The Bluetooth headpiece in my ear had been ringing for the duration of the drive from my estate to Little Footprints Preschool. As I parked my Jag at the curb, I yanked it out of my right ear and leaned over to wrench open the glovebox and toss it inside. Then I hooked my arm around the back of the passenger seat and looked into the back, where my daughter Bella was tapping the toes of her sparkly pink shoes together.
“You ready, kiddo?”
She looked up at me, blonde curls bouncing across her forehead, and nodded. “Yep. Ready!”
I unbuckled and got out of the car to get her out of her car seat. I lifted her out and placed her on the grass lawn in front of her preschool. I grabbed her princess backpack and hung it over my right shoulder. It weighed next to nothing against my back. I put my hand on her shoulders and steered her across the grass to the path leading to the front doors of her school.
Other kids were milling around with their parents, who were shooting me curious looks. The single mothers—all eight of them—were clustered together near the doors. They formed a ring, the same way women at a club do, and they had their heads bowed together as my name passed between their lips.
The assumption might sound cocky, but it was a fact.
On the other side of the doors was Bella’s teacher, Mrs. Jasmine. Her floor-length casual blue dress swayed back and forth as she practically danced on the spot with enthusiasm. Some people were just made to be around young children, and Mrs. Jasmine was a prime example of that. She adored the kids and her job, and once I met her, I knew there was no other place I would be willing to leave my daughter.
Mrs. Jasmine spotted me and rushed forward with open arms. She dropped to one knee in front of me to greet Bella with a warm smile and a handshake. Mrs. Jasmine appreciated boundaries, and she never hugged a child unless she was hugged first. I suspected that was one of the many reasons Bella adored her so. Her teacher made her feel safe, and that was of utmost importance to me.
“Good morning, Mr. Hennie,” Mrs. Jasmine said, looking up at me only after she was done saying hello to my daughter. “Happy to see you made it on time for once.”
I chuckled. “For a Monday, it’s been pretty easy going.” Despite my phone ringing off the hook for the whole fifteen minute drive, I was on schedule.
Mrs. Jasmine got to her feet and clasped her hands in front of her. Gold bangles jingled on both of her wrists and matched the dangling jewelry in her ears, winking from behind a veil of long black hair. “Well, go on in, and find your seat, Miss Bella.”
Bella turned around to face me and wrapped both her arms around my knees. I patted her head and crouched down in front of her when she released me. “You’ll be a good girl today?” Bella nodded and I kissed her forehead. “I’ll be back to pick you up. Maybe today is an ice cream day. What do you think?”
“Ice cream!” Bella gushed, throwing her arms around my shoulders.
Mrs. Jasmine put her hands on her hips. “Now she won’t pay any attention to me all day. I’m wonderful, but I can’t compete with ice cream.”
“No one can compete with ice cream.” I laughed and stood. Bella hurried around her teacher and disappeared inside to find her seat and meet her other four-year-old friends. Her little social circle was impressive. Although she was shy, she had no problems making friends.
Mrs. Jasmine reached for me, and I took a hesitant step back. She arched an eyebrow disapprovingly and plucked Bella’s pink backpack from my shoulder. She clicked her tongue. “You know, Mr. Hennie, you’re doing a better job with your daughter than a lot of my parents. I must confess, I didn’t expect you to be one of my favorites.” Her eyes shot over my shoulder to my Jag parked and still running at the curb. “I really didn’t.”
“Most people don’t expect to like me,” I said, turning and looking over my shoulder. “But I grow on them.”
Mrs. Jasmine rolled her eyes. “No,” she said. “You just show up, despite having your hands full.”
I shrugged and instinctively lifted my hand to my ear, searching for my Bluetooth. I would be spending most of my morning catching up on calls now.
Drew would have my head.
The drive from Little Footprints to my office building took a little over half an hour in Florida traffic, but the delay gave me time to return some of my business calls. By the time I was in the elevator heading for the top floor, I was caught up. Well, almost caught up.
The doors opened with a chime, and I emerged on my floor; Hennie Enterprises.
As per usual, I was greeted by a flock of my employees, all demanding my attention to somehow fix each of their problems immediately. I knew they had hard jobs. I knew working for a massive oil conglomerate company like mine took its toll.
But I hired people based on the expectation that they were self-starters. Not a herd of sheep incapable of taking initiative.
I spotted Drew, my right hand man, hanging back and hovering by my office door. He was dressed in his usual gray suit and blue tie. To say he looked smart was an understatement. His suit was tailored to his lean frame in expert fashion, courtesy of my tailor, of course.
I waved away the employees who were thrusting reports and complaints in my direction. “Leave your problems at reception. I’ll handle it when I have the time.” Which, realistically, would be never. Unless Drew brought it to me, it wasn’t as important as my other responsibilities.
Owning and running a multi-billion dollar company the size of Hennie Enterprises while raising my daughter on my own was no easy task, and despite how much I wanted it to be the case, I was not a one-man show.
My company would be worth pennies if not for Drew helping me tell my right hand from my left.
As I passed through my office door, I thumped Drew on the shoulder. “Come in,” I said under my breath. The other employees converged outside my office door, and Drew promptly closed and locked it in their faces before closing the pull-down blinds on all the glass walls of my office.
I collapsed into my chair and threw my heels up on my desk. Clasping my hands in my lap, I watched Drew complete a lap around my office. It was a routine of ours that we had perfected over the years. He started by closing the blinds to give us privacy and then prepped my coffee brewer to make two cups of coffee. While it poured, he opened the blinds on the opposite side of the office, filling it with Florida sunshine.
I winced against the glare but enjoyed the warmth of it on my skin.
“They’re fucking vultures today, man,” Drew muttered as he went back to the coffee machine. He prepared his mug with cream and sugar and left mine empty. He knew I liked my coffee as black as my soul. “How has your morning been?”
“Good,” I said as he poured the coffees. “No complaints thus far, at least. Got Bella to preschool on time for the first time in weeks. Got some embarrassing praise from her teacher.” I shrugged. “It could be worse.”
Drew brought the two cups of coffee over to my desk and sat down across from me. I let mine stand for a minute. I had a bad habit of burning my tongue.
“So, do any of them have anything worth my time?” I nodded toward the still-closed door where the voices of my employees could still be heard.
“No,” Drew said, “but unfortunately, I do.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”
“North Tech Oil wants to adjust the price on the contract prior to signing for another ten years.”
I snorted. “Do they now?”
Drew nodded. “Mr. Devontine is refusing to sign until he speaks with you.”
“Is his request reasonable?” I asked, reaching for my coffee and relishing in my first sip.
“Depends on your definition of reasonable, Brayden.”
I grinned. “You know what my definition is.”
“Then, no. It’s not reasonable. It would cut the profit margin from their partnership by twenty-five percent.”
I rolled my shoulders. “I have no interest in maintaining a partnership with a man who doesn’t understand what ‘mutually beneficial’ means. If I’m not earning, I’m not playing.”
“I tried to explain that to him, man. He wouldn’t listen. He thinks I’m your lapdog.” Drew adjusted his suit jacket and scowled into his coffee. “Everyone thinks I’m your lapdog.”
“Let them think what they want. You and I both know that’s not the case. This company would have imploded years ago if not for you. You’re my partner, at the very least. And my best friend. That counts for something, as I do believe your salary illustrates.”
Drew gave me a wicked smile. “If only the fuckers outside those doors knew what you paid me.”
“I’d have a riot on my hands.”
“Dial Devontine’s personal line. I’ll speak with him directly.”
Drew blinked at me a couple of times before fishing his phone out of his jacket pocket. He scrolled through his contacts and began dramatically tapping the screen with his forefinger. He held the phone out to me as the sound of the first ring came from the speaker.
I held it to my ear and waited.
Mr. Devontine answered on the third ring with the authority of a man who was expecting to get his way. “Drew,” he said dismissively. “If you’re not calling to set up an appointment with your boss, you are wasting my time. I don’t appreciate having my time wasted.”
“This is Brayden Hennie you’re speaking with,” I said. “And I don’t like having my time wasted, either.”
I could practically hear the old bugger on the other end swallow. “My apologies, Mr. Hennie. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon. You’re a busy man, after all, and I know—”
“Let’s skip the niceties for now, Mr. Devontine. My associate tells me you are hoping to renegotiate the terms of our contract. Is this correct?” I glanced up at Drew, who was pressing his fingertips together. The corner of his mouth was lifted in a smile.
“I was hoping for a discussion at the very least,” Mr. Devontine said confidently.
“Well, I hate to disappoint, but as you already so keenly pointed out, I am a busy man. I don’t have the time to negotiate a contract that was already finely tuned to meet both of our needs. If the price is too high, you are more than welcome to take your business elsewhere. Hennie Enterprises is not hurting for your contract.”
Devontine coughed and sputtered on the other end like I had reached through the phone and slapped him. It was rather entertaining, picturing the old bastard at his cherry oak desk in his olive green office that stank of cigars and mothballs. I imagined the vein in his forehead would be swelling right about now.
“Now, now, Mr. Hennie, no need to be rash. Perhaps we can both take a couple days to think things over and reconvene when we are both a little more clearheaded?”
“I assure you I am clearheaded. I also have other more pressing matters to attend to. You have until four o’clock this afternoon to contact Drew at this number and let him know if you are proceeding with our contract as is.”
“Mr. Hennie, please—”
“Four o’clock. Plenty of time. Looking forward to receiving your answer, Mr. Devontine.” I lowered the phone from my ear. Then Devontine started squawking like a dying bird.
“The contract terms are just fine!” he cried. “I’ll sign the papers as soon as they arrive.”
“You can expect them by noon,” I said before hanging up the phone.
And then my desk phone rang.
Already exasperated by the way my morning was going, I answered it brashly. “Yes?”
A woman’s voice spoke my name, and then the rest of her words floated around in my brain. “Brayden Hennie? My name is Nikki Clement. I’m a nurse at Valdez Hospital in Alaska. I am calling with bad news unfortunately.” She paused as if waiting for me to ask her a series of questions, but my tongue was thick and useless in my mouth, and no words came to mind. “Your mother was admitted into our care a week and a half ago. After some tests, it has been concluded that she has cancer. I am sorry to tell you this, sir, but it’s terminal.”
I bit down hard to force my jaw to start working again so I could speak. “How much time?”
“It’s hard to say. It could be weeks. It could be months. One thing is for certain though, Mr. Hennie. She’s going to need care now, and she can’t stay at the hospital.”
“Tell her I’m coming home. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“We will see you soon, Mr. Hennie. I am sorry to have had to call with such news.”
I hung up without saying another word to Nurse Nikki. “Fuck,” I breathed, aware of the feeling of someone piling twenty pound stones on my chest one after another.
“Home?” Drew asked, leaning forward to rest his elbows on my desk. “Like home home? You’re going back to Valdez? What’s up, man? What’s wrong?”
Saying it aloud would make it all real. Not that it wasn’t real now. But telling Drew would solidify things. I took a deep breath and refused to look him in the eye. “My mother is dying.”
Drew leaned back and a great sigh left him. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, man. Shit. I’m real sorry.”
“I can hold down the fort while you’re gone. You have to stay with her, right?”
I looked up at my friend. I hated the pity in his eyes, but I respected his willingness to stand in for me. It wouldn’t be easy for him to assume my role. “Right.”