Rule 1: I’m just going to keep calling you Tony. Not Dad or Pops or Daddy—”
They were getting better at this, Darcy could admit that.
Monthly breakfasts with Tony were no longer a source of a knot in her stomach. She no longer waited several hours to return his texts or eyed her phone with distrust when she saw it was him calling, and occasionally she even initiated contact herself.
Like tonight, for instance, when she found herself three blocks from his club after an end-of-day delivery and texted him to see if he was working. He’d just been starting his night and told her to stop in for a drink before she went home.
Thursdays were quieter nights at Carbonell’s, but not so dead they couldn’t engage in some excellent people watching while they sipped their bourbons on barstools, turned to face the patrons on the dance floor. She glanced over just in time to see Tony’s eyes light up as he locked on their next subject.
“Who?” she asked, setting her drink behind her on the bar.
He gave a subtle nod. “My two o’clock,” he motioned to a small man across the room in a purple satin suit, patent leather saddle shoes, and a tsunami of hair spouting from the top of his head. He was dancing with a pregnant woman, conservatively dressed in a turtleneck sweater dress and flats.
“Are we talking about the tremendous coiffure attached to that tiny gentleman?” she asked, biting back a smile.
“The very same,” Tony commented mildly. “He’s a boxer? A flyweight?”
Darcy shook her head. “No, no. He’s a jockey—the hair is to distract from the scars on his face.” As far as she could tell, this man did not have scars on his face. But details like that didn’t matter in this little game they’d started playing.
“Right, right,” Tony agreed quickly. “The scars are from an accident at a race. He got trampled. His name’s…”
“Franklin?” Darcy guessed.
It was Tony’s turn to disagree. “Not Franklin—”
“Geoffrey? With a G?”
He snapped his fingers. “Yes,” he agreed quickly. “Geoffrey-with-a-G Goodfellow, semi-famous jockey with a secret addiction to painkillers.”
“Courtesy of the trampling,” Darcy added. “Moved back in with his mother to take care of her—”
“Oh,” Tony perked up again. “He had a younger brother, Vincent. Vincent was a…” he glanced over, handing the narrative to her.
“A trainer, at the track,” Darcy continued, picking up on Tony’s use of the past tense. “But he was murdered. And Geoffrey’s mother blames him for Vincent’s death. Because…because…” she started to lose her train of thought right as an idea struck Tony.
“Because they were at the track together when Vincent bought the farm. A gangster named Lenny Fishfingers tried to shoot his favorite horse. Vincent took the bullet himself.”
Darcy shook her head solemnly. “A true American hero,” she assessed sadly before added. “But Geoffrey, over there? Was in on the hit.”
Tony’s eyes widened and he spared her a look of shock. “No.”
“Absolutely,” Darcy insisted. “That woman he’s dancing with used to be Vincent’s girlfriend. She and Geoffrey have been having an affair for years. When she got pregnant, they decided to take him out of the picture.”
Tony frowned with understanding. “And you think that’s why they’re here? Celebrating their wicked scheme?”
She nodded. “Most likely the life insurance check just came through.”
He let out a low whistle. “Jesus, Geoffrey. Play it a little closer to the chest.”
Darcy held up her snifter. “To Vincent Goodfellow,” she said.
Tony clinked his glass to hers. “Vincent Goodfellow,” he echoed, and they drained their glasses together.
She’d only found out about this game a few months prior, when Tony had stopped by the bakery right after closing with two beers and a sad smile that told her he’d discovered what day it was. While they sat on the bench outside the front door and toasted a happy birthday to Raina’s memory, Darcy had asked him if there was anything that stuck out in his memory of her. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this. The game, which Raina had dubbed 30 Second Sob Story, was simple. Pick someone at random and, as quickly as possible, invent the most outrageous history your imagination would allow.
Tony turned back to the bartender and pointed to the couple whose sordid backstory they’d just fabricated. “Peter, do me a favor and take care of that gentleman’s tab for me, please?”
The bartender looked almost too young to be serving drinks as he squinted at the man in question. “You mean Jimmy Neutron over there?”
Tony smiled. “Yes, I mean Jimmy Neutron,” he agreed. “He’s on the house tonight.”
While it had originally been Tony who had invented this game, Raina had added that final rule: the game wasn’t over until you did something nice for your target. Usually, Tony had shrugged, that meant racing over to feed their meter with extra change once they’d left or—if they’d been a customer—buying them a cup of coffee or a pastry. The more anonymous your penance, the better.
Peter returned the smile. “Sure thing, Mr. Stark.”
He glanced back at Darcy. “Do you want another?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m at my one-drink maximum for a school night,” she reminded with a glance at the time. Her phone started ringing as soon as she glanced at it. “Speaking of,” she said with a smile and held the phone to her ear. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Hey,” Steve greeted easily. “I’m just heading out to pick up Charlotte from…” he paused. “She is at soccer tonight, right?”
Darcy laughed. “Well, if she’s not at soccer then we have a problem.”
“Okay,” Steve sounded relieved. “It is soccer. Good. I was just double-checking. They moved ballet practice last week and it screwed me up,” he added defensively. “Are you still in the city?”
She nodded, though he couldn’t see her. “Yeah, I was only a few blocks away, so I stopped in to say hi to Dad before I came home.”
Darcy stopped and frowned. “Uh—” she looked up, realizing her slip at the same time that Tony did. “My…dad,” she fumbled before she rushed on. “Tony. I stopped for a drink with Tony. I should be home soon,” she continued. “Want me to bring dinner?”
Steve was slower to answer. “Yeah,” he said after what felt like a long, thoughtful pause. “Sure. Pick up whatever you want.”
“Okay,” she said, wanting to get off the phone and pretend none of this had happened. “I’ll probably just get some sandwiches from that place across the street. Is Charlotte eating onions this week?”
“Who’s to say,” Steve replied. “She can pick them off if she’s anti-onion again.” Darcy smiled before Steve added, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she echoed and dropped the phone back into her purse.
Tony looked pensive, while they both studied the floor. “Did you just call me…”
“It was a slip,” Darcy said quickly before she added in a smaller voice, “but yes.”
Still looking at her feet swinging above the ground, twisting her stool an inch to the left and then to the right with each movement, Darcy pursed her lips and forced herself to speak. “Your thoughts?”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Tony shrug and display all stages of his consideration across his face one at a time before he finally let out a deep breath. “I didn’t hate it?” When Darcy finally raised her gaze, he continued quickly, “But I don’t care; you know I don’t care,” he held up his hands defensively. “Call me whatever you want—makes no difference to me.”
She opened her mouth once and then closed it again, choosing her words carefully. “I didn’t hate it either,” she said cautiously. “I just…surprised myself.” He raised his eyebrows, urging her to go on. “I’ve…never used that word in direct address before,” she admitted. “It feels weird.”
Tony nodded with agreement. “Yeah, I never did either. It is kinda weird.”
She frowned. “What? You had a dad, didn’t you?”
“I did,” he said evenly. Her frown remained, waiting for him to continue. “Mostly I called him Howard.”
There was some baggage there, Darcy decided, watching Tony shift, slightly uncomfortably beside her. She raised one eyebrow. “Was that his name?”
Tony huffed out a chuckle and shook his head. “Yes, but now I wish it hadn’t been. That line would be so much better.” He frowned again. “Good weird or bad weird?”
She paused in thought, accepting his return to the original topic. “Neutral weird,” she decided. “But not as weird as I thought it would.”
He accepted this with a slow nod. “Fair enough.”
She considered her next question slowly. “If…I were to…call you something other than Tony,” she glanced up again. “Would you…have a preference for one name over another?”
“Not Howard,” Tony answered, a little too quickly.
She grinned. “I think that’s doable.” Darcy hopped off her stool and reached for her purse on the bar. “You’ll have to tell me about Howard someday,” she said sincerely before she gave him a smile. “Sounds like you two are nothing alike.”
He returned her smile, still looking thoughtful. “Get home safe.”
She nodded. “I’ll text you when I do.”
In the coming months, Darcy would slip more and more until she finally broke down and changed his name in her phone.
But only to Not-Howard.
30-Second Sob Story is a game that my cousin and I play whenever we're together. We did, however, steal the idea from a wonderfully underrated RDJ movie called 'Wonder Boys' from which this scene steals heavily.
Rule #2: I don’t want your money
Darcy had hated hospitals since she was a little girl. Since she’d had to visit her grandmother’s sister in a hospice wing and first caught the scent of 409 and urine that permeated every corridor. She’d never been able to separate that smell from the memory of the cold, sterile rooms, the nurses who only pretended to care, the paranoia that came with waiting for death to pay a visit.
Watching her own mother die over three long, excruciating months at Mount Sinai hadn’t done anything to ease her discomfort.
“Is Nonno going to be okay?” Charlotte’s question shook Darcy out of her downward spiral. She glanced up from the ugly carpet she’d been studying and found that Charlotte hadn’t posed the question to her, but to Steve. Steve set down the newspaper he’d been reading and turned to the corner his daughter had tucked herself into to work on her homework when they’d arrived hours before.
“Yeah,” he said with a confidence that Darcy had to admire. “He’s a tough guy,” he added. “I’m sure he’s fine. “
You don’t know that, Darcy thought, but kept her mouth shut. Even though it was the truth. They didn’t know if Tony was going to be okay. Because they didn’t even know what had happened in the first place.
Pepper had called her at work in as close to a panic as she suspected Pepper ever got. Tony was in the hospital, she’d said. He’d been brushing off chest pains, shortness of breath, near-black outs for weeks that had finally caught up with him, culminating in a collapse, mid-sandwich that afternoon.
With a feeling that tasted hauntingly like dread sitting hot and heavy in the back of her throat, Darcy had left work to come to the hospital. Steve had grabbed Charlotte right after school and brought them both to sit and keep her company.
That was hours ago. Pepper had been out to see them once to let them know that he was being subjected to a litany of tests and that she’d be out again once there was something to share.
“They’d tell us if there was something really wrong, right?” Charlotte asked, glancing from her father to Darcy and back again. “I mean, they wouldn’t just let us sit out here if he was—”
“Charlotte,” Steve cut her off before she could finish her thought. “He’s going to be fine. We just need to be patient.”
Darcy stood suddenly, her nerves getting the best of her. “I’m going to get some coffee.”
Steve looked up, surprised. “I can get it—”
She shook her head. “I gotta walk around,” she insisted. “My feet are falling asleep.”
It was just the opposite, actually, but Steve didn’t need to know that. Every nerve in her body felt like it was on high-alert. Bracing for some terrible unknown to show up and yank the rug out from under her feet once again.
At the very least, she consoled herself as she got in line at the Starbucks in the lobby, she didn’t have to deal with vending machine coffee. Jokingly, she always let herself pretend that had been the worst part of Raina’s last few months—all the terrible instant coffee she’d consumed. Dispensed from a machine that never got cleaned, into Styrofoam cups that would be sitting intact in a landfill somewhere for the next thousand years. Clumpy powdered creamer, sweetener that made her teeth ache. That, she had joked, trying to protect herself from the truth of her darkest memories, was definitely the worst part.
Not the hours she forced herself to stay awake and count the beeps of the heart monitor. Not watching her mother—her favorite person in the world—get smaller and thinner until her skin turned yellow and her cheekbones looked almost sharpened. Not feeding her ice chips and making plans they both knew were never going to happen.
None of that.
The coffee was the worst.
She realized halfway back to the ER waiting room that she hadn’t even thought to ask if Steve or Charlotte wanted anything. She took a sip of her cappuccino and frowned, stuck for no reason in the middle of the hallway, needlessly debating if she should go back and kill more time or just deal with the guilt if it turned out they had wanted something.
Her face wrinkled as the espresso touched her tongue. It tasted too bitter. Like someone had burnt the beans or left the grounds in the portafilter’s basket for too long before brewing. She took another sip just to confirm her decision to throw it out before she dropped it in the nearest trashcan and turned to return to the waiting room.
She was stopped by running directly into Steve’s chest. Her stomach seized with dread as he put his hands on her shoulders. “I was just coming to get you,” he said with a soft smile that could mean too many things. “Tony’s going to be fine.”
“Pepper just told us,” he continued. “He had a pretty significant anxiety attack—they thought it might be something wrong with his heart but he’s fine,” Steve repeated patiently. “They’re going to keep him for another day or so, but he’s able to have visitors now.”
All the breath she’d been holding left at once and her shoulders sagged as she dropped her forehead to his chest and let him put his arms around her. “Good,” she said quietly, into his soft gray shirt. “That’s good.”
Steve tightened his embrace when she circled her arms around his waist and forced herself to take a deep breath. “You okay?” he asked quietly when her eyes stung inconveniently.
Darcy nodded and let herself steal just another long moment of comfort before she took another deep breath and stood up straight. She kept her fingers curled around Steve’s until they approached the hospital room at the end of a long, sterile hallway. They stopped in the doorway where Darcy leaned, amused to see Charlotte sitting on Tony’s bed, wild gesticulations accompanying the story she was telling.
“And then Andromeda’s going to crash into the Milky Way and it’s going be like,” she splayed the fingers on both hands out wide and made a crashing sound with her mouth. “And it'll swallow up our whole galaxy—except the sun—and they’ll just keep crashing into each other and all these new—” she stopped and turned around to smile at Steve and Darcy standing in the doorway. “Hi,” she said sweetly. “I’m telling them about galactic cannibalism.”
“Nice, soothing topic of discussion,” Steve mused, letting Darcy go ahead of him into the room.
Pepper smiled from her seat beside Tony. “To be fair, he did ask.”
“Of course he did,” Darcy smiled.
Tony shrugged. “She said she and Aunt Jane went to the space museum,” he said, sounding so normal Darcy had to stifle an actual sigh of relief. “I was bummed that I did not get an invitation to the space museum, so Charlotte was filling me in on what I missed.”
“Did you know Nonno used to build satellites?” Charlotte asked, wide-eyed. “Like real ones. Up in space.”
“I’d heard that,” Darcy said mildly while Pepper got to her feet.
“Steve,” she said, straightening her pencil skirt needlessly. “I haven’t eaten all day—would you mind going with me to get something from the cafeteria?”
Steve exchanged a quick look with Darcy before he nodded. “Yeah, of course. Char, let’s give Nonno a minute, yeah?”
Pepper placed a hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “Plus, you never told me about that sleepover with your Girl Scout troop,” she reminded. “I want to hear all about it.”
Darcy felt her stomach twist unpleasantly at the realization that Tony must have asked for this minute alone with her. But Charlotte nodded and hopped off the bed obediently. She kissed Tony’s cheek. “Are we still going to the Mets game next week?”
Tony scoffed. “How can you even ask me that?” he said dramatically. “There is nothing on this Earth that is going to keep us from going to the Mets game next week.”
Darcy smiled as Charlotte giggled. “We could just watch it on TV,” she added. “If you’re not feeling good.”
“We could eat peanut butter and coleslaw sandwiches, young lady,” he said sternly. “But that doesn’t sound all that great, does it?”
She giggled again when he brought the hand not wired with an IV up to tickle her neck. “No,” she squirmed.
“Exactly.” He kissed her forehead. “Go get something to eat and don’t ever blaspheme about the Mets in my presence again.”
Steve gave her shoulders a quick squeeze before he ushered Pepper and Charlotte back into the hallway. Darcy waited until she could no longer hear Charlotte’s chattering before she pulled up the chair Pepper had just vacated. “What’s up?” she asked, cutting to the chase.
“I’m going to tell you something and you’re not going to like it.”
She steeled herself and sat up straighter. “Okay…”
“My lawyer’s coming down tomorrow and I’m updating my will to include you.”
Darcy sighed and rolled her eyes. “And the Oscar goes to…”
“I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t—”
“It’s not necessary,” she continued, each of them doing their best to talk over the other one. “There’s no reason to get—”
“I thought I was dying today, Darcy,” he reminded, giving her a hard stare that suspended her next sentence.
She paused and pursed her lips. “I understand that,” she said, patiently. “But you weren’t dying so we don’t have to get all death-bed confessions here.”
He made a sound of frustration. “It’s not a death-bed confession. I thought I was dying and all I could think was two things.”
Darcy lifted her eyebrows expectantly. “What two things?”
“One,” he held up a finger with a pulse monitor attached. “That Pepper was going to think I did it on purpose to get out of going to this silent retreat she booked us for and she was going to be pissed and I wouldn’t have the chance to tell her that I didn’t do it on purpose, even though until this afternoon I thought I actually thought I would rather die than spend seven days in total silence with a bunch of strangers but—”
“Tony,” Darcy held up a hand to cut him off. “What was the second thing?”
His shoulders dropped. “That there’s so much I never got a chance to do for you—and now I was going to die having not done even the most obvious.”
She sighed and looked down at her shoes before she shook her head and looked up again. “It’s a very nice gesture—"
“Don’t argue with me,” he spoke over her. “I know what we talked about and I know what you said, and I don’t care—you have to let me do this—”
“Do what?” she asked. “Tony, it was an anxiety attack. You’re going to be—”
“Fine,” he finished for her. “I know. Today, I’m going to be fine. But what about next time? What if it’s my heart next time and I’m not fine? Or I get hit by a bus? Or—” he stopped himself and clenched his jaw. “Everyone who was just in here?” he motioned to where Steve, Charlotte, and Pepper had been only a minute ago. “That’s it,” he shrugged. “That’s all I got. And if I can’t make sure you're all taken care of when I’m dead then what the hell did I work so hard for? What’s the point in—”
“Tony, stop talking like this,” Darcy demanded. “You’re being dramatic. Steve and I are fine. I don’t need you to—”
“Darcy,” his hand fell on top of hers. “I know you don’t need me to take care of you—and I know that nothing I do now is ever going to make up for the fact that I never got to take care of you—”
“That’s not your fault,” she reminded him, trying her hardest not to throw up her hands in frustration.
“Doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” he countered. “I’m trying to tell you that I love you and Steve and Charlotte, and I want to make sure you’re all taken care of when I’m gone.”
Darcy sat back in surprise. She blinked. “You what?”
Tony’s brow furrowed. “Did you…” he frowned. “Did you think I didn’t love you?” When she found herself unable to answer, he scoffed and immediately softened. “Darcy…of course I love you. You’re my daughter.”
“Well, yeah, but I mean… “
“No,” he shook his head firmly. “No technicalities. You’re my daughter. I love you and I want to take care of you—not because I have too much money or because I feel guilty that I didn’t know you existed until a year ago. I want to take care of you because I’m your father and that’s my job.”
They were quiet for what felt like a long time before Darcy managed to speak around the swell of emotion that filled her chest without warning. “Oh.”
“And I didn’t say that expecting you would say it back,” he continued quickly. “But I just—”
Darcy got up and sat on the edge of the hospital bed. She swallowed down the lump in her throat and put her arms around him in a tight hug. Her chin rested on his shoulder for a moment before she felt him relax and hug her back.
“Are we…” his voice was muffled by her hair. “Are we hugging people now?”
She pulled back, blinking her glassy eyes back into focus. “Yeah,” she said quietly, with a wet, half-smile. “I think we should be.”
Tony’s smile was soft and almost timid before he pulled her back into for another hug. “Does this mean you’re okay with this?” he asked when he let her go a second time.
“No,” she sniffed, and swiped at her eyes as she sat back. “I have rules.”
His sigh was affection wrapped in exasperation. “Of course you do.”
“The only way I’m saying yes to this is if it’s for a college fund for Charlotte,” she paused. “And, y’know, in the event there are any other people who come along in need of an expensive education, them too.”
The corner of Tony’s lips twitched. “Okay,” he said softly. “That’s fair.”
“And you can’t do this anymore,” she added, motioning to the hospital room. “No more health scares or attacks or whatever—you do your yoga, go to therapy, take what you need to take to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Understand?” He nodded. “I’m serious,” she added. “If we’re amending my original rules for our relationship then you have to promise to live to be at least…a hundred.”
He scoffed. “A hundred?”
“An argument could be made for ninety,” she countered. “But I won’t go any lower than eighty-five.”
He laughed and shook his head. “A hundred,” he repeated. “Jesus Christ…”
She raised her eyebrows again. “Deal or no deal?”
He sighed again. “Deal. But you drive a hard bargain.”
Darcy curled her fingers and stuck out her pinky. “Don’t do it unless you mean it,” she warned when he eyed her hand. “This is sacred.”
Tony smiled and hooked his pinky finger with hers without hesitation.
Rule #3: "That thing you did? Where you kept trying to get a hold of me and kept trying all forms of communication? After I didn’t answer the first time?"
Tony winced. "That was pretty uncool wasn't it?"
"Super uncool... Work on that."
If a cellphone could be shattered by such things as the weight of a glare, Darcy’s would have lost the fight to Alysha’s steely gaze much earlier in the day.
“That’s eighteen times,” she reminded needless over the whirl of the immersion blender. “What in Christ does he want?”
“I don’t know,” Darcy sighed, stopping the vibrations once more. “I haven’t had time to call him back.”
Which, of course, Alysha already knew. They’d been in the trenches together all day, dealing with two call-offs and an unending line at the door. Jamie had saved their lives, coming in on his day off to handle the front end, but that still left the two of them solely responsible for all of the day’s production. They’d started off in high spirits and were mostly on track to be finished at the usual time, but the non-stop ringing of Darcy’s phone and an unexpected last-minute catering order had them both counting the minutes until they could go home.
“Can’t you just turn it off?” she groused with a most uncharacteristic display of attitude.
Darcy looked at the clock. “Not until at least three,” she said with a frown. “In case the school calls.”
Highly unlikely, but always a possibility. Charlotte could get sick or hurt or need someone to come and get her. And even though there were three other names and phone numbers in her files other than hers and Steve’s, Darcy didn’t want to risk it.
“Ugh,” Alysha pushed back her hair as the buzzed started again. “Please answer it,” she demanded. “I’ll flip your tarts,” she added. “Just please figure out what the hell your dad wants so he can stop calling.”
Darcy dropped the oven mitts she’d just been about to slide on and grabbed the phone on the third round of rings. “What?” she demanded, pressing the phone to her ear as she ducked around the corner to be able to hear him.
“Hey,” Tony’s voice was almost too casual for the number of calls, voicemails, and texts she’d ignored from him since eleven. “What’s up? How are you?”
She pressed a hand to her forehead and willed herself not to freak out. “Exceptionally busy, Tony,” she said evenly. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Me?” he sounded surprised. “Yeah, I’m fine. Fit as a fiddle. I’m—”
“You’ve called me nineteen times in the last three hours,” she informed him. “What. Is. Wrong?”
There was a pause. “It’s Pepper.”
Darcy’s heart sank. “Pepper?” she repeated, feeling her frustration drain slowly away. “What’s wrong with Pepper? Is she okay? Is she—”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I uh—she’s in Tokyo, for work. And I just turned on the news and there’s been this—uh—earthquake? There? Right where she’s supposed to be staying?”
“I haven’t been able to reach her and I—” he blew out a breath. “I just…thought you should know what’s going on, I guess?”
Her heart twisted a little bit, hearing how casual he was trying to be. How clearly not fine he was. She pursed her lips and looked back at her kitchen where Alysha was just starting to assemble ingredients for prep for tomorrow’s first bake. “Give me like, an hour? An hour and a half at most? I’ll be over.”
“No, no,” he protested immediately. “You don’t have to—”
“You need someone to wait with you, Dad,” she said firmly. “Until you hear from her. I’ll see you soon.” She hung up before he could argue. “Leash,” she called across the prep space. “Put that shit away, I’m changing the plan.”
Alysha frowned. “What’s up?”
“I have to get out of here sooner rather than later and I’m not leaving you with the rest of this to-do list on your own.” She pointed to the five sheets of tarts and croissants they’d assembled earlier. “Put those in the cooler, they’ll be for tomorrow.”
Alysha’s thick brows stayed close together. “But what if they run out tonight?”
“Then they run out tonight,” Darcy said. “We’ll have those ready to go for the morning bake and we’re cutting the last two hours off of today’s work. Let’s finish up and start cleaning.”
They cleaned and put away what they could for the next morning. Darcy knew she’d likely regret making this decision tomorrow when her usual prep was not done the way she liked, but she shoved that thought away as quickly as possible. With the food stored and the dishes brought to the pit, Darcy wiped down all of the counters and surfaces while Alysha jumped over to the bar to help Jamie with a few backed up drink tickets.
“Hey,” she called over the growl of the espresso grinder. “Is your dad okay?”
Darcy swallowed hard. “I’m sure he will be,” she said honestly. “I’ll fill you in when I know a little more.” She offered a smile. “Thanks for being flexible—and thanks for all your help today. You’re a rock star.”
Alysha grinned. “I learned from the best, Boss-lady. Oh, and I’m going to hang out and run bar until Megan gets here after class,” she added. “Might put me into an hour or two of OT—is that okay?”
Darcy nodded. “Just make sure they're all caught up before you head out.”
“Of course,” Alysha mirrored her nod before she frowned. “Can you text me or something when you figure out what’s wrong with Tony?”
“I will,” she promised, throwing her purse over her shoulder before she dug for her phone. If she ordered a ride, she calculated based on the traffic, she’d get to Tony’s brownstone a few minutes under her hour-and-a-half promise with enough time for one quick stop.
She let herself in with the code he’d given her and dropped her purse in the foyer. “Dad?” she called into the empty space. Her shoes squeaked on the tile as she moved into the living room and then the kitchen.
Tony was in the den—the coziest room in the giant house, tucked in the back corner with a window that looked out into the garden and a television hung amid a wall of stuffed bookshelves. He looked up from the channels he was flipping through, almost surprised to see her. “Hey.”
Darcy dropped her plastic bag on the coffee table. “Any word yet?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Not yet,” he confirmed, returning his attention to the television while she sat down beside him on the couch. “I called the office there,” he was distracted almost immediately by a fresh angle of the earthquake destruction. “No answer.”
She nodded. “That’s not too surprising,” she said, watching the reflection of the screen—the overturned cars, the massive piles of rubble—in his glasses. “What’s the news saying?”
“6.1,” he said. “No mention of a casualty count yet.”
She waited another moment for him to look back at her, but he didn’t. Transfixed on a clip of two paramedics carrying a stretcher through a pile of debris. She reached for the remote. “Let’s give the news a break,” she suggested lightly before shutting it off.
“Hey,” he exclaimed. “I need that.”
“We’ll check in every hour,” she suggested, swapping the remote for the bag of Bazooka. “It’s not going to do any good to just see the same thing over and over.”
Tony looked away from the black screen. His eyes fell to the bag of gum. “What’s this?”
“Something to do while we wait for information,” she said, simply. She kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet beneath her. “Ever made a wrapper chain before?”
To no surprise of Darcy, Tony had never made a bubblegum wrapper chain before, but he caught on quick enough. They sat cross-legged on the couch together and threw the wrapper-less pieces of gum back in the empty bag, occasionally popping a few in their mouths to chew absently in-between scans of the news stations.
“How’d you two meet, anyway?” Darcy asked, keeping her tone light before she blew a big, pink bubble and sucked it back into her mouth with a satisfying snap.
“Me and Pepper?” Tony asked, glancing up momentarily from his end of their chain. Darcy nodded. “She used to work for me.”
He smiled faintly. “It doesn’t come up that often when she talks about her career,” he admitted. “I’m not the greatest boss. At least,” he added quickly. “I wasn’t back then.”
“Were you mean to her?”
He shook his head. “Worse. I was kind of… indifferent?” The word lifted with uncertainty. “I’d gotten into a routine where I’d treat everyone in my life like shit and wait for them all to leave and then find a new batch every year or so.”
She nodded. “And then rinse and repeat?”
He shrugged. “More or less.”
“Called me on it,” he said simply. “Told me I was a selfish bastard who’d rather die alone than let anyone know I had a heart. And then she thanked me,” he continued, that half-smile still stuck in the corner of his lips. “Because if she hadn’t hated working for me so much, she never would have been motivated to start her own company, so she never had to work for someone like me again.”
Darcy’s smile grew. “Please tell me she quit after that.”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “She definitely quit.”
“And then about five years later, she was Pepper Potts—first female CEO in clean energy. She was the keynote at a fundraiser I went to about…” he frowned in concentration. “Nine years ago? I think?”
“And were you smitten?”
“So smitten,” he agreed. “And so obvious about it.”
She grinned and shook her head, returning her attention to folding the tiny wax papers between her fingers. “Nerd.”
“Where’d you learn how to make these?” he asked with a familiar, abrupt change in topic.
“Mom and I used to make them,” she said, still not looking up. “I think she learned it at some summer camp when she was a kid.” She shrugged. “We’d uh…” Darcy paused and cleared her throat. “Her chemo used to take a long time and she didn’t like to sleep during it so…” she glanced up and shrugged. “We’d do this.”
Tony nodded slowly and popped a piece of gum in his mouth. “It’s weirdly relaxing.”
They were quiet for another few links in their chain before Tony spoke again. “So how come Raina never got married?”
Darcy looked up and offered a wry smile. “Pretty sure you’re looking at the main reason, Dad.”
He scoffed. “Come on. That’s a bullshit excuse. Plenty of single moms get married. Plus,” he added. “You’re great. Who wouldn’t want to be your dad?”
Her smile melted into one a little more genuine and shrugged. “All the guys she dated, I guess? I mean…” she tilted her head to one side in thought. “I know she had plenty of flings. I guess she had a few boyfriends over the years but most of them didn’t want to compete.”
“With me, with the shop, with her insanely independent spirit,” she shrugged. “She was a lone wolf.” She watched his expression for a minute before she snickered. “Were you hoping I’d say it was because your torrid three months together ruined her for all other men?”
Tony sputtered indignantly. “I was not expecting you to say that.”
“I didn’t say expecting,” she reminded. “I said hoping.”
“Well no,” he said, sounding thoughtful. “I would have never wanted her to be lonely.”
Darcy smiled again. “She was never lonely,” she promised, repeating what her mother had said all the times she’d called from Paris, worrying about the same thing. “Just alone.” She narrowed her eyes in thought. “How’d you get Pepper to talk to you again after you treated her like such garbage?”
“I asked if she’d have dinner with me—so I could apologize for my behavior,” he said, dropping his eyes back down to the bubblegum wrapper. “And she said no and never spoke to me again, even though we ended up at about six of the same functions over the next few months.” Darcy snorted. “And then about a year after that I was having dinner by myself at this place on the West Side and the server came over and told me my bill was covered.”
He nodded. “She wrote a note that just said ‘Now we’ve had dinner together. Leave me alone.’”
“Sick burn, Pep,” Darcy commented with a shake of her head. “I assume you didn’t.”
“No,” he said easily. “Of course not. I had flowers sent to her office every Monday for a month until she agreed to let me buy her a cup of coffee.”
She looked up again and pursed her lips. “You’re kind of a nuisance, you know that?”
Tony smiled. “That’s about the nicest way anyone’s ever said that to me.”
Darcy opened her mouth to respond when the phone on the coffee table lit up and vibrated. Their eyes hit it at the same time. Darcy watched Tony’s hand reach first and then pull back on the second vibration. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “Answer it.”
“What if it’s bad news?”
She forced herself not to roll her eyes. “Then we'll know that it’s bad news,” she reminded gently. When he still didn’t pick up on the third ring, she reached out and grabbed it herself. “Hello?”
“Darcy?” Pepper’s voice sounded far away, like she was yelling all the way from Japan. But it was enough to flood Darcy’s system with relief. Across the couch, Tony sank back and let his head drop into his hands.
“Pepper,” she breathed. “Oh my God, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said over the chaotic din in the background. “I’ve been stuck in a subway tunnel for the last eight hours,” she exclaimed. “I’m okay but—everything’s a mess—I just—is Tony with you?”
Wordlessly, Darcy handed the phone across the couch.
Tony didn’t even bother to hide the way his voice cracked when he brought the phone to his ear. “Pep? You okay?”
Darcy felt her nose sting with an unexpected rush of emotion as she watched the side of Tony’s jaw clench as he listened to Pepper’s voice. She got up and went into the hallway to give him a minute. Her gaze fell to the decorative table against the wall beset with framed photos she hadn’t studied before.
There were a few of a woman Darcy knew was her grandmother, a wedding photo from the sixties of a couple who had to be Pepper’s parents. A recent shot of Tony and Pepper with Charlotte on her last birthday. One of Darcy and Tony dancing at her wedding, only a few months before. And one photo she’d never seen of Tony and Pepper—another shot from her and Steve’s wedding. They were sitting beside one another, hands entwined on the table; Tony was leaning over, his lips close to Pepper’s ear. She was mid-laugh, practically glowing with a happy, relaxed energy she didn’t usually get to project.
Darcy smiled and pulled it to the forefront of the other photos. She took the wrapper chain they’d been working on and laid it on the table in the shape of a heart before she placed the photo inside of it.
Rule #4 - I’d appreciate it if you didn’t ever try to meddle in my business at the bakery unless I ask for your help
There was broken glass everywhere. The main display case had been shattered along with the front window. The tablets on the registers were gone, although without any access to the cash in the safe, whoever had destroyed her shop had only managed to steal about two hundred dollars’ worth of electronics.
It was the only thing that felt like a small comfort as Darcy stood in the middle of the bakery, taking in all the damage.
Glass crunched under Charlotte’s shoes as she crossed from the broken door. Darcy turned and saw Steve stuck in the doorway, mouth agape. “Jesus Christ…”
“It’s fine,” Darcy said immediately, wishing her voice hadn’t wavered. “Charlotte, honey, please be careful.”
Charlotte’s blue eyes were wide as she looked around. “Who would do this?” she asked softly. “Everybody loves this place.”
“It’s fine,” Darcy repeated. “It’s...” she shook her head and exhaled heavily. “These things happen. Nobody was here, nobody got hurt it’s—” she stopped when Charlotte closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around Darcy’s waist.
Mina had called her at four o’clock, full of apologies and news that someone had broken into Queen of Tarts during the night. The police had done what they needed to do by the time Darcy and Steve had arrived with Charlotte still in her pajamas. They’d spoken to the two officers outside who’d been unable to offer much more than the promise to look at security footage from the mini mart across the street. Queen of Tarts, it would appear, was just the most recent in a string of B-and-E’s where the motivation seemed to be property damage and mayhem instead of theft.
Bored kids, the cops had said, with a shrug that felt too dismissive for the way the sight of her store was breaking Darcy’s heart.
If this had to happen, Darcy told herself as her arms went around Charlotte, it was the best-case scenario. No one had been hurt. No cash had been taken. It wouldn’t take more than a few days—a week at best—to clean and repair the damage. But telling herself that didn’t stop the lump from rising in her throat or the tears from blurring her vision.
Charlotte let her go as Steve crossed the room to fold Darcy in a tight hug. A sob hitched its way up from her chest when she leaned into him. “I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she admitted. “It’s just stuff. It’s just…” she shook her head, not pulling back from his embrace. “This is why I have insurance, right?”
But it wasn’t just stuff and saying that only made her want to cry more. It was the display case she’d been filling, stocking, and cleaning since she was six years old. Where Jane had taught herself electrical engineering and rewired four different times in the last ten years, making it more efficient with each incarnation. The windows in pieces on the floor were the ones she’d painted with her baking classes every December and the ones that Raina had made her clean, balanced on her shoulders to reach the top corners when she was little.
“Yeah,” Steve’s arms tightened around her as her tears soaked into his t-shirt. He kissed her temple and rubbed a comforting circle on her back. “It’ll be good as new in no time.”
“How come the alarm didn’t go off?”
Charlotte’s question came hours later, while she held a dustpan for Jamie to sweep his pile of glass into.
Alysha answered before Darcy could construct a lie. “You have to trigger it manually,” she said from behind what was left of the display case. “From underneath the counter.”
“What?” Steve asked, dropping the tape measure away from the window frame.
Darcy looked up, knowing his request for clarification had not been directed at Alysha, but at her. She took a deep breath. “Yeah,” she admitted. “It’s a really stupid, dangerous system. The only way an alarm calls out to the cops is if you hit the button under the register.” She dropped her eyes to insurance paperwork she’d been rifling through.
When she looked up again, Steve was still staring at her. “Are you serious?”
“The last time they jacked the price on my security system,” she began testily. “I had to pick if I wanted to keep the internal or the external alarms and I picked the internal. I’d rather my staff be able to get help if they needed it than if something like this happened in the middle of the night.”
“You had to pick?” he asked, skeptically.
“Financially speaking,” she clarified. “Yes.”
“Look, we’ve never had a break-in in forty years,” she continued. “I was playing the odds. Can you not give me shit about it, please?” She glanced around the rubble. “Clearly the lesson has been learned.”
Steve held up his hands. “Supportive husband,” he reminded. “Returning to work without further comment.”
Her phone vibrated in her pocket before she could apologize for being so short.
QoT’s on the news, Tony’s text read. What happened? You okay?
Darcy pushed back her hair and sighed. We’re fine, she replied. Just a break-in. No one got hurt. The cops think it was some kids just dicking around.
You need anything? He asked after another minute.
A new security system, apparently, she wrote back before adding a grumpy-faced emoji. Quickly, she added. JK—it’s under control. Thanks though.
Her phone lit up periodically the rest of the day—texts and calls from her family, the insurance company, the police—but she didn’t hear from Tony again.
Until four days later.
He picked up on the second ring. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she said from outside the shop. She moved out of the way of a member of the installation crew. “You wanna do me a favor?”
“Anything,” he said quickly.
“You uh, wanna tell me why there’s a crew of guys from some place call Okrossbar Securities installing some insanely expensive system that I absolutely cannot afford to install and maintain?”
A pause from the Upper West Side.
Darcy grit her teeth. “Tony…”
“It’s already paid for,” he said quickly, and with that finality in his tone that made her want to snap. “You don’t have to worry about maintenance fees or installation. It’s taken care of.”
She closed her eyes and leaned against the brick wall. “Who is taking care of it?” she asked, willing herself to be patient and not add an explosive argument with her father to an already terrible week.
“Because if it’s you,” she continued, “then we’re about to have a really unpleasant conversation about you doing the exact thing I asked you very explicitly not to do.”
“I know you’re going to be mad—”
“Not going to be,” she cut him off. “Already am. I’m already mad, Tony. Because this feels hauntingly like you getting involved with my business which, again, I have explicitly asked you not to do.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, surprising her. She’d expected him to deny her right to be angry. Or pretend he’d forgotten she’d given him this rule. “That’s…exactly what I’m doing.”
“For the love of God…” she groaned.
“You can’t expect me to ignore your major security issues when there’s something well within my capacity to help.”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” she reminded.
“You would never have asked for my help, Darcy.”
“Yeah, because I’m thirty-five years old and I don’t need you trying to fix what you deem as broken in my life without my permission.”
“Your store was broken,” he countered. “Not your life. Your store. Where you spend how much of your time? You had a problem I could fix so I’m fixing it.”
“I didn’t ask you to fix it!” she lamented. “Why can’t you just do what I asked?”
“Because you gave me conflicting orders!”
Darcy stopped and stood up from the wall with a frown. “I did what?”
Tony sighed. “You told me not to interfere with your business,” he reminded. “And I agreed. But then you told me—” he stopped, as if considering his next words carefully.
“I told you what?”
“When I was in the hospital—last year—you remember what you told me?”
“You are not blaming my bakery for your anxiety attacks,” she snapped.
“No, I’m not,” he agreed. “But Darcy—” he stopped himself again and she heard him huff out an exhale. “You told me to keep myself from freaking out again and I don’t…I don’t know how to do that if I can’t take care of the things that matter to me. And like it or not, that’s you. And like it or not, it’s that place, too.”
“It’s where I met your mother,” he interrupted whatever she was about to say. “It’s the reason you’re even alive to be yelling at me right now. And it’s where you grew up, and where you met Steve, and it’s Charlotte’s favorite place in the world. It’s important, Darcy,” he said firmly. “Not just to me—to a lot of people. And if the cost of knowing that it’s protected 24/7 by the best security system in the world is you being mad at me then,” he exhaled again. “Yeah, I guess I’m willing to deal with that.”
She sagged against the bricks again and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m still really mad at you,” she said after a long pause.
“Fine,” he said easily. “Be mad. Just be safe while you’re mad and I’m fine with it.”
“And if I were ever going to forgive you for breaking one of our initial rules, this would be the only possible reason I could think of that I might be able to.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “We can amend our original constitution if it means that much to you.”
Another long pause as Darcy watched a slim young woman installing something that looked like sensors along the door frame. She glanced up and met Darcy’s eyes with a smile. “Would you like a walk-through, ma’am?”
Darcy sighed. “This better be the most goddamn user-friendly system in the history of technology, Tony,” she said into her phone, holding up a hand to the woman who’d offered. “Or I swear to God, I’m ripping it all out and you’re just going to be stuck with—I’m assuming—a six-figure bill.”
“Deal,” he said immediately. “But, seriously,” he added. “Go learn how to use it because if I’m going to endanger any goodwill I’ve earned in the last three years, you better at least learn how to turn it on and off.”
She hung up without saying goodbye and spent the rest of the day learning the ins-and-outs of what turned out to be the most secure and most user-friend system she’d ever encountered.
And you’re not allowed to ask me for grandchildren
Darcy didn’t remember falling asleep, but she wasn’t too surprised. She’d never been so exhausted in her life. Exhausted, aching, hoarse from screaming; she was a mess.
A ridiculously, transcendently happy mess—head-over-heels in love with her dark-haired, blue-eyed baby girl who had arrived three weeks ahead of schedule.
Lucy Rose Rogers had taken her first breath at two-thirty in the afternoon, weighing just six pounds, three ounces, and displaying an impressively healthy set of lungs and vocal cords. Her first name had been chosen by her sister and her middle name had belonged to the maternal grandmother she’d never meet. She was beautiful and perfect and worth every agonizing second of the thirteen hours of labor it took to bring her into the world.
There had been so many visitors, she’d already started to lose track. The room was full of flowers and balloons and as much as Darcy had wanted to stay up and go through all the cards and well-wishes with Steve, she’d felt her eyelids growing heavy as soon as she’d finished her dinner. He’d still been there when she’d started to fall asleep, with Charlotte holding Lucy, and Jane needlessly adjusting her pillows for her and Thor looking over Charlotte’s shoulder, a massive hand gently stroking the baby’s dark, downy hair. There had been low chatter and the impossibly sweet sound of Lucy’s fussing in her sister’s arms.
But when she woke, it was because of a different sound.
“It is time to say goodnight to Napoli
Though it's hard for us to whisper, buona sera
With that old moon above the Mediterranean Sea”
Her eyes fluttered open to find the room empty except for Tony, who she was fairly certain had not been there when she’d fallen asleep. He was holding Lucy, facing the window where a full moon was peeking through wispy, silver clouds. Darcy smiled and let her head fall back on her pillows, content to listen to his soft melody until he noticed she was awake.
“In the mornin' signorina we'll go walkin'
When the mountains help the sun come into sight
And by the little jewelry shop we'll stop and linger
While I buy a pretty ring for your finger”
She watched him sway gently as he sang and drop his head to press a kiss to the baby’s face. Lucy didn’t make a sound as he turned back to the bassinet beside Darcy’s bed.
“And in the meantime let me tell you that I love you,”
Tony continued to sing as he moved her gently from the crook of his arm to his hands to lay her back down.
“Buona sera, signorina, kiss me goodnight.” He kissed her again and set her silently down among the striped pink and blue blankets before he raised his eyes and smiled. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Darcy offered a sleepy smile and shook her head. “When did you get here?”
When she’d texted Pepper to let her know they were headed to the hospital at three in the morning, it had been with the knowledge that she and Tony were in Jamaica. She hadn’t expected Pepper’s response—that they were coming home as soon as there was fuel in the jet and to let her know if there was anything they could do in the meantime. There hadn’t been, of course, but the offer had warmed her heart all the same.
“Just a little while ago,” he said, sounding apologetic. “We got grounded in North Carolina to wait out a storm or we would’ve been here sooner.”
“Steve’s driving her and Charlotte to our house,” he said, dropping into the chair that Steve had occupied for most of the day. “He said he’s going to grab a few things from home and come back to spend the night here.”
Darcy’s head dropped back again. “I hope he brings my slippers.”
“Your slippers were top of the list,” he assured her before he grinned. “Possibly a hairbrush which—” he motioned to her hair and let out a low whistle with a grimace.
She laughed softly and shook her head. “I just had a baby,” she reminded, absently patting down what felt like massively tangled curls and a mess of what might be bangs back down across her brow. “You’re supposed to be nice to me.”
He looked down at his sleeping granddaughter. “Nice work though,” he smiled. “Exceptionally well-made baby you’ve got here.”
Darcy’s grin widened. “Right?”
“I mean, I’m no expert,” he added. “But this seems like top-notch craftsmanship.”
“What were you singing to her?”
“Louis Prima,” he said like it should be obvious. “Do you not know that song?”
She shook her head again. “Italian love songs aren’t exactly my area of expertise.”
It was his turn to smile again. “It was my mom’s favorite,” he said quietly. “She used to sing it while she was cooking.”
Darcy felt her heart swell a little bit. She knew almost nothing about her grandparents other than their names—Howard and Maria; their relationship with their son—somewhat strained; and that they’d died in 1991—car crash on their way to the airport. The little pleasant memories Tony shared from time to time felt like a treat. Something worth waiting for that they could both enjoy.
“Can you sing it again?” she asked before she could stop herself.
Tony’s smile softened and he reached out to brush her messy hair away from her eyes. “Sure,” he said softly. “You go back to sleep.”
She forced herself to stay awake for another moment, long enough to raise a hand and point in his direction. “Before I forget,” she said seriously with a glance at Lucy sleeping beside her. “This is a one-and-done situation. You’re not allowed to bug me for anymore grandchildren.”
He laughed and got to his feet with an affectionate sigh. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said as he stood over her and bent down to drop a kiss to her forehead. “You’ve given me two beautiful granddaughters,” he reminded her. “That’s more than enough.”
Darcy felt him lift her hand and press a kiss to her knuckles as her eyes fell closed for a second time. Just before she fell all the way asleep, she heard him start to sing again.
In the meantime let me tell you that I love you
Buona sera, signorina, kiss me goodnight
Louis Prima's 'Buona Sera' was the song my Nonno used to sing to me whenever I'd leave his house. I know the original lyrics are 'while I buy a wedding ring for your finger' but since my Nonno changed it for me, Lucy and Charlotte's Nonno changed it for them.
<3 <3 <3
Yes, I do love you all 3000 and I hope you enjoyed another visit to the Good Madness Universe.
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