Marcus was waiting for me at baggage claim when we landed in New York. Brett struggled to hold Malachi and get their luggage so I offered to hold the sleeping toddler. Marcus gave me a strange look as he retrieved my bags and offered Brett and Malachi a ride home.
Brett politely declined and after we helped them into a taxi, Marcus and I headed to the town car that was waiting for us.
I had barely closed the door when he pounced on me. “You slept with him again, didn’t you Lupe?”
I feigned shock at his question. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, please. You can’t bullshit me,” Marcus said, fixing his piercing gaze on me.
“Okay, fine,” I relented. “But just once!”
Marcus sat back in his seat with a smug look on his face. “But it won’t be the last time.”
“Ugh! You are literally so annoying!” I groaned before we both burst out laughing.
He reached over and pulled me into a tight hug. “I missed you, Lupe! So much has happened since you left.”
“Like what? Fill me in!”
“Well, your father permanently promoted me.”
“Oh my gosh! Are you serious?”
Marcus nodded tentatively. “You’re not mad, are you?”
“Why would I be mad!? That’s amazing! I’m so proud of you.”
“Really? I thought you would hate losing your assistant.”
“I mean of course I’ll never be able to replace you and training someone new will be annoying, but you’re my best friend! A win for you is a win for me too.”
He beamed at me and grabbed my hand. “I’m so glad to hear you say that, Lupe. I was so worried about how you’d react.”
I scoffed. “You act like I’m a spoiled brat or something.”
“You are a spoiled brat. Anyway, how was Italy? Tell me everything. Especially what’s going on between you and Mr. Jacobson.”
“It’s nothing,” I lied. My flushing cheeks betrayed me.
“Nothing my ass. Are you guys a thing now?”
“Yeah, we are,” I answered with a small smile. “Don’t tell my father though.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
We finally pulled up to my apartment building a few minutes later and Marcus helped me carry my things upstairs. I kicked off my heels and sunk onto the couch, closing my eyes with a sigh of relief.
“Want me to order take out?” Marcus offered. “We could watch a movie.”
“Take out sounds lovely. And I don’t know how long I’ll be awake for the movie but we can certainly try.”
Marcus flopped onto the couch next to me after he ordered the food. “Before the food gets here, we do have some business to take care of.”
I peered over at him in confusion. “Business?”
“Yes, Lupe,” he replied, sticking his tongue out at me. “I need to go over your schedule with you. I’ll still be helping you out as your assistant until you can hire and train a replacement.”
“That’s really unnecessary. I’m quite capable of managing on my own for a bit.”
“Yeah right! You barely remember what day it is unless you have me to remind you.”
“That is not true!” I protested. “But since you’ve already prepared it, you might as well go over it with me.”
He gave me a smug grin and pulled his tablet out of his bag. “Okay so first thing tomorrow, we’ll be interviewing candidates for your new assistant. I’ve pre-interviewed some people and have narrowed it down to three strong candidates.
“We have a lunch meeting with your maternal grandparents and after that--”
“Wait. The meeting with my mother’s parents is tomorrow?!”
“Yes, Lupe. Don’t interrupt me.”
He continued listing out my schedule but I didn’t hear another word. I knew that we were scheduling a meeting but I didn’t think it would be the day after I got back. What was I going to say to them? I had so many questions but I needed time to organize them.
Ignoring Marcus calling after me, I got up and left the living room and headed straight to my bedroom to get my thoughts out. I was unsurprised to see that Marcus had followed me to my room and perched himself on the edge of my bed while I changed in my closet.
“Lupe! Your phone is ringing!” he called.
I padded back into the room, tugging my hair into a ponytail and taking my phone from him. I felt a shiver of glee run through my body and smiled. It was Brett.
“Hey Lupita,” came his smooth voice. “I just got Malachi laid down and wanted to make sure you got home okay.”
“Yeah, I did,” I replied with a smile. “Marcus and I just ordered some takeout and we’re going to watch a movie.”
I frowned when I got no response. “Brett? Are you still there?”
“Yeah I’m here,” he answered after a moment. “Is he spending the night?”
“I doubt it. We both have to work early tomorrow.”
“Oh. Okay.” I could hear the tension in his voice.
“By the way,” I started, trying to lighten the mood. “I know we have a project meeting with my father tomorrow afternoon. Did you want to grab dinner afterward?”
“That would be great! I’ll make reservations at that new Ramen place near your office. Is that okay?”
“Sounds good to me!”
“Alright. Well...goodnight Lupita.”
“Good night. I’ll text you tomorrow.”
I hung up the phone and avoided looking at Marcus.
“Hmm?” I settled into the bed and took the takeout container from Marcus.
“Was that Brett?”
He hesitated for a moment and then shook his head. “No reason. I think I’m going to go home though. I’m a little tired myself. I’ll come for you in the morning. Please be ready.”
He kissed me on the forehead and left before I could process what was happening. Eventually, I shrugged it off and dove into my chow mein, trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to ask my grandparents.
After a fitful night of sleep, I got up feeling both excited and nervous about what lay ahead. I was finally going to get some answers about my mother. The ride to work with Marcus was rather uneventful, aside from him telling me that he wanted me to meet his new girlfriend, Honey.
“Her actual name is Honey?” I asked in disbelief.
Marcus snorted. “Yes, it is.”
“Is this the same girl Tia Maria wanted you to date?”
He nodded. “Yeah, our mothers sing in the church choir together.”
“What does Miss Honey do?”
“She’s a kindergarted teacher.”
“That’s really sweet! When do I get to meet her?”
Marcus shrugged as the car pulled up outside of our building. “Whenever you want.”
I waited for him to come around and open the door for me. “How about Saturday night? I can bring Brett along and we can all go to dinner.”
“Sounds good to me. Now, let’s go find you a new assistant.”
None of the candidates came close to what I expected of an assistant but Marcus assured me that these three were the best of the bunch. I ultimately settled on a girl named Taylor who was a recent NYU grad with hopes of a career in finance.
The rest of the morning passed quickly and it was soon time for my meeting with my grandparents. Marcus had set up lunch for us in one of the private rooms at my cousin Ryan’s restaurant.
Marcus walked in ahead of me, holding the door open. The petite woman sitting at the far end of the table gasped when I stepped into the room. I could see the tears glistening on her cheeks and shifted from one foot to the other feeling extremely awkward.
“Mr. and Mrs. Martinez,” Marcus said, clearing his throat. “This is Penelope Marino. Your--”
“Mi nieta,” the woman said with a smile. “I’d know my granddaughter anywhere.”
I continued to stand still at Marcus’ side with what was surely a dumb look on my face.
“My name is Rosa Martinez and this is my husband Jorge. We’re so glad to finally meet you!”
I studied the two people in front of me. Jorge was short with a bulging stomach and a kind smile. Rosa was also short but was fairly thin. Her short white hair was pinned into a neat, curly updo and she looked as if she might leap out to hug me at any moment.
“Hello, “I greeted them quietly. “I’m Penelope, but you can call me Lupe.” I sat down and beckoned for Marcus to join me.
He reluctantly sat down and handed me my tablet.
“I’m sure you have so many questions, Lupe,” Rosa said with a smile. “But can we just get to know you a bit first?”
“Oh, okay,” I stammered. “That’s fine, I guess.”
“Tell us all about yourself.”
“Uh, there isn’t really much to know.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I blushed. This was the first question my new grandmother had for me? Go figure. “Yes, I do,” I replied, ignoring Marcus’ pointed stare. “It’s rather new though.”
We continued talking on a surface level for about twenty minutes before Marcus reminded me that we had to get going to my next meeting.
“Can you please tell me about my mother? Where is she? Are you in touch with her?” I pressed as Marcus got our food boxed up.
Rosa and Jorge shared a look. “We’re in town for the next two weeks, thanks to your wonderful assistant here. Why don’t we meet again later this week and we can talk more?” Rosa said, reaching across the table to caress my cheek.
The gesture, though somewhat unfamiliar, was rather comforting. I nodded feeling slightly disappointed. “I guess that’s okay. I’ll have my new assistant, Taylor, reach out and schedule a meeting time.”
We all stood and Rosa and Jorge both reached out and gave me the most awkward hug of my life before Marcus and I took our leave.
Once we were back in the car, Marcus and I shared a confused look. “What are you thinking, Lupe?”
“That was really uncomfortable!”
He blew out a breath and chuckled. “I thought it was just me!”
“No! The whole thing felt really weird. And why do I have the feeling that they’re hiding something?”
“I got that vibe too,” he said, pensively.
“Can you have Mr. Brown double check their background? And I’d like the results of the DNA test before I meet them again. This is just getting weirder and weirder.”
With great difficulty, I put my feelings on pause for a bit because I had a meeting with father and Brett right after the meeting with my grandparents.
Striding into the conference room with my head held high, I noticed that my father and Brett were already present. They both stood when I walked in; Brett shaking my hand politely and my father giving me a stiff one-armed hug.
“Welcome back Penelope,” he said while Brett readied his presentation. “Serena said to tell you that she expects you for Sunday dinner.
I opened my mouth to protest but saw Brett shake his head and decided against it. “Sunday dinner sounds lovely. Tell her I said ‘thank you’ for the invitation.”
My father appeared slightly taken aback by my acceptance but pressed on anyway. “Did you do something different with your hair, Penelope?”
“Not that I can recall.”
“Hmm. It looks different.” He turned his attention away from me and nodded at Brett. “I’m ready for the presentation, Mr. Jacobson.”
Brett nodded and began to detail all of the work that had been done back in Italy and the plans for the New York remodel as well.
My father actually seemed impressed. “I’m extremely happy with the progress that has been made in Rome. You two make an excellent team. That’s why it saddens me to break up the team.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked skeptically.
“I need you back here full time as CFO, Penelope. You will still be project manager but you need not be involved in the minutia. Mr. Jacobson will still report to you.”
“So I have proven my worth to you?” I scoffed.
“It was never a matter of your worth,” he replied with a frown, standing to leave. “I will see you, Penelope, Sunday for dinner and you, Mr. Jacobson, on Monday for another progress check.”
He paused at the door and turned around, studying me again.
“What?” I asked, irritation evident in my voice.
“You wore your hair down today, that’s what’s different. You never wear your hair down at work. You should wear it like that more often; It looks pretty.”
My jaw dropped in disbelief as I watched him stride away from the conference room, his petite secretary practically sprinting behind him to keep up with his fast pace. Did my father, Francesco Marino just compliment me?
“Ugggghhhh,” I groaned and put my head on the table, forgetting for a moment that I wasn’t alone. “He is the absolute worst!”
I looked up and smiled lightly. “Sorry. Still want to have dinner with a weirdo like me?”
“Absolutely. Grab your coat and I’ll meet you downstairs.”
My phone rang as I approached my office. I pulled it out of my bag, ecstatic to see Alicia’s name flashing across the screen. “Leesh!”
“Ciao, favorite cousin! I hear you’re finally back stateside.”
“Yep, just got back last night. Jet lag is kicking my ass. What’s up?”
“Well, I have some news for you.”
“What’s that?” I asked, grabbing my coat and purse before saying goodnight to Taylor and catching the elevator to leave.
“Gabi and Ryan had their baby!”
“What?! Oh my goodness! When?!”
“Gabi went into labor during my father’s wedding last weekend,” Alicia giggled. “It was excellent. But she had the baby early last Saturday morning.”
“Aww! Why am I just finding out?! What’s the baby’s name?”
“Sorry! I figured Uncle Francesco would’ve told you. And her name is Bella Houston Cole!”
“Bella?! Like your mother?”
“Yes! And Gabi’s mother. Absolutely precious. Anyway, I’m babysitting on Friday; They have an event upstate that they are unable to avoid; Gabi’s mother is livid of course. Would you like to join Aiden and I?”
“Absolutely! I can’t wait.” I caught a glimpse of Brett and rushed to end my call. “Text me with the details cugina! I have to go!” I hung up before she could say goodbye.
“Ready?” He asked with a smile, his cheeks flushed from the cold air.