Damn: 110. She needed a 70 to make the dean’s list for her senior-level marketing class, but she’d pulled out a 110.
A smile touched Bethany’s lips, her eyes darting around the room to see if she could make out the various grades on her classmates’ papers. From what she could see, she must have gotten the highest grade. She sat back in her chair and listened as the classroom filled with either groans or soft whispers of gratitude for passing grades. She hadn’t worried much about passing, but simply passing was never enough. She had to be at the top—the best grade in the class.
The elderly professor moved to the front of the room, dropping a small handful of remaining tests on his desk and turning to face the class. A quick adjustment to his glasses and he scanned the room, his eyebrow raising at the noise.
“This was your final test for my class. I know some of you are graduating on Saturday, and I congratulate you. If you failed this test and subsequently this class and it’s holding you back from graduating, that’s your problem. You were given every opportunity to do well in here. If you failed, then you worked hard to do so.”
He shrugged as a lanky guy in the back row spoke up, Bethany turning to look over her shoulder as his drug-induced voice resounded. “Is there a make-up quiz for this test?”
“No, Mr. Johnson. This is final, and you will be seeing me next semester, no doubt.”
Bethany turned and raised her hand, her long chestnut locks tickling her shoulders as she moved. “What was the top grade in the class?”
“Yours.” The professor smirked and moved from his reclined position. “Class is dismissed. Don’t bother stopping by to talk with me. I have somewhere to be, so this is goodbye for this semester. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and don’t have too much fun.”
Bethany leaned over and grabbed her backpack, a smile pressing her cheeks toward her eyes as she got up and walked from the room, her head held high and smugness sitting on her like a well-worn cloak. She was the smartest, the fastest—the best.
A quick stop by the advisory office before heading to have lunch with her mother stole her thunder; her adviser’s news was depressing, a quick reminder of her financial reality.
“Congratulations, Bethany. It looks like you’ll be graduating in the top 3 percent of your accounting class.” The middle-aged man looked up, his portly belly almost touching the chair between his opened legs.
Bethany focused on the kindness in his gaze even though his appearance struck her with worry. She needed to get to the gym. The summer sessions were always so daunting and stole every waking moment she could find in order to simply keep up. It was over now, though.
She sighed with relief and nodded toward the adviser.
“That’s great news. I’ve already been accepted into the MBA program, so I’ll start in a month. I’m excited.”
The man mumbled something, turning to his computer and hitting a few keys. Bethany sat back, her eyes moving across the various pictures that hung on the walls. The photos were filled with smiling kids and a woman as portly as the man before her, their happiness apparent or well-rehearsed.
A family had never been part of Bethany’s thoughts. Racing up the corporate ladder and making a name for herself was her top priority. Making enough money never to have to worry where her next meal was coming from or if anyone would see her mother paying with food stamps was all she cared about. She would change her situation no matter what it took.
College was a luxury that her grades from high school alone had afforded her, but the master’s program was still up in the air. The hope was that grants would cover most of the cost, and she could pick up a small job or paid internship at an accounting firm.
Time was the only restriction. She needed something flexible because her course load wouldn’t allow for much more than studying and schoolwork. She reached up, tucking her hair behind her ears as she looked back at the adviser.
“So, am I good to go?”
“Hold on just a minute, kiddo. Looks like there’s an issue with your fees for next semester. I’m just trying to make sure you’re all paid up.” He glanced over at her before picking up his phone. He spoke for a few minutes to someone who she assumed was in the registrar’s office. The conversation, from the parts she could hear, was only causing the knot in her stomach to grow. He thanked the lady on the phone and sighed, hanging up and looking over at Bethany.
“Good news and bad news. What do you want first?”
“The good news.”
“The good news is that the first third of your upcoming semester was picked up by a grant.”
“And the bad is that the last two-thirds weren’t?”
“That’s right.” He shrugged, sympathy covering his round face. “Is there a possibility of getting a small part-time job or internship in the city?”
“I have no clue. Seems like more to do, but it is what it is.” She sat back and sighed, the reality of her ever-present situation bleeding its way across her emotions. She was going to break down soon, and she’d rather it not be in front of him.
She stood up and reached over, her hand extended. “I appreciate your help. I have a month to figure it out, I guess.”
“You have about six weeks before they require that second payment. Good luck. You’re smart; you’ll figure this out.”
She shook his hand and walked from the small building, the sun pressing down on her in the smoldering Texas heat. There was nothing to figure out. The MBA program at UT Dallas was way out of her league in terms of financial funding, and her mother was forever broke. Thanks to a drug-dealing father and a life left in shambles, there wasn’t much hope.
She got in her car as the first tear fell. She’d have to ask her mom to do something that seemed far-fetched but was her only hope.
“Mom, will you marry Kent?” She looked up in the small rearview mirror, realizing how selfish she was being as she worked through how to ask something so demanding of her mother. But Kent was a billionaire. It would work in her favor, and she knew without a doubt that her mother would be much happier with the stability and love Kent would provide. It was good for everyone. No. She couldn’t do it.
But what other choice did she have?
“Mom, will you marry Kent?” Bethany let the question hang in the air as her mom reached for a fluffy white roll sitting in the basket between them.
“What?” Her mom pulled her hand back like she’d been burned.
The older woman was a perfect replica of Bethany. Long, silky chestnut hair, full lips, and green eyes. She looked completely innocent and well-kept, and yet she’d been through more hell than anyone could possibly imagine. She and Bethany both.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but when you told me that he proposed a few weeks ago, you seemed really happy. I don’t know why you just didn’t say yes right then.”
“It’s complicated, Bethany.”
“I know, Mom. But I also know that you’re just holding back because you’re letting everything that happened with Dad scare you away from the one thing that could make you truly happy. You and Kent have been dating for six months, and he’s crazy about you.”
“Why do you care if Kent and I get married right now?”
“I had an appointment with my adviser today, and there isn’t enough funding for me to get through the first year of my master’s program.” She held up her hand as her mother started to protest. “I know you don’t understand the need for a master’s, but I’m telling you that I need it. I want financial freedom, and ever since Daddy left all those years ago, we’ve had anything but that. I want a chance to be free from this, Mom.”
Her mom visibly flinched, reaching and taking the bread and then picking at it, her gaze filled with concern. They had been through far too much together over Bethany’s twenty-two years not to be straightforward with one another. Her mom loved Kent, and Bethany knew they would get married eventually, so the request wasn’t too far-fetched, just perhaps a little selfish in its timing.
“And you think me marrying Kent will take care of your finances?”
“I’m praying that you’ll mention my situation. I’m not asking for a handout but a loan. I’ll pay it back once I’m working for an accounting firm downtown, Mom. There is no way I’m not going to get a great job next year. I just need some help now.”
“I wish I could help you, but I don’t have anything put away.” Her mom’s eyes diverted toward the table as the waiter walked up, a smile on his mouth.
“Hi, ladies. You ready to order?”
Bethany’s mom sat up, pulling her menu up as she motioned for Bethany to place her order. Bethany picked up the menu and looked at the prices, not caring a bit what items were attached to them. They were broke and shouldn’t even be at the small cafe. Money was the bane of her existence, and coveting it anytime soon seemed like a lofty goal.
“I’ll take a cup of tomato soup and a water, please?”
“Not very hungry today?” He smiled and took her menu, winking at her as she smiled back.
“Nope. Big breakfast.”
Her mother ordered as Bethany reached for a roll. Her stomach softly protested, the deep burn of hunger an old friend. She hadn’t had a big breakfast or any breakfast at all. Every penny she had went to books and supplies for school. She ate once a day and sometimes not even that unless her roommate brought home leftovers. She’d have given anything to order a cheeseburger with fries and a Coke, but life wasn’t that giving.
The waiter moved away, and Bethany shoved the rest of the roll in her mouth, the soft white bread melting in her mouth. Worry covered her mother’s features as she pushed the basket toward her.
“Are you not eating again?”
Bethany finished chewing the roll, her thoughts far from the conversation at the table as she enjoyed the flavors rolling across her tongue. She ate out every once in a while, but it was usually on a date, and that always ended with some random horny guy demanding sex. Disgusting.
“I have to spend what little money I get from my grants on a place to live and books, Mom. Food is a luxury.”
“Baby, you shouldn’t starve yourself.”
“What options do I have?” Bethany laughed, the sound falling flat.
“Take a semester off and come back home with me.” Her mom crossed her arms over her chest, an eyebrow raising as Bethany reached for another roll and picked up the small cup of butter, dipping the bread in it without concern for her actions.
“I can’t take off from school, Mom, and I don’t have a car that runs very well. One more year of this, and I’ll be able to finally take care of myself.”
“I don’t like that you’re not eating.”
“I don’t like it either, but you’re as broke as I am.”
“I’ll ask Kent to give me some money for you.”
“No.” Bethany leaned forward, her mouth pursed into a tight line. She didn’t want handouts from someone who wasn’t connected to her family intimately, and even though a loan was an option, it was the last option on her list. She needed Kent to move into the position of being her stepfather, and then it would make sense to get financial help from him.
“No, Mom. Just stop messing around and get married. You’re going to get married anyway. He loves you, and you love him.”
“What would being married to him change?”
“I would be his daughter, Mom. I would finally have a dad, and maybe, just maybe, he would see my struggle and offer to help me.” Tears burned her eyes, and she picked up her napkin, wiping at them quickly. Being emotional or weak hadn’t gotten her anywhere in life, and it certainly wouldn’t do her any favors now.
“Oh, honey. I’m so sorry I don’t have more to give you. If only I’d been a stronger woman when your dad put us through all that shit.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” Bethany dropped the napkin in her lap, her emotions pressing hard against the confines of her chest. “I have one more year of school and need help. You’re going to marry Kent anyway. I’m just asking that you move it up and do it in the next month, Mom. Please.”
Her mom bit at her lip, looking up and thanking the server as he put their lunch down in front of them. Bethany constrained herself as the steam rose up from the small cup before her. She could have ordered more, but she knew her mom was broke and struggling as well. The older woman in front of her hid her own suffering, and internal strife as well as Bethany did. No one knew how much they’d been through and how they continued to persevere.
“Let’s pray over our food.” Her mom bowed her head and prayed, Bethany closing her eyes and listening to her mom ask God for the millionth time to help them. He’d seemed to turn a blind eye or deaf ear to them for all the years Bethany could remember, but six months ago he had delivered Kent into her mom’s life.
Kent owned several companies and had been a widower for ten years. He was older than her mom and had two sons, one a complete loser and the other the center of his enterprise in the heart of downtown Dallas. Bethany had yet to meet either of them, but she liked Kent and knew he would treat her mother like a princess.
If only the woman could get past being hurt and used by Bethany’s father, giving love another chance and opening up a world of possibilities for them both.
“Kent would be thrilled to hear I’m ready to move forward, I guess.” Her mom’s words lit a spark of hope in Bethany’s chest as she looked up.
“He loves you, Mom. He’s told you that a million times.”
“I know, and I love him too. I’m just a little worried about fitting into his world. I come from the wrong side of the tracks, Bethany. His friends and work associates are going to see beneath my layers of makeup and call me out as the phony I am.”
“You’re not a phony. You’re the most real person I know, Mom.” Bethany reached around her soup to touch her mom’s arm, concern pulling her brow together. “You just need to be yourself and not anyone else. You can’t change for someone, or you’ll end up hating who you’ve become.”
“How did you get so wise?” Her mom winked at her, patted her hand and picked up her spoon, taking a tentative sip of her own soup.
“So, you’ll think about it? I’m on a short leash, and I’ll start looking for jobs this afternoon, but I need help quickly.”
“Wait until Monday for the job thing. You’re graduating tomorrow, and I want you to just enjoy the accomplishment.” She put her spoon down and picked up the last piece of bread, tearing it in half and handing the larger piece to Bethany. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m sorry to bother you with this. If I could figure it out on my own, I would.”
“We will always have each other. I’ll talk to Kent tonight about everything. When he proposed a few weeks back, I wanted to say yes, but I just haven’t been able to move around my past. He’s so much better than I am.” Her mom shrugged, heaviness sitting on her pretty features.
Bethany reached up and pulled her long locks into a messy bun before scoffing at her mother.
“He’s not better than you. He’s had a different path, Mom. His life is a different story. I’m just glad that your path crossed with his. He’s going to be great for you. He thinks you hung the moon.”
“He is a great guy.” Blush touched her mother’s cheeks, and Bethany laughed softly, romance a lofty thought in her world.
Bethany had seen the same guy, Jake, a few times, but he was horribly proper and far too feminine for her tastes. He was easy to get along with and a great study partner, but as far as physical attraction—nothing.
“Is Kent coming with you to my graduation tomorrow?”
“He sure is. I invited Damon and Matthew, his boys, but they both have something to do. I was hoping for you to meet Matthew. He’s a sad soul with far too many demons to fight, but a pure heart lies in his chest.”
“And what about the other boy, Damon?”
“Honestly, he’s an ass. He’s the typical rich boy, and he has far too much control of Kent’s company and ten women around him at all times. I hate to even say this, but he sometimes disgusts me.” Her mother’s face twisted as if she’d bit into a lemon. Bethany laughed and leaned over, tasting her cooling soup.
“Money corrupts. I’m surprised Kent is as good of a guy as he is. He has more money than God.”
Her mom laughed and took one more sip of her soup before pushing it across the table to Bethany, the small cup still more than half-full. Bethany pulled it toward her, working hard not to lift her cup to her lips and drink the thick tomato soup.
“Get yourself a sandwich or something. I have a little bit of money in the bank.” Her mother turned as if trying to get the waiter’s attention.
Bethany reached over and patted the table in front of her. “I’m good. I’ll eat this and be stuffed. We’ll make it through this; we will. Tomorrow will be a great day, and if your conversation goes well with Kent, then maybe my luck will change for good.” She pinched off a piece of the bread and popped it in her mouth. “You sure I’m not pushing you to do something you didn’t want to do?”
“Have you ever known me to do something I didn’t want to do?” Her mother smirked as the waiter stopped by with the bill.
“They must have higher-paying customers waiting on our seats.” Bethany looked over to the large crowd gathering at the door.
“Pretty soon that will be us, baby. Hang in there, and I’ll work to change our situation.”
“You do love him, right?”
“I do, but not as much as I love you.”
Bethany chuckled and turned her attention to her food, mumbling into the small cup, “I love you too.”
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