It’s another calm, beautiful morning in San Diego. Birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and the streets are lined with moving vehicles and the sounds of a typical morning commute. Mark Cook can’t see or hear any of that, though. Blackout curtains completely cover four large windows that normally bask in the glow of a beautiful skyline. It’s pitch dark, and his bedroom is filled with cold air. The only sounds are the few faint snores of a gorgeous young blonde lying next to Mark in his king-size bed.
Mark met Misty at a bar the night before. His charm and good looks have never done him wrong, and he was able to get her back to his place by the end of the evening. It was a long night, and neither intends to get up anytime soon.
But in that instant, Mark rises from his slumber and clutches his chest.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe!” Mark says. He turns to put his feet on the cold tiled floor next to his bed and pulls his head back to allow his chest to stretch out.
“Mark? Are you okay?” Misty says in a panic. She instantly jumped when Mark screamed. She is leaning over him from behind.
“I can’t breathe. I am having chest pains,” Mark says. He’s hyperventilating, and he’s clutching his chest so tightly that the tips of his fingers are leaving an imprint in the center of his bare chest.
“What’s wrong? Are you having a heart attack?” Misty says. “Please don’t die on me.”
“I’m not dying. Not today,” Mark exclaims.
“I have seen this before, I think. I think you are having an anxiety or panic attack,” she says. Misty runs out of the room and comes back with a glass of cold water.
Mark moves his head around in an irritated fashion like he’s looking for someone or something to help him. He glances at the clock on his bedside table. It reads 2:29 a.m., but the time is blinking. He can feel the pain subsiding.
“Did the electricity go out?” Mark says to Misty as he tries to drink the water she brought him.
“It must have,” Misty says as she walks over to take a peek between the dark curtains. She winces as the daylight smacks her in the face. “Yep; it’s morning. Still too early after the night we had.”
Misty comes back to Mark’s side of the bed and rests her head on his shoulder. Mark has calmed down considerably and is rubbing his head and eyes with both of his hands. He doesn’t know what just happened, but he is refuting everything Misty just said a few seconds earlier.
“Anxiety attack? Really?” I was asleep, Misty,” Mark says with a condescending tone. “How could I have been anxious while sleeping?”
“I don’t know,” Misty fires back.
“Well, you don’t strike me as someone who knows much of anything. So that’s not surprising,” Mark says again.
“Not cool, man. I’m actually a first-year medical student…though you were clearly too interested in my short skirt and big boobs to ask probing questions about me or my background. I’m not a fool; I see guys like you all the time.
“I am really not interested in a lecture right now,” Mark says while grimacing.
“Anyway, I know it can’t be a heart attack; you’re sitting here talking to me, right? Did you have a bad dream? Those can get you worked up. Or…maybe all that sex time was too much for the old ticker?”
Mark chuckles slightly. With his eyes closed, he continues breathing slowly and feels the last remnants of the pain in his chest disappear.
“Are you okay now?” Misty asks.
“I am fine, babe. Just fine. It may be morning, but it’s still way too early for this crap. You can go back to sleep. I’ll be fine,” Mark says. He gives her a quick kiss on the lips and continues breathing slowly.
“I’m going to take that kiss as an apology for that comment a second ago,” Misty says with a sarcastic tone. She gives Mark a couple of rubs on the back and then lies back down to fall asleep. “6:02…by the way.”
“Huh?” Mark asks.
“The real time…it’s 6:02 a.m.,” Misty says. “The electricity went out, remember?”
Mark glances back at his clock and sees 2:29 flashing.
“Yeah, it must have,” he says.
Mark sits up and wanders into the bathroom and then the kitchen. He uses the filtered water from the refrigerator to refill his glass. While drinking the cool refreshment to relieve his dry mouth, Mark looks at the kitchen clocks…the refrigerator, the microwave…the brand new oven he just had installed…all of it…they all are displaying a time of 2:29 and blinking. He takes another sip and walks out to his balcony to grab some fresh air. His apartment is the penthouse of a luxury high-rise, and after four years of living there, it’s still everything Mark could have asked for. No dopey little yard or annoying neighbors with small children — just a sleek, custom-designed open floor plan perfect for the busy, single male who lives for a quiet, maintenance-free lifestyle. The Utopia at San Diego literally has everything (a fully-furnished unit, access to an Olympic-sized pool and spa services, gated parking, and a personal concierge waiting on him hand and foot). And that’s just for starters. Naturally, the apartment is high enough for Mark to feel like he stands tall over the entire city. He got the whole package for a steal considering the units normal $1.5 million asking price and he paid $900,000. He gladly would have paid more, but he lives for the negotiating room, and he always wins.
Mark reaches the balcony rail and leans over while still holding his glass of water. His eyes are closed, and he calmly feels the breeze from the early morning air caress his face. Mark is breathing easier and not experiencing any pain.
Am I going to die, or was I just having an anxiety attack? For real. What the hell was that? I don’t remember dreaming. Was I really having a panic attack?
Mark clears his throat. He starts talking out loud now.
“Or is it my heart, and I have some kind of heart condition?” He wrinkles his forehead, moves his head around, and throws his arms out to the side. “Eh, look at me. I am in great shape.”
“Did you say something, Mark?” Misty screams from the other room.
“No,” he says.
“Well, shut up then. Glad you’re okay. But shut up. I still have a hangover.”
“What a feisty little thing,” Mark says to himself. “Who does she think she’s talking to? Med student…pffft. Who cares!”
Mark goes back to his bedroom after about 5 more minutes of standing on the balcony. He sees Misty lying face down with the blankets covering half her body. She’s back to sleep and purring like a small kitten.
Misty wasn’t kidding when she said she is a med student. She just moved to San Diego from Wyoming a few months ago and was out bar hopping with her girlfriends when she met Mark. He was the typical guy out on the prowl and stuck out like a sore thumb in his suit and tie. Every other guy in the bar had jeans and a t-shirt, but Mark wasn’t there to blend in. It also helps that he is a really good looking guy. At 32 years old, the former collegiate soccer player is still in incredible shape and doesn’t look a day over 25. His soft, dark hair was perfectly combed for a night on the town, though it was offset by a slight 5 o’clock shadow. And his eyes…well, most women have had trouble describing them since they were too busy staring at his toned butt.
Misty was the perfect catch for someone who was clearly looking for a quick score. She is 6-0, blonde, 22 years old, and has curves for days. Mark even asked her between rounds of Jack and Coke how she stayed in such great shape, to which Misty replied in a coy tone, “it just comes natural, I guess.” She wasn’t dumb at all; Misty wasn’t sharing too much about herself and knew exactly what she wanted from Mark. She was willing to play his game.
It was a fun night, and way too easy of a pickup than either expected. While reminiscing the events of the night in his head, Mark continues to stand there in amazement at Misty’s toned body.
“I have got to stop messing around with these young girls,” he says to himself. But at that moment, Misty moves, and more of her body is exposed to show off her beautiful breasts.
“Ummm, maybe not,” Mark says quietly as he lies back down next to her.
A few hours later, Mark is up and out the door before Misty wakes back up. She doesn’t need to worry about a key or to lock the door because Mark’s doorman, Randy, checks his apartment every morning and night. He knows Mark’s thirst for women and the revolving door that comes with it. Mark never gives the women a key but does give Randy some extra cash to keep him safe and his women happy. It’s a good system for everyone involved. And Mark prefers it that way—not just with women, but with everything.
“Another late night, sir,” Randy says as Mark walks outside. Randy is the typical doorman…fat and a heavy breather. But his personality is what everyone pays attention to the most. Even Mark slows down to chat for a few minutes each day.
“You could say that, Randy. But when you see the girl I brought home, you’ll wish the night had been longer,” Mark says with a grin.
“That gorgeous, huh?” Randy asks.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Mark hands Randy a $50 bill. “Her name is Misty; I remembered this time. See to it that she gets wherever she needs to go.”
“Yes, sir. You’re a good man, sir. Don’t let anyone tell ya different.”
“Ha! Well, you’re in the minority there, Randy. But I appreciate it.”
While Mark comes from a good family, he’s also always been a bit of a loner. Even as far back as college, he always lived by himself and kept everyone around him on a short leash. If they messed up in the slightest bit or couldn’t keep up with his lifestyle, he’d kick them to the curb and move on. Some would say his attitude toward life is cavalier, too, and he always comes across as if he knows he is self-absorbed and better than everyone else.
His time is money, and whatever he has on his schedule is more important than anything else. A few years ago, he had the opportunity to be the keynote speaker and primary benefactor for a local charity event. Everything was set up by the organization ahead of time, but Mark backed out at the last minute. When he was asked why, he made up a story that he was sick. In reality, he had planned to spend that week in the Bahamas.
Randy gets Mark’s car pulled up. Mark is on his way to work in his casual suit. His car, a white and black Tesla sports car, looks a lot like the Batmobile with its low-to-the-ground frame, wind-resistant features, and dark tinted windows. Completely dark tint like that is usually against the law, but Mark still gets away with it. Plus, he’s rich—he feels like he can walk on water.
Mark takes the traffic-infested drive to his high-rise office building. Before reaching the building, though, he finds himself at a stoplight and can’t help but think about his incident earlier this morning and how nice it was to at least have someone there when it happened. Mark is usually too busy with work, parties, and hot women to even care about a relationship. But today, he feels different. He looks over at a couple sitting outside at a corner coffee shop. They are holding hands and kissing.
Mark sighs and wrinkles his nose before peeling out when the light turns green.
He speeds through the rest of the streets and into the parking garage. He settles into his private parking spot labeled Mark Cook, Cook Winery. Mark and his family own a winery, which has been in the family for three generations. Mark’s grandfather founded it, but the growth of the business did not really happen until Mark took over the marketing and sales at age 21. Over the past 11 years, he has grown the business to the point where the brand has become a worldwide sensation.
Mark makes his way up to his office and through the elevators to his receptionist and the rest of the girls in the front area. He has always kept his office filled with an all-female staff since he’s such a Casanova and enjoys the view.
“Good morning, ladies,” Mark says as he winks casually at them.
“Damn. I never get tired of watching him walk by each morning,” one lady says.
“He’s your boss. Be careful,” the girl in the cubicle next to her chimes in.
“Eh. I see how he is. Being his employee wouldn’t stop him from ripping my…”
“Sharon!” the other girl interrupts while laughing.
Mark doesn’t hear any of the gossiping. He walks over to his office and desk, which is nestled up close to the outside window of the high rise. He sits down and looks straight across the room at family photos on the wall. There is a large family photo with his grandparents and parents and siblings. His grandfather passed away when he was 21, but the rest of the family is alive and well. Mark smiles, remembering those fun times when he and his older brother, Mason, and younger sister, Lori, would play in the grapevines and get in trouble throwing grapes at each other.
He laughs out loud and reaches for his office phone to call Lori.
“Hey, Lu, what’s going on?”
“It’s Dr. Lu to you, mister,” Lori replies keenly.
Lori, a slender brunette with hair that curls perfectly just below her ears, is two years younger than Mark but has more sass in her 5-foot-5-inch frame than anyone Mark has ever met. And she can hold her own with the best of them. In fact, Mark’s long-standing joke amongst the family is that if Lori were put in a rodeo ring with an angry bull and nothing but a spatula to defend herself, most people should be more concerned for the bull than Lori.
“Yes, of course, doctor. Ease up on your older brother. Say, how much longer do you have of residency and those long hours?” Mark asks while leaning back into his chair and getting comfortable.
“Umm, 1 year, 2 months, and 3 days,” Lori says after taking a deep breath.
“Oh, okay. Wow. You are ready, aren’t you? And are you sure you want to be in the ER? That shit is bat crazy. I have seen Grey’s Anatomy, you know,” Mark says with a sarcastic laugh.
“Yeah, I love the ER. Plus, all those hot doctors, right? Just like the show,” Lori says. “So, what do you want, brother? You usually want something.”
“Hey, come on,” Mark says and pauses, “Okay, you’re right. You know me so well. So, I was with this chick last night and woke up having chest pains. My entire chest felt like it was being crunched together, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I mean…I could barely even talk.”
“Oh my GOD, are you ok now?” Lori says.
“That’s just the thing. It came and went so fast that I’m not really sure. I mean…if I was having a heart attack, wouldn’t that mean I’d be dead or passed out? If it wasn’t a heart attack, what was it? I’ve been wracking my brain all morning, and the only thing I can come up with is that it was an anxiety attack.”
At that moment, one of Mark’s employees tries to enter the room for a signature.
“Can’t you see I’m on the phone? Come back later!” Mark says sharply. The young girl turns quickly to get out of dodge.
“You were saying, sis?”
“Geez! Ease up on whomever you are talking to there, champ. Anyway, most likely, that is what it was. Did you have a nightmare? Were you scared? Someone was there, right?” Lori inquires.
“I wasn’t alone. Misty was beside me, and no, no nightmare,” Mark replies while getting up from his chair and pacing.
“Who is Misty? Never mind, I don’t want to know. I think you’re right. It couldn’t have been a heart attack. At least, that’s what it sounds like to me. Did you lose consciousness at all?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Things like that can happen once or can continue over years. I recommend that you make an appointment with your primary doctor for a full physical along with a blood test and a cardiac workup.”
“Whoa. You are getting way too technical on me, Lu,” he says.
“Fine, I will do it for you,” Mark says.
“Good. And please don’t forget that Tony’s birthday is this weekend.”
“Yep. I have it on my calendar. I will be there.”
“Oh, I said I didn’t want to know, but who is this Misty girl?”
“Who? Oh…the chick? She’s no one special. She’s like a med student or something. I don’t know; I wasn’t really listening.”
“No one special? But she was at your place, right? All night?” Lori asks.
“Yeah…I mean…A lot of girls are at my place, Lu.”
“We really need to talk about your attitude toward women.”
“What about it?”
“Just…I don’t know…you can do whatever you want.”
“That’s right!” Mark says. “I do whatever I want — always have and always will. Look, I know it bothers you that I have so many females bouncing in and out of my life. But it’s what I choose to do.”
“I know. But there’s Rachel…oh, and what about Lisa?”
“That girl was not right for me?”
“Lisa? Why? Because she was educated?” Lori says sarcastically. “When are you going to care about anyone else except yourself?”
Hey, I do care about people! I just keep them at arm’s length,” he says.
“Ugh. You’re such an ass. And none of what you said makes sense. Mom and dad didn’t raise you to be this way. I just don’t get it.”
Mark laughs out loud. “Lu, quit getting so bent out of shape. It’s okay, girl.”
“Yeah, yeah. Someday, someone’s gonna finally steal that heart of yours.”
“Assuming it still works by then, right?” Mark says jokingly.
“Ha. Well, don’t joke about that. And get yourself checked out.”
Mark and Lori end their call and continue with their daily activities. After a moment of silence while staring out the window, Mark sits back down and calls his secretary.
“Yes, Mr. Cook,” Rachel says as she walks in and stands in front of his desk.
“Good morning. Hey, I was wondering if you could pick up a birthday gift for my nephew for this weekend?” Mark says. “You know how I am with gifts.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right. Tony’s big day,” Rachel says. “Are they going to give your brother a leave or something so he can see his son on his birthday?”
“I don’t know, Rachel. I hope.”
Mark’s brother Mason is in prison for a drug offense possession and will not get out for another year. Mason never had the same personality as Mark; he was much more quiet and respectful and a family man. That’s why it was all the more embarrassing for him to admit his drug addiction. He was very embarrassed about his incarceration and the fact that he disappointed his only son, Tony. The arrest and prison time put a strain on their family ties, but they seem to be working through it.
“All right, Mr. Cook, I will pick up his gift after lunch. I think he will love the VR goggles,” Rachel says as she turns and begins to walk out.
“Hey, Rachel? Would you like to come with me? The party is at my parents’ house, and I know how much they would love seeing you,” Mark says.
Rachel stands with her back to Mark and pauses. She closes and blinks her eyes with empathy and turns around.
“You know that I have a boyfriend. I can’t.”
Mark gets up from his desk and walks over to Rachel. He places both his arms on each of her shoulders.
“I just miss you, Rachel. You know me so well. Please, can we give it another chance?”
Mark and Rachel dated for about 14 months and appeared to be getting serious. That is, until Mark cheated on her. Rachel is roughly the same age and came from a similar upbringing. They had known each other since high school, and for the longest time, she was right up there with Lori in terms of getting Mark to be on his best behavior. Even as they continued to work together, their romantic involvement never got in the way. Basically, he was a better man when he was around her.
In Mark’s eyes, things got too serious. He felt threatened and blew it when he got caught kissing another woman in his office. He’s regretted it ever since, and the fact that she continued to work there due to her relationship with his family only made things more awkward.
“Mark, you are a great guy, and we had a great time together. But we are just in different places right now,” Rachel says as she continues to make her way to the door. “You will find someone, Mark.”
“I am really sorry, Rachel. You’re right. You deserve better. I promise I will leave you alone. You are a great secretary, and I don’t want to screw that up. Thank you.”
“No problem. We’re good, and I will get on that gift,” Rachel says.
“Geez!” Mark says to himself once Rachel has left the room. “Whatever happened this morning really messed with my brain, too. Why am I being all emotional and stuff? Get over it, dude.”
The weekend is here, and it is time for the big party. Tony is 8 years old and has been cancer-free for one year. He was diagnosed with Leukemia two years ago and was treated aggressively. It was really hard on Tony and his parents. Mason loved Tony very much and took it hard when he first heard the news. He looked to drugs and alcohol to help him cope and ended up in jail after causing a car accident while under the influence. The lady he hit only suffered minor injuries, but she also had her small kids in the car and was going to do everything she could to ensure justice was served.
Mason tried to fight the arrest; he appealed to the courts saying that he was not doing well after his son’s diagnosis. But none of that worked, and he’s now serving a 5-year sentence. Due to overcrowding, he may get out early for good behavior. But it’s not a guarantee.
Tony took it hard, of course. What kid wouldn’t be upset that his dad was going to prison? But Mark stepped up and filled Mason’s shoes as best he could. In the meantime, Tony’s mother, Melissa, was there to be the lone parent. Mark simply took advantage of Tony’s free time and became his little play toy. They played mostly sports but also went to the movies to watch the science fiction and action flicks that Melissa never cared for. Throw in some video games, and it was a regular match made in heaven. Mark loved it, especially since he didn’t have any of his own kids at home.
“Mark!” Tony yells when he sees his uncle coming through the front door. Tony runs to Mark and gives him a big hug.
“I knew you would come. We need to play some basketball before we leave today, okay?” says Tony, excited.
“Of course, man. I wouldn’t miss your birthday or a chance for a beatdown,” Mark says, smiling and giving Tony a high five. Tony runs off to go play on the trampoline and bounce house that was rented for the occasion. Darrell and Peggy Cook, Mark’s parents, are settled on a 6-acre spread and have a large house. The kids call it a mansion, and they’re not far off. It is on the same land as their winery. Mason and Melissa live on the site as well, but Mark and Lori live in the city. The Cooks have the place fixed up nicely for the party, and they are footing the bill for this one. Mark is looking out the back windows and watching the kids go to town.
“You know you have always been his favorite. He doesn’t really say it, but we all know,” Peggy says as she quietly walks up behind him.
“How are you doing, Mom?” Mark asks as he turns to give his mother a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Mark towers over his mother.
“I am good, son. It’s nice to see you every now and then,” Peggy says.
“I know, I know. But someone has to run the business, right?” Mark says as he turns his head to the side and waits for her to speak.
“Business, huh? You are a businessman, aren’t you?”
“What is that supposed to mean? Of course…I run our business. You say it like it’s a bad thing,” Mark says with a sigh.
“I don’t think it’s bad. I love having you run our company, and you do a great job. It’s just that I thought you would be more than that? We all thought you were going to be something special,” Peggy says. She has turned to face Mark and is touching both of his arms.
“What do you mean?” Mark says.
“When you were born, you were only four pounds…a preemie. And you were born at 2:29 p.m. on February 29…a Leap Year. There was a storm that day, and all the electricity went out. The hospital was on backup generators. I had problems with the delivery, and they had to perform an emergency cesarean section with the power out. You almost didn’t make it, Mark.” Peggy says while continuing her point. “But you pulled through with no health issues. The nursing staff named you the Unicorn and thought that God had big plans for you.”
Mark paces a few steps close around his mother.
“I knew that I was smaller. But you didn’t tell me the rest of it,” he says.
“There was no need, and you grew up so fast that it never came up. You weren’t the prettiest baby, but you were sure feisty. And look at you now, so tall and strong and such a handsome man.”
“Thanks, mom, but somehow I get the feeling that you don’t approve of me,” Mark states as he looks at his mother with long puppy dog eyes.
“Oh no, dear. I love you to death. But you have been a bit of an ass. Besides your relationship with Tony, you barely talk to any of us anymore. You hide behind the walls of the winery business, and you only come outside to play if there’s a girl in a tight dress.”
“Great! Tell me what you really think, mom,” Mark replies getting frustrated.
Peggy places her hand on Mark’s shoulders to look into his eyes.
“You are 32 years old and single. Maybe you want it that way, I don’t know. But the way you treated Rachel and anyone who gets close is not right. You’re narcissistic, son. And on top of that, you are too wrapped up in the company. You know that you didn’t have to take it over. You could have done anything. Your father and I wouldn’t have thought any less of you.”
Mark is rubbing his hair and has his mouth wide open surprised.
“How did this turn into lecture time, mom? It’s a party, right?”
“Yes, honey. It is. I am sorry. I just…I just don’t see you enough. And what I do see, it’s just heart breaking. You need companionship and to wise up.”
“And you’re the one to wise me up?”
“Well, I am your mother. I do know everything.”
“Who’s the narcissist now?” Mark says with a chuckle.
But you know what? You are not that way around Tony. He always has all your attention and you never let him down. You would be a great dad, Mark; you just need a great wife. Hopefully one that will keep up with you and this crazy family,” Peggy says smiling.
Mark rolls his eyes and reaches for his bottle of beer that’s now getting warm sitting on the accent table. Luckily for him, there’s a brief break in the action thanks to his dad. Darrell walks up to greet his son.
“Are you lecturing our strong businessman son, Peg?”
“Yes! Geez! Get her off my back, dad.”
“Well, whatever she’s saying. She’s probably right.
They hug and then begin talking about the business. Peggy rolls her eyes and walks away with boredom. She makes sure the food, drinks, and desert are all ready to go and plentiful. While talking to his dad, Lori approaches for a greet and hug.
“What’s up, bro? You know, Tony is going to want us to play basketball. Are you ready for me?” Lori says playfully.
“I can handle you with both eyes closed,” Mark says.
The Cooks have always been athletic and love playing competitive sports when they get the family together. They will enjoy basketball, badminton, softball, and more. And with the massive acreage, all the amenities are at their disposal at the mansion.
Peggy is calling for Darrell, and he steps away to help.
“Did you call your doctor to make an appointment?” Lori says as she quickly pulls Mark to the side.
“No, not yet. I will, though, sis. Hey, do you think I would be a good dad?” asks Mark, while staring at the kids playing.
“Wow, really? Are you thinking about it? I thought a bachelor like yourself would never settle down. Rachel would have been a great wife and mom, but you messed that up. How could you cheat on her? We loved her,” Lori says as she takes a jab at Mark’s arm.
“Ouch. I know, I know. I had it good with her.”
After a brief moment of silence, Lori stares at Mark with a serious look.
“I know what you are thinking. I wish Mason were here, too, to be with Tony and us. You were great with him, you know. During his cancer years and chemotherapy and everything, you were right there. He loves you, Mark.”
“Well, I love him, too,” he says and then places his arm over Lori’s shoulder.
The rest of the time, the Cooks and the guests have a nice time celebrating and playing. The evening ends with an exciting basketball game and some fishing. Mark stays the entire time, which is unusual for him. Perhaps his mom’s words got through to him.
It is late, and everyone is leaving the Cook compound. Tony is saying his goodbyes and tells everyone thank you for coming. He and his mother are staying the night.
“All right, Tony, I am out. It was awesome today, but get some rest, man. You seemed sluggish out there and looking too skinny,” Mark says as he exchanges fist bumps with Tony.
Melissa is standing at the doorway watching them. Her face turns pale, and her facial expression is that of gloom. Tony says goodbye and shuts the door.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Tony asks while noticing his mother’s outlook.
She hugs Tony.
“Yes, I am fine. I love you so much.”
“Okay, okay, ugh…Why so tight?”
Melissa releases her hold and watches, teary-eyed, as her birthday boy walks off.