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Sitting in the backseat of the Lincoln Town Car that had been waiting for her at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, Lily Wolfe took in the familiar sites of her old neighborhood, Cascade Heights, in the southern part of Atlanta. The finely manicured lawns, the old houses with style right next to the new McMansions and abundant construction.
Nothing much had changed since she left, but that had been only four years ago.Although being admitted to Oxford University's Saïd Business School in England was the longest shot Lily had ever taken, she had been desperate to get away from everything that reminded her of family. After it was over, she made excuses to stay in Europe in order to avoid the real problem in her life. She wasn't going to be able to do that anymore.
The doctor's voice had been disturbingly calm as he explained it to her. "A TIA is short for transient ischemic attack. It's what we call a ministroke."
As the car approached the driveway of the Wolfe home, the older centerpiece in the row of newer homes, Lily's paranoia was getting to her. On a street where everyone had plenty of room to park their SUVs and luxury foreign sedans in their multicar garages and driveways, a simple Chevy parked along the curb reminded her of the familiar FBI presence that used to be a regular outside her family's home six years ago.
So what was she supposed to think as she squinted her large, green eyes to try and get a face on the two sitting in the front seat? Two white guys in cheap suits sitting in a no-frills beige car across the street from where her father lived. Was he in trouble again?
His trouble wasn't what brought Lily back to Atlanta, but it was the reason sheleft. Adding to this, the death of her mother only two years later had been more than Lily could take. The one thing she had in common with her father was their tendency to avoid problems and pretend they didn't exist.
That was what Lily had done six years ago, when her father's real estate firm came under investigation for real estate fraud, high-pressure sales tactics and property flipping with false documentation. He told her it was all lies and she had nothing to be worried about. Despite the fear and uncertainty swarming inside her, Lily decided to just grin and bare it.
In the end, her father's case was dismissed because of some clever public relations work, misplaced evidence and a grand jury that wouldn't indict. Ward Wolfe considered himself vindicated and Lily went along, ignoring the questions she had about papers she remembered being taken from her own office that had somehow gone missing. As a twenty-four-year-old business analyst, she wasn't privy to the details of Wolfe Realty's business deals, but had based some of her analysis on what the Atlanta FBI had considered doctored information.
It was when her mother, Jessica, died in a car accident two years later, that all of Lily's anger really surfaced. Her rock and foundation was gone and the only way Lily had known to respond was to bring fury on the only person left--her father. After the smoke cleared, permanent damage had been inflicted on her already thin relationship with him. It was then that she decided to run away to England.
Her communications with her father over the past four years had been polite and hollow. How are you? How's your job? How's the company doing? Updates on the neighbors in Atlanta and interesting must-see sights across Europe filled most of their conversations.
That was until five days ago when Lily received a call from her father, who was lying in a hospital bed. He had suffered a temporary interruption of blood flow to the brain, causing a seizure. Not as severe as a stroke, it was considered the precursor to a stroke and Ward's had been severe.
Having seen his life flash before him, Ward wanted the pretenses done with. There was no denial or protest on her part. The fear of God had been placed in Lily at the thought of her father dying with their relationship so muddled.
After conducting some quick personal business, Lily was on the first flight out of Paris. She didn't expect this to be easy, but it wasn't going to be resolved. She had already set her priorities. First was making sure her father was healthy again and had everything he needed. Second was working on repairing their relationship and letting the past go. But now that she saw that car outside the house, Lily was reminded that the second part was going to be harder.
"Thank you." Lily smiled, nodding politely to the driver who'd helped her out of the car.
"I'll take your bags in." He was a fair-skinned man in his fifties and spoke in a Caribbean accent. In a casual blue polo shirt and black slacks instead of the usual dark suit and hat, he looked more like a man on his way to a round of golf on this beautiful mid-May morning.
Lily nodded back anxiously. She would be spending the first few nights at the house, but eventually she was moving back to her condo in Atlanta's midtown neighborhood.
As she approached the front door of a colonial-style brick and columned home that was built in the 1950s, Lily took a deep breath. Before her finger could press the doorbell, the door opened and she stepped back.
"Lily." Brody Saunders stood in the doorway, all six foot four inches of him. He looked down on Lily, who barely made five-five, with that eternal stern look on his face. He was raisin brown, and despite being almost forty, looked like a young GQ model in his expensive suit. "It's been a while."
"Hello, Brody." Lily swallowed, trying to fight that tendency to pretend she was close friends with someone she never really liked.
It wasn't that Brody was a bad guy; that stern look was only the face he was born with. He was just fine, although a little cold at times. The tenseness Lily felt around him was based on his relationship with her father. After coming to work for Ward eighteen years ago, Brody was more of a son to him than she had ever been able to be a daughter and Lily was jealous. She sensed he was jealous of her because she actually was Ward's child, something she was certain he would give his life to be.
"Always Dad's right-hand man," she said as she stepped into the house. There was a sense of warmth that hit her at the sight of the familiar decorations in the foyer, but also a sense of pain. They were all her mother's decorations; her style and taste were everywhere. This was why she couldn't stay at this house.
Her father's desire to keep everything of Jessica so tight to his chest had been his way to deal. While Lily dealt with her mother's untimely death by lashing out, Ward dealt with it by forming a shell around himself. He wouldn't connect to anyone or anything, just going further and further inside.
"There is nowhere else I would rather be." Brody smiled proudly as he gestured for her to follow him. "He wanted to receive you in the living room to act as if he was stronger than he really is."
Lily appreciated the gesture. "Brody, please tell me the truth." Brody turned to her as they reached the stairs. His face held an emotional strain. "He's going to be all right, Lily."
"Your face doesn't say that."
He shrugged. "I haven't been able to shake the fear I felt when I saw him grab his chest in the middle of that meeting."
The impassioned look on Brody's face made Lily want to reach out to him, but she didn't. "I'm so glad you were there for him. He trusts you more than anyone."
Brody laughed. "He called for you."
"I..." Lily shook her head. "That was the first word he spoke after he grabbed his chest," Brody said. "He looked at me, reached his free hand out to me, but he said your name. He said it twice before he couldn't speak anymore."
Lily had to grip the railing to stay standing. Her full lips began to tremble, but she kept her composure. "I want to see him, please."
Lily felt her chest tighten at the sight of her father lying in the king-size bed. His usually milk-chocolate skin looked several shades lighter and he appeared frailer than usual despite the thirty pounds of extra weight he'd maintained since his wife's death.
Ward Wolfe slowly turned his head away from the television. As his dark eyes set on his approaching daughter, he smiled as if it was painful to do so.
"Little flower," he said just above a whisper as he held his hand out to her.
"Hello, Dad." She took his hand in hers; his skin felt dry. Leaning over to kiss him on the cheek, she chided herself for the first thought that came to mind.
Everything was the same. He hadn't changed even one tiny decoration in four years.
She sat down on the chair next to the bed, feeling several emotions she couldn't explain right now, but guilt was the most dominant. Her father was sixty-seven years old and she hadn't seriously inquired about his health the entire time she'd been in Europe.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to get back," she said, hoping an apology for anything would make things better.
"I understand," Ward said, trying to speak a little louder. He motioned for Brody to turn off the television. "With all the work you've done getting Courtney clean, you couldn't just leave her behind."
Courtney Harris was Lily's twenty-three-year-old cousin whom she had spent the last year trying to get out of the drug and nightclub life. "I dropped her off at the Dunwoody Center before I came here. She'll be there for the next six weeks."
"I'm inconvenient," Ward said. "Just as you got her to agree to treatment, I go and have an attack."
"Don't even think that." Lily reached over and placed her hand on the covers above his leg. "No kidding around, I want to know what's going on."
Ward turned to Brody, who was standing at the foot of the bed. He eyed him sternly until Brody shook his head. Then he relaxed and nodded. "Lily," he answered, "I won't let you worry about me. The doctor says--"
"He has a twenty-four-hour nurse," Brody said.
"I want to meet her," Lily said.
"She's downstairs," Ward said. "But don't you bother her. She's good and very expensive."
"How long will she be here?" There was a voice inside of Lily that told her the chance to make this more personal had passed and she regretted it. This had become another information exchange and that was what she'd hoped to avoid.
"Lily." Ward strained as he reached out to take her hand in both of his. He seemed to be squeezing hard, but his weakened state made it feel like a slippery grip. "I'm going to be fine. I didn't ask you to come here to be on a death watch."
Lily shifted nervously in her seat. "I know that, Dad. I just...I don't think you're--"
"I called you here." He turned away, setting his attention on Brody.
Lily watched as Brody sighed and nodded reluctantly before leaving the room.
"I called you here," he repeated, "for something much more important than that."
Lily leaned forward, reveling in the belief that her father wanted the same thing she did. If they both wanted to face the truth and become a real family again, nothing could stop them. Not even their own insecurities and fears.
"I need you to come back to Wolfe Realty," he said. Lily felt her heart fall into the pit of her stomach. She swallowed hard and leaned back. "You want me to come back and work for you?"
"Not for good." A somber expression took over his tired face. "I know you don't want to be a part of the company. You made that clear when you quit after your mother passed."
"Don't," he said. "I don't want to get into that. I just need you to be there while I'm not. To stand in for me."
"Dad, I'm a consultant not an operations person. I don't know how to run a company."
"I don't need you to run it," Ward said. "Brody is practically running the place himself. He'll be fine, but he's staying behind the scenes. I need you to be the public face of Wolfe Realty."
After flying nine hours in coach, Lily wasn't quick enough to conceal her instinctual reaction. "Daddy, I... It's been four years."
"It's just a public face, little flower...foundation events and press conferences. Trust me, Brody will handle everything."
"There's no one else you can--"
"Of course there are others, but the name on that door says Wolfe Realty and as long as I'm alive, a Wolfe will be the face of the company." He sighed, turning away. "I know when I decide to retire, the company will no longer be in the family and I don't blame you for that. That's entirely my fault."
He lowered his head. "That's all my damn fault, Lily. I'm so--"