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The following excerpt is a draft and is subject to change during the final editing process.

 

Chapter One-Haley

 

     I was the only one left. The harshness of my new reality reverberated in my brain like the relentless pounding of the rain against my window. Today was the day of my nightmare and my heartbreak and there was no hiding under the covers. The echo of tires slapping against the slick pavement outside was yet another stark reminder that life continued on and that none of what had happened in the last few months was a dream. Today I would be saying goodbye. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t ready.

     I’d given my housekeeper Carla the day off. The last thing I wanted was someone hovering over me trying to make me feel better. I loved Carla dearly, she’d been in my life for as long as I could remember. And I knew her intentions were good, but her trying to comfort me would only make me feel worse. As if feeling worse were even possible.  As I headed to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea, I passed through the living room and paused to look out the large window that opened onto my private terrace. It was one of my favorite spaces. But it’d been weeks since I’d allowed myself to enjoy it. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to sit out there again. It was crazy how all the little reminders around me of what my life was like before everything changed, suddenly became landmines that I now had to avoid. All I know is that in a few short months the very foundation of my life had been rocked to the core. And as a result, I would be attending another funeral today.

***

     I hated funerals. I felt trapped by the redolence of flowers and incense hanging heavily in the air. However, I did take some comfort in witnessing the throng of  business associates, dignitaries, and former employees who packed the church. It was evident that my father had been well respected by those who knew him. And it meant a lot to me to see such a gathering of people, all there to say their final goodbyes to him. There was a palpable sadness that filled the church, heavy like the rain clouds gathered outside. Thoughts of escape occupied my mind as I clutched a tattered cluster of tissues in my hand. Fortunately the mass was short and before I knew it the priest was giving his final blessing. I took in a ragged breath as I tried to gather myself for what was coming next.

     As the funeral procession made its way from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I was flanked by my best friends Aaliyah and Marcus. They grasped my arms tightly as the crush of people inched along.

     “You doing okay, sweetie?” Marcus leaned down and whispered to me.

     “Yeah,”  I said.

     “I’ve got you. Not letting go,”  he said as his hand slid down my arm to grasp mine.

     “I know.” Thank God for Marcus.

     Aaliyah remained silent as she clutched my other arm as we made our way down the steps of the church. I saw my father's casket being loaded into the hearse and finally embraced the numbness that had settled into my body. My limo was on standby directly behind the hearse, and Eric, my driver, was already in position with the door open for us. The buttery, soft leather seat enveloped me in the familiar comfort of my bubble, and I settled in for a brief reprieve.

     “It was a beautiful service, Hales” Aaliyah said.

     “It was. Thank you, both of you, for being here.” I said.

     “Where else would we be, sweetie? Dr. P was like my family to me. He was a really great man.” She said as she squeezed my hand gently.

     “Yes he was.” I replied.

     “What I loved most about Dr. P was watching him with the kids at the community center. He had to be the most patient man I’ve ever met.” Marcus said.

     “I know! One time I was volunteering there, teaching english to some of the spanish speaking kids and they were being so rowdy. But when Dr. P walked in that classroom,  they instantly turned into little angels. All of them trying to impress him with their new english skills.” Aaliyah fondly reminisced.

     I gazed out the window while Marcus and Aaliyah continued to trade their favorite stories about my father. Hearing them talk about him in the past tense made my heart hurt, and I needed to stay numb. There was a bottle of wine chilling in the mini bar so I decided to have a glass while I silently went over the speech I had to give at the community center following the burial. I had so much on my plate and so many new responsibilities, I just couldn’t allow myself  to get trapped in a grief spiral. I had to stay focused.

     “Everything okay Haley? You seem a million miles away.” Aaliyah said as she squeezed my knee gently.

     “I’m fine. Just going over my speech in my head.”

     “Is there anything I can help you with?” She asked.

     Yeah, make it so my daddy isn’t dead anymore. “No. But thanks.”

We fell into an awkward silence and I continued staring out the window as we made our way across town to the cemetery.

     “We’re here.” Marcus said gently, pulling me from my musing. I quickly finished my glass of wine and handed it to Marcus.  He set the glass down and grasped my hand. A few more hours and this day would be buried in the past. I felt the car glide to a gentle stop and it seemed like only a couple of seconds before Eric was opening the door for us. Marcus led me from the car and Aaliyah was a sturdy buffer at my back. We walked briskly to the grave site where the dark brown oak casket rested, ready to be lowered into the ground. I’d only ever been to one other funeral in my life that I could remember, and that was my grandfather’s just 3 months ago. Losing the two most important people in my life in less than a year was devastating. My mother had died when I was just two years old and I had no real memory of her or attending her funeral. As I took several deep breaths, trying to wrap my head around all the losses I’d experienced in my life thoughts of my dad came rushing back in.

     My dad had dedicated his life to the service of others. After serving 15 years with Doctors Without Borders he chose to use a large portion of his inheritance to expand The Provost Foundation which was the charitable arm of Provost International, the multibillion dollar investment company that my grandfather had founded. All of which was now mine. Continuing my father’s work with the foundation, managing my grandfather’s legacy with his investment house,  and supporting our community centers we’re all now fully on my shoulders. And they weighed on me heavily as I sank into the chair in front of the burial site were my father would be laid to final rest.

     As people began to gather around the burial site, I held on tightly to my composure. I gave the priest a quick nod letting him know it was time to get started. As he recited prayers, I noticed the people gathered around holding their flowers, some with their heads bowed, others dabbing away tears, and I felt absolutely no connection to them. They would never know or understand what my father meant to me or everything I had truly lost in the last few months. The passing of my grandfather and father had left so many unanswered questions swirling in my head like a tornado. I didn’t even know where to begin or if or when the dust would ever settle.

     The burial was quiet and reverent. And finally over. My father was buried and it was time to move on to the final event of the day. Back in the limo, Eric navigated the streets of Manhattan expertly as he made his way uptown to Harlem. I had decided to have the funeral reception at one of  my family’s community centers so that many of the kids and families who had been touched by my father’s work would have a chance to say their goodbyes as well. As we pulled up in front of the center on 125th Street I could see through the window that a modest sized crowd had gathered and were slowly making their way inside.

     “Okay. Last stop before home.” Marc reminded me.

     “I don’t want to be here too long. I’m exhausted.” I told him.

     “I know. Just shake a few hands, give your speech, have a glass of punch, and then we’re out .”

     Just then Eric opened his door and the shouting and telltale clicking and flashes from cameras poured in.

     “Ms. Provost, over here, over here. Is it true your father was murdered in Ethiopia?” Came a shout from a faceless paparazzo.

     “Ms Provost, what was your father involved in that cost him his life?”

     “Ms. Provost, who are you wearing today?”

     “Haley, how does it feel now that all your family is gone?”

     “What the fuck! Why are the paparazzi here? Fucking vultures.” Marc spat as he stood in front of me and led me through the crowd.

I knew why they were there. Because for some reason being an African American billionairess who was NOT Oprah or Beyonce was interesting to people. Even though I wasn’t a media mogul or a pop star, people were still interested in my life. I guess some saw me as a novelty. And with the recent deaths of my grandfather and father, I was being splashed all over the gossip blogs and TMZ even more than usual.  The fact that they hadn’t swarmed the funeral and burial was actually a surprise. But Marc was right. They were fucking vultures.

     “You go on in Hales, I’ll deal with these assholes.” Aaliyah growled from behind me.

     The familiar fragrances of rubber and old sneakers hung in the air as I entered the gym of the Provost Family Community Center in Harlem. And within a few seconds I was surrounded by a group of excited kids.

     “Ms. Provost, Ms. Provost...” The kids shouted as they circled around me.

     “Hey guys! How are you?”  I smiled, my heart lifting slightly at their unconditional affection.

     “I’m sure going to miss Doctor P.” A little girl named Tiana whispered.

     “So am I!” I replied as I reached out and tugged one of  her braids.

     “Can I have a cookie?” She asked sweetly.

     “Of course! Help yourself sweetie. I think there is some punch too. Make sure you tell your friends to help themselves to the snacks too, okay?” I said.

     “Okay, See you later.” She said as she skipped away towards the buffet table.

     I made my way through the gauntlet shaking hands and receiving hugs and condolences as patiently as possible. And I did my best not to look at my watch. After a glass of punch and listening to a few stories from friends of my Dad I approached a small podium that had been set up in the front of the gym. Next to the podium stood a tall wooden easel with a large photograph of him standing in front of the community center with his arms opened wide in welcome to the whole neighborhood. The joy in his face felt like a kick to my stomach and nearly brought me to my knees. I would never see that smile again except in pictures. But, the training I had received both from my father, grandfather, and my professors at Columbia kicked in. I would not let my emotions overcome me. So I got myself together, stood in front of the podium and began to speak.

     “My father, Doctor Henry Provost Jr,  more than anything was a person who lived to serve. Once he completed his medical training and residency he immediately joined Doctors Without Borders and began traveling to some of the most dangerous places in the world to help save lives. I remember him telling me once how he never felt more alive than when he was in the middle of a war zone using every skill he had to try and put a person back together. And that making a difference in people's lives was more than duty, it was a privilege. He also made it clear to me that being my father was his most important duty and privilege. He left Doctors Without Borders to expand the Provost Foundation. It is his legacy and now it is mine to continue and yours. I can promise you that the work of the Provost Foundation will continue, as will the community centers that it supports throughout New York and the rest of the country. I thank you all so very much for coming today and sharing your memories of my dad with me. It made today a little easier for me and I hope it did the same for you. Thank you and I will see you all soon.”

     I stepped away from the mic and was headed towards a group of community center staff and volunteers to say hello when I collided into what might as well have been a brick wall. A brick wall made of muscle. At least that was what my hand told me when I reached out to steady myself. I was staring at my hand that was now connected to a chest wrapped in a silky white shirt and I almost didn’t want to look up. But of course I couldn’t avoid it. My eyes began a slow crawl, past a lovely striped gray tie, up to the neck, then a scruffy chin that hadn’t seen a razor in a couple of days. Up past a tan nose and cheekbones that were masculine and beautiful, until finally I reached his eyes. Eyes bluer than the sapphire ring I had inherited from my mother when she died. And those laser blue eyes were fixed directly on me. Get it together Haley, “Oh...I’m sorry I didn’t see you..” Why was my hand still touching his chest?

     “Are you alright?” He said in a deeply masculine voice that only heightened my awareness of him.

     “Yes, thank you.” I said, unable to tear my eyes from his.

     “I’m Asher Sullivan. I just wanted to offer my condolences. I was a business associate of your father and I was very sorry to hear of his passing.”  He said sincerely.

     I pulled my hand away from his chest only to take a step back and extend it forward for a handshake. “Nice to meet Mr. Sullivan. Thank you for coming.” I said, craning my neck to look up at him. The man was tall. Marcus was 6”0 which was tall to me, and this guy had to be closer to 6”4. I felt tiny, even in my 6” Blahniks.

     Warmth and comfort mixed with a hint of danger had me tingling in all the right places and at the same time, it had me dropping his hand like I’d just touched a hot stove. Guilt rushed through me in a wave as the reality of what had transpired today hit me all over again. God, I’m a horrible person.  I glanced back quickly at the door and saw my means of escape standing there waiting for me with a stoic look on his face. What was wrong with me? I continued to move away creating more distance between us as I mentally beat myself up for being attracted to some random hot guy at my father’s funeral.

     “It was nice to meet you Mr. Sullivan. Please excuse me.” I was on the move before he could respond. I made a quick circuit around the room to say my goodbyes and was at Marcus’ side in record time.

     “Ready?” He asked.

     “Yes. Let’s go.”

     We stepped outside and there were only a couple of hardcore paparazzi still lingering on the street. Aaliyah had done a good job of getting rid of them.  And I’m sure my security team had something to do with that as well although I hadn’t spotted any of them lingering around. I appreciated the fact they did their best to be as unobtrusive as possible. I slipped into the limo quickly and when I glanced out of the tinted window, Asher Sullivan was standing right outside the door of the community center looking at my car with a bemused expression. I felt his eyes on me even though I knew it was virtually impossible for him to be able see through the dark tint of the windows.

     “So who was that guy you were talking to earlier?” Marcus asked as we merged into traffic.

     “What guy?” I asked innocently.

     “Really Haley? You know what guy. The tall, devastatingly handsome white guy who couldn’t take his eyes off you.”

     “Oh, him. He was no one. Just some business associate of my dad’s. He was just there to pay his respects.”

     “Okay.” He said dropping the subject.

     “How about you? I didn’t see your dad today.”

     Marcus sighed and then ran a hand over his smooth bald scalp. “I’m sorry Haley. Reverend Johnson has made it perfectly clear that he can’t stand being in the same room with his own son no matter what the circumstances.” He said bitterly.

     “You don’t need to apologize sweetie. You’ve done nothing wrong.” I reached out and clasped his hand. I considered it a blessing to be able to focus on someone else's troubles for awhile.

     Reverend Peter Johnson was a one of those multi-millionaire, mega church building, prosperity ministers. He traveled all over the world preaching the gospel and collecting “seeds” in the form of cash donations, while hating his son for being gay at the same time. Honestly, I don’t even think his father really cares that Marc is gay. I think he’s more worried about his image and how having a gay child could affect his income. But I’d known him since Marc and I were freshman at Howard  and I had expected to see him at my father’s funeral. The hardest part was watching Marc bear the burden of his father’s rejection. He blamed himself, as if it was his fault that he was gay.

     “He sent me a birthday card last week basically telling me that I was going to hell for being a sodomite. Can you believe that?  I mean what kind of parent says that to their own child?” He asked.

     “The cruel kind.” I said as my eyes began to burn with unshed tears.

     “I did everything he asked me to. Straight A student. Captain of the basketball team. I taught bible school. I even went to that fucking boot camp where they try to pray and beat the gay out of you when I was 15. But it’s never been enough. It will never be enough.” Tears were now streaming down my dear friends face as he revealed to me what he had been going through over the last few days.

I pulled him into my arms and held him tightly. “Why didn’t call you me when you got that card Marc? I would have been there for you. Since when do we keep things from each other?” I gently chided.

     “I didn’t want to be selfish. You had so much going on with the funeral, and the business. I didn’t want to burden you with my shit.”

     “You are not a burden. You’re my best friend and I love you. I am so sorry that your father hurt you like that. But what he says doesn’t matter. You are who you are. And you have people in your life who love you and accept you as you are. You are so amazing. You have nothing to prove to him. Nothing. Don’t open anymore letters or cards from him. Return to sender or give them to me. Do you understand?” I could feel his pain as his shoulders shook with silent sobs.

     “I wanted to be here for you today.” He sighed into my neck.

     “You were. And now I’m here for you. That’s how this whole friendship thing works.”

     We stayed wrapped in our embrace taking comfort from each other until Eric pulled the car up to the front of Marcus’ building.

     “Why don’t you come up? I don’t think either of should be alone right now.” He said, and then pulled me from the limo before I could  answer.

     “Marc? Where the hell is Aaliyah?” I asked as we entered the lobby of his apartment building.

     “She stayed behind to help the volunteers clean up and get the center back in shape.”

     “She didn’t have to do that. Charlie coordinated all that beforehand.”

     “You know Aaliyah. She needs to keep busy.” He said as he pressed the call button for the elevator.

     “True. Why don’t you text her and tell her to come over when she’s done?”

     “ Okay. Are you hungry? I don’t feel like cooking but I was thinking of ordering some barbecue from Fette Sau.”

     “That sounds good. Eric can pick it up.” I wasn’t really hungry but if I admitted that he would only worry.

I kicked off my shoes the minute I walked into Marcus’ apartment. And at that moment, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

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