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"You want me to find you a wife? You cannot be serious!"
Vincenzo Angilu Tomasi waited for his personal administrative assistant to close her mouth and stop making sounds like a dying fish gasping for water. He'd never heard her talk in exclamation points, hadn't been sure she was capable of raising her voice, even.
Fifteen years his senior, and usually unflappably confident, Gloria had been with him since he took over at the NY branch of Tomasi Commercial Bank more than a decade ago.
Enzu had never seen this side of her. Had not believed it existed and would be quite happy to put it behind them now.
When she didn't seem inclined to add anything to her shocked outburst, he corrected, "I will provide these children with a mama?''
Although he was third generation Sicilian in this country, he still gave the old-world accented pronunciation to the word.
His niece, Franca, was only four years old and his nephew, Angilu, a mere eight months. They needed parents, not uninterested caretakers. They needed a mother.
One who would see them raised in a stable environment unlike what he had known as a child or had been able to provide for his younger brother. Which, yes, would mean the woman would have to become his wife as well, but that was of negligible consideration.
"You can't possibly expect me to find them that. It's impossible." Outrage evident in every line of her body, shock dominated Gloria's usually placid-whatever-the-circumstances expression. "I know my job description is more elastic than most, but this is beyond even my purview."
"I assure you I have never been more serious and I refuse to believe anything is beyond your capabilities."
"What about a nanny?" Gloria demanded, clearly unimpressed with the compliment to her skills. "Wouldn't that be a better solution to this unfortunate situation?"
"I do not consider my custody of my niece and nephew an unfortunate situation," Enzu told her, his tone cold.
"No. No. Of course not. I apologize for my wording." But Gloria did not look like she had an alternative description to offer.
In fact, once again, she seemed to be struck entirely speechless.
"I have fired four nannies since I took custody of Franca and Angilu six months ago." And the current caretaker was not looking to last much longer. "They need a mama. Someone who will put their welfare ahead of everything else. Someone who will love them."
He had no personal experience with that type of parenting, but he'd spent enough time in Sicily with his family over there. He knew what it was supposed to look like.
"You can't buy love, sir! You just can't."
"I think you will find, Gloria, that indeed I can" Bank President and CEO, the driving force behind its expansion from a regional financial institution to a truly international one and founder of his own Tomasi Enterprises, Enzu was one of wealthiest men in the world.
"She will have to be educated," Enzu said, interrupting further ranting on his assistant's part. "A bachelor's degree at least, but not a PhD."
He didn't want someone who was driven to excel academically at that level. Her primary focus would not be on the children but her academic pursuits.
"No doctors?" Gloria asked faintly.
"They hardly keep hours conducive to maintaining the role of primary caregiver for the children. Franca is four, but Angilu is less than a year old and far from being school age."
"It goes without saying the candidates cannot have any kind of criminal record; I would prefer they be currently employed in an appropriate job. Though the woman I choose will give up her current job in order to care for the children full time."
"Naturally." Sarcasm dripped from Gloria's tone.
That, at least, he was used to.
"Yes, well, no candidate should be younger than twenty-five and no older than her mid-thirties." She would have to be his wife as well.
"That narrows down the pool significantly."
Enzu chose to ignore his assistant's mocking words. "Previous experience with children would be preferred, but is not absolutely necessary."
He did realize it was unlikely an educated woman in a career now, unless it was one related to children, would have experience with them.
"Oh, and while I will not immediately rule out someone who has been married previously, she cannot have her own children that would compete with Franca and Angilu for attention."
Franca had experienced enough of that sort of neglect and Enzu was determined she never would again.
"The candidates should be passable in the looks department, if not pretty, but definitely no super-model types."
The children had already been subjected to the beautiful but vain and entirely empty-headed Johana as mother and stepmother.
His brother Pinu's taste in women, from his first serious affair, which had resulted in Franca and a mother who had been only too happy to walk away once Enzu met her financial demands, to the wife who had died with him in the crash, had been inarguably abysmal.
This time around Enzu would be choosing the woman and he was confident he could make a far superior decision to the ones Pinu had made in that department.
Gloria did not reply to Enzu's completed list of requirements, so he went on to enumerate the compensation package he'd worked out for the successful candidate.
"There will be both financial and social benefits for the woman taking on this new role. Once both children have reached their majority without significant critical issues," he emphasized, "the mother will receive a stipend of ten million dollars. Each year she successfully executes her maternal duties she will receive a salary of $250,000 paid in monthly installments. She will receive an additional monthly allowance to cover all reasonable household and living expenses for her and the children."
"You really are prepared to buy them a mother?" Gloria was back to looking gobsmacked.
"Si." Hadn't he said so?
"Ten million dollars? Really?"
"As I said, the bonus is dependent on both children reaching their majority without going off the rails. It will be paid when Angilu turns eighteen. But if one of the children chooses to follow in my brother's footsteps, she will still receive half for the successful raising of the other one."
He did realize there was a certain amount of self-will in the path a person chose to take in life. He and his brothers couldn't have been more different, though they'd been raised in almost identical circumstances.
"And she will be your wife as well?"
"Si. In name at least." For the sake of Franca and An-gilu's sense of family and stability.
Gloria stood, indicating she was ready to return to her work. "I will see what I can do."
"I have every confidence in your success."
She did not look reassured.
Well, that could have gone better.
Audrey brushed impatiently at the tears that wanted to fall. When had crying ever made a difference?
Neither her tears nor those of her then twelve-year-old brother had made a difference to Carol and Randall Miller. Pleading had only been met with disgusted impatience and implacable resolve unhindered by any emotion, much less love.
Maybe she should have waited a few weeks until Christmas and asked then. Weren't people supposed to be filled with charity during the Christmas season? Somehow she didn't think it would make any difference to her parents.
Audrey should have known they weren't going to change their minds now. She'd been an idiot to think that Toby being accepted into the prestigious Engineering School's Bachelor of Science program at MIT would make a difference.
But she hadn't even asked for any financial assistance, just a place for Toby to live while he attended school. If her parents didn't want him commuting to the MIT campus in Cambridge from their Boston home they could have provided living accommodation in one of their many real estate holdings throughout the city.
They'd categorically refused. No money. No help in any way.
Wealthy and emotionally distant, Carol and Randall Miller used the carrot and stick approach to parenting, with an unwavering conviction in the rightness of their opinions and beliefs. When that didn't work, they washed their hands of what they considered failure.
Like they had with her and Toby.
It had nearly broken her brother to be rejected so completely by his parents, but he'd come back from the abyss stronger and determined to succeed and be happy. And, at twelve, he'd had more certainty about what he wanted to do with his life than Audrey at twenty-seven.
She had no grand plan for her life. Nothing beyond raising Toby to believe in himself and to be able to realize his dreams. Audrey's own dreams had been decimated six years ago.
She hadn't just lost the rest of her family when she'd taken Toby in. Audrey's fiance had broken up with her. Thad hadn't been ready for children, he'd said, not even a mostly self-sufficient young boy.
When her parents withdrew their financial support Audrey had been forced to take out student loans to finish her third year at Barnard, but a final year had been well beyond her means. She'd had no choice but to transfer her credits to the State University of New York and complete her degree there.
She'd had to get a full-time job to support herself and her brother. Time and money constraints meant that it had taken her nearly four years of part-time online coursework to finally get her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.
Her parents had been right about one thing. It was a supremely impractical degree. But she wasn't sure she would have finished university at all if she hadn't been studying something she loved so much. Her coursework had been her one break from the stresses and challenges of her new life.
She and Toby had that in common. They both loved learning. But he was committed to excelling in a way she never had been.
With a determination her parents should have been proud of, Toby had earned top marks in school and worked on gaining both friends and confidence in his new environment. He'd said he was going to be happy and her brother was one of the most genuinely joyous people she knew.
She couldn't stand the thought of him losing that joy once he realized they simply couldn't make MIT happen.
It wasn't fair. He deserved this chance and Audrey just couldn't see any way to give it to him.
Only the best and the brightest even got considered for MIT, and those who truly stood out among this elite group were accepted. The private research university accepted fewer than ten percent of their applicants for incoming freshmen and transferring from another school was almost impossible.
Which made any plan that had Toby attending a less expensive state school to begin with and moving on to MIT such a remote possibility as not to be considered at all.
Toby hadn't just gotten accepted, either. He'd won a partial scholarship. It was a huge deal. His high school administration and counselor were over the moon, but not Carol and Randall Miller.
They hadn't softened their stance toward their son one bit. The one question they'd asked had been if Toby still claimed to be gay. When Audrey had told them he did, they'd made it clear they wanted nothing more to do with their youngest son. Ever.
Worse, they'd offered her both a return to the family fold and an obscene amount of money, more than she would need to help Toby go to MIT, with two caveats.
The money could not be used for Toby and Audrey had to sever all ties with her baby brother.
That so was not going to happen. They were family and to Audrey that word meant something.
But all the will in the world wasn't going to pay for Toby to live his dream and attend MIT.
He wasn't eligible for federal financial aid because until the age of twenty-five, their parents' income would be used to determine his need. Even if he had been, MIT was a very expensive school. Four years of textbooks alone would pretty much wipe out what Audrey had managed to save for his college expenses over the past six years.
The cost of living in Boston or Cambridge was high as well, leaving no wiggle room for Audrey to make up for the tuition not covered by the partial scholarship.
Audrey was still repaying her student loans. Her job at Tomasi Enterprises barely covered their living expenses now that her parents had stopped making the child support payments required by the state. Toby had turned eighteen two months ago, and things had gotten lean, but she wasn't pulling any money from his college fund. No matter what.
The New York housing market was ugly. Even outside the city, where she'd moved with Toby when he first came to live with her. And because she wasn't in a city apartment there was no rent control. Each new lease she'd signed had included a bump in their rent. Their current year's lease was going to be up a month before Toby graduated.
Audrey had no idea how she was going to make the new rent without the child support payments. Finding a cheaper apartment in Toby's school district wasn't happening, either. She'd been looking for the past three months, just to get on a waiting list.
She didn't know what she was going to do, but she wasn't giving up.
She might not have any dreams left, but she still had a boatload of stubborn.
Unable to believe what she'd heard, Audrey remained in her stall in the ladies' room for several minutes after the two senior support staff who had been talking in the outer area left.
The bathrooms in the Tomasi Enterprises building were swank, providing an outer sitting area where female employees could take their breaks or breastfeed their babies in onsite daycare. Vincenzo Tomasi was known for his pro-family stance.
While the man himself was an unashamed workaholic, he expected employees with families to actually have a family life. Many of the company's work-life effectiveness policies made that clear.
And what Audrey had just heard would seem to indicate that Mr. Tomasi took his commitment to family even more seriously than anyone could ever imagine. Seriously? Ten million dollars for raising his children acquired through the recent tragic deaths of his brother and sister-in-law? And $250,000 a year in salary besides?
It sounded too good to be true, but it worried her, too. Because Mr. Tomasi clearly believed he really could buy a loving mother. What he was a lot more likely to get was a woman with dollar signs in her eyes.
Like the one who had been listening to his personal administrative assistant complain about her new and impossible assignment. From the way she'd talked, it was obvious the other senior support staffer was more than interested in trying to become a billionaire's wife. That didn't mean she would make a good mother.
But putting on a show to get the job? Easy.
After all, how many people in Boston believed Carol Miller was an adoring and proud parent? Audrey was only too aware of how easy it was to put on that kind of show.
She'd been taken in herself, once upon a time.
The two women discussing what Audrey considered Mr. Tomasi's very personal business hadn't bothered to make sure no one was using the toilet stalls and could overhear them.
While the stalls had actual interior wooden doors that reached the floors, they were all open air a foot from the ceiling for ventilation purposes.
Sound carried. Words carried. And Audrey had heard an earful.