ever do to you?”
David turned to look at his daughter, his hard expression unchanged. “They stole money from my business partner, dragged all of us across the globe because Nicholas murdered a man, and their holier-than-thou attitude was stifling.”
“M—murdered?” Manny faltered. Nicholas Cohen? The man everyone idolized? The philanthropy-minded man who gave to others and helped out the less-fortunate? “Uncle Nick could never murder anyone.”
“Maybe you should ask your daddy about that.”
“Maybe I will,” Manny said. “But first we need to deal with a more time-sensitive topic. I’m going to marry your daughter this afternoon.”
“Over my dead body,” David said.
“I only shoot deer, pheasants and rabbits.” Manny said, pursing his lips. “So that is not an acceptable scenario.”
“What are you hoping I’ll say right now? No te estoy dando mi permiso!”
“I’m not asking you for your permission.”
“What are you asking for?”
“I’d very much like for you to not disown your daughter,” Manny said. “She loves you, and respects you, and wants you to support her decision.”
“I will not condone that!”
“For what reason? Because I’m Jacob Cohen’s son? Because her older sister isn’t married yet?” Manny shook his head in frustration. “Those are stupid reasons not to support your daughter.”
“You met her yesterday.” David moved right up in Manny’s face again. “You don’t even know her. What’s her middle name? What’s her favorite food? When’s her birthday?”
“Those are things I will learn as we get to know each other,” Manny reasoned.
“You’re not in love with her.”
“Love grows over time,” Manny said.
“Then get to know her over time,” David said, stepping back. “There is no hurry to get married.”
“Valid point, sir. But are you, or are you not, planning to sail this boat out of this harbor and leave forever?” Manny pointed his finger in the direction of the vast expanse of water of Lake Huron.
“I could sail out of here today and you couldn’t stop me.”
“Which is one of the reasons we need to get married.”
“Are you threatening to kidnap my daughter?”
“Are you threatening to kidnap my wife?”
“She is not your wife. She is most certainly my daughter.”
“She will be in a few hours,” Manny said.
“Young lady”—David turned toward Aloise— “As long as you live under my roof, you will do as I say.”
“And as long as she lives under my roof, she will be protected.”
“Lo siento, Papi, but this is a choice I’m making for myself.” Aloise tugged gently on Manny’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Manny stepped around David and followed Aloise down the stairs. She stopped at her stateroom and reached inside for her phone charger and a small backpack that must have contained everything she thought she was going to need because she didn’t even open it to check what was inside.
“I’ll come back for the rest of my stuff tomorrow,” she said. They ascended the ladder near the galley and walked down the deck and off the boarding ladder. The dock was sturdy but had a little give as they hurried toward the parking lot and climbed into Manny’s Jeep.
“Are you sure you’re making the right decision?” Manny asked, lifting her hand and kissing the back.
“I’m positive.” She pulled the birth certificate out of her pocket and held it up with a smile. “Let’s go find yours.”
Manny had trouble waking up the next morning after staying up half the night texting back and forth with Aloise. As they’d planned, he picked her up in his Jeep at nine o’clock and took her to brunch at his favorite diner in town. The parking lot just happened to share space with the county building. When they left the restaurant, instead of making a beeline for his truck, he led her down the sidewalk.
“Oh look,” Manny said, turning around to grin at Aloise. “We’re at the county building. We should go inside and apply for a marriage license.”
“Ooh, can we?” Aloise probably thought he was teasing, but he led her up the stairs of the building. “That would teach my parents to try to deny me the right to get married until after my lazy sister gets her act together and finds a husband.”
“Way to show them who’s boss.” He opened the main doors and they held hands as they walked down the hall to the clerk’s office. Butterflies leapt in his stomach as he stepped up to the counter, wondering if she’d actually go through with this. He lifted his chin and spoke with false confidence. “We’d like to apply for a marriage license.”
“Are you over eighteen?” The lady at the counter raised her eyebrows.
“I know I have a baby face, but yes, I’m nineteen.” He knew why the clerk didn’t question Aloise. She looked like a woman. Did she ever.
“And you really want to get married at nineteen?” This time the lady looked over at Aloise.
“I’m twenty.” Aloise shrugged.
The lady glanced back and forth between the two of them with pursed lips. Manny envisioned his grandma looking down her nose through her spectacles, questioning whether he needed a chocolate chip cookie an hour before dinner. He felt like answering her that yes, he would very much like a chocolate chip cookie… before dinner if possible.
“Is there an application or something we need to fill out?” he asked.
Without saying another word, but without giving up her disapproving facial expression, she handed them a paper application. Manny hauled out his driver’s license and realized they may have a problem.
Manny turned to Aloise and spoke out of the side of his mouth, “Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Uh… from Mexico. Plus, my passport, does that count?”
“We need to see a certified copy of both of your birth certificates,” the lady said, almost with a satisfied smirk. Manny tucked his wallet back in his pocket, feeling all was lost.
“I’m pretty sure my parents have that in the safe on the yacht.” Aloise shrugged.
“Really?” Manny couldn’t help his jaw drop. “Your parents keep your birth certificate on your yacht?”
“Where else are they going to keep it?” she asked. “We pretty much live on the yacht.”
“Do you want to go get it out of the safe?” Manny asked. This was feeling real. Was she really willing to marry him, just like that?
“Sure,” Aloise said. “Do we need to go to your house to get yours too?”
“Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.” Manny turned to the lady at the counter. “We’ll be back in a few hours.” He grabbed the application in one hand and Aloise’s hand in his other and pulled her from the room.
“This is exciting,” she said, bouncing along beside him like a little girl at Christmas.
He stopped right there in the hallway in the county building and pulled her close, looking deeply into her eyes. “Are you really serious about this? Would you really marry me?”
“Yeah, I’m serious,” she said. “I want to be with you, and if this is the only way for us to be together, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. They can’t force me to leave with them if I’m legally married to you, right?”
“They can’t force you to leave even if you’re not married… right?” He raised his eyebrows.
“You don’t know my father,” she said, a panic filling her voice. “He would cut me off, tell me I was dead to him, leave me destitute without a job or any money.”
“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Manny said. “You could stay with me and my family. We would take care of you. You wouldn’t be alone.”
“Then marry me, Emanuel Cohen,” she said. “That would be torture to live with you and not be able to, you know, sleep together.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’d want that either.” Manny slowly pressed his lips to hers and she wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him to her. They pulled away from each other and his hoarse whisper was barely audible. “Let’s go get our birth certificates.”
The Alpena Yacht Club sat at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River on the shores of Lake Huron. The marina boasted dozens of boat slips and was a popular summer destination for tourists.
Manny pulled to the side of the road on Harbor Drive, letting Aloise lead the way through the parking lot to her parents’ boat slip. They parked beside the largest, most elegant sailing yacht in the marina. Aloise wasn’t lying that her parents were wealthy. He climbed down from his Jeep and clicked the key fob to lock his truck just as she closed her car door and came around the front. Manny boldly took her hand and they made their way down the dock.
The sailboat was well-lit and inviting but Manny had butterflies in his stomach at the prospect of meeting her parents. If his own father had such a negative response meeting Aloise, Manny wondered how her parents would react to meeting him.
Aloise led Manny up the boarding ladder, and along the deck to a set of teakwood doors that opened to the lower deck. “Have you been on a sailing yacht before?”
“My grandparents on my mom’s side have a yacht, but it’s not a sailboat,” Manny said. “This is so… slim.”
“Is that your way of saying it’s small?” Aloise laughed and poked him in the side.
“I get it, your yacht’s bigger than my yacht, whatever. Grab that handrail and come down. Let’s see if we can find mis parientes.”
The steps down to the salon were not as steep as he was expecting, and the galley was spacious with a larger refrigerator than he had in his kitchen back home. He leaned against the stainless-steel monstrosity and folded his arms. “Your refrigerator is bigger than mine. Does that count for anything?”
“What counts more than size is that there are no dead animals living in mi refri,” she said with a satisfied grin.
“I don’t have any dead animals living in my refrigerator either.” He couldn’t help poking fun at her.
“You knew what I meant, mister hunter-for-life.” Aloise stepped closer and placed her hand on Manny’s chest, nearly close enough that he could kiss her. Tempting but not the way he wanted her father to find them the first time they met. “Come on, I’ll show you my state room.”
She opened another elegantly carved door and displayed a queen-sized bed tucked into a space just large enough… for a queen-sized bed. There were plenty of stowage cabinets, a deck prism to let light in, and a television mounted in one corner.
“Roomy,” Manny said, biting his lips and fighting not to make any more comments about the size of her living conditions. He leaned closer and whispered, “When we get married, we’re living at my house.”
“Deal,” she said. She turned off the light in her state room and closed the door. “Over here is el baño I share with mi hermana. Yes, it may be small, but we have vacuflush toilets, a full shower, high end fixtures and Corian countertops.”
“I’m not in the market for a yacht, my dear,” Manny said. He stepped entirely within the shower and raised his eyebrows. “I don’t think we’d both fit in here together.”
“Oh my gosh, stop. You are going to get me in so much trouble if mis parientes hear you talking that way.” She pulled him by the arm and dragged him back out of the shower. She walked further toward the front of the boat. “Down there are crew cabins and the engine room.” She tapped on a door that looked like any other door but apparently led to a lower deck.
Ascending a short set of stairs brought them into another spacious salon where a twenty-two-year-old version of Aloise sat with a television remote in one hand and her smart phone in the other. She glanced up and didn’t react to her younger sister leading a man up the stairs. She looked bored.
“Alondra, Manny. Manny, Alondra.” Aloise continued through the salon pulling him with her to the master state room which boasted a king-sized bed, more head room than most of the boat, multiple deck prisms, and another full bathroom. Aloise turned around and called back to her sister. “¿Dónde están mamá y papá?”
“Ya se fueron a un hotel en el centro,” Alondra called back.
Aloise kept ahold of Manny’s hand and led him back to the salon. “Por qué?”
“Why do you think?” Alondra said, still staring at her phone. “They’ve been stuck on a boat with two adult daughters for three weeks. You’d get a hotel room too.”
Manny squeezed her hand and wiggled his eyebrows at Aloise. They wouldn’t need a hotel room. They could just lock the door to his wing of the house. Not that his parents ever ventured down to his rooms anyway. Should they choose, they’d have plenty of privacy.
“¿Quién es el guapo?” Alondra asked Aloise but her gaze rested on Manny. He knew just enough Spanish to understand Alondra thought he was hot. He raised his eyebrows and couldn’t hide a grin.
“This is my future husband,” Aloise said, wrapping one arm around his back and placing her hand on his chest. “Emanuel Cohen.”
Alondra dropped the remote and sat forward, glaring across the table at him. “Uh, no. Papa would never allow you to marry a Cohen.”
“How do you know about the Cohen family?” Aloise asked, her face alight. “Have you ever met any of them?” She scooted into the bench seat across the table from her sister and pulled Manny with her.
Alondra extended her hand to Manny. “Hola, soy Alondra.” He met her halfway and shook her hand. Alondra turned to her sister with a smirk. “Now, I have met a Cohen.”
“But how do you know of them? Papa’s business partner was Liam Cohen, right?”
“Sounds like you know almost as much as I do.” Alondra cocked her head to the side. “Don’t you remember stories of how the younger Cohen hermanos stole the wealth from the oldest brothers after their father and our grandfather died?”
“Our grandfather knew the Cohen’s also?” Aloise asked.
“Yeah, Papa’s sisters married the Cohen brothers and they all got really mad when their parientes dragged them across the world on yachts. Apparently, they wanted to stay in the Middle-East.”
“Wait, which Cohen brothers married your father’s sisters?” Manny scratched his head. “My mother was an only child.”
“Yeah, I think the two youngest hermanos married outside la familia.”
“Phew, we’re not related.” Manny held up their adjoined hands and kissed the back of Aloise’s hand.
“Good thing too because I’m going to marry you.” Aloise turned to her sister with a smug grin. “He proposed earlier this evening.”
“True story,” Manny said.
“We’ve been at dock less than a day,” Alondra said. “Exactly when did you meet?”
Aloise glanced at her phone. “About two hours ago.”
“A little less than that, actually.” Manny held up his wristwatch.
“And you’re already engaged?” Alondra raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, and I’ve seen him without his clothes on too.” Aloise lifted her chin.
Manny coughed to cover up laughter. “Oh please, I only had my pants off for a minute.”
“A minute was all I needed,” Aloise purred, obviously trying to get a rise out of her sister.
“If it only took you a minute, you’re not doing it right.” Alondra turned accusing eyes on Manny. “Maybe you need some educación.”
“I’ve known how to change my clothes when I spill something on them since I was in about preschool,” Manny teased right back. “Believe me, if I wanted to do anything other than change into clean pants, I’m sure I could last longer than a minute.”
“Apuesto a que podrías,” Alondra said with a deep, husky voice, pursing her lips.
“Okay, I am officially jealous now and you are not stealing my fiancé,” Aloise said, pushing Manny out of the booth seat. “Come on, let’s get away from mi hermana before she personally tries to remove your clothing for you.”
“Nice to meet you, Alondra,” Manny said, allowing Aloise to take his hand and lead him away from the salon.
“Come back anytime, Emanuel Cohen,” Alondra called. She had the television turned back on before Aloise and Manny got down the stairs.
They headed back to Aloise’s state room where she opened the door and crawled onto her queen-sized bed, patting the bed beside her.
“You do move fast, woman.” Manny climbed in beside her and lay down, tucking his hands behind his head and relishing the scent of her pillow. “Engaged and sleeping together within two hours’ from meeting?”
“No me acuesto contigo until we’re married,” Aloise said, laying down next to him but propping herself on one elbow.
“Too bad the county clerk’s office isn’t open tonight,” Manny said. He pulled out his cell phone and noted the time. Ten o’clock. “We have about eleven hours to wait.”
“We’d better dormirnos bien tonight because by tomorrow at this time we won’t want to sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep now.” Manny’s voice had lowered to a husky and seductive purr. He held her gaze and could tell she was considering leaning down to kiss him.
Removing both hands from behind his head, Manny reached out and gently cradled her face in his hands, drawing her close to him. He met her halfway and they pressed their lips to each other’s. Best first kiss ever. She lay half on top of him and he wrapped his arms around her.
“Ahem,” Alondra said from the doorway. Manny and Aloise pulled apart sheepishly. “It’s time for tu amorcito to go home now.”
“Fine.” Aloise slumped into Manny’s arms and he held her for a few more seconds before kissing the top of her head and pushing her gently from on top of him.
“I’ll text you when I get home,” Manny said. “And I’ll come see you first thing in the morning. Maybe your parents will be back by then.”
“I doubt it,” Alondra said, folding her arms across her chest. “They’ll probably be in their cuarto at the hotel for two or three days.”
“Well good,” Aloise said, squeezing Manny’s hand. “We can spend all day together mañana.”
“Sounds good to me.” He planted one more quick kiss on her lips and scooted to the edge of the bed, using one of the many handrails to lift himself to stand beside Alondra then reached down to help Aloise out of her bunk. “Walk me to my car?”
“Definitivamente.” Aloise led him back the way they’d come in and up the dock to the parking lot.
Manny gently pushed Aloise against his Jeep, lacing his fingers into her hair at the nape of her neck and kissed her for several minutes. When he finally broke away, he whispered, “If I’d known kissing you would feel this amazing, I would have kissed you hours ago.”
“I’ll see you por la mañana, Romeo,” Aloise said.
“Bright and early, Juliet.” Manny kissed her one more time then opened the door to his Jeep and climbed inside. He watched her walk safely back to her yacht, then reversed out of his parking spot and sped from the lot, knowing the faster he got home the faster he could send her a text and continue their flirty conversation late into the night.
“I can’t believe it was this simple to get back out of the forest,” Aloise said. “I was, like, twenty minutes from town.”
“Seventeen, actually,” Manny said, slowing down to pull into the gas station.
“It only takes seventeen minutes for me to go from my driveway to downtown Alpena.” He parked near a gas pump and hopped down from his Jeep, grabbing the gas can from the bed of the truck and setting it on the pavement. Swiping his own credit card at the pump, he had the gas can half full before Aloise even slid down from the cab and made her way around to his side.
“Qué estás haciendo?” She put her hands on her hips, momentarily distracting him. The can reached its fill line and overflowed while he stared at her slim waist and perfectly manicured hands.
“Whoa!” Manny jumped back to avoid getting splashed and hurried to stop the flow from the nozzle. “Apparently single-handedly destroying the environment. That’s what I’m doing.”
“I should be paying for that,” she said. “It’s my car we’re filling with gas.”
“True, but dare I remind you that I’m far wealthier than you’ll ever be unless you agree to marry me.” Manny replaced the nozzle into the holder on the pump and crouched down to screw the fuel cap into place.
“You haven’t exactly asked me to marry you.” Her playful comment sent shivers up his spine.
Without second-guessing his idiocy, and because he was already crouched at her feet, Manny lowered to one knee and reached for her hand. “My dearest Aloise, deny thy father and refuse thy name. But if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and you will no longer be an Ashish.”
“That’s Juliet’s line,” Aloise said. “Besides in all my childhood fantasies about the day my future husband proposed to me, never did I imagine he would propose at a gas station, kneeling in a puddle of gasoline.”
“But will you marry me anyway?” Manny squeezed her hand and grinned up at her.
“Quizás,” she said, pulling her hand away. “Now, come on, you have to come meet my father before I can decide.”
“Ooh, that’s right. What was I thinking?” Manny lifted off his knee, which now had a growing ring of unleaded gasoline soaking his knee cap. He’d probably have to throw these jeans away. That stain would never come out. “I have to ask your father’s permission before I can propose. Probably should change my clothes first. I’d hate to meet your father covered in gasoline.”
“I think I have a pair of sweats in my gym bag in the back seat of my Jeep.” Manny lifted the gas can back into the bed of his truck and brushed his hands on his now-ruined jeans. “Let’s go get your car.”
They headed back into the woods, which were now dark and foreboding. Being out here by herself at night would have been terrifying. He was glad Aloise found him when she did. He pulled up behind her car and pointed his headlights, so they shone like a spotlight.
Quickly sliding down from the cab, he lifted the gas can from the bed of his truck and hurried over to empty the can into her vehicle before she could protest. He wanted to take care of her. Not that she was a damsel in distress. Okay, she was indeed a damsel in distress and Manny liked the way he felt rescuing her.
Aloise didn’t argue and headed over to her car to start the ignition. With a little encouragement the rental vehicle purred to life. She lowered the window and called out to him, “I’ll follow you.”
“I gotta change my pants first,” Manny said, unbuttoning his jeans while walking back toward his truck.
“Are we heading back to your house?” She looked over her shoulder.
“No, I’m going to change right here by my truck.” He smirked and unzipped his jeans, toying with her.
“You’re going to take off your pants in the middle of the woods?” She glanced around as if nervous he’d make a spectacle of himself.
“You’re the only one out here to see me, babe. You can watch if you want to.”
“Muy divertido.” She faced forward and pursed her lips, raising her chin in defiance. He walked backward toward his truck waiting for her to peek out the sideview mirror, which she did. He grinned at her and raised his eyebrows then turned to finish his short trek.
Without any further teasing, Manny opened his back door and reached for his gym bag. Keeping the door open to provide some privacy, he slipped off his sneakers and removed his gasoline-soaked jeans, tossing them into the bed of his truck. His jogging pants matched his hooded sweatshirt and he didn’t feel uncomfortable heading to town in mismatched clothes.
He climbed into the Jeep and pulled forward, so his truck was perpendicular to her car. He rolled down the passenger side window and leaned over to razz her a little more. “Boxers or briefs?”
“I was not watching you change your pants,” she insisted. “Now show me the way out of this terrifying forest before I have a panic attack.”
Manny chuckled at her reaction, rolled up his window and let his foot off the brake, leading the way out of the Thunder Bay State Forest.
“These should be a good place to start,” Manny said, pulling one of his father’s many journals from the perfectly organized shelves. The one he’d chosen was clearly labeled Cohen Family Genealogy. He glanced over his shoulder at the open library door, knowing if his dad walked into the great room, he would see them. Manny took Aloise’s hand and brought her and the book to the far end of the library, out of sight of the doorway.
Page one had a narrative explaining the various sections and charts. He decided to start with his father and work his way back. Jacob Cohen was the second youngest of Levi Cohen’s six sons.
“Es él,” Aloise said, pointing to the name of the oldest son. “Liam Cohen. He was my father’s business partner.”
“And your father’s name is not on this chart anywhere?” Manny asked, relieved excitement in his chest.
“Nope.” Aloise grinned and lifted her eyebrows seductively. “No estamos relacionados.”
“But what happened that caused my father to hate your father so much that he would forbid me to see you?”
“That is a mystery,” Aloise said playfully. “I think we need to play amateur detective and see what we can find out. We have successfully found our first clue. ¿Qué sigue?”
“Let’s take my Jeep into town, fill a gas can, bring it back to your car, then you can follow me back out of the woods—wouldn’t want you getting lost again—and we’ll go talk to your dad. Maybe he can shed some light on the situation.”
“What if he acts the same way your padre did?”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t.” Manny paused, noting the worry lines on her forehead. “Is he a violent man?”
“No.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I mean, not really. More…controlling, old-fashioned, insistent, overbearing.”
“Were you kidding about him not letting you date until after your sister marries?” he asked softly.
“Not kidding.” Aloise shook her head and widened her eyes. “They control everything we do. And living all together on a yacht, we can’t sneak anything past them. That’s why I had to leave when we docked. I took one of the rental cars and just drove. Told them I was going shopping and exploring.”
“Did you ever make it to the shopping before you got lost?”
“Nah, I didn’t really want to shop. I just wanted to get away from them. Plus, I think they wanted to get away from us too.”
“Mi hermana, Alondra.”
“Right. Your sister. And you all live together on the yacht?”
“Yep!” She popped her ‘p’ with exaggeration. “Tight quarters.”
“I would hate that,” Manny said, glancing out one of the many windows cut into the walls of the library. Every room in the house had more windows than should physically fit. The effect was the feeling of living in nature.
“I want to be free,” Aloise whispered, her eyes drawn in the same direction as his. “Not just free of the tight quarters, but free of my parents’ oppressive control, free of the constant travelling, free to start a life, to put down roots.”
“You could come live here,” Manny said, only half joking. “You could marry me and live happily in this beautiful forest.”
“It is a beautiful forest.” She didn’t argue, but she didn’t acknowledge his suggestion either.
“Come on. Let’s go rescue your car.” On their way out of the library, he slipped the genealogy journal back on the shelf and snuck out into the great room. Skirting the kitchen to avoid his father, they took the long way around to the garage.
“That is your Jeep?” Aloise stopped short. “I was picturing a little sporty thing with roll bars and open sides.”
“This, my dear, is the all-terrain Jeep Gladiator North,” Manny proudly opened the passenger door and offered his hand to help her up. “It’s designed for slogging through feet of snow like we have here in Northern Michigan. I live in the middle of a forest, remember? A person could get lost around here if they’re not properly equipped.”
“Don’t I know it,” she grumbled, placing one hand in his and reaching up for the assist handle above the door. Manny put his hand on her lower back as she lifted herself up into the giant truck.
He waited for her to get settled then closed the door and walked around back, clicking the remote to open the garage door and smiling at his vanity license plate that read HNTR4LFE. He thought it was clever. He loaded a small gas can into the bed of his truck and opened the driver’s side door.
“Comfortable?” he asked when he was seated. As he pulled his seatbelt around and clicked it into place, he noticed she wasn’t wearing hers. He unbuckled himself and reached all the way over—his face drawing tantalizingly close to hers—and pulled her belt around. Reaching down beside her leg he found the latch and clicked her belt into place. He whispered in a husky voice, “Wearing seatbelts is the law in Michigan.”
“I never knew seatbelts could be so… caliente.” Aloise was breathing heavy.
“I never knew having a woman in my Jeep could be so hot either.” His face was still very close to hers.
“Have you had many women in your Jeep?”
“Not unless you count that doe I shot last year, but she stayed in the bed of the truck.”
“You had a woman in your bed?” Her whisper was practically a breath. Two inches closer and he could have kissed her.
“Never,” Manny said. “Yet…”
For another few seconds, he held her gaze then sat back and reached again to click his belt back in place. He started the Jeep and it roared to life and he backed out of the garage.
“After we find my dad, I need to get out of these hunting clothes, and then I can take you back to your family. Maybe they’ll give us some better answers into our obviously-connected pasts.” Manny lead the way into the house.
“Wow…” Aloise followed Manny into the main entrance, her gaze in awe of the incredible home his father had commissioned. Cathedral ceilings supported by walls of old pine logs towered above the great room. Colors reflecting through a wall of sporadically placed panes of stained glass gave the appearance of sunlight shimmering through a canopy of trees. The whole effect captured the feeling of walking through a forest.
“It still has that effect on me sometimes too,” Manny said, reverently. When his parents had decided to settle here in northern lower Michigan, they’d chosen acres of land surrounded by forests as different as possible from the arid desert where his father, Jacob had been raised.
They’d also built a home ten times larger than was needed. Jacob was one of six brothers, three of whom had married sisters from the same family. In some epic family feud, the two oldest brothers had splintered from the family and the three younger brothers had settled in Central and North America. They didn’t get together often, but Manny knew he had family in Cancun and Texas. This house had been built large enough for family to visit, should they ever choose to travel this far north.
Manny had gradually taken over a whole wing of the house, first with hunting equipment and mounted trophies, then moving his game room and computers over there, then creating a soundproof room where he could record himself singing, then eventually moving his bed to that end of the house.
Although he usually had meals with his mom and dad, he had a full kitchen in his wing which he mostly used for its refrigerator, although he had started experimenting with wild game recipes. He’d shoot a pheasant or goose, find some exotic recipe, and send one of his father’s staff off to find the ingredients. One of the cleaning ladies always cleaned up after him.
“Father,” Manny called out loud enough to be heard from any wing of the stately home. “Where are you?”
“No need to yell, son, I’m right here.” Jacob Cohen came around the corner from the kitchen to the foyer, drying his hands on a dishtowel. He stopped and cocked his head to the side. “You have company. I didn’t even realize you had a girlfriend.” Dad raised his eyebrows at our joined hands.
Manny dropped Aloise’s hand and stepped away. No reason to get his hopes up if she was a cousin or something. “I don’t.”
“I got lost and ran out of gas near his hunting shack, and your son was gracious enough to offer me a ride into town to fill a gas can.”
“I raised him to be a gentleman.” Jacob came forward to pat Manny on the back then held out his hand to Aloise. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…”
“My name is Aloise Ashish.”
Jacob took a step back and his jaw dropped. “You look just like your mother.”
“How do you know mi madre?” Aloise’s eyes lit up anticipation.
“Shira is married to David.” Jacob said his name as if it were vinegar in his mouth.
“Sí, they’re my parents. But how do you know them?”
“Son”—Jacob turned to Manny— “Help this young lady fill her gas tank, show her the way out of our woods, and get as far away from her as you can. I forbid you to see her again.”
“But father…” Manny watched his dad turn on his heels and walk from the room. He turned to Aloise. “Um… what just happened?”
“Obviously your family hates my family.” Aloise pulled her thick, long hair into a messy bun and wound a band around it. Manny was momentarily distracted but reminded himself to stay on task. He needed to get changed and take her into town.
His father had given them no details as to why they were forbidden to see each other or how their families were related. He gently took her hand again, hoping they weren’t cousins. “Come on, let’s go get my clothes changed and maybe we can figure this out.”
“What did you say your last name is?” Aloise stumbled along beside him, her sandals no more practical indoors than in the woods. He wondered if there was a surface upon which they would be practical. A photo shoot, maybe, where she didn’t have to walk.
“Cohen,” Manny said. “Does that sound familiar? Your last name definitely sounds familiar, but I don’t know where to place it.”
Aloise stopped short. “My dad’s former business partner was named Cohen.”
“Great, at least we found a connection.” Manny glanced down at their intertwined hands. “Hopefully, business partner is as close of a familial relationship as it gets or I’m going to be really bummed out that I can’t date you.” His voice lowered and she giggled.
“Your father just said you were forbidden to see me.”
“Do you always do everything your father says?” Manny released her hand and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close enough he could have kissed her if he were brave enough. She gulped.
“If I want access to my credit cards, I do,” Aloise whispered.
“Ooh, she’s saying ‘I do’ and I haven’t even proposed yet.” He could feel her body close against his and knew he needed to stop this line of thinking before taking her into his bedroom. Manny had never taken advantage of a woman before and didn’t intend to start now, but he’d never been in the arms of a woman so tempting before. “Come on, after I change, we’ll sneak down to my dad’s library and see if we can find his genealogy charts. Maybe we can figure something out.”
Manny reluctantly dropped his arm from around her waist but took her hand in his again, intertwining her fingers and leading her down the hall to his wing of the house. There was almost a physical difference in the look and feel as the hallway ended and opened into the east wing. Similar to the main entrance, Manny had a great room with cathedral ceilings and random tiles of stained glass but unlike the main house, this room was decorated in antlers. His trophy room. He watched her reaction as she marveled.
“What do you think?” His reverent voice combined pride with nervousness. Either she was going to hate his passion for hunting or love it.
“¿Mataste personalmente a todos estos animales?” She hated it.
“Are you afraid of me now that you know I’m a murderer?” He pulled her close again and wiggled his eyebrows, hoping to seem dangerous and exciting but realizing his baby face probably gave him away.
“I was already afraid of you, and yet still followed you down a dark path into the unknown woods,” she said, her eyes just as smoldering as he hoped his were. The difference between his youthfulness and her elegance almost gave him an inferiority complex. Showing her his hunting prowess was an inadvertent way to prove his manhood. “You could have been leading me to a cabin in the woods where you’d rape and murder me.”
“In a manner of speaking, this is a rather large cabin in the woods,” he whispered, allowing his eyes to travel down to her toes and slowly caress every curve of her slim frame before meeting her gaze again. He nodded his head to the side. “On the other side of that door is my bedroom. I could easily overpower you. And I always keep a hunting knife beside my bed.”
“And yet the fact that you were singing showtunes from Phantom of the Opera and let that deer run away without shooting her leads me to believe that you’re more harmless than you let on.” She didn’t pull away.
“If I remember the story correctly, the Phantom kidnapped Christine and took her to his dungeon lair where he seduced her.” Manny gave her back a gentle squeeze pulling her even closer.
“And once he realized he loved her, he set her free.” She raised her eyebrows, winning the argument.
“Remind me not to fall in love with you,” Manny said, squeezing one more time before releasing her from his arms. He stepped away and called over his shoulder as he walked toward his bedroom. “Make yourself comfortable. I’m going to change my clothes. There are cold beverages in the refrigerator.” He nodded his head in the direction of the little kitchen and slipped from the room.
Chapter One – Found Someone
“Aren’t you kinda scaring away the deer?” a snarky female voice called up to Emanuel Cohen, perched ten feet up the trunk of a tree on the platform of his hunting blind.
As if to prove her wrong, a doe that had been feeding in the fallow corn field nearby raised her head, stilled for a moment, terror in her eyes, then darted into the woods to the north.
Manny hadn’t even bothered to lift his top-end Hoyt Turbo compound bow, while watching her eat the past ten minutes because he knew the doe’s fawn was resting nearby. Besides, he was holding out for the buck he’d seen two weeks ago on his trail cam. The majestic creature sported an eight-point rack that would hang beautifully in his personal study. His favorite room in their stately home built on the outermost wing overlooking the Thunder Bay State Forest.
“My singing doesn’t usually bother anyone this far away from the middle of nowhere,” Manny called down to her.
“Yeah, well, I’m lost, and I was hoping to find someone who could lead me back to Alpena.”
“Found someone, you did,” he said in his best Yoda impression, collecting his belongings and preparing to descend the makeshift ladder made of two-by-fours nailed into the side of the giant red oak.
“Thank you, Jedi Master.” Her sarcasm was even more adorable knowing she’d understood the reference.
“Ooh, she’s calling me Master and I don’t even know her name yet.” Manny hopped off the last rung and onto the soft ground, his Danner Pronghorn waterproof boots sinking slightly in the marshy soil. He clipped his bow onto its shoulder sling and started toward the road.
Even from twenty feet away he could see her shiver. Her lightweight blouse may have been perfect for the afternoon sun, but the evening was cooling off.
“Don’t you have a jacket or sweatshirt?” he asked.
“I wasn’t planning on being away from the boat this long,” she said. “I just wanted to escape my parent’s eagle eyes for a few hours and took one wrong turn after another on the way back until I wound up here, in the middle of a forest.” She spread her arms wide, the shimmering fabric floating down like butterfly wings.
“Quite literally in the middle of a forest,” Manny said. He removed his hunting vest and sling, carefully resting his compound bow—his most prized possession—in the tall grasses beside the gravel road, and unzipped his parka. Slipping it off his shoulders, he tsked and shook his head. “I hate to do this because you look beautiful—probably too old for me—but still.”
He draped the lightweight camo jacket over her shoulders as she scoffed. “I’m only twenty. I’m hardly too old. Suenas como mi Papa..”
“Wow, in all my nineteen years I’ve never had a hot older woman compare me to her father. I’m thoroughly insulted.”
“What’s insulting is that you keep calling me old.” She snuggled into his parka and breathed what could only be called a sigh of relief. Then she did something unexpected. She lifted the collar and inhaled a long breath. “Hueles muy bien.”
“I have never wanted to be a jacket so badly in my entire life,” Manny said.
“All nineteen years of it?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Never mind.” She stuck out her hand, pulling the too-long sleeve up over her wrist. “I’m Aloise.”
He took her hand in his and didn’t let go. “Your hands are freezing, Aloise.” Manny lifted her other hand and rubbed them between his, moving a step closer. She didn’t resist. “Isn’t the heater in your car working?”
“I ran out of gas.” Her shoulders slumped.
“This is the luckiest day of my life.” Manny finally looked more closely at her face, drinking in the deep brown eyes and olive toned skin. “What are the odds that the not-so-old woman of my dreams would just happen to run out of gas a few feet from my hunting blind in the middle of a forest?”
“And what are the odds that the best smelling nineteen-year-old guy would just happen to be a few feet off the beaten path right at the spot where my car would run out of gas, singing loud enough for me to hear him from the road in the middle of a forest in—what state am I stuck in?”
“Michigan.” Manny’s word was almost a breath.
“Michigan’s beautiful,” Aloise whispered.
“You flatter me,” —she stopped and creased her brow. “What’s your name?”
“I’m lost, Manny,” Aloise whispered.
“I would love to help you find yourself.”
Chapter Two – We’ve Got to Be Related
“See that trail to my right?” Manny nodded his head in that direction and Aloise looked over his shoulder. “At the other end of that trail is my father’s home. If you go with me, I will change into something that may or may not smell as good as my camo, but will be far more appropriate to drive you into town, and we will purchase a can of gas for your car.”
“You want me to follow you down a dark trail into the woods?” She raised her eyebrows.
“It’s not far, I promise,” Manny told her. “Do you have a better idea?”
Her shoulders slumped. “No.”
“Don’t worry, I have my bow.” Manny held up his compound. “I can fend off all the scary bucks and does. But you gotta watch out for those fawns. They’re vicious.”
“Very funny,” she said. “I was more worried about following a guy I don’t know into the woods when no one in the world has a clue where I’m located, and my cell phone gets zero reception out here en medio de la nada.”
“You are not in the middle of nowhere,” Manny said. “You are surrounded by the Thunder Bay State Forest to the south, my neighbor’s prime hunting ground to the east, and my father owns pretty much everything else.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.” She cringed.
“You’re fine.” He indicated she should follow. “It’s easier to keep a low profile this way.” She didn’t ask what he meant by that and he didn’t offer. She’d find out soon enough when they emerged into the clearing and his father’s home came into view.
She followed close enough behind him to grip the back of his vest as she tripped along the uneven path. The trek took less than ten minutes, but she wasn’t wearing hiking boots. She stumbled along in elegant sandals that probably cost a fortune.
“What are you doing here, anyway? You mentioned a boat.”
“My Papa owns a sailing yacht and he thought it would be fun to sail up through the Great Lakes. Since he controls everything I have, including my unlimited credit limit, I am compelled to come along. Besides, I really like my mamá, even though she refuses to let me marry until my older sister finds a husband first.”
“Well, we must provide for her a suitable selection,” Manny said. “How old is she? I’ll see if I have any friends her age.”
“Twenty-two,” Aloise said. “Practically an old maid in our culture.”
“What is your culture?”
“We are of Middle-Eastern descent but our most recent generation hails from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and Guatemala,” she said.
Manny stopped in his tracks, turning and looking into Aloise’s eyes, deep brown in the dimming twilight of the forest. “We have got to be related.”
“Por qué?” She almost ran into him and he steadied himself by resting his hands on her hips.
“Because that’s exactly the same way my dad describes our heritage. Almost word for word.”
“What’s your last name?”
“Ashish,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. Mis parientes son malos.” She pushed on ahead of Manny, grumbling as she did. “It’s like they wanted me to stand out even more than I already do.”
“I mean, ya know, it’s a really pretty name.” Manny hurried to catch up.
“Oh my gosh.” Aloise stopped short, having come into the clearing and seeing her first glimpse of his house. “Your family must be almost as rich as mine.”
“Probably more so,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I think we’re the only billionaires in this region of Michigan.”
“Whatever,” she huffed. “My family is so rich we sail around the world on a yacht.”
“My father used to own a company that built yachts,” Manny said, a chill running through him. He tried to blame the evening temperature.
“My father owned stock in a yacht company,” Aloise said, her eyes growing animated. “They sold all their shares when my Papá’s business partner fought with his brothers.”
“This cannot be a coincidence,” he said.
“Come on.” Manny took Aloise’s hand and pulled her gently in the direction of the house. “You need to meet my dad.”
Natalie realized the guest room in her parents’ elegant home was the perfect place for a honeymoon, at least if your husband is dying of cancer. She and Ethan had their own attached bathroom suite and her mom brought them meals, which they either ate at the little table in the corner or propped in bed with a tray across each of their laps.
During the day, Natalie read aloud from Ethan’s journals and occasionally Ethan would stop her and tell her a little added side story or correct something he’d gotten wrong the first time.
Natalie kept a notebook beside her to record his stories or corrections. When he would fall asleep and start to snore softly, Natalie would read quietly to herself the fascinating stories of princes and kings and contentions and famines, fleeing from persecution and settling their families in faraway lands, travelling on fancy yachts and flying on private jets to cross the globe, meeting with dignitaries and serving with the United Nations. She got caught up in the world of her husband’s ancestors, drawing closer to him with each turning page.
Each night, after her parents went upstairs to bed, Natalie would help Ethan out of his clothes and they would sleep in each other’s arms, skin to skin, heart to heart. Some nights Ethan would feel well enough to make love but usually he fell asleep in her arms and she was okay with that.
One evening when Ethan was feeling particularly good, they had a long talk and he asked Natalie a favor she promised never to forget.
“If, by some miracle, you and I were able to conceive a child from our very brief marriage, promise me you’ll raise him or her as a regular boy or girl and not as a prince or princess.”
“Okay… why?” Natalie brushed his shaggy hair from his forehead and decided to give him a haircut one of these days.
“Royal families are snobby and selfish,” Ethan said and they both chuckled. “Seriously though, the money left after you distribute the gifts to all the charitable organizations will be substantial. You will be a very wealthy woman and our child will have every opportunity known to man. But don’t give them everything at once and don’t tell them their father was a prince… or that their mother was a princess.” Ethan leaned forward and kissed her gently and warmth travelled through her body from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.
Natalie knew that night would be a good night.
The following morning, she awoke with the sun shining in the white lace curtains, but Ethan did not.
For several long minutes, Natalie held her husband for the last time, tears staining her pillow.
They’d been married twenty-three incredible days. Twenty-three days filled with just enough passion to give Natalie the greatest gift a wife could receive: a son.
Five years had passed, and Natalie climbed up beside little Ether Miles Sayid, who she’d named by combining Ethan’s name with his father’s name, King Elmer Sayid. A perfect little melding of names for a perfect little bundle of life.
“Read me the story about the young princes again, Mommy.” Ether handed Natalie one of the many picture books her artistic mother had helped her create using Ethan’s journal entries.
“Do you want to read from the middle?” Natalie asked, wrinkling her nose at his choice. “Or would you rather start at the beginning?” Natalie picked up the first book in the series and wriggled her eyebrows.
“Umm…” Ether put his finger to his chin in deep thought. “I think we should start at the beginning.” He pointed to the first book.
“Good choice,” Natalie said. They settled in on Ether’s bed and he pulled his blanket up near his mouth, his thumb still hovering nearby even though he’d finished sucking his thumb at least a year ago. Natalie opened to the first page of the first book. “Once upon a time there was a handsome prince named Marcos who had a very best friend named Nicholas…”
“I like this story, Mommy.” Ether snuggled in closer and closed his eyes.
“Me too, baby boy.” She kissed the top of his head. “Prince Marcos and his friend Nicholas went on all kinds of adventures…”
Reminder of the beginning of Prince Marcos's story.
Here is Chapter One of the Story we'll be starting tomorrow, hopefully. We're about to get some seriously bad weather we I live and I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll have power tomorrow.
Note: I previously posted Chapter One of The Hunter but it has been revised. Tomorrow I plan to post this chapter again in its revised form along with Chapter Two. -Julie
Ethan awoke to a cool, dark room, the shades drawn and Natalie still holding him. Her parents were gone, and they were alone.
“Hi,” Natalie said. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I want to get married,” Ethan said. “Did I sleep through our wedding?”
“No, my love, we waited for you.” She chuckled. “Couldn’t really have the wedding without the groom.”
“You could have just propped me up and nodded my head for me when it was time to say, ‘I do’ and then brought me back to our room and taken advantage of me.”
“Nah, I’d like you to be an active participant in that part of the wedding.”
“Which part?” he asked with a chuckle. “The wedding vows? Or the love making afterward?”
“Both,” Natalie whispered and then leaned down to kiss the tip of his nose.
“I’ll try, okay?” He heard the vulnerability in his own voice.
“Sweetheart, you don’t even have to try if you don’t want to.”
“I want to. Believe me, I want to.” Ethan reached up and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand.
“Me too,” she said.
“Let’s go get married then, okay?”
“You want some help into your tux?” Natalie asked. She lifted him to a seated position and offered him a hand to walk with him to the bathroom.
“Is it weird for you to put this tuxedo on me only to take it back off in about twenty minutes?”
“We probably shouldn’t show up at our wedding in sweatpants,” she said.
“Or naked.” Ethan leaned down to kiss her neck and chin and cheeks and finally her lips.
“Get dressed, Your Highness, so we can go get married and come back to our room and get naked together.”
“If you insist.”
“I’m going to call my dad to come help you and I’m going over to my parents’ suite and my mom will help me into my dress.”
“See you at the altar,” Ethan said, leaning over for one more kiss.
“I’ll be the one dressed in white,” she teased.
“I’ll be the one undressing you with my eyes,” Ethan said with a husky voice.
A few minutes later, Miles Dolan wheeled Ethan down the hall to a small reception room on the same floor as their hotel room so they didn’t have to use the elevator. There was less chance Ethan would get dizzy or nauseous. He wheeled Ethan to the back of the room and Ethan rose from the wheelchair but sat on a beautiful chair decked out in white tulle, where he waited for his bride.
Natalie didn’t keep him waiting long. Miles had set the wheelchair off to the side then left the room to go retrieve his daughter. They walked in with Natalie’s arm tucked in her father’s and Ethan’s breath caught. Her dress was simple and elegant, understated and selected in haste. A golden ring headpiece pulled her strawberry blond curls into an updo in a way that almost looked as if she were wearing a crown. No princess had ever looked more beautiful.
When they stepped close enough, Ethan stood, and Miles lifted Natalie’s hand to rest it in Ethan’s. The officiator said a few words, just enough to legally bind them as husband and wife and invited Ethan to kiss his bride.
Ethan turned to the man. “Could I have just a moment with my wife first?”
The man stepped away, hopefully out of earshot and Natalie’s parents also respectfully took a few steps back.
Gazing into Natalie’s confused eyes, Ethan whispered, “Normally this would be done by our king, but I think he would make an exception due to extenuating circumstances.”
Natalie cocked her head to the side with an intrigued gleam in her eye.
Ethan took a deep, shaky breath and spoke so softly the words were barely audible. “Natalie Dolan Sayid, by the power vested in me by the kingdom of Madain Saleh, I do hereby crown you Princess Natalie Sayid of Madain Saleh.”
“Princess…” Her word was barely a breath.
“Normally I would place a crown on your head right now, but I’m fresh out of crowns at the moment.”
“Instead, simply bow your head subtly and you and I can envision the placement.”
The most evocative moment of Ethan’s life was the moment he imagined placing a crown on his bride’s head.
“Arise, Your Highness,” Ethan whispered. As she lifted her gaze, he pulled her close, more invigorated than he had been since before the fever ravaged his already weak frame. He leaned forward and their lips met in a chaste kiss that promised more. After their kiss, Ethan placed his mouth even closer to her ear and whispered, “Let’s go back to our hotel room and make love.”
Ethan didn’t feel better in four days; he felt worse. The fever had taken a toll on his body.
He rested in the front passenger seat of the motorhome, refusing to lay down in bed all day while Natalie drove. He wanted to be with her. With the seat reclined, a pillow propped against the window and a blanket wrapped around him like a cocoon, he talked to her a little and slept a lot.
Each evening they rented a hotel room and slept in each other’s arms.
By the time they arrived in Las Vegas, Ethan felt like he was dying of cancer.
From their hotel room, with Natalie’s mom and dad sitting close, Ethan did something he hadn’t planned to do ever again; he called his parents.
They had a video chat with Ethan propped up on pillows against the headboard, and Natalie holding the phone in a way that his parents could see both him and Natalie.
“Your Majesty, and Your Grace, I’d like to introduce the woman I’m going to marry in about three hours. This is Natalie Dolan, soon to be Sayid, if she chooses to take my name.”
“Of course, I will, you silly guy.” Natalie leaned over to kiss Ethan’s cheek. “It’s nice to meet you. Your son is the most amazing man I’ve ever met.”
“Welcome to the family, Natalie.” His dad sounded like he was choking back sobs.
“Ethan, you look terrible.” His mom didn’t try to hide her tears.
“And yet, she still agreed to marry me,” Ethan said, turning his face toward Natalie. “You’d think she’s smarter than that. She has a law degree.”
“Are you nearing the end, my darling?” The second most beautiful woman in the world tried to smile into the camera, her multi-colored eyes, so similar to his own, shone with tears.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m getting close… uh, there are a couple other people I want you to meet. I’m going to hand the phone over to Natalie’s parents. They have already taken very good care of me and are graciously allowing me to sleep with their daughter for the last few days of my life. Isn’t that nice of them? This is Bonnie and Miles Dolan.” Ethan handed the phone to his soon-to-be in-laws. “These are my parents, His Majesty, King Elmer Sayid, and Her Grace, Queen Savanna.”
“We’re honored to meet you, Your Majesty and Your Grace,” Bonnie said with a little wave.
“Please, you’re welcome to call us Eli and Savanna,” the king said. “The honor is ours. Thank you for caring for our son.”
“We love him like a son,” Miles said, choking up. “Tomorrow we plan to fly home on a private jet and he will stay with us…” He didn’t have to finish his sentence for all of them to know what he meant. Ethan would stay with them until the day he died, however many days from now that was.
“Thank you,” Savanna said, sobs escaping. “Thank you, thank you.”
“I’m really glad to meet you,” the king said. “But can I see my son one more time.”
“Yes, of course.” Bonnie handed the phone back to Natalie.
“Your Highness,” his dad said, no longer hiding his emotions. “I’m so proud of you, son.”
“Thanks dad,” Ethan said. “I miss you both, every day.”
“We miss you too. We’re so glad you found a wonderful young lady to hold you in her arms these last few days.”
“She’s really good at holding me in her arms,” Ethan said, turning to Natalie. “I love her so much.”
“I love you too.” Natalie leaned forward and kissed his lips briefly. There would be more time for that in a few hours.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you”—Ethan turned back to his parents— “We drove over to see Princess Miranda and Prince Hayden, and all his brothers and their wives were there along with several beautiful babies, oh and Prince Marcos sends his regards. And did you know Miranda’s pregnant again?” Ethan was winded but in high spirits.
“Oh! That sweetheart, she should have told her mother the minute she found out,” Savanna said. “I’ll have to give her a call.”
“Can I ask a favor?” Ethan didn’t wait for them to answer his rhetorical question. “Don’t tell them about me until it’s over. I’ve said my goodbyes to them, and I don’t think I could handle my sister’s tears right now.”
“We’ll wait,” his dad said.
“And no funeral in America,” Ethan said. “All Natalie’s family will know is that she married a man who lived in Omaha, Nebraska and that he died of cancer. We don’t want anyone to know she was married to a wealthy prince.”
“We’ll bring you home to Madain Saleh for the interment, Your Highness.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Ethan said. “I love you.”
“I love you too, son.”
“Goodbye, my sweet boy,” Savannah said, burying her face in her husband’s chest. Ethan had to look away.
“I love you, Mamma,” Ethan mumbled. “Goodbye.”
Ethan nodded to Natalie and closed his eyes, turning to her as she tapped the screen to end the call. She dropped the phone beside her and held Ethan in her arms as he sobbed and sobbed and finally fell asleep.
“I know from the caller ID that it’s you, Ethan. You can call me Miles.”
“Miles, I’ll get right to the point,” Ethan said. “I slept with your daughter.”
“Don’t tell him that!” Natalie smacked him on the arm. They were sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing clean clothes and wet hair. They had the speaker phone turned on, so she spoke directly to her dad. “We did not sleep together, Daddy. We just slept in the same bed while Ethan was sick.”
“And we took a bath together.” Ethan laughed when Natalie practically tackled him to get the phone out of his hand. He held it out of her reach, but she wound up in his arms laying on top of him on the bed and she couldn’t help giggling.
“Daddy, we did not take a bath together,” she called out.
“Okay, she gave me a sponge bath.”
“You are in so much trouble.” Natalie stopped struggling for the phone and gave him seething look of mock anger.
Ethan reached up and pecked a quick kiss on her lips, the phone still in his hand at the end of a very long arm.
“Natalie, you are thirty-one years old,” Miles said. “If you’re going to sleep with a man, that’s your prerogative but I really don’t want to hear the details.”
“Mr. Dolan, I mean Miles”—Ethan cleared his throat— “Would you and Mom please meet us in Las Vegas in approximately four days? I’d very much like our family to witness our wedding.”
Miles chuckled loudly. “Who predicted that outcome?”
“I did,” Ethan said. “The minute I walked into your office and looked into your daughter’s emerald eyes.”
“I’m physically gagging right now,” Miles said.
“Will you make all the arrangements and just text us the address?” Ethan asked, wrapping his arm tightly around Natalie. “And spare no expense. I’m a billionaire prince and if I can’t have a coronation, at the very least I want my wife to have the wedding of a princess. Oh, and reserve us a hotel suite with a hot tub.”
Ethan didn’t wait for Miles to answer before he touched the screen of his phone to end the call, tossing his cell phone on the floor, and rolled Natalie over so he was laying on top of her.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to feel better in four days,” Ethan said, leaning down for a quick kiss. “I’m still a little weak right now but I’m up for a few hours of making out—okay maybe a few minutes.”
“I’ll take what I can get,” Natalie said with a smoldering gaze, then pulled him down for a long kiss.
Ethan fell asleep in Natalie’s arms a little while later, happier than he’d ever been in his life.
“Hi,” Natalie whispered in the dark. Her face was only a few feet away, lying on the pillow beside him. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” Ethan said. “Better.”
“Better is good.”
“Better is better,” Ethan joked. “Good is good.”
“True,” Natalie agreed. “How can I help you get from better to good?”
“I should probably eat something.”
“There’s some vegetable soup. I put it in the fridge, but I can warm it up in the microwave.”
“That sounds good.” Ethan propped himself on one elbow and Natalie quickly sat up to help him to a seated position. “I should use the bathroom again.”
“Not surprising,” Natalie said, helping him from the bed. “I’ve been force-feeding you Powerade and broth for two days.”
“That explains my full bladder and the awful taste in my mouth,” Ethan said, shuffling to the bathroom.
“Your toothbrush and other toiletries are in there already.” Natalie helped him over to where he could hold onto the counter for support. “I’ll go warm up your soup.” She left him alone and pulled the door shut behind her.
Ethan was tempted by the shower but decided to get some nourishment in him first. He managed to shuffle back out into the hotel room where a tiny table in the corner already had his steaming soup and a stack of crackers along with another Powerade. He pulled out the chair and took a seat, relishing the scent of carrots and celery and onions. “Thanks, this smells incredible.”
Natalie sat opposite him with her own bowl of soup and they ate in companionable silence for a few minutes before she set aside her spoon. “You had me scared there for a few hours.”
“Sorry about that.” He blew on another spoonful and savored the flavor going down.
“I knew you were sick,” Natalie said. “I just never thought about you getting sick. You know what I mean? You joke all the time about dying suddenly, but we’ve never discussed the possibility of you being sick.”
“Should have warned you about that, huh?” Ethan smiled sheepishly.
“I’m taking you home,” Natalie said. He knew she didn’t mean home to Madain Saleh. She was bringing him to her parents’ house.
He nodded in agreement but felt his throat tighten. “I should never have roped you into my mess.”
“Nonsense,” she chastised him. “This past week has been the best week of my life. I love spending time with you.” She bit her lower lip and he was momentarily distracted, remembering their kiss.
“Other than the past few days?” He chuckled.
“Including the past few days.” Natalie reached across the table and laid her hand on top of his. “I wouldn’t trade the past few days if it meant I got to spend a few more days with you. I want to spend the rest of your life with you.”
“I want that too,” he whispered.
“Will you marry me, Ethan?” Natalie asked with complete sincerity, all the previous playful joking removed from her countenance. “I want to be your wife.”
“You’ve definitely proven your commitment to the vow ‘in sickness and in health,’” Ethan said with a chuckle. “I think that earns you a proper honeymoon.”
“Kind of feels like we’re already on our honeymoon.” She lowered her eyes with bashful innocence.
“I’ve kinda liked having you in my bed.” Ethan pulled her hand closer and noticed the diamond ring resting on her finger. The ring that was fit for a queen. “Even if I was asleep for most of it.”
“I was asleep part of the time also,” Natalie said. “And I kind of liked sleeping with you.”
“Do you think your dad’s going to be mad at me for sleeping with his daughter before marrying her?”
“We didn’t actually do anything that would make him upset.”
“But I want to,” Ethan said, rubbing his fingers along the top of her hand. “Do my impure thoughts count for anything?”
“Are you even healthy enough for that?” Natalie raised her eyebrows.
“Not right this minute,” Ethan admitted. “But Vegas is still a couple days drive from here. I should be feeling better by then.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Skepticism pulled a grin onto her face.
“So, you’d be willing to marry me if I can’t—you know…”
“There’s more to marriage than sex, Ethan.” She linked their fingers across the table. “If I only have a few more days with you, I want to hold you in my arms and be with you in every way we possibly can, whatever that means for us.”
“Okay, what?” Natalie asked.
“Okay, let’s get married,” Ethan said. “I’d get down on one knee, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get back up.”
“Yeah, let’s not try that.” She chuckled and held up her left hand. “You’ve already given me a ring, what more could a girl ask for?”
“Will you marry me?”
“Yes, Ethan, I’ll marry you.” Her soft smile was encouraging.
“Since we’re engaged now, can I ask you a really inappropriate question?”
“Will you help me take a bath?”