The Grumpy Billionaire secret epilogue

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December 31st

Hugo

Wulfric and Brenda and I stand in Wulfric’s office, all of us staring at his large transparent screen that is his futuristic whiteboard. It’s the size of a home movie theater screen and probably the same one they have at the Pentagon. And we are plotting battle, but our battle is for world financial domination.  

Wulfric’s long-suffering assistant, Lola, leans coolly on a wall, iPad in hand, waiting and watching.

I toss out an idea.

Wulfric steps back, arms crossed.

“Interesting,” Brenda says. She goes up and tweaks something on the screen. Beyond our scribbles and notes, you can see Midtown and the Hudson.

This project we’re working on has nothing to do with the new direction that I hinted at during the now-infamous data model presentation back in November. This project is Brenda’s trading data model. It’s really coming along, but she hit a snag and requested a groupthink.

Brenda is far more collaborative than I am, taking the best of the best in order to push her model higher. She may be my protégé, but there are things I can learn from her, like this spirit of collaboration.

Brenda tilts her head. We stare some more.

My ‘pineapple project,’ as we call it, is still in the blue-sky phase. I sometimes take long walks around the city, looking at everything—no parameters, no searching for relationships between variables, no data models.

It’s been dizzying. Will it go somewhere?

That’s an unknown.

But if it does? It’ll be huge.

It’s during one of our long silent spells that Stella walks in.

“I’m sorry,” Stella says, “did I interrupt the impersonating-statues portion of your workday?”

Wulfric grumbles.

I go over and kiss her. “What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? Are you aware that it’s after five? And that it’s New Year’s Eve? Do you people even know what year it is?”

“Possibly not,” Lola calls out from the couch.

“Damn.” I check my phone. “We’re hot on the trail of something.”

“You’re always hot on the trail of something,” Stella says. “We can’t be late for Max Hilton’s New Year’s Eve ball.”

Brenda tucks her phone in her pocket. “I’m outta here. My man and I have dinner reservations in the Village.”

“You two should stop by after!” Stella says.

“Not a party person,” Brenda says.

I watch her leave with envy. A quiet dinner. Brenda has the right idea. 

“I saw that.” Stella gives me a playful punch. “It’s New Year’s Eve! It’s time to celebrate.”

“Maybe we could skip the party. Nobody will notice if we’re not there,” I say.

“Skip the most fabulous ball ever?” The way Stella looks at me, you’d think I just proposed we string a tightrope between skyscrapers and dance back and forth.  

“I agreed to this why?” I grumble, grabbing my coat. Not only am I not a party guy, but I’m fairly certain Stella’s got some kind of surprise in store for me. I know her well enough to know when she’s keeping a secret.  

Stella turns to Lola. “You wanna ride with us, Lola?”

Wolfram scowls at Lola. “You’re going to this thing, too?”

Lola smiles serenely. “I know the hosts—Max and Mia.”

“But there’s still a lot to finish up,” he barks.

Lola closes up her iPad. “We discussed this, Wulfric, remember? I’m off on holidays.”

“New Year’s Eve isn’t a real holiday,” he complains.

“Sorry, Scrooge, it is,” Lola says.

I wait for Wulfric to freak out about being called Scrooge, but he seems not to have heard.

“It’s too bad you’re not going, Wulfric,” Stella says. “All of the captains of industry will be there. Maybe you could get another billionaire investor or two.”

“I don’t need any more billionaire investors. In fact, if a billionaire isn’t investing with us, it means they have spectacularly poor judgment, and I want nothing to do with them.”  

It’s true. Wulfric certainly doesn’t have to chase after investors these days.

“Well, it’s all for the best,” Stella says. “I understand Rex O’Rourke will be there.”

Wulfric frowns.

Lola slides on a soft-looking knit sweater and a matching hat. “What are you saying, Stella? Are you saying there’s only room for one hedge fund titan at that thing?”

“I’d heard they were enemies,” Stella explains.

“Rex and I are not enemies,” Wulfric growls. “Enemies suggest the man’s actually on my radar in some significant way.”

“Mmm.” Lola examines her fingernails.

Wulfric snorts. “Rex O’Rourke. Please.”

Stella and Lola exchange quick glances.

Interesting.

It’s common knowledge Wulfric never misses an opportunity to make one of his enemies uncomfortable.

So…are they trying to get Wulfric there? Why?

 Yes, he’s a great boss—for me, anyway—but most people know better than to drag him places. Does this have something to do with that stalker of Lola’s?  

“So tell me this,” Wulfric demands. “Is Rex going around saying that we’re enemies?”  

“No idea. I’ll report back to you.” Lola links arms with Stella. “Ready?”

“No. I’m going,” Wulfric says. “We’ll take my car. I’ll send it round at eight-ish.”

 **

A few hours later, the four of us are strolling into a massive and shockingly lavish ballroom—everything done up in white or silver or glittering blue stars, from the white marble fountain adorned with twinkling lights to the cascading drapes.

A string quartet plays from a mezzanine above. Laughter bubbles up from clusters of guests decked out in sleek black tuxedos or colorful evening gowns. Servers weave through with trays of hors d’oeuvres and champagne.

Around the edges there are tables done up in fine linens and adorned with wild centerpieces of outlandish blue birds.

“Birds,” Wulfric grumbles. “I need a drink.”

“And apparently not champagne,” Lola jokes as the two of them break off and head toward a sumptuous open bar set up.

Stella and I grab some food and drinks and say hi to a few people.  

At some point, the music changes to a waltz or something, and Kelsey and Francine, two of Stella’s new friends from the apartment building, launch into an astonishingly professional ballet show, weaving all around the chandelier-draped place. There are even gleeful little children involved.

“Those are their little dance students,” Stella whispers. “So cute.”  

I’m generally not a fan of gleeful little children; but these are friends, so I nod.

I catch Wulfric’s eye from across the room. He wears a pained expression due to the gleeful children.

I wince in sympathy.

Wulfric leans over and says something to Lola, and I find myself wondering how long it’ll be until he figures out about his supposed secret engagement to her. More than that, I wonder what he’ll do when he finds out. There have been photographers circulating, and it comes to me that this was Lola’s goal in getting him here–she wants there to be pictures on the gossip feeds of her and Wulfric for that stalker ex-boyfriend to see. Like a lot of people, the man is frightened of Wulfric.

Stella watches the dancers in wonder. “Magical.”

“Nothing compared to you,” I say.

 She smiles up at me. “If you think that’s going to get you out of your surprise, you’re wrong.”

“So there is a surprise!” I say.

“Yeah, and it’s pretty obvious you already figured it out. One of the definite downsides of being with a brainy guy.”

“You know how I feel about surprises,” I say.

“I know.” She looks apologetic. “Normally I wouldn’t foist a surprise on you—not ever—but…you’ll see. It couldn’t be avoided.”

“I find most things can be avoided.”

She shakes her head.

“So somebody else’s involved in this surprise.”

She widens her eyes. “No more guessing or even thinking!”

“Can we do the surprise now? Get it over with?”

“It has to be at a specific time.”

I groan and tug at my bowtie. 

“I know! I’m sorry!” She gives me a sympathetic kiss. “Maybe a meeting of the bromance-keteers will take your mind off of it.”

“What?” I follow her line of vision and see Theo and Benny wandering up.

“A meeting of the science-nerd-geteers,” she says.

“You can just say friends,” I tease, lifting a glass as they approach.

“The nerd-billionaire-geteers,” she adds.

“Hey, watch it!” Theo laughs, giving Stella a hug and shaking my hand. Theo is a chemist and Benny is a tech guy, and it’s true—the two of them are as big of science nerds as I am.

Benny claps my shoulder. “Should we check the table for pineapple, Hugo?”

“No,” I growl.

Everybody finds this hilarious. Apparently, the pineapple jokes will never get old.

“Maybe Wulfric can check it. I saw him here,” Theo says.

Benny looks alarmed. “Wulfric Pierce is here?”

“He was over there exchanging New Year’s insults with Rex,” Theo says.

“Oh, god,” Stella says.

“They’re done,” Theo says. “Back in their corners.”

Theo’s excited about a new formula he’s working on. He describes his trials and travails. Stella squeezes my hand. I translate the squeeze instantly; I can read every one of her hands squeezes like a sailor can read the wind. This one means, ‘dude is nerding out!’

I squeeze her hand back. Is this how I sound when I run on about my data model projects?

Stella tells them about our Christmas vacation in Mexico. She’s still shocked by the color of the water and the quality of light.

Maybe we’re all nerds.

Benny wants to know how Stella is liking her new co-working space. She’s been working around the clock building her on-the-fly agency, which she has named “SparkMob Network.”  She’s had a busy month pulling together the just-right freelance creative teams for specific projects, and even taking on some of her own.  

I love it.

Instead of going around begging for jobs, clients are banging down her door, now—and so are creatives. She has such a fierce vision for things. I’m so proud of her.

Lizzie, the woman who owns all of the cookie shops, comes by and shushes us. Stella’s two Broadway musical friends, Kelsey and Mia, are singing, and her ballerina friend, Francine, is doing a solo ballet dance.  

Benny is just beaming at Francine, watching her every move. “That’s my wife,” he says.

“I could watch her dance forever!” Stella says.

In the past I would’ve felt like this whole affair was a waste of time, and that it was keeping me from my work. To be fair, all of life felt like annoying things keeping me from my work. Things are so different now.

Being with Stella is more important than work.

Even being at a party like this is different. I’d rather be home, no doubt, but part of my new direction is letting things in the world wash over me without trying to fit them into equations or boxes.

Francine leaps through the candlelit ballroom, her outfit shimmering silver. I let the experience wash over me. This is how I’m expanding beyond the world inside the data model; I’m letting things impact me. A form of experiential data collection.

So I guess I am doing work.

A leopard doesn’t change his spots that easily, I suppose.

I put my arms around Stella from behind and press my lips to her ear. “Is the surprise an object that you would give to me?”

“Shhhh.”

“Do you have the surprise with you?”

She holds up her tiny purse. “Like in here? In this little thing? No.”

I sigh and set my chin on her head.

She’s reduced the size of her everyday purse, miracle of miracles. Such are the organizational chops that she is building. But this purse is even smaller, with just enough room for a phone, money, and lipstick. I teased her about it on the way over. How will she survive?

We mingle around after the show. It’s a lot of social stuff for me.

A lot.

At one point Stella kisses me.  “Look at you enduring the gauntlet. Just a little while longer.”

“Any gauntlet for you,” I say.

Her expression changes right then to something like horror.  “Nooo!” Stella grasps my hand. “Shit, it’s Greta! She saw us!”

“The woman who cheeseball shamed you?” I ask through gritted teeth. I haven’t met this Gourmet Goose Greta, but let’s just say, I’m not a fan.

“Be civil,” Stella warns.

Not easy, but Greta’s a client of Stella’s now.

“You!” A woman with white spiky hair, presumably Greta, stalks up, glaring at me. “You’re the one who found her that cheese tray!”

I smile. “Only the best for my girl.”

Stella brought the cheese ball tray in to Greta’s shop at one point, and it sounds like the woman was very jealous. I love that Stella brought it in there to gloat. How Stella turned that into landing her as a client after that, I’ll never know.

“I need to know how you found it,” Greta says. “I’ve scoured eBay, all of the vintage sites. I’ve posted about it. Nothing!”

“It is very unique,” I say.  

“No hints on how you found it?” she tries. “I need to have one.”

“No hints,” I say happily. Not that I’d give her a hint if I had one, after how terribly she treated Stella.

She turns to Stella. “You have to let me buy it.”

“No way!” Stella says. “It’s my favorite thing in the whole world.”

“But I own a cheese shop! I travel all over the world to source cheeses.”

“Sorry, Greta,” Stella says.

Greta frowns. “There can’t just be one and you have it.”

Stella shrugs happily. It’s so Stella to shrug off what sounded to me like an insult.

I’m not so generous. “What do you mean there can’t be one and Stella has it? Why not Stella? It’s perfect for her.”

“Because I appreciate cheese, and she…” Greta gestures at Stella.

“She what?” I demand.

“Yeah, I what?” Stella says.  

“You have to admit—” Greta says. “With the cheese balls?”

“You mean admit that Stella loves them in a way that you somehow can’t comprehend and therefore it’s wrong?” I say. “Are you that closed-minded about how people should love this or that gourmet item that you would shame your own customers? You own a cheese store, for fuck’s sake, and you wouldn’t sell her the one thing she desperately wanted? She loves cheese balls outrageously—you of all people should admire that.”

Stella lays a hand on my arm. “It’s okay, Hugo. It’s not like I have sex with them.”

“No, it’s not okay!” I turn back to Greta. “Your judgey narrow-mindedness about the right way to consume a cheeseball and your ridiculous refusal to sell them made my girl sad, and it tells me everything I need to know about you.”

“Hey, we all have opinions,” Greta says. “And I’m selling them to her now, aren’t I?” She turns to Stella. “Nice ROI on the Instagram reel by the way. See you next week.” She gives me a cold parting glance and walks off.

“Sorry I hope I didn’t just jeopardize that account.”

Stella snorts. “It’s a tiny account and I’m doing amazing work for her. And she knows it.”

“And you’ll never sell her that cheese ball dish.”

“Hell no!”

A few more of Stella’s friends come up. This is a lot of social activity for me, but I’m going for it.

At one point I can feel Stella looking up at me, monitoring my expression. Can she see it’s torture?

“I’m fine,” I say.

She winces. “Are you, though?”

“Of course.”

She shakes her head. “I think I should just give you your surprise now. This is a lot for you. A party and a surprise.

“I’m a big boy,” I say.

“A big grump. But that’s why I love you.”

“Hopefully that’s not the only reason,” I growl.

“Come on.” She grabs my hand. “We’re going to get our coats and do the surprise.”

“The surprise is outside?”

“You want it or not?” she says.

“No?”

“Too bad.”

We get our coats, and she drags me out into the busy street, out past people in gowns and tuxedos who’ve spilled out onto the sidewalks, talking and laughing and vaping and blowing little New Year’s horns.

She pulls me half a block down, up onto a stoop under an awning, out of the path of the cottony snowflakes that float down from the sky, glowing as they pass the lights coming from windows and streetlamps. It’s gorgeous. I barely even feel cold. 

 Stella pulls out her phone. “This is a little early. You’re supposed to have your surprise after the stroke of midnight, but I’m making this executive decision. I think it’s the right move.”

“What the hell is it?”

 She’s pulling up something on her phone.  

“It’s digital?”

She turns to me. “Ready?”  

“You really want me to answer that?”

 She hits play and hands me her phone.

It’s a reel of some sort—with Mom and Dad sitting squashed together to fit into the screen, going on about something.

This is the surprise?” I say.

“Just watch.”

“There’s something different about them. What’s different about them?” The way they look or something. And also there’s desert behind them.  

She grabs the phone, backs it up, and hands it back. “Listen.”

My mom speaks first. “Hugo, your father and I made a lot of New Year’s resolutions when you were growing up. Resolutions about being better parents, resolutions about getting our acts together. Resolutions about not abusing alcohol. Those resolutions always fell apart within the first week.”

“If not the first few days,” Dad chimes in. “Or hours if it was about getting off the booze.”

Mom says, “We asked Stella to let you see this recording after the New Year’s bells rang. We wanted to show you something important.”

She and Dad each hold up a coin.

“These are our one-month-sober medallions,” Mom announces.

“Sober one month,” Dad says.

Nameless emotions crowd my chest.

I sink down to the cold, hard stoop, clutching the phone.

I can barely believe what I’m seeing.

“We finally took you up on your offer to go to treatment after all these years,” Dad says. “By the time you see this, we’ll have been clean and sober since the day after Thanksgiving.”

“One month and ten days!” Mom chimes in. “We’re doing this!”

I hit pause, blinking in disbelief. Processing it all.

Stella sits down next to me, sitting in silence.

My best friend. The woman I love.

With anybody else, the silence might be awkward, but not with her. Never with her. She knows I need space to reflect.

“This is huge,” I say when I finally find my voice. “I just don’t know what to say…”

She squeezes my arm. “You don’t have to say anything.”

I turn to her. “You knew?”

“Only since Wednesday. They called me up and wanted to overnight the coins and send this video. They wanted it to be a New Year’s greeting. Hey, it’s New Year’s somewhere, right?”

“It’s New Year’s in Halifax,” I mumble, mind spinning. “They’re getting clean?”

Stella kisses my cheek.

“Okay.” I take a deep breath and press play.

Dad is speaking again. “Hugo, we were so goddamn ashamed on Thanksgiving when you and Stella didn’t feel like you could sit down to dinner with us. Of course we couldn’t be happier for you two—”

“Stella is so lovely!” Mom interjects.

“But the fact that you felt like you couldn’t trust us to do any kind of Thanksgiving together hit us in the gut,” Dad says. “We realized that you’re building a new life and leaving us behind. For good reason. I wouldn’t want to spend Thanksgiving with us either, the way we’d carry on.”

“We never gave you a reason to trust us,” Mom says. “And holidays. My God.”

Dad winces. “We know it’s too little too late to undo the untold damage we did, but we want you to know we’re really committed to this thing.”

“And we’re really grateful that you gave us the opportunity,” Mom says. “You stuck with us when other adult children would’ve washed their hands of us. We want to be a family. This isn’t a proper amends by any means. And I know that it’s too late to be the family that you needed but…”

“It’s never too late,” I whisper.

Stella clutches my arm.

“We don’t need you to reach out or anything,” Mom continues. “The folks here want us focused on our healing journey for the next few months, focused on ourselves, but they gave us their blessing to send you this message, and to pass along something through your beautiful girlfriend. Happy New Year, Hugo.”

“Happy New year, son,” Dad says. “And Stella, too. We’ll reach out when we can. We love you.”

The clip ends.

Ever so gently, Stella takes the phone back. Then she takes my hand and presses something cold into my palm.

I open my fingers and look. It’s a pair of gold coins.

“Their sobriety medallions,” she says.

“My God,” I say, looking down at them, overcome with emotion, unable to read the writing, though there is some kind of writing on them. “A month and ten days.”

“Yeah.”

I look up into Stella’s beautiful brown eyes. “They never went so much as twenty-four hours without being hammered.”

“They’re trying to do better.”

I stare down at the medallions, awash in some combination of grief and happiness. “This is the gift I didn’t know I wanted. I waited so long for this. Imagined it until it was too painful. I feel like I might get my parents back.”

“They finally gave you a perfect gift.”

“If it sticks. I’m afraid to get up my hopes. I have this flinch reaction about it, I think.”

Stella sighs and stares out at the snow. It’s coming down harder, now, fluffy and bright. “Whatever happens, I’m here,” she says.

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too,” she says. “My ass is getting frozen, though.”

I stand and pull her up. “I guess we should go in.”

“People are probably wondering where we went,” she says. “The bells go in a little over an hour.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“But then again…” She grins. “You want to get out of here instead?”

“Really?”

“Let’s go.”

I pull her to me and kiss her.

“Is that your way of telling me I just got you the perfect New Year’s gift?” she asks.

“You get me, and I get you. That’s the gift.”

She smiles her beautiful, mischievous smile. “Always.”

***