“Well?” I challenged the silence. “Are any of you going to say anything?”
My words settled to the floor of the living room of my old family home like landmines.
My father, sitting on one end of the opposite sofa from me, didn’t say a word. His dark eyes remained fixed on me, but it was as if he was looking past me, or through me, or at something else entirely.
Perhaps he was seeing the daughter he used to have before this mess, before she got a mind of her own and decided to join a billionaire’s dating club to win a million dollars to bring home to save the family business, Piper’s Paradise.
Perhaps he was wondering where it all went wrong and when I decided I didn’t want to save the restaurant at all. I only wanted to save Mom, Dad, and my brother Phillip. The rest of it be damned. I’d spoken my truth and told them the restaurant wasn’t worth saving. It was a soul-sucking leech, and I blamed it for half the mess we were in now, including my father’s failing health, his struggling heart, his stress levels, and his and my mother’s financial situation.
Which was a stone’s throw short of complete and total poverty.
Mom and Dad had been ignoring me for months now. We’d barely spoken, but after my time with Christian last month, I realized I couldn’t let that stand. Family was the most important thing in my life, and after my father’s heart attack, it had become crystal clear to me that all of this was temporary. One day, I would lose him, and Mom, and it would just be me and Phillip. And the last thing I wanted was for me and my brother to sink under the weight of trying to keep a drowning restaurant above water. I wanted to cherish the time we had left together and make the most of it, and that started with cutting the restaurant loose.
I’d say it as many times as it took before my parents saw reason.
I suspected they were already coming around. Mom was for sure. She didn’t want Dad’s health to be compromised for this. And Phillip had really stepped up and forced them to keep the restaurant closed last month. This was the last big push to see just how willing they were to come to terms with the truth.
Piper’s Paradise was already dead.
But we weren’t. We were all still here. And I was still fighting for us, and I would until the very end. A million dollars would make a huge difference. It would buy my parents out of debt. It would put Phillip through school and get him a job that made a hell of a lot more money than the restaurant ever could. And it would get me into medical school.
It would not, of course, give me what I really wanted and what I’d been courting all year.
Taking the money meant choosing to be alone at the end of the year. It meant turning my back on all the men I’d fallen in love with. The men I’d dreamed of futures with. The men who put themselves out there just as readily as I did to find their fiancée.
Even now as I sat with my knees pinched together on the edge of the sofa in my old living room, the guilt licked at my insides like fire.
“Well?” I asked, my gaze flicking from my mother to my father. “Is anyone going to say anything?”
Phillip ran his hands up and down his thighs. His palms whispered against the denim of his jeans as he looked around eagerly at our parents sitting on the opposite sofa from us. “Guys?”
My mother glanced at my father. He no longer seemed interested in the bowl of soup on the TV table in front of him. When he didn’t seem too inclined to say anything, she smiled at me. “Piper, I think we owe you an apology. The last couple of months have been trying to say the least. We were wrong to push you away for acting on our behalf. I think—”
My father cleared his throat.
We all stared at him.
He stared steadily at me. “You shouldn’t have lied.”
“I know. But I’m not going to tell you I’m sorry again. I’ve apologized a dozen times, and it doesn’t seem to make the slightest bit of difference to you.”
My mother went stiff. Phillip was nodding along with my words.
My father sighed. “It’s my job to take care of you, Piper. Not the other way around.”
“Forever?” I asked. “That doesn’t sound practical. At some point or another, you’re going to have to let Phillip and I step up and help. It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? Capable children who grow into responsible adults? How are we supposed to show you what we’re capable of if you won’t give us the chance?”
My father stroked his chin.
He was and always had been a man of few words.
But I was done with waiting. There wasn’t any room in my heart left to beg for forgiveness or understanding. If I could go back to the beginning, I knew I would do this all over again. Sure, I might have changed a couple of things, like how open I was with the men and how easily I’d fallen for them, but I wouldn’t change much, and my goal would still be the same: get the money at the end and save my family from bankruptcy.
I stood up. “Well. That’s all I came to say. If you’re not going to meet me halfway, I’m not going to sit around and let you look down your nose at me. I took action. I rose up to a challenge the rest of you were willing to let overtake this family. And I—”
“Sit down, Piper,” my father said. His eyes searched mine. I noticed how tired he looked. And how much older. My heart tightened as he nodded back down at the sofa. “Please. Sit.”
Phillip and I shared a nervous look. His eyes, dark and big like mine, said a lot of things.
Is he about to yell at us like he did when we were kids?
Watch out for that vein in his forehead. It might take your eye out if he gets really worked up.
Don’t cry, Pipes.
I lifted my chin as my father gingerly moved the TV stand away and off to the side. My mother collected the dishes and bustled them into the kitchen. I heard her place everything in the sink before quickly returning to sit on the armrest beside my father with her arm draped over his shoulders.
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. When he spoke, he chose his words carefully and spoke slowly. “Piper. You don’t need to say you’re sorry. Not anymore. I think… I think I’m the one who owes you an apology. Or several hundred of them.”
I blinked at him and then my mother. She gave me a tight-lipped but warm smile and nodded as if to tell me to let him continue.
I licked my lips nervously and could practically hear the gears turning in my brother’s head beside me as he stared at our father just as incredulously as I was.
Dad pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed at his eyes. “I spent a lot of years, my whole life actually, pouring everything I had into Piper’s Paradise. My time, my money, my love, my soul—everything. And your mother was right there beside me doing the same thing. But we chose it. She and I sat down and spent countless nights speaking about opening a business and how hard it would be. We talked about what we would have to sacrifice and what toll we were willing to accept to breathe life into our dreams.” He paused and shook his head. My mother rubbed his back in two slow circles with a flat palm. “We agreed we would pull out of the restaurant if it negatively impacted our family, especially our children. But I was too proud to see that when it started happening.”
I bit my bottom lip. “Daddy, I—”
He shook his head at me. There was no anger in him. All I could sense was this heavy weight on his shoulders of defeat and grief and guilt. I probably recognized it so easily because I felt the same way about the Casanova Club.
He let out a weary sigh. “Your mother and I should have closed the restaurant doors a long time ago. As soon as we couldn’t afford it. But my pride consumed me. It took over, Piper. And your mother… she tried to talk sense into me. She tried to show me that it was just a place, not a legacy, but I wouldn’t listen. I pushed and pushed and pushed until all I could see was Piper’s Paradise. It was all I could think about. I lived and breathed it, and I forced you all to do the same. And for that, I am so sorry. You deserve better. All of you.” He reached out and closed a hand over my mother’s. She leaned into him and pressed her lips to the top of his head.
My heart doubled in size at seeing their affection.
“Dad,” Phillip said softy. “We get it. Letting go of the restaurant isn’t easy for us, either. We love it too. Hell, Piper and I grew up there. I counted the knots in the hardwood floor in the back room when I used to come after school and play with my Legos. I could probably draw them out for you.”
I nodded. “The restaurant was a second home to us, Daddy. We won’t ever forget it. And we aren’t asking you to do that, either. It’s just time to let it go.”
He nodded. “I know.”
I stood up and fought the tremble in my bottom lip. “We love you.”
My father smiled. The warmth touched his eyes and erased any lingering bitterness over losing his business. He opened his arms to me. “I love you too, sweetheart. And I’ve missed you. More than I’ve missed anything in my life. Come here.”
My mother’s cheeks were wet with tears as I fell into my father’s chest and held on to him for dear life. I didn’t fight my own tears or the sobs that escaped me as I clung to his shirt and breathed in the smell of his Irish Springs soap and pine-scented aftershave. He gave me a tight squeeze before releasing me and motioning for Phillip to step up and accept his hug.
My brother ran his fingers through his hair. “Dad, we don’t really need to—”
I pushed him forward. My father gave him a great big bear hug, and the two of them laughed in that “I love you but this is too much physical contact and expression of feelings for me” kind of way.
Phillip wriggled out of my father’s hug and stood back to straighten out his shirt. Then he grinned sheepishly around the room at the rest of us. “So does this mean we can finally celebrate the fact that Piper is going to make us a million dollars richer in two more months?”
My stomach sank, but I plastered a winning smile on my lips.
My mother clapped her hands together. “I think this gives us a reason to celebrate. Piper, do you have time to stay a while? The children will be coming for candy any minute. We could give out candy like old times. And drink some cider.”
“I have all night.” I smiled.
She let out a gleeful squeal. “I’m going to look for that old string of pumpkin lights. I think they’re in the garage. We need to let the little kiddies know somehow that there’s candy here. You three catch up. I’ll be right back.” As she made her way down the hall to the garage, she called over her shoulder. “Maybe we can order some pizza? Or I can heat up some leftover spaghetti. I’ve been saving it in the freezer for a special occasion.”
My father chuckled. “Well, we made her night.”
“Night?” Phillip scoffed. “We made her year.”
Their deep laughter rolled through me, and I tried to rejoice with them, but my thoughts kept wandering back to what the end of the year was going to look like.
Would I have to stand before all twelve men and tell them I didn’t want any of them? Would Jackson Lee hand me the check right in front of the men I loved?
Would they hate me?
Would they know this had been the plan all along?
Would they ever forgive me?