Mark was startled awake to a soft knock on his door and pulled himself out from under Hazel’s body draped across his. How’d that happen? He had no idea what time it was, but the knocking came again, and he rubbed his eyes as he padded across the marble floor in his bare feet.
“Hey, Alex,” Mark said as he pulled the door open. “And dad… and Mr. Cohen.” Crap. He knew how this must look. Hazel’s grandpa was at his door and Hazel was in his bed. Well, on his bed, but still. Not cool.
“Oh good, you’re both here,” Benjamin said as he pushed all the way into the room. Mark couldn’t determine if that was sarcasm or relief. “We won’t have to hunt her down.”
Hazel sat up and stretched, shaking her head to wake herself up.
“We weren’t doing anything, I swear.” Mark held up his hands as if there was a proverbial shotgun to his head. “We were just talking and sort of fell asleep.”
“I trust you, son.” Benjamin waved his hand dismissively.
“I don’t,” Mr. Cohen said. “But you’re dressed, uh, sort of, and you lost your grandfather today so I’m going to offer you some slack. Just, put on a shirt. Okay?”
Mark reached into his open suitcase, grabbed a clean t-shirt and slipped it over his head.
“We need all three of you to stay awake long enough for us to explain some things,” Benjamin said.
“All three of us?” Mark looked over at Alex who shrugged.
“They didn’t tell me anything,” Alex said. “Just asked me to come with them.”
“Okay, where do we start?” Benjamin paced back and forth, pulling his hair with both hands. Mark wondered if he’d grown delirious after the long day of dealing with the loss of his father and planning a funeral.
“Maybe I should be the one to tell this story,” Nicholas Cohen suggested. “Why don’t you kids sit down.”
Alex sat on the only chair, which left Mark with his bed. He sat near the foot of his bed as far away from Hazel as he could without making it obvious he was trying to sit as far away as he could.
“I don’t believe in arranged marriages, but the two of you together would make both our families very happy.”
“We are totally fine with that,” Mark said with an alarming level of sincerity. Hazel giggled from the other side of the bed and Mark gave her a sidelong scowl before fighting a tiny smirk.
“She needs to grow up first,” Nicholas said sternly. “You’re not marrying a seventeen-year-old high school senior.”
“Seventeen?” Mark jumped up and glared at Hazel. “I thought you were a college student!”
“I never actually came out and said that,” she retorted. “You just assumed.”
“If I’d known you were seventeen, I wouldn’t have had you in my bed!”
“You shouldn’t have had her in your bed to begin with, son.” Benjamin raised his eyebrows.
“Two consenting adults are allowed to sleep together,” Mark said. “I didn’t know she was not an adult.” Mark pointed over at her in exasperation.
This day just kept throwing one surprise after another. And Dad and Nicholas still hadn’t told them what they came in the room to tell them.
“Sit back down, son. You can talk about all that later. This is more important.”
“More important than me sleeping with a seventeen-year-old?” Mark grumbled as he made his way back over to his bed. He threw a disappointed scowl toward Hazel and sighed, settling in to prepare himself for whatever this next curveball would be.
“First things first,” Nicholas said, gazing over at Alex with a look that could only be described as pure love and affection combined with something else… regret? “Alex, you look just like your mother.”
Alex’s jaw dropped. From what little Mark knew about his best friend’s family, his mother had died when he was very young, and his father struggled to raise him as a single dad on a professor’s salary. The only reason Alex attended North Carolina State University was because his dad taught there. Alex’s dad and Mark’s dad had been a little less than friends, but a little more than acquaintances, almost like they were expected to be friends by some unseen bond.
Because Mark spent most of his childhood travelling back and forth between Mexico and North Carolina, his only close friends were the ones who met up at the basketball court in the center of their middle-class neighborhood. He and Alex had a knack for a cool alley-oop move that made other teams unable to complete.
Any time either of them got the ball on defense, they would both hightail it down the court, bounce pass a couple times just for fun, then Alex would leap toward the hoop and drop the ball at the last second. Mark would grab the ball, dunk it, and hold on to the rim.
They were never able to use the move in a real competition because Mark was homeschooled. Alex was always starting point guard at his high school, but never had that strong of a connection with any of his teammates.
Mark always suspected their parents had pulled strings to get them together as college roommates but neither of them had come right out and questioned it. The message was, “Guess what? Your old buddy Alex needs a roommate and you two would be great together.”
“How did you know my mom?” Alex asked with hesitancy, looking up at the charismatic powerhouse of a man who was Nicholas Cohen.
“She was my daughter,” Nicholas said quietly. All three kids sucked in a gasp of air. “You’re my grandson.”
“Alexandria fell in love with your father when he was here on spring break and within six months they were engaged, and she moved to the States. You were born less than a year later.”
“Why hasn’t anyone told me about this until now?”
“Your father didn’t want to take handouts from his deceased wife’s rich family and wanted to raise you as a normal kid. We agreed that was a good idea and took comfort that Benjamin also wanted to raise his son, Mark, as a normal kid. You two had coincidently been born within a few weeks of each other.”
“But I wasn’t raised as a normal kid,” Mark said. “I was a geeky homeschooled kid who spent half the year in Mexico, living in a palace surrounded by royalty, and half the year in the States living in middle-class America.”
“That was a pretty good way to grow up, if you think about it, son,” Benjamin said. “You had the best of both worlds. The knowledge you were a prince but the humble environment of life as a commoner.”
“I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way.” Mark’s shoulders slumped.
“We left it up to you to tell your friends about your life in Mexico if you chose to, and apparently you never did, or Alex wouldn’t have been surprised when you told him.”
“Wait,” Hazel interjected. “Does that mean Alex and I are… cousins?”
“That’s exactly what it means.” Nicholas nodded with a smile.
“Gee, glad I fell for Mark and not you.” Hazel and Alex wrinkled their noses at each other and chuckled.
“There’s so much more we need to tell you within the next couple of days, because your lives are about to intertwine in ways neither family could have predicted,” Benjamin said. “But I’m exhausted. My father died today, and I need sleep so I can finish planning his funeral. You’ll learn more over the next few days. Get some rest you guys.”
“You are coming with me, young lady,” Nicholas said, pointing to Hazel. “You’re not sleeping with the prince until he puts a wedding ring on your hand.”
“Like that’s gonna happen,” Mark said, furrowing his brows and pulling his gaze away from the girl he’d kissed a few hours ago and held in his arms, and fell asleep next to. He grumbled, “I’m not marrying her. Seventeen? She should have been honest with me.”
Who was he trying to convince? Himself? Or everyone else? He heard someone chuckle as they left the room. His dad? Maybe.
When the door finally closed, Mark felt her absence immediately. He fell back onto his bed and stared at the ceiling. If this life was a dream, he wanted to wake up.
Instead, he fell asleep. Hard.