Bryan Centuria wouldn't need to tell his ex-wife how much knocking at her door terrified him. Even more than visiting that horrible Betty Midway a year earlier, when he learned the secret that almost led to his death.
The nearly naked yellow rose behind his back—his trembling hand had shaken the petals off one by one—would convey that message all too clearly. If she didn't answer soon, he might panic and flee without talking to her at all.
But he couldn't.
He put his ear to the storm door. There. Approaching footsteps. Heavier than he'd expected. Did they belong to Candy—or to a man? He couldn't tell.
Hmm. He hadn't considered that possibility. Had Candy found a new love—maybe even remarried?
A new love? He shook his head at his own stupidity. A real love. The only kind a woman as special as Candy deserved. Not the empty relationship he'd limited her to over the years.
He stepped back instinctively. Would she open the door—or a man? He prayed that it would be Candy.
How would she react to seeing him? If she was willing to speak to him at all, she would ask at least one question. Why had he intruded on her life now—now that she finally had one?
Bryan normally had an answer for everything. But not this time. He didn't know why he'd come or what he hoped to accomplish. Nonetheless, the still small voice of God had directed him to make this visit, and—for the first time in his adult life—he wanted to please his Maker.
Sensing someone checking him out through the peephole, he glanced down and closed his eyes. He needed God's help to face whoever opened the door.
At the sound of the doorknob turning, he looked up again and saw Candy's brilliant blue eyes staring into his. But she was smiling. As if pleased—perhaps even delighted—to see him again.
She pushed the storm door open and stepped back. An unspoken invitation to come inside. She chuckled gently at his hesitation. "You look a lot better than you did this morning."
This morning? What. . . ? Did you see me at Marg's?
Twenty-seven Years Earlier
My MBA commencement had ended thirty minutes earlier. Candy and I were the only two people who hadn't deserted the auditorium. I didn't ordinarily tolerate small talk, but I was working my way up to something important. So important it would blow her mind.
"Candy, we don't love each other, but it would be to your advantage to accept this small token,"—no reason to get down on my knees for a business proposal, no matter how important—"this highly valuable token of an equally profitable business arrangement." I paused for effect. "Profitable for both of us, I might add."
I didn't have to be a body language expert to know I'd shocked her out of her wits. The color drained from her face and she couldn't have wobbled more unsteadily if she'd been drunk. I guided her to the nearest theater seat to keep her from dropping unceremoniously to the well-worn carpeted floor.
No wonder she reacted that way. I had to beg her to attend my graduation, ostensibly to say goodbye and never see one another again.
She'd bought me a pricey card. A combination nice-to-have-known-you and graduation card. And she'd addressed it to Mr. Bryan A. Centuria at my parents' address. She must've assumed I would move back to the parsonage.
Truth be known, I not only hadn't expected a card; I wouldn't have sent her one. Even if she'd been graduating, too. I wasn't big on the little amenities that typified people-persons. I'd outgrown being one of those during my teen years.
She opened her eyes. Halfway. They still had that glazed look of a woman in shock.
"Candy? Are you okay>"
She didn't answer.
Oh, well. At least you're alive.
Then I dropped to my knees. Not to repeat my proposal in a more socially acceptable manner—nothing would have made me do that—but to find the little jewelry box, which had slipped out of her hand the instant she spaced out. I'd heard it tumble a few feet down the carpeted slope, but I couldn't tell how far it had gone.
Ah, there you are, you little rascal. I grabbed the box as if it had been the last sale item of its kind in the store and a ferocious-looking female was about to attack rather than let me get it.
No way was I going to lose that baby. I'd picked the box up at a dollar store, but I had the ring appraised at $22,000. Not that I'd paid the first penny for it.
The girlfriend of a client ditched him before he could give it to her. I barely got there in time to stop him from tossing it into the James River and watching it glitter while it cascaded along the rapids and over the falls into oblivion.
But at least he'd jumped—not into the river, thank goodness—at my offer to take the ring as payment for helping with an all-too-important flunk-or-graduate senior paper. That thing needed help and lots of it. And I didn't work cheap.
I came out on top with that deal. As always.
Although I was only twenty-three, I was well on the way to making my first million dollars by the time I turned thirty. I'd set that goal at the age of eleven when I became friends with Tommy Anderson.
His father was my idol. Or at least my role model. He had established and achieved the same goal for himself, and—now at middle age—he had more money than he knew what to do with.
Money and possessions. Worthy goals for men like me who're willing to sacrifice lesser things. Like a marriage built on love.
Having grown up in an underpaid pastor's family-we rarely enjoyed luxuries and sometimes scrounged for necessities-I could live with goals like those.
Really live, I mean.
I would achieve my goals easily enough. After all, I was Bryan Centuria. I wasn't simply smarter than Tommy. I was smarter than his old man, Thomas Sr.
I opened the jewelry box, handed it to Candy, and smiled. "Want to try this on now?"
When she looked at it, I thought she might pass out again.
Candy tried the ring on. Several times, in fact. She hadn't said yes, but she hadn't turned me down, either. She wouldn't. I might not have had the world's most charm, but I knew what—and who—money could buy.
The Beatles were spot on when they sang, "Can't Buy Me Love." That was fine. I didn't want love. I couldn't afford it. I'd loved and lost before—with a much older woman at that.
Love scared me. Even—or should I say especially?—the love of friends.
I wanted the kind of wife who would make me shine in front of my clients—especially the prospects. A "little woman" who would keep the home fires glowing while I grew my business.
After I decided what to spend my life doing, that was. Continuing to help college students with their various projects would be a waste of my time now. I'd earned more than any college student I'd ever known, but I needed something bigger to keep me on track for my million dollar goal.
Candy tried the ring on again and held it up to the light. Even in the auditorium's dull glow—some idiot custodian who didn't see we were still there had turned the house lights down more than halfway—she couldn't miss seeing what a fine gem that diamond was.
She looked at me with question marks in her eyes. "But, Bryan, I'm your client." Not a whiny voice, although close, but one of mild protest. Or—more likely—complete confusion.
I nodded and gave her my best "So?" look.
"At least, I was your client."
"You charged me big money for suggesting a topic for my psych project and guiding me through it."
And money well spent, you said at the time.
Now to point out that she was more indebted to me than she realized. "I didn't charge you for having your professor change your grade from a D to an A-minus." I spoke in my most self-righteous tone. I'd earned the right to.
Her eyes narrowed in distrust. She thought I didn't know she'd used me as the subject for her case study, "Is This Man Normal?" She also didn't know how low her original grade had been.
I grinned at her. "He marked you down at first because he thought you'd made everything up instead of doing the required research. He didn't believe anybody like me existed. Not as a student on this campus, anyhow. Once we talked for a while, he concluded that your study was spot on.
"In fact, he offered me free counseling if I agreed to let him write a book about me. But—alas!—he planned to retire in ten years and would have had to assign my case to someone else then." I chuckled. "He must have considered me hopeless."
He was probably right.
Candy's hands made a quick trip to her mouth. And her eyes to the ring on her finger. I'd definitely gotten her attention.
"Bryan, we've never dated. And you want me to marry you?"
"Uh, not quite accurate. We went out a couple of times." Of course, I made you pay for your part of our dates. "And yes, I do want to marry you."
No matter how good the soundproofing was, it didn't keep her smirk from echoing throughout the whole auditorium. "You didn't try to kiss me or even hold my hand, much less attempt anything resembling, uh, wrestling. You might as well have been out with one of the guys."
She cocked her head and narrowed her right eye. Or was it her left? Doesn't matter, I suppose. "Or do you even have any male friends?"
Good point. I didn't dare to tell anyone the whole story—not even my prospective bride—but I could safely share the basics. "I'm a loner. My full scholarship didn't cover the cost of a private room, so I paid the extra myself. But you're right. No male friends. No female friends, either. In your case, why spoil a good business relationship by mixing it with needless romance?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. I could tell she wanted to ask why I'd taken her out in the first place.
And I would've explained that I was auditioning her for the role of business wife. Once she passed—that took only a couple of dates—I didn't see any reason for us to keep going out.
But she didn't ask. Instead, she glared at me with eyes of fire. "We went out together, yet you still charged for helping me with my psych project."
I shrugged. "Uh, the good business relationship thing. Tell you what, though. You marry me and I'll refund your money. Every penny."
Now, how fair is that?
She cocked her head and looked into my eyes. The resentment had lifted. Like early morning fog on a sunny day. "What you're proposing is business, too, I gather?"
Now you're catching on, girl.
"I'm offering what Jonathon Swift referred to as a 'modest proposal.' I—"
Did her nostrils evermore start to flair. "If you plan to sell poor peoples' babies as food for rich men's tables, forget it."
You're smart. Well read. That's good.
But I was smarter. "If you know that much about 'A Modest Proposal,' you also know it was satire. Swift intended to repulse his readers. I was only borrowing the title." I pretended to smile. "Writers can't copyright titles, you know."
She rolled her eyes. Then she giggled once. "And I thought you didn't read anything but business books."
"English 101. I remember everything I read." Okay, let's get this back on track. "Candy, I'm going to become rich. Richer than King Solomon. I'm well on the way now."
Five major farmers could've planted ten years' worth of crops in the furrows on Candy's brow. She eyed my jacket. Sure, it had a few small holes, but they weren't that bad. Why spend money on a new one until I needed it?
How that would change once I was rich.
"I'm going to show you something I've never shown anyone else. Not even my parents. You promise not to tell?"
She wrapped herself in her arms as if scared that I might show her something, uh, inappropriate. But then she loosened her arms-on-arms grip and nodded.
I pulled my most recent bank statements out of my inner jacket pocket. Between selling excuses in high school, doing research paper assistance in college, and making some highly profitable investments, I already had a lower-six-figure bottom line.
She gasped. Not once, but twice. "You've earned that much already? And you're what—twenty-three?"
Did I detect growing admiration—and an equal amount of enthusiasm? Or did she think I'd been dealing drugs on the side? I wouldn't dignify that fear with a denial.
"That's just the beginning. I'm going to be rich. Very rich. I'm inviting you to join me on the journey. Things will be tight starting out—I can't grow my portfolio if I start spending it—but you see what I'm capable of. I can and I will reach my goal. That's a promise."
By the time I finished that soliloquy, my voice filled the auditorium as convincingly as any Shakespearian actor had ever done from its stage. She grinned. At my enthusiasm, probably.
She didn't bother to ask what my goal was, and I didn't offer to tell her. That million was just step one, anyhow. I would spend the rest of my life setting and meeting new goals. I loved challenge—especially where money was concerned.
How much money would satisfy me? More. Always more.
Candy held her hands out like a balance scale. "On the one hand, halfway rich now but living like a pauper. On the other, rich later and living like the Queen of the Hill."
"Much richer later." I couldn't overemphasize the fact that I would keep getting wealthier. That's what rich people did for fun, wasn't it?
She couldn't hide the hungry look in her eyes. "Hmm. I haven't received a better offer—not yet." Her playful tone almost made me smile. But then her mouth curled slightly downward at the corners. "The thing is I've still got a year of college to go."
Time to make one thing clear. "You won't finish. You won't need to. We'll marry this summer."
"But I've always dreamed of a B.A. in Fine Arts. You can wait that long, can't you?" She sounded determined, and I wasn't going to put up with it. What's that expression—"my way or the door"?
So I shook my head. "Take it or leave it." While she remained quiet—presumably considering her options—I added, "Your art expertise will be extremely useful in designing my mansion and in—what's the word the well-to-do use instead of 'buying'?—acquiring lots of expensive, artsy doodads to impress our visitors.
"And you can design and make your own fancy clothing, not to mention paint dozens of professional looking pictures for the walls and sculpt amazing statues for the hallways. Those things will really impress my clients."
If the size and shape of her smile was any indication, she had almost decided she wouldn't miss her lost degree. One last point would sway her.
"Oh, and our mansion will contain a huge art room where you can paint, sculpt, make pottery, whatever. Using only the finest materials and equipment." I didn't give her time to respond. "And I'll hire experts—famous artists in every field—to come in and tutor you."
She rubbed her arms. "You would do all that for me?"
Not for you, girl. To impress my clients and make you more of an expert at doing the things I expect of you.
"Not immediately, of course. I have to reach a certain income level first. You understand?"
She closed her eyes for a moment. I wondered if she was praying. I had no idea whether she was a Christian. Then again, I wasn't sure I was still one.
Then she opened her eyes and extended her right hand. "You've got a deal. Just call me Mrs. Bryan Rich-Man Centuria."