TWO MONTHS AGO
“If this is what you rich people think of as good food, I don’t want to be one of you anymore.” I poked my fork at the pile of foam and gelatinous goop on my plate that was supposed to have been a steak. “Seriously, guys. Where’s the meat?”
Chris, who held the dual title of being my best friend and business partner, squinted at his own plate before he shrugged. “It’s got to be in there somewhere. This place was recommended to me as an up and coming bistro that serves classic dishes with new gourmet twists. I guess a good old chunk of meat isn’t new or gourmet. I’m pretty sure this was made from real meat, though. It’s got to be in there.”
“I prefer things the old, regular way,” I said, prodding at the dubious mess in front of me once more. “We should’ve just gone to a steakhouse.”
He shook his head, motioning around the private room we were in while he swallowed a mouthful of his goop. Once it had gone down, he grinned and pointed his fork at me. “A regular old steakhouse doesn’t say ‘congratulations on becoming a billionaire.’ Since this is a celebration to say exactly that, we had to shake things up a bit.”
Parker, my brother, glanced at his goop. “The cow who died for this is owed an apology. That’s all I’m saying.”
I laughed. “Agreed.”
“Definitely agreed, but at least the foam is tasty.” Nash waggled his brows, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter he was unsuccessfully trying to hold back. “As for not wanting to be one of us if this is what we think is good food, you should know that I haven’t acquired a taste for the supposed ‘finer things in life’ either, and I’ve been rich since before I was even conceived.”
“We might as well have ordered steak milkshakes,” Logan grumbled before pushing his plate away. “I, for one, think we should say a great big fuck you to the finer things in life and hit up a burger joint.”
Looking around the table, I was nodding before he’d even finished his sentence. “Amen to that. Anyone else?”
Cyrus nodded too, picking up his beer as he sat back and made it clear that he wasn’t too enchanted by his steak milkshake either. “Look on the bright side. At least they sell normal beer. I’ve been dragged to places that only carry weird, imported shit. We could drink lunch and hit up a burger joint when we’re done.”
“Agreed.” I grinned, dropping my fork with a slight clatter before I joined him in opting for the drink over the food. “I’m sorry for taking Chris’s advice before inviting you all here. If he’d told me about the new gourmet twist before I made the reservation, I would’ve stuck to getting us takeout from the nearest fast food place.”
“Jesus, you people complain a lot.” Chris flipped me off before glancing at each of us in turn. “You can’t seriously tell me that Nash and I are the only ones willing to try new things.”
Nash widened his eyes and set down his utensils to lift his hand. “Whoa. Leave me out of it. All I said was that the foam was tasty. It doesn’t mean I like trying all this new-agey bullshit. If you ask me, it’s a waste of time messing with perfection, and there’s nothing more perfect than a well-cooked chunk of meat that actually requires you to chew before you can swallow it.”
Chris paused for a beat before he raked a hand through his blond hair and then gave up the act. “Fine. It’s a good thing I rescheduled all our appointments for this afternoon. Here’s to drinking our lunch.”
He raised his beer and waited for everyone else to do the same. Before any of us could take a sip, he cleared his throat and held up a finger to show that he wasn’t quite done yet. All traces of laughter and joking disappeared from his green eyes when they locked with mine.
“On a more serious note, congratulations on signing your deal. That smart boot of yours was a stroke of genius. The technology is going to change a lot of lives and I’m damn proud of you for designing it.”
“His pride isn’t quite as good as the three billion dollars the patent earned you, but it’s something,” Cyrus joked, lightening the mood around the table again. He clinked his beer against mine. “For what it’s worth, I’m proud of you, too. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
“Welcome to the club, Hunter.” Nash winked and leaned over to let his bottle crash into mine. The beer inside both bottles foamed, but we’d had enough out of each that neither of them bubbled over. “Can we drink yet, or do you have something to say before we do?”
He glanced at Logan, who laughed and tipped his bottle in my direction. “Congrats, Hunter. Between you and Chris, you’re taking the physical therapy world by storm with all these devices you’re inventing. Keep it up, guys. Nash might need every one of those devices if Lennon keeps insisting on dancing with him despite her two left feet. Let’s drink.”
Nash sputtered and sent him a glare but didn’t argue. Instead, he simply shrugged eventually and brought his bottle to his lips to take a long drink. My guess was that he didn’t argue because he didn’t really have a leg to stand on—pun intended. Sort of.
Physically, he still had a leg, of course, but not for Lennon’s lack of trying. His wife, wonderful woman that she was, was known for her clumsiness. Just after they’d met, she’d injured his ankle so badly that he’d had to come back to the city from the Hamptons for us to fix him up before he could get back to the wedding they’d been gearing up for.
I thought back to that time, a time not so long ago when I’d been on the outside of their little billionaires’ club looking in, and I couldn’t believe how much had changed. An idea I’d had for a boot while working with a patient had turned into a sketch, which had turned into a design, which had turned into an application to file a patent, which had turned into the three billion that was now sitting in my bank account.
Fucking unbelievable. I’d never expected to join these guys’ ranks in any capacity other than as their friend, but now I was officially one of them. Not that the club was official or anything, but as of earlier this week, I was a legit billionaire now too. I’d achieved a level of success I’d previously thought was reserved only for others. So damn crazy.
It was a relief that I had the guys I’d gathered for this lunch in my corner. Nash and Logan had been born with more money than they’d ever be able to spend, but Chris and Cyrus had come from nothing. Like me and Parker.
While the other two had been New York royalty practically since birth, they’d managed to keep their feet on the ground and we’d all become fast friends. Each one of them had had a hand in supporting me these last few months, giving their advice freely—and for free—and encouraging me to file for the patent instead of just designing the boot to help the patient who’d inspired it in the first place.
Without them, I doubted I would have made it this far, which was why I’d asked them to join me for a celebratory lunch as soon as the ink on my contract was dry. I’d figured that buying them a meal was the least I could do to thank them.
Granted, I’d wanted to buy them a steak they could eat instead of almost having to suck it through a straw, but in this case, the thought would have to count more than the actual food. Thankfully, I doubted any of them would hold it against me. I also doubted that I’d received the last of the advice I would need from them. As such, I resolved to choose a better restaurant for the next meal I would inevitably owe them.
As if he’d read my thoughts, Cyrus got back to business between sips of his drink. “Your invention isn’t only going to change other people’s lives. It’s going to change yours, too. Trust me on this. Whether you want it to be or not, your life as you’ve known it until now is over.”
“Why? I like my life the way it is now.” I frowned. “Nothing has to change just because my bank balance suddenly has a lot more digits.”
Parker nodded his agreement, but the others exchanged knowing glances, chuckling as they either shot me sympathetic looks or shook their heads.
Cyrus’s sympathetic look intensified while he answered my question. “You might think those extra digits won’t make a difference and maybe they shouldn’t, but they do. After I made my first billion, everything changed. Word travels at the speed of light, and once it gets out, that’s it. You’ll go from being Hunter to being Hunter Holmes, that billionaire who designed that medical device.”
I scoffed. “No one knows me. It might’ve been like that for you, but no offense, you’re a fucking force of nature. The sale of your first company made the financial newspapers and magazines. I doubt it’ll be the same for me.”
Logan jumped in before Cyrus could respond. “Are you familiar with the expression, more money, more problems? Because it’s true. People may not know you, but they’re going to start coming out of the woodwork real soon to get a piece of you. All that matters is that they’re going to know about you, and that’s when things begin to change. Within a month, I guarantee you’re not going to trust anyone who so much as looks at you. You’re only going to be wondering what they want from you. It’s not pretty.”
While I wanted to protest again, it suddenly dawned on me that the change had already started happening. Not everything they’d mentioned but some of it.
Grudgingly, I had to admit that they were right. “I’ve already been getting requests to do interviews and go on talk shows. Some people have even called to offer me outrageous sums for my next medical breakthrough. I thought it was just a novelty thing that would blow over soon, but it’s not going to, is it?”
“No, it’s not.” Chris’s mouth formed a hard line. “You were there when it happened to me. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to stay under the radar, people have a way of finding out and finding you.”
Cyrus let out a bark of laughter. “And if they don’t find you or if you ignore them, they call you ‘reclusive’ or ‘mysterious.’ That’s when the crazy really gets going. Whatever you do, don’t go there. I tried it, and it backfired spectacularly.”
“Fuck.” I let my head drop forward, covering my face with my hands as I groaned, already lamenting what was about to become of my life. Because Chris was right. I had been there when it happened to him, and it had been absolutely fucking insane how interested people had become in him.
Before news of his invention had spread, he’d just been another doctor trying to make a difference and then boom. Overnight, everyone and their aunt had something to say to him or about him. He’d gotten invitations from people he hadn’t known to exclusive parties at some of the most exotic locations in the world, but he’d also received hundreds of requests for money from charities we hadn’t even known existed.
It hadn’t occurred to me that same thing might happen to me because I wasn’t like Chris. He was a charmer with supermodel looks and a heart of gold. And that was objectively speaking. I was just a former bodybuilder who’d let himself go and who enjoyed working with his friend to help people heal.
Cyrus reached over to clap me on the shoulder. He grinned when I glanced at him. “Don’t worry so much about it. You’ll get used to it in no time. Just lean into it and don’t make yourself any more interesting than you already are by trying to avoid the masses.”
“If it makes you feel any better, my life changed recently too,” Nash offered, flashing me a different finger than the one I was used to getting. It was the ring finger on his left hand, and on it was the ring I’d watched Lennon slide into place a couple months ago. He chuckled under his breath, giving the ring an incredulous look before he dropped his hand again. “I’m with Cyrus. It’s better to just lean into it. I never thought I’d get married, let alone to a girl like Lennon who’s the love of my life. I always thought that if it happened, it would be an arranged marriage to some socialite. Believe it or not, I was scared shitless when I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Now I couldn’t be happier.”
“I can attest to that,” Chris said, lightly tapping his own ring against the bottle he was still holding. “The part about being scared and the part about never having been happier.”
“Yeah, me too,” Logan agreed. “Imagine my surprise when I fell in love with the girl I was faking it with.”
Cyrus nodded before echoing their sentiment. “True that. The faking thing didn’t stay fake for very long for any of us, did it?”
“I wish I was only dealing with a girlfriend, real or fake, instead of having to handle all this other stuff,” I said. “It’s going to be an administrative nightmare and I suck at admin. I also don’t know anything about dealing with press. I won’t be able to say no to charities regardless of the fact that they might not even be real, and I definitely don’t want to have to doubt the intentions of everyone I come into contact with. To top it off, I keep missing calls because I’m with patients and then it takes me hours at night to return them all just in case there was one that was actually important. Now you’re telling me that if I don’t keep returning them forever, I’m going to fuel people’s interest because I’ll be labeled as being a recluse.”
Logan cocked his head, rubbing his thumb and forefinger against the grain of the dark stubble on his jaw. “Why don’t you hire an assistant to help you out? God knows, having an assistant has saved my ass more than once.”
“Even better, hire a PR guru,” Nash interjected. “I know of a company that might be a good fit. I’ll have them call you.”
My brain spun as I tried to wrap it around everything they were saying. Part of me wanted to do my best impression of an ostrich and stick my head in the sand, but I knew I’d have to face it all sooner or later. “Let me think about it. I’m not used to any of this. I don’t even know where to begin.”
Maybe it was a mistake to file that patent after all. Making so much money suddenly felt like more of a curse than a blessing. I had no idea how to handle any of this shit, and when I’d said I was happy with my life as it was, I’d been serious.
At this rate, it was going to take a miracle for me to keep my head above water when everything really started happening. And since I’d just gone from ordinary Joe to billionaire, I was pretty sure I was fresh out of miracles.
Just… fuck. Maybe I should give it all away. Or make it someone else’s problem. Under the circumstances, hiring an assistant probably wasn’t the worst idea, but if I was going to do it, I’d have to find someone trustworthy and reliable who was available to start a new job.
If the guys were to be believed, and I trusted implicitly that they were, finding someone trustworthy right now was going to be next to impossible.
Maybe the answer is moving to some remote island and sipping cocktails for the rest of my life.
Now that was a plan I could get onboard with.