Part One: How Did I Get Here When I Started There?

Where to begin? That's a million-dollar question right there. In the last two years my life has been turned upside down. Everything has moved so fast that I never even bothered to sit down and try and make sense of it. Until now.

One of those annoying philosophical questions that occasionally occurs to me is "Who am I?" I hate those stupid questions, they tend to take all the quiet and self-assurance away that I've managed to build since the last time it came up.

If I had to pick a word to describe how my life used to be it would be "normal." I wasn't from a broken home. I never had some tragic occurrence scar me for life. As a matter of fact I was the much loved and much waited for child. My mother called me a miracle and my dad called me his little darling. My Mom was forty when I was born and Dad forty-five; they'd given up having any biological children and didn't have the financial resources to afford adoption so they did a lot of volunteer work only suddenly there I was when they least expected it; Momma was five months along before they even realized she was pregnant.

I'm an only child but not of the spoiled variety; my parents kept me pretty well grounded. My name is Leah Helainna Hambrick. Don't ask me to explain my middle name; it was some wild hare that my parents came up with by putting together Helen and Alainna which were the two names they were trying to choose between. My middle name was probably the only wild hare my parents ever had if you want to know the truth. I loved them both and appreciated them for who they were but my friends all thought they were old and stodgy.

Contrary to many stories of single, late in life babies I had a really fun home life, just not what my peers were used to. My life was very traditional with strong role models in both my parents. My mom taught me the art of homemaking from the time I could stand on a chair and stir the pot. My dad taught me to be mechanically inclined and how to fix most everything, including changing my own oil and brakes when it was needed. We went camping, hunting, and fishing together as a family. As a matter of fact we did most everything together as a family. Divorce was never a word I even heard muttered in my home.

By the time I went to a public highschool I was so painfully normal I began to resent all of the attention that my peers were receiving for their seemingly endless supply of problems and angst … both real and imagined. Daddy quickly tired of my decent into adolescent idiocy and sat me down one day to explain how my friends were wasting their God-given lives on that sort of foolishness and then went on to tell me I had a choice to make. Was I going to flop around thinking I was a fish out of water or was I going to expend my life's energy swimming upstream in order to fulfill God's plan for my life? Put like that my friends started looking pretty silly and it was like being the only sober person at a wild frat kegger. I got over myself in fairly short order and got on with my life.

The only part of the idiocy I couldn't seem to give up was my highschool sweetheart. Hank was a "great catch" when we were in highschool. Later … well, not so much as I was to find out the hard way.

Other than my parents' occasional homespun homilies, I had a normal education that was supplemented with a rich home life, church life, and with extracurricular activities supporting the goal of producing a well-rounded child. I graduated with honors from highschool, continued to live at home while I went to college, and graduated with a double major … a BSS in Social Science Education and a BS in History. I was all hot to make history come to life as a Highschool teacher. Yeah right.

Daddy tried to warn me. He said that he hadn't thought much of a lot of the kids I went to school with and didn't see that the latest crop were any better. Momma tried to warn me. She had been a teacher's aide for 19 years before forced to take early retirement when she got pregnant with me as well as other health issues. My favorite professor tried to warn me by saying that I was too pretty and innocent and that I would be better off in Early Education until the new got rubbed off of me. I didn't listen; I was too full of idealism and dreams.

My internship should have awoken my sense of self-preservation if nothing else had, but it didn't. The kids were rotten, the school was over crowded, the equipment was archaic … but I loved it. And my dad hated it. I was 21 years old and still living at home; still Daddy's little princess. I graduated with honors so finding a job hadn't been as hard as it might have otherwise been, especially as I was willing to take a job at an "under-performing" school. By that time Dad was fully retired but the pension wasn't enough to pay the bills so he made knives and did a lot of woodwork and carpentry that he sold on Ebay, at gun shows, and at craft fairs. Momma took in sewing and made her own items for the craft fairs. We weren't rich, but they managed to put a little in savings every month.

And then I was 22 years old and still living at home; but at least I was gainfully employed. And the few students that I could catch the attention of seemed to love me. And I loved them. I really did. The few awakening minds made up for all of the rotten stuff to the point I barely paid attention to it. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I was meant to be a teacher and I was meant to be a teacher right where I was. Or so I thought.

Like for all things in life there is a season. And that job was just the first change of season I was to experience. An extreme shortfall in the school district's budget meant cuts … big cuts. And as one of the newest teachers at one of the worst schools in the district my job was one of the first to go. I wasn't as loved as I had thought I was. No one even came to say goodbye as I carried my boxes of classroom stuff out to my car. Not even my favorite students. I was more disappointed than I had any right to be.

I came home with my pink slip completely shocked. I … honestly I don't know what I thought but what I felt was betrayed. I was really in a funk for about a week and then Dad and Mom were there, with grave commonsense told me that life goes on, and helped me to pick up the pieces. But Dad's retirement didn't go far and they had come to count on the "rent" I paid them every month. At least I had been smart enough to save most of my first year's salary rather than spending it on a new car and other fripperies. But I needed a new job and I needed one badly.

Here again though life seemed to be intervening in my personal plans. The school district wasn't hiring. None of the school districts within driving distance were hiring. As a matter of fact there was a hiring freeze in the school system statewide. I went to the private schools – not hiring. I went to the day care centers – not hiring. The economy was very bad and property taxes had plummeted for three straight years in a row; so did all the other revenue generating taxes. After two months of looking, and after overhearing my parents discuss how concerned they were about making all of their obligations as the cost of their medications went up yet again, I decided it was time to broaden my job search outside of education and child care.

One of my friends from highschool had become part owner in a family owned and operated housekeeping business. Her grandmother had started it in the 70s during that recession and had kept it running all of these years. Even with the cutbacks their customer base was still strong. I told Bea I would do anything just to bring in some money.

"Are you positive?"

"Oh yeah. I can't keep living on my parents' dime."

"I thought you and Hank were getting serious about setting a date. Doesn't his dad own that import-export business?"

"Were is the appropriate word."

"Oh no. Not again."

"Oh yeah. Again. Forgiving is one thing. Being a fool for the third time is another."

"Same old reason?"

"Same old song. I told him no ring and ceremony, no canoodling. He wasn't ready to settle down but he wanted all the fringe benefits that go along with it."

"Did you know this one?"

"Sheryl Balducci."

"Sheryl … are you serious? She has eight brothers. And they're Italian."

"How do you think I found out about it? I get a call from one of the guys as I'm driving home that there has been an 'accident' at work and that Hank couldn't pick me up for our date that night. So of course I go tearing over to the hospital all upset. Thank the Lord I managed to stop myself from calling my parents. Daddy would have done more damage than Sheryl's brothers did. Last I heard there was a rush-hush marriage and that Sheryl is due in about four more months."

"Oh … my … gosh. Get out o' here! Girl …"

"Like Daddy said, 'Good riddance to bad rubbish.' I'm just sorry it took this long for me to see the light. At least my parents never say I told you so."

"Honey, considering they've put up with the guy since we were in highschool you're lucky your parents didn't throw a party and take out a full page ad."

Not ready for one of Bea's lectures on my poor taste in men I said," So … do you think you can hook me up? With a job I mean. Full time, part time, even a few hours every other week … I just need to bring in some money before I use up all my savings, give me more time to find something in my field."

Bea hemmed and hawed and I could tell she was debating something. "Look, we have this customer but he is a hard case. Real demanding. He's a bachelor; likes the hired help to take care of things so that he can't see they are taking care of things if you know what I mean. When he says how he wants something done he wants it done that way exactly, but if he hasn't said he doesn't want to be bothered with questions. I don't know what the problem is but we are on the third girl with him in as many months and the latest one came in today and said she is quitting, that he is a pain to work for and asking for too much."

At that point I would have worked for Attila the Hun and said please and thank you for the job. But talk about weird. It was three months before I even met my boss. I had a key, went in, did the work to specs, and left. It was one of the easiest jobs I'd ever had. I never understood what the problem was. I had regularly scheduled chores and then he'd leave a note on the dining room table about once or twice a week that he needed something specific. Do the work, check it off the list, and if there were special instructions because something else was needed and it was completed the way he wanted it to be there was always a little something extra in the pay envelope. It was a cakewalk compared to trying to teach six periods of forty highschool students each on a daily basis and then deal with all the take home work and bureaucratic nonsense on top of it. Bea and her mom were pleased because that was the longest anyone had ever lasted, took me off my 90-day probation and I signed up for the simple health insurance plan but took care of my own savings plan with what little was left over by the time I paid my living expenses and gave my parents something in appreciation for their years of sacrifice for me.

The only thing I knew about my boss to begin with was that he was in his mid-thirties, some kind of investment counselor that made pretty good money dealing in very conservative portfolios (Bea's mother did her retirement funds through him), and that he could be very particular about what he wanted and didn't want.

During this time my Dad had what everyone thought was the flu but it turned out that it was a recurrence of pericarditis like he had had before I was born. He got well but it took time. Mom mentioned that he was stressed out that his daughter was cleaning houses for a living. I finally sat down and told Dad that I was cleaning houses because he set the example that any job worth doing was worth doing well, regardless of what that job was. And that I didn't plan on cleaning houses for the rest of my life but that right now that is what there was and it was better than no paycheck. He still wasn't happy but he understood and I guess I grew up a little bit in his eyes that day.

The day I finally met the boss was not a good one for him. I was folding the linens like I always did on Fridays when in through the front door stumbles a man that looked like he was just about to let loose until he spotted me. He cursed under his breath and said, "I … you need to leave."

"Excuse me sir but until my employer …"

"I'm him … I mean I'm he … your employ … er. Look, you just … there was an accident. I … I don't know what to do with a baby. I …"

Long story short, I was meeting Mr. Jakob for the first time. He was so distraught because he'd been at the hospital all night and most of the day. His older sister, brother in law, and their daughter were killed in a car accident on their way home from Disney World. The baby was his sister's granddaughter and he was now her guardian since the child's father abdicated responsibility before little Nydia was even born.

I got the baby out of the car and brought her inside and did what I could while my boss tried to pull himself together and make a few phone calls. I'd grown up babysitting the neighborhood kids and working in the nursery at church so it wasn't a chore.

"Could … could you stay a little longer today? I have to … the arrangements … I have to …"

"Of course."

The baby didn't have anything but what was in the diaper bag … a little bit of powdered formula, three diapers, and a small package of diaper wipes. I called Mom, explained the situation to her and she and a couple of the ladies from church brought enough stuff over to last Nydia through the weekend. They also made sure that there were enough casseroles to choke a horse in the freezer. There was even a Jell-O mold from old Mrs. Norvicci. I asked Dad if I could borrow one of the handmade cradles that he sold until my boss could figure out what all the baby had.

was pretty well blown away. It was a long time before I knew exactly what he made of the speed that things moved that day. But that's how I went from being a part-time housekeeper to a full-time housekeeper and nanny during the day.

The paycheck was bigger and I appreciated it but it sure didn't hurt that Nydia was a cute little stinker. Occasionally I would even watch her on the weekends when the boss had business he had to attend to and the night time nanny couldn't fill in. The night nanny was named Carmen and was actually some relation to Nydia's biological father. I didn't care for her very much but she took care of Nydia like she was her own so I never let my dislike of her show. I can't say the same for the reverse. It was détente and that is about the best I can say of our working relationship.

Things were going along fine for a while and then the season began to change yet again. The economy was not improving; in fact it was getting quite a bit worse. My parents had to work three times as many craft fairs to bring in the same amount of money and then the government started taxing every little thing they could which hurt people in my parents age bracket especially hard. Sales tax went up, various users' taxes and fees went up, and tax deductions were quickly disappearing. It got to where if the state or federal governments owed you money you were put on long waiting lists and it took months (up to 12 in some instances) before the check was cut and the news had even reported that a few of those checks were getting kicked back for insufficient funds.

The world economy wasn't doing much better. The US was the consumer nation that a lot of the developing countries counted on to grease their economic wheels. As the US began to cut back international trade and began to charge tariffs on most imports whatever cancer was eating at us began to metastasize and spread to the rest of the world.

Strange how the term cancer entered my mind because one morning while I was at work, listening to one of the conservative radio broadcasts on WFLA radio, Daddy called and said Momma had collapsed while she was working in the church library. She'd been rushed to the hospital and that I needed to come right away. I couldn't get in touch with Mr. Jakob and was forced to leave a message with his secretary. I took Nydia with me and despite everything conspiring against me was at the hospital in record time.

One of the reasons why I was such a late-in-life baby for my parents was because my mom had a history of female problems. They would come and go over the years and generally correct themselves. Mom rarely went to the doctor anymore because they always told her the same thing, tried the same remedies, and it was always just a matter of time before things cleared up. The last couple of years she hadn't gone at all. One, she figured she was too old to need an OB/Gyn check up and two, the expense was something to be avoided. Only this time it wasn't cysts or a hormonal imbalance; it was cancer … and she was eaten up with it. It had spread to so many major organs that there was absolutely no chance. The doctors weren't talking weeks or months at that point, they weren't even talking days; it was a matter of hours and minutes in their opinion.

My dad was completely devastated. I was doing my best to get information from the oncologist and we had stepped outside for some privacy. Dad was sitting with my mom and had closed his eyes. The nurse came in, asked him a question and when he didn't respond … he'd had a massive heart attack. The pericarditis had done a lot more damage than we had known. The grief over my mom was just too much for his heart, he'd closed his eyes and was just gone in the few moments it had taken me to leave the room. It was ironic that Daddy passed before Momma did but Mom never knew – or maybe she did because she never regained consciousness either, didn't even try.

I was holding Nydia and trying not to cry while they wheeled both my parents from the last room they would ever share together. That's when Mr. Jakob showed up … with Carmen. One of the few things I can say about Carmen is that she was kind that day when I needed her to be kind. The next couple of weeks passed in a blur. The only thing that helped me to keep my head above water was my job and the fact that I knew what my parents would have expected of me under those circumstances.

During the day I kept house for the boss, took care of Nydia, and at night I would go home to my parents' lonely and empty house to slowly box things up that I wasn't donating to charity. All of my parents' siblings had died when I was a kid. They were late in life babies themselves and all of my cousins were more than a decade older than me and we weren't close. I was all alone and facing a ton of decisions that I had to make in very short order. But every item I picked up had a story behind it that I had to take the time to remember. The memories slowed me down more than I should have let them.

I couldn't afford to keep the house. Because the housing market was so bad I had to let it go for about half what it would have gotten a few years earlier; it wasn't even to someone who was going to live in it but to some type of investor who planned to rent the place out. The mortgage had nearly been paid off so that wasn't a problem but it was still very sad for me. I had considered keeping it and renting rooms out myself but the taxes, insurance, and utility bills would have made that a losing proposition. I also had to find a way to pay for the funerals and burials because Daddy's life insurance had only been designed to cover his … and I was burying both my parents.

Mr. Jakob took enough interest in my welfare that he helped me with some of the estate arrangements. He didn't see it as any big deal because it was what he did day in and day out. On the other hand I thought it was a huge deal and one day I got the opportunity to tell him so.

"Don't read into it something that isn't there Miss Hambrick. I knew there would come a day when I would get to repay you for what you did for me the day my sister died. I'm sorry it is under these circumstances but I consider it a debt repaid."

I told him I appreciated it anyway regardless of his motivations. That's when he approached me with the fact that Carmen had decided to move back to Costa Rica to be with her widowed sister who needed her. That meant that he had exactly two weeks to find, interview, and hire a night time nanny for Nydia.

"But I have an idea that I would like you to give serious consideration. You have to be out of that house in a week when the new owner wants to move in his tenants . You haven't been able to find another place to live yet that is in your price range. Nydia really needs a full time nanny and I need someone that I can trust her with on the weekends as well. I would like you to consider moving in here – you would have the suite next to the nursery - as Nydia's full time nanny."

Now that was definitely something that I had never considered. But I prayed about it and it felt all too providential. Almost so much so that I began to second guess myself on the wisdom of accepting his offer. But accept it I did and life continued on. So many doors were slamming shut in my face that the unexpected window opening looked like a mirage until I walked up and actually stuck my hand through it.

Momma and Daddy's stuff that I kept was put in storage except for what I brought with me for my own use. That was another thing that Mr. Jakob had to help me with. So many places would only do business with you if you had a credit card and I'd never gotten one. I'd never needed one and my dad was always on about the evils of being indebted to others. Problem was that now that I was on my own I actually needed one of those evil little boogers but no one would approve me. Mr. Jakob put the storage facility in his name, paid for it, and then took the monthly fee out of my paycheck. Some people may have thought the boss was cold and unemotional but the reality was that he was extremely private and cautious. I still didn't know a lot about my boss but the longer I worked for him the more I realized that he was not cold, simply restrained in his dealings with others.

Once I accepted the new position my responsibilities around the boss's place increased exponentially. My pay increased but since it included room and board, it didn't show quite as much. With fewer expenses I was able to continue to save my money and add it to the nest egg I had been building. The boss advised me to take what little was realized from selling my parents' home, cars, and all but a few pieces of furniture and split it between various investments and in just three months I was realizing a profit that increased my nest egg. It felt like blood money but at the same time my parents worked hard to get where they had been, a vast improvement over the poverty of their childhoods, and I wanted to continue that if I could. Not because I disliked where I came from but because I think it is a natural inclination in the human spirit to strive for more.

It took a little getting used to living under Mr. Jakob's roof on a full time basis. It was also enlightening. He is an extremely private man and I realized he never brought guests over to the house. Any socializing he did was at restaurants or similar places. He asked that I didn't entertain my boyfriend at his home and I had to laugh and ask if he had seen one hanging around recently. He looked at me and asked a rather personal question about my leanings and I told him that it was none of his business. He replied yes it was since I was taking care of his niece and living in his home. I conceded that point and told him that I was a bit turned off by the dating scene after the breakup of a long-time relationship that didn't end well and that he was unlikely to have to worry about me bringing anyone into his home anytime in the near future. And the way I was feeling at the time probably not in the far future either. All he did was snort in disbelief at the last statement and tell me that young, pretty girls always were thinking about weddings and such. I told him that he obviously didn't have many dealings with young women my age then. His rather rude response to that was, "Thank God."

Mr. Jakob did make a concession that I was quite grateful for. During the time that I had been working for him whenever my church had a children's activity that was age appropriate, he had no problem with me taking Nydia. My parents had met her on numerous occasions that way and strangely that brought me comfort. But now that I was working as a full time nanny I needed some flexibility if I was to maintain any of my old life. I approached the boss and he agreed, so long as I worked whatever class she was in, which was fine because I worked in the nursery anyway on most Sundays.

This past year was a perfect storm … literally. It was 2005 all over again with eight named storms hitting Florida shores, five of them major hurricanes. Worse, one those – a Cat 5 named Dorian barreled into St. Petersburg from the south driving waters from the Bay further into Tampa than they had in generations.

After the first storm of the season hit just north of Tampa Bay the boss came to me and said, "You know what to do for hurricane preparation?"

"Pretty much."

"Well, here's a book. Read it. Study it. Go through the house and make an inventory using the appendix in the back. Whatever we are short of I want you to purchase over the next week. Anything costing over a hundred dollars for a single item, come to me first. Use the house funds and I'll replenish it as needed. Keep your receipts … and key them in every day. I'll be checking daily to see your progress. I want to meet in a week and have this accomplished before prices start skyrocketing."

That was a pretty good example of our working relationship. He made his wishes known but gave me some leeway to accomplish them, but there was always oversight and follow up … and often money was the root of his reasons. I didn't mind that at all however. My parents had been pretty budget conscious and had raised me to be the same. One day the boss was complaining about the cost of the food bill and when he broke it down found most of the problem lay in the fact that he ate out … a lot. I asked him if he wanted me to start packing him lunch. Mr. Jakob, penny pincher though he was, hesitated. He had a certain reputation that he had to maintain as a VP at his firm. He decided to give it a week but the week passed and he never said to stop. Every so often he would come home with his lunch uneaten but not often, and when he did he just ate it for dinner instead.

About a month into the experiment I asked him if he wanted me to continue and heard one of the few laughs out of him that I had ever gotten. "Are you kidding? Most of the office thinks I'm having my lunch catered," he laughed. "I've had more than a few of them try to weasel the name of my personal chef out of me and how much he costs."

That's another thing the boss likes to do. He isn't cheap exactly but if he can do something for a lot less money and still look like he is spending money hand over fist he gets a real kick out of it. He isn't a Scrooge McDuck but he is fond of keeping his money in his pocket. The economizing however needs to make sense. For instance, I do most of the laundry and I could do his suits and shirts right down to the medium starch that he prefers but he doesn't consider that the best use of my time so the suits and shirts go to the dry cleaner. I do however, clean and press his ties since it costs quite a bit to have them cleaned by hand.

Once I started working exclusively for the boss he'd paid a bonus to Bea and her mother and set up my payroll including deductions and everything else through the same accounting firm that his office used. Bea couldn't believe how much I actually did for the man that didn't technically fall under the job description of housekeeper and nanny. It was far away from what I had spent four years in college to do but on the other hand I had that feeling, just like when I had been teaching, I was where I was supposed to be. And Nydia was adorable. I watched her go from this little peanut that was barely rolling over to crawling and then creeping by holding on to the furniture. That was fun, trying to explain "baby-proofing" to the boss; one urped in briefcase however did the trick. She was talking now as well, she called the boss "Papa" and she called me "Nonny" … her way of saying nanny I supposed.

"Girl, you better be careful. You are getting drawn in. What was the first thing we taught you?"

"Not to get personally involved in our client's life. I know Bea, but it's a little different now."

"All I gotta say is you better watch out. The first time he makes a move on you, cute kid or not, you quit that place. You are too trusting. Lord knows what you'll let yourself get involved in."

I wanted to laugh at her concerns but I didn't because I know she meant well. Truth was I wondered if the boss even realized that I was a person of the female persuasion. I mean, of course he did but at the same time it didn't seem to make a difference. It had taken months but Carmen finally filled me in on the fact that the boss was in love with his boss' daughter. Rachel Lozaro was smart, beautiful, poised, and popular and appeared to enjoy the boss' attention quite a bit but she was the daughter of the President of the company and he wanted as much as he could get for her.

I met the famous Rachel for the first time at a company picnic. She was smart, beautiful, poised, and popular as promised. She was also spoiled and a little on the snotty side. She didn't take any interest in Nydia at all and actually seemed to resent our presence. She sent one of her BFFs over to ask me to try and keep out of sight so that her father didn't start asking too many questions. I wondered what kind of questions she was worried about but it wasn't my place to wonder so sat on a blanket under a tree and out of foot traffic.

After about an hour of this an older, distinguished gentleman … Mr. Lazaro himself … came over and struck up a conversation with me. Basically the old coot was getting nosy and wanted to know what kind of boss Mr. Jakob was. So I told him the truth. "He's very conscientious and determined to fulfill his responsibilities."

"And … you are satisfied with your current position? Surely a lovely young woman can't be satisfied playing nursemaid to another man's child."

"Actually sir, I have a degree in education. And as you must know Nydia is my boss' niece, not his biological daughter. I enjoy my work and this is a perfect position for me at this time."

"Oh, I understood you were just the housekeeper."

Grrr. Not only was he getting nosy, he was being insufferably presumptuous and rude.

"My duties defy a sinlge job title Mr. Lazaro. I'm sure that you've met many administrative assistants whose job description didn't exactly cover all that they did in their actual position."

"Hmmm. My sister-in-law is a professor out at USF." The sister-in-law wandered up and low and behold if it wasn't my favorite professor that had supervised my honor's thesis. Mr. Lazaro was quite chagrined to find out that I had been telling the truth about my training and how qualified I actually was. He wandered away rather grumpily while I and several other women talked about the state of the schools these days and most of them told me I was well out of it and lucky to have a job as many of their teacher friends and the latest crop of graduates were finding it difficult to find anything in their field.

The boss apparently got an earful after the company picnic from Rachel but it had the opposite affect that I would have expected of a man hopelessly devoted. As a matter of fact I witnessed a side of the boss I'd never seen. I'd never seen him get angry. So much for Mr. Roboto; the last thing he turned out to be was cold and unemotional. Turned out he was intentionally restrained because he knew what he was capable of.

"Do … not … ever … let those people talk to you like that again. I'm no liberal social do-gooder but I can't stand their type of class snobbery. And who would I get to replace you if they put a bug in your ear about looking for a different job?!"

Ah, so that was it. Actually I didn't mind that his motives were a little selfish; it made them more comprehensible. What I wasn't going to tell the boss was that it was going to take more than a few verbal crowbars to get me to leave my position. Things were rough out there. I would have to say at least 75% of the people that I had graduated with had moved back home with their parents because they had been unable to find work or found work in their field only to lose it as the economy slowed even further. I'm glad I got off my high horse when I did because it was hard to even find a fast food job these days. As a matter of fact a friend who works at The Olive Garden restaurant said that when they had a waiter position come open – part time position no less – they had over 500 applicants for it and had to shut down accepting new applicants after two days. And when people came to apply for the job only to find the application process closed they got angry, and some turned violent, like they had nothing to lose. That was scary.

Another day I took Nydia for a push in her stroller around the university campus and I can't tell you how weird it felt. I overheard a lot of people saying that they were going to take a semester off because they needed to save the money up to pay for classes. There was a fight near the Student Services building between two guys that had spotted the same "help wanted" advertisement and one had ripped it off of the board. The other objected to that. Then another guy came along and said, "Dudes, don't blow the steroids. That flyer is over a day old, they've already filled the position by now." Things really were getting frighteningly tough out there.

Since I did the grocery shopping I knew that it wasn't just the lack of a job that was causing problems, it was the prices of goods going up. At one of our weekly "business meetings" I asked the boss if he had a problem with me changing things up a little bit to try and save money. He asked me to explain and I told him that my parents and I had always shopped the flea market produce stands as well as the big Produce Station to pick up fresh foods and then can and freeze them ourselves. The initial outlay was more expensive but then you just reached into the frig or freezer the rest of the season for the item that you wanted. Even better prices could be had by going to the U-Pick farms.

The boss gave me a really strange look. "Leah, don't take this wrong … because I realize you said that your parents did things this way … but I do not like the idea of you picking vegetables out in the field like a migrant worker, especially when I can afford the grocery store prices. And what would you do with Nydia while you were … out in the field?"

I pulled out my receipt book that I used to compare local prices. I told him I'd already started using the bread machine more because a loaf of good bread was almost four dollars a loaf. Even the cheapest sandwich bread was over two dollars a loaf. I went on to show him how all of the staple goods had gone up.

"Well, then why haven't I seen this dramatic increase in the receipts you are keying in?"

"Because you only see the bottom line; there are a few items that I am able to get on sale right now that make the difference less noticeable. Beef and chicken are way down and I've been stocking up when I see a really good discount. Ranchers are selling a lot of their stock because feed has gotten so expensive and because people are cutting back at the grocery store."

"Hmm … lower demand, lower prices; overstock, lower prices. All right, so tell me more."

I showed him a plan that I had worked out, what the potential savings were over what I was currently spending on groceries. He was impressed but still not convinced.

"That's all well and good but I see the upfront costs of the equipment being a problem and eating up any savings. The cost of a large freezer for one would eat up most of the savings you have on this line of your budget."

"Not a problem. I'll just use my parents' canning equipment. I already use Momma's dehydrator to make the fixings for Nydia's baby food since she won't eat the stuff out of the jars."

"That's because you've spoiled her by grinding up table food."

"Eh, the pediatrician said it was OK and it doesn't hurt my feelings any not to have to deal with those stupid little containers. I know everyone thinks they are convenient but they are expensive and I hate throwing away part of a jar when she refuses to eat it. Her formula already takes a huge chunk out of the food budget and the stuff isn't getting any cheaper."

"All well and good but what is this? Rings and jars?"

"Like I said, I've got plenty of jars in storage along with some rings and seals. You buy a case of seals and a few dozen new rings from Ebay and I'll provide the rest. We'll beat the competition hands down."

He laughed, "You really view this as a competition?"

"It's the way my mother was. She said that when she could save money it was like she had won a prize. My parents came from what today would be considered extreme poverty. But they always had food to eat because of their families' gardens. In other words they were poor but never really knew it because they had the most important elements covered – shelter, food, and good drinking water. The rest was 'use up, make do, or do without' and they continued those habits as adults. Or at least they did after a brief foray into living like the other guy. My dad said once he'd paid off those bills he was never going into debt like that again. It took all of my parents' imagination and innovativeness to get them clear of what they'd managed to get themselves into in just three years. That was before I was born but the way Dad always told it they had everything that their money could buy but they were more miserable than they'd ever been in their entire lives. Getting out from under that debt was one of the most liberating things they ever did."

"Assuming I agree with your plan with the budget providing the produce and you providing the equipment and knowledge … what about the labor. That sounds like a great deal of energy to expend when you can just go to a store and pick something up. And what would you do with Nydia during this time. I don't want her care to be compromised to save a few pennies."

"First, I'd never compromise Nydia's care; she will remain my primary focus. Second, we are talking about more than just a few pennies; more like hundreds of dollars, maybe more, over any given year depending on how much of the menu we transfer to home preserved pantry items. For the rest, if I worked in an office setting like you or even in the classroom like I used to the time commitment would be problematic but there are evenings and weekends and if I was still teaching I would have the whole summer. And if you need further proof that this is a better alternative, consider this. When I preserve the food, you'll know exactly what is going into each jar – no more unpronounceable additives – and you'll know exactly when something was picked and then put into the jar, not just an arbitrary best-used-by date."

The boss always covered all the angles. "Then what about food safety. Salmonella, e. coli and other bacteria?"

"The first rule is a clean kitchen. Second golden rule is to make sure that you use sanitized jars, utensils, etc. You clean everything, I mean everything, including the food that is going into the jars and then you have to can them at the appropriate temperatures for the appropriate length of time. It is basically the exact same science used by the big canneries only at the home level. And, not to freak you out or anything, but you've been eating some of the stuff my mom canned for a couple of months now. I just couldn't stand the idea of throwing it away. Too wasteful. And the food pantries wouldn't take it because it wasn't commercially prepared. That garbanzo bean soup you are always asking for? Mom and I canned that last Christmas."

He gave me blank face for a few moments and then said, "You've almost got me convinced. Let me do a little research and I'll give you my answer within the week."

The boss is no push over. I knew when I raised the idea that all I could do was present my argument but that he would have to decide on his own. He is unpushable when it comes to the decision making process. However it took him less than the week he'd asked for. Part of his research was to go to a grocery store after work one evening. He came in the door that night looking a little shell shocked at the prices. "When did the prices get that high? And why haven't you had to ask for an increase in the house funds?"

I explained that I had just shifted things around a little bit. Shopped once a month instead of weekly. Always had a menu and grocery list made out in advance. Used coupons – some of which I printed from online sources – and sales flyers. Shopped at some of the international markets to get specialty items at a discount. Instead of preparing steak several times a week, I'd use less meat in a stir fry; same steak, I just didn't need as much of it to prepare a filling meal. I got seafood when it went BOGO at the store and not before. We had a few more ground beef and chicken dinners. Instead of only adding meat to the homemade spaghetti sauce I made, I also added some veggies and ground sausage which gave a heartier sauce, tasted great, but turned out to be cheaper than a regular meat sauce.

I pieced out the luxury items, some of which were the boss' favorites, with rice, beans and lentils. I added a couple of vegan meals during the month like bean burgers on homemade buns. I made the dressings we used on salads rather than pay the exorbitant price of the ones in the bottles. I baked most of the bread, snacks, and desserts instead of buying them at the bakery. The only time I would buy something at the bakery was if I needed day old bread for bread pudding or something along those lines and didn't have any of my own. And when Nydia had started breaking out from most of the store-bought laundry detergents I started making my own and using vinegar to replace fabric softener in all the clothes except for the towels.

He gave me what I've come to consider the "inscrutable face." It's the one he uses when he doesn't want you to know what he is thinking but doesn't want you to know that he doesn't want you to know what he's thinking. "I never noticed." He didn't sound happy about it, but he admitted, "So if I didn't notice, you did a good job of making things work." And because he just could not let it go without some precautionary note he added, "Just be careful with the international grocery stores, especially anything that comes from Asia; China in particular."

I assured him that I was always careful and that I only shopped at reputable locations that my mother used to visit and had never had problems with them.

"Well, there's always a first time for everything. Don't forget you have Nydia with you."

Some people might have found the way he often phrased things insulting. I wasn't sure at first but now I know he isn't trying to be irritating; at least most of the time. He just has a bad habit of trying to micro-manage everything. It is annoying on occasion but I've learned not to take it personally. He is a workaholic that is that way about everything, not just about work.

I was feeling really good. Job I enjoyed. The boss listened to me even if he didn't always take my suggestions. Nydia gave me someone to lavish my affection on so I wasn't lonely. The living conditions suited me to a tee. Every once in a while Bea would needle me about needing to get back into the dating scene but honestly it just held no interest for me. I began to seriously consider the possibility that maybe I was meant to be an "old maid." I was satisfied with my life. Then there came that change of season thing again.

The first I was aware of it a Sheriff showed up at the boss' door and served a notice that a civil suit was being brought against him for the wrongful custody … or whatever legalize they used … of one Nydia Gilbert. It basically escalated from there into a huge custody battle between the boss and Nydia's biological father. Actually, it wasn't the biological father bringing the suit but his family as they believed … wrongly as it turned out … that Nydia had inherited a significant number of assets from her grandparents.

Mr. Jakob might have come around to the idea of visitation rights but the Gilbert family wanted the whole shebang. They were making up all kinds of stories about how unfit the boss was to parent, how he really wasn't doing anything but putting her with a glorified babysitter (me), how he was allowing me to raise her in a cult, and on and on. It was horrible. I'd never really had anyone question my character before. They even raised the issue that I had been let go from my teaching position, making it out that it was for some other reason than what was listed officially.

The boss was furious. And to add insult to injury, his lady love became engaged to one of the up and coming young bucks in his firm … courtesy of Papa Lazaro's contriving. The boss was under a lot of pressure but I only saw him come close to cracking once. I came in with Nydia – we had gone to the Produce Station after a nice hour at the park – to find the boss home earlier than expected.

There were a few times when Hank would drink. I hadn't liked it, mainly because he would lose all of his inhibitions and become an embarrassment that I didn't want to be connected with, though I never said it out loud. As a result of that and the fact that my parents didn't drink I was uncomfortable around anyone that did drink, even if it was appropriate to the situation such as a toast at a wedding. I know it was a little judgmental and I tried not to let my own prejudice get out of hand. So when I went to work for the boss I had to get used to the fact that he might have a glass of wine with dinner every so often or the occasional snifter of brandy or tumbler of scotch. But never did I see him drink more than a glass on any of those occasions.

That day when I walked in and saw the bottle of whiskey on the coffee table, the bottle I knew hadn't been open the day before, and saw that it was half empty I'll admit I was shocked. I stopped quickly in my tracks and then tried to casually turn to go lay down a sleeping Nydia but I guess he saw the look anyway.

As I was quietly leaving the room I heard him set the glass down with a click on the glass table top. I don't consider myself a coward but it wasn't easy for me to go back and act normal. Passing the den I saw him at the liquor cabinet. I picked up the bags of produce I had left at the front door and took them to the kitchen.

I was filling the sink with cold water to soak the bunches of carrots and celery that I had purchased when the boss walked in, carefully sat his empty glass on the counter and in a very controlled voice asked for, "Coffee. Black. A whole pot. Bring it to the office." He walked out with slow and deliberate steps.

I made the coffee and wondered what could possibly be wrong. He didn't appear to be angry with me, I hadn't given him reason to be, but something was definitely up. As soon as the coffee was finished I put it in a carafe and grabbed his favorite stoneware coffee mug. When I got to the office I slowly opened the door and found Mr. Jakob with his head on his desk supported by his arms.

"Boss?" I asked trying to lighten the mood a bit by using a term that I knew irritated him just enough that it had made him laugh in the past. He lifted his head and looked at me in response to my question but there wasn't any humor on his face; there wasn't anything on his face, it was completely blank.

I sat the mug down and poured it three-quarters full of the thick, strong Cuban coffee he prefers. The smell of it finally reached him and he picked it up and drank it half way down before I could even warm him it was hot.

He cleared his throat a couple of times before he was able to speak. "Perhaps you … you and Nydia …" He trailed off and it was like he had forgotten what he was going to say.

I took the bull by the horns and said, "You aren't drunk but you're close Mr. Jakob. Whatever it is … you want to talk I'm here. Otherwise I'll be in the kitchen."

I was half-way through the door when he said, "Leah …"

I turned. "Leah, in the morning I have to have Nydia at court. The judge wants to see all interested parties. This includes you. The … the thing … look, you need to sit down."

I knew immediately that whatever was going on was something I wasn't going to like.

"I'm … I'm not making excuses. My lawyer suggested it and I made the choice to follow her advice. It wasn't … it wasn't a problem until recently. I still don't know how it all got out but I have my suspicions and …"

I had survived a year and some teaching at one of the worst highschools in the school district. I was not going to be intimidated simply because it sounded like I was walking down the hall to get another pink slip. The boss had never given me any reason to think that he would treat me unfairly but I knew that Nydia took priority over everything so I tried to prepare myself.

"One of the main issues that kept being raised was that I was unmarried and had no family for a social support network. The other lawyer somehow found out that ..." he stopped to pour himself more coffee but his hand was shaking so bad that I reached over and took it from him.

"Mr. Jakob, whatever it is …"

"I didn't start out with the advantages that some of the other people in the firm did. In fact I'm the first … and so far the only … person in my family to go to college. My niece … but of course that changed as soon as she met that little … and then Nydia came along. I was going to help my sister get her into school and with the expenses of keeping her there but …"

I knew that part of the story from Carmen who seemed to enjoy making Nydia's mother look bad even if it meant making the boss look good.

"Leah, I never meant … I'm not even sure how to explain this. First off, I want you to know that I never meant for you to get involved. I never meant for your reputation to get called into question." That statement sure as heck got my attention. "When Rachel said she wanted to see other people so that her father would get off her back I acquiesced because I really didn't have any reason not to believe her. It was only supposed to be for a short time. I had no idea … be that as it may … what I'm trying to explain is …"

"Mr. Jakob, what is so bad that you've lost your normal eloquence? You could sell snowballs to people living in the arctic." Again I was trying to lighten what was obviously an uncomfortable situation for him.

"I hope you're right Leah because I'm about to try and sell a bill of goods to you that not even I like. I take full responsibility for this but I would like you to at least consider that I did it for Nydia's sake." With a deep breath he finally spit it all out. "At the lawyer's suggestion I … allowed people to think that I did have a close relationship that would be ending in marriage. Because of Rachel's actions I wasn't able to … the only other woman that fit the bill … well, was you. Wait! Please let me finish. I never said anything directly. I let the lawyer handle the … the innuendoes. I had no reason to think that it would ever go further than that and that it would be kept between the parties involved in the custody battle. No one should have been discussing it. But someone did. Again, I have my suspicions how it came about and I'll deal with that as soon as I secure Nydia's custody. I …"

I finally couldn't keep my mouth shut any longer. "Are you telling me that you let people think that you and I … that … that … I'm more than just your housekeeper?!"

He was very uncomfortable but I unwillingly felt some respect for the way he was taking personal responsibility for what he had done. "Yes, and I apologize. I don't have any excuse. My reasons … I simply cannot lose custody of Nydia. That boy's family are a bunch of … you'll meet them tomorrow. I hope you'll agree to meet them tomorrow and you'll see … Carmen was the best of the lot and the only reason I agreed to have her in my home is because she and my mother had been close friends. Leah, I … I will lose Nydia if any of this becomes known that … that I allowed … that I lied about the type of relationship we have. She's all the family I have left. I …"

I took my own deep breath and asked, "Exactly what are you asking me to do? … And … and why?"

"As I said … oh #$%. Look, that SOB that Rachel got engaged to is trying to destroy me. Mr. Lazaro set me up. I own too much stock in the company and my portfolio is too large for him to fire me outright without risking his own livelihood. But he has been looking for something for years now to discredit me with so that the other partners would do the dirty work for him. Now he's agreed to marry Rachel off to that little piker and help him take my VP position and get my portfolio that's taken me over ten years to build. They couldn't discredit me professionally so now they are trying to do it through my personal life. Professionally I can challenge them and win hands down, but they've brought Nydia into it as a pawn in their game. I can't lose her. I'll …" He drug his hands through his already unruly black hair … hair that was normally so well behaved that a hurricane wind could not have budged it.

"Boss, I totally sympathize having been a victim of work place politics myself but that still doesn't tell me how I got drawn into this and how I can help you keep custody of Nydia."

"That is the part that doesn't show me in very good light. I apologize in advance Leah but I'm not sure that is enough. As I said, I allowed the lawyer to build a fantasy that made it appear that … that you and I … but the piper is now asking for payment. The judged wants both parties to prove that they can provide the best home for Nydia. The man has turned it into a #$% competition! And I've been warned by my lawyer that the other side intends to prove that I've been lying all along. I need your help. They'll take Nydia."

"You're asking me to lie."

"No … I … yes. Yes I am. I'm asking you to go into court with me tomorrow and appear as my fiancé."

"Your … your fiancé?!"

"Yes. I'll compensate you for …"

"Mr. Jakob. Please don't say what you were about to say. I … I'm not … look, I don't want you to lose Nydia. I know you love her. I also know that you would do anything for her. It took me a while to understand but I have full confidence in that fact. But whether I help you or not will not be dictated on … receiving 'compensation' because that would be …"

"Again Leah, I apologize. I simply meant …"

"I know what you meant and you should be glad that I do understand well enough not to be overly offended by what you nearly said. Just explain what you need me to do and give me a few minutes to think about it."

Basically he needed me to go to court the next day as his fiancé and answer any questions that might be posed to me as honestly as I could while still allowing them to believe that the boss and I had a relationship closer than that of employer/employee. As awful as it sounds I was glad my parents weren't around to see the mess. And I agreed to do as he asked even though I was angry at myself for doing so. I knew even then that all I was doing was allowing a lie to continue and that would do nothing but make things worse. But I also knew that Mr. Jakob did have good reason to fear that he would lose Nydia if it all came out and I knew that despite the lie he was still the better person to be her parent than the biological father.

The next morning I dressed carefully in a gray skirt and jacket, simple gray pumps, and a white blouse. Instead of wearing my hair up as I normally did, I French-braided it to just below my shoulders and allowed the rest of the curly mass to fall its remaining length to below my waist. This was what I wore in the classroom and what I still wore to church on Sundays. I was going to help the best I could but I wasn't going to suddenly change who I was. I fit the car seat into the back seat of Mr. Jakob's vehicle … an older model Jaguar that he'd proudly explained months ago that he'd bought cheap at an auction when he'd made VP at the firm.

Older model or not it was a heck of a lot more ostentatious than my little Chevy workhorse that I'd had since highschool and I'll admit to being afraid of smudging or breaking something the few times I had been in it. Rather than sitting in the back seat with Nydia he asked me to sit up front with him so that we could talk.

"Leah, I'll ask one more time … Are you sure that …"

"Look Boss, I may not like the position I feel like I've been pressured into but I like the idea of you losing custody of Nydia even less. I'm between a rock and a hard place but I've made my choice. Nydia is what is important here, not my own sensibilities."

He again acted grateful which sat oddly on him and we proceeded the rest of the way to the courthouse in relative, but not uncomfortable, silence. The only other thing he asked was that I call him by his given name, Mateo.

For a while it appeared my presence alone was enough to offset the other lawyer's claims. The judge had spoken to everyone else and looked like he was prepared to call a recess but then the other lawyer started up with the fact that I wasn't anything but a gold digger looking to make a buck off of the situation. Mr. Jakob was getting obviously angry at that and I reached over and handed him Nydia because he'd never lost his cool when she was around. As soon as he had Nydia in his arms he calmed right back down. For good or ill the judge noticed my move and decided he wanted to speak with me directly.

"Ms. Hambrick, this court is here to decide the custody and future of a very young child unable to speak for themself. While all of the other facts in this case are straight forward, your position in it has been brought into question several times. It would appear that both sides are hinging their case on whether or not you are in fact who and what has been claimed or if there is or is not some fraud occurring. I would like to hear you explain yourself if you please."

"Your … your Honor, I'm not sure I understand."

"Ms. Hambrick I would like you to describe to me your position as little Nydia's caregiver and your relationship with Mr. Jakob. Start with how you met."

"Oh. I originally was acting as a part time house maid and …"

The other side's lawyer said, "See. This is what my clients …"

The judge was not pleased at the interruption. "Mr. Jones, if I require your help in questioning Ms. Hambrick I will let you know. Ms. Hambrick, please continue."

"Like I said, I was working part time but it was actually three months before I met Mr. Jakob."

"Your Honor, please, she doesn't even call him by his first name. It's obvious …"

"Mr. Jones, one more interruption by you or anyone else and I will cite them for contempt. Have I made myself clear? Ms. Hambrick, since Mr. Jones brought it up, would you care to explain?"

"Your Honor, this whole situation is extremely uncomfortable for me. I … I'm private. Mr. Jakob …we haven't … for Nydia's sake we haven't been very public. Calling Mateo by his given name doesn't feel appropriate in this setting."

"Hmmm. I understood that Mr. Jakob's name was Matt."

The boss spoke up, "Your Honor, if I may. Mateo is what I was called by my family. It is what I asked Leah to call me. Matt is what I'm known by professionally."

"I see. Very well Ms. Hambrick, please continue."

"The day I met … Mateo … was a horrible day for him. His sister and her family had just died as a result of someone else's reckless driving on I4 on their way back from a short family vacation. Nydia was the only one not injured while everyone else in the car died. He was visibly distraught. Having experience with young children I simply did what anyone else would have done under the circumstances. My parents also did what they could and …"

"Your parents are deceased now, yes?"


"But they knew Mr. Jakob."

"Yes. My father was … a protective man Your Honor. However, he had no problems with … Mateo … at all. They also knew Nydia and my mother made her a quilt and a few soft toys that are still among her favorites. When both my parents died unexpectedly I was … I found myself rather distraught. Mateo helped with some arrangements and when Carmen – she was the night and weekend nanny for Nydia and a direct relation to Nydia's biological father – had to leave to fulfill some other familial obligations, Mateo asked me to move in and take care of Nydia full time since he already knew my work ethic and character enough to trust me."

"The question remains how you went from being the housekeeper and nanny to being a fiancé." For the first time I heard more than a hint of suspicion in the judge's voice … and contempt though to his credit I don't think he had meant for me to hear that part of it.

"Your Honor, while I understand everyone's concern I can assure you that nothing … obscene … has been occurring. Mateo is a complete gentleman and always has been. We operate on very strict rules of conduct, including privacy concerning personal matters. We both prefer it that way. How is a difficult question to answer, it … it just happened. We both love Nydia and want the best for her."

"I see no ring. There have been no official announcements. And this whole thing sounds rather contrived and coincidental considering the depositions I've read regarding Mr. Jakob's previous relationship with one Rachel Lazaro."

"And I'm sure that Ms. Lazaro's fiancé has had quite a hand at providing that story to you." That gave the judge pause. "I refuse to try and dress it up and make it look pretty. Rachel hurt Mateo. She asked to have an open relationship so that she could see other men. I personally find that kind of behavior distasteful. You are either committed or you are not. She obviously was not. She is now engaged to a man known to be jealous of Mateo's position within his firm and of his former relationship with his soon-to-be wife. The man in question would do a great deal to make himself look better to Mr. Lazaro who is a senior partner in the firm all three men work at. I am not surprised, given what I've witnessed at some of the company picnics, that the man would use Nydia … and me … as a tool to cause Mateo pain. I've already stated that Mateo and I are private individuals. Shortly before I went to work for him I had a very long term relationship … end. I was not looking for any type of … entanglement. I'm sure I speak for Mateo when I say that he wasn't either. Nydia brought us together. We are both well aware of how some people could … manipulate … the situation and make us look like our morals are less than they should be. However, for Nydia's sake we've never done anything that we shouldn't. Mateo knows that one of these days Nydia is going to have questions and he is going to have to answer her honestly."

"Ms. Hambrick, you seem to be aware that people can manipulate the facts of this case. You must therefore be aware that your words can be taken in more than one way. You didn't answer the question of a ring or announcement. Do you wish to do so now?"

"As I said Your Honor, Mateo and I are private individuals. Any announcement that followed Ms. Lazaro's own engagement announcement would appear … frankly it would look ridiculous, like we were competing. As far as a ring goes, I would never marry a man based on financial gain. My mother never had an engagement ring. Expecting a ring from Mateo never entered my mind. There have been much more important issues to address than ostentatious public displays. Nydia's care and custody has always taken precedent to our own desires."

"You care a great deal for Nydia."


"You would do anything for her."

"I'm not sure if that is a question or not."

"Would you lie for her? Fake a relationship with your employer? I ask you now because the question has come up a number of times in discussions in my chamber."

"Your Honor. Whatever occurs in this court or at any point in my life I believe that I am personally accountable and personal responsible for. I … I would do a great deal for Nydia. I would lay down my life for her. I cannot deny that. But … but I also have a responsibility that when she is old enough to ask I have to be able to answer her and not be ashamed. Having people … draw into question my moral turpitude … has been … difficult for me. Doubly so because somehow I've become a linchpin in a case I don't believe I have any right to have standing in to begin with. Mateo has been a wonderful provider for Nydia from the moment she entered this world. Contrary to the other side's claim, Nydia has never had some large inheritance coming to her from her grandparents. After his sister and her family's deaths, a great many debts were revealed. The legal documents show that but somehow the other side continues to believe in some fantasy that Nydia is a baby Cinderella in the making. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mateo has always been extremely careful of the company he keeps; his home has been kept as a haven where Nydia can be raised in safety and good health. Mateo has seen to her every need. He's already started a college fund for her out of his own pocket since there wasn't anything left after settling all of the hospital bills and other debts of his sister's family. All of these things are in direct contrast to the behavior of Nydia's biological father. He has never even seen Nydia, never requested to see her, had even agreed to end his parental rights rather than pay the child support that her mother was taking him to court over. We have documented proof of this. He's not even in court today, only his parents and their lawyer is. The biological father is not financially able – nor mentally or emotionally prepared in my opinion - to provide for Nydia and in fact has never made an effort to do so. He never requested visitation rights even though his family could have kept apprised anytime they wanted to through Carmen. This custody battle is the absolute first time that they've ever made any effort to have anything to do with Nydia and she is nearly twenty months old. The most abhorrent thing however is that their lawyer has repeatedly made it clear that the true reason behind this move is to gain control of some absolutely non-existent trust fund that Mateo is supposedly hiding from them. What is really more important here? Some fabled trust fund or what is best for Nydia?"

I had stayed calm through my whole diatribe until those last two questions. The judge released me, called for a recess and we left to get Nydia some lunch. I was angry and trying my best to not show it and was succeeding until we ran into some of the boss' colleagues from work.

"Hi. I'm Marilyn Shepherd. We met a couple of months back at Mr. Lazaro's party."

"Hi." The last thing I felt like doing was socializing at that point.

"I had no idea. You and Matt never let on at all."

Uh oh. I hadn't thought about having to carry the whole thing on outside of the courtroom. "It would have been tacky given it was an event to showcase Mr. Lazaro's new protégé and his daughter."

"Oh yeah. Right. Well, congratulations. I mean that. Matt needs someone now that Rachel … Oh … Tom… Tom, over here … I want you to meet Matt's fiancé."

I felt completely helpless to prevent what was happening. I felt the boss come up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder and casually wedge himself between me and one of the young men at his firm that had a bad habit of having too many hands in all the wrong places. Nydia got fussy with all the strangers around so we excused ourselves and then ran into his lawyer who said she had just come from the judge's chamber.

"Matt, we almost have this in the bag but the judge keeps coming back to the issue with Leah. He wants some proof that the relationship wasn't designed to fool him into granting you custody."

I was really irritated by this point. "Oh for pity sake. What more does he want?!"

"He wants some proof of the legitimacy of the relationship."

The boss asked, "Exactly what is he looking for? Has he said?"

"No and that is frustrating. Whatever it is, it has to be something significant."

"Let me talk to Leah alone please."

"Matt, there isn't much time. The judge is calling us back in chambers in fifteen minutes."

"I realize that, just give us a few moments." After the lawyer left the boss turned to me ,"Leah … I'm sorry. Please, if you don't feel able to go any further with this I'll … I'll understand. But if … if you trust me, I'd like to … to make a proposition."

"You can't expect me to lie any more. I've gone so far passed my comfort level that I could barely look at myself in the mirror when I went to the ladies' room."

"I'm not asking you to lie. I'm … I'm proposing that we create … a partnership. I know that you've only gone this far for Nydia's sake. I'm asking that you consider," he cleared his throat and started over. "Leah, I'm asking you to consider … consider allowing me to legalize our partnership."

It took me a second to understand what he was talking about. "Are you … are you actually asking me … are you asking me to … to marry you?!"

"I realize this is nothing like you expected and …"

I gave a harsh laugh, "Nothing like I expected. Yeah, you could say that."

"Just hear me out. We both have the same goal here. We want Nydia to be raised in a loving and nurturing environment. I know for my part that I've trusted you from the beginning with her care. You are a stellar housekeeper. The only thing that would change is that you would get more security. We would sign a pre-nup that would provide for your care regardless of what happens to me. You would still be free to come and go just like before, you would simply have more standing socially when it came to carrying out your duties."

I was in shock, "And … and exactly what do you get out of this … this merger?"

"I would get the courts off of my back as far as Nydia's custody is concerned and I would begin adoption proceedings immediately. I wouldn't have to worry who I could leave her care to in case something was to happen to me. My life would pretty much continue on as before."

The lawyer stuck her head around the corner, "Whatever you are deciding you need to be quick. I see the judge going back into his chambers."


I could not believe I was even contemplating what he had suggested but I couldn't give him an answer because the bailiff came out and asked us to step back into the courtroom. We all found our places. I could see it on the judge's face. We were going to lose Nydia. The other side saw it too and were already starting to crow a little bit. I knew I had to act. I stood up.

"Your Honor? I realize this is highly irregular but Mateo's lawyer has mentioned that you are still concerned about … about our relationship. Might I ask … would legal documents alleviate your concerns?"

The judge's nostrils flared at the interruption before he had even been able to start. "Yes Ms. Hambrick they would but none have been presented to me."

"That's because we've been so focused on the custody case that we haven't had time to finalize anything."

"Miss Hambrick, are you trying to blame me for the lack of documentation?"

"No your Honor, I'm saying that we have prioritized Nydia's needs above our own."

I'd given him pause at least. "And what documentation would you present if you had time?"

"A pre-nup contract primarily."

"Mr. Jakob, are you prepared to verify Miss Hambrick's claim?"

The boss stood up straight and tall and said, "Yes Your Honor, I am."

A thoughtful moment passed, "Very well, I'll give you an additional two hours of recess. These documents need to be on my desk at that time. I will not tolerate any more delays. I will be making my decision today."

The other side started making a lot of noise but I could barely hear it over the pounding of my heart. All I could do was hold Nydia and rock … whether I was rocking her or myself I still don't know.

"Matt … are you sure you want to do this? We could appeal or bring our own civil action …"

"Enough. We got into this because I allowed myself to follow your suggestions in the first place. How quickly can we get the Pre-Nup written."

"Matt …"

"Times wasting," he said and I caught a glimpse of the tough businessman my boss was known to be.

"Miss Hambrick I feel compelled to …"

"Forget it. I want what is best for Nydia and I believe that having her remain in Mr. Jakob's custody is what is best. We don't need to turn this into a Greek tragedy. What I walk into this with I keep. Mr. Jakob retains everything that is his. In the event that something happens to either of us, our estates are to be put in trust for Nydia. We'll work the details of executors and all of that out later. I'm already on the house account and my insurance is paid through my payroll … I … I guess …"

"I'll continue to cover it Leah. If you trust me to work out the remaining details … unless there is someone else that you'd like to call?"

"There isn't anyone else. I trusted you to help me with my parents' estate. I've worked for you for long enough and you've never harmed me in any way. I've never met anyone other than Nydia's paternal family that has even come close to saying something ill of you. I'm committed. This is about Nydia. I … this isn't … oh forget it. Let's just do this."

And we did. The judge kept us waiting for the rest of the day. Finally, after every other case had been settled or continued he called us back into court and said, "I hereby find that Nydia Gilbert shall remain in the custody of her maternal uncle, Mateo Jakob. Will the lawyers for both parties approach the bench?"

Just like that … or almost. When Mr. Jakob's lawyer returned to us she said, "He is going to wring this for all it is worth. He's withholding his signature on the final documents until proof that a marriage has taken place. We need that signature to proceed with the adoption Matt. If you were planning on pulling out of this – if either of you were planning to pull out of this – that option is no longer on the table if you want the final decree."

We were going to be married at the courthouse but someone made a huge deal of it at the firm and somehow I found myself needing a white dress, a cake, and spending an ungodly amount of money that I'd never planned on.

"Make sure I get the bill."

"I'll pay for my own dress thank you."

"Leah …"

"Boss …"

"You didn't have any trouble calling me Mateo before."

"That was before."

"I'm asking you to call me Mateo now. At least let us try and be friends."

"All right … Mateo. But … look, I … yes, I want to be friends but you are going to have to … make some concessions as well. I'm … old fashioned. I … I have a dress I can use. It won't embarrass you and I would prefer to … retain some … some independence in what is going on. Please."

"I got you into this. It's my responsibility to …"

"You didn't put a gun to my head. I made a choice. I might not have made such a choice under any other circumstances but we both want what is best for Nydia. Just let me … retain … a certain … certain …"


"Let's call it … autonomy."

"Fair enough. But I mean it Leah. I … I don't want you to spend all your savings on this … on this … situation."

"I won't. But I won't be an embarrassment either. I just need to feel a little … more in control than I have been. I … I trust you but I'm feeling so overwhelmed at the moment."

That night the boss … guess I really do need to start calling him Mateo even if I have a hard time swallowing around the word "husband' … asked if we could talk again.

"Leah, we never revisited your compensation in this and … wait, please hear me out. I realize calling it compensation makes you feel uncomfortable. I don't mean it to be but I want you to understand that I don't intend on taking advantage of you. I want you to know that I'll do my best to see that you are financially secure and provided for and …"

He kept on talking about different kind of investments and settlements and I honestly don't know what all. It was like white noise to me. "Mr. Jakob … Mateo … I appreciate what you are doing on my behalf. I truly do. I feel more than a little mercenary when the subject is brought up but that's my problem, not yours. It's like we are talking two different languages. I'm more concerned with continuing our agreement concerning Nydia … that you won't suddenly just dump me out of her life now that the custody issue has been laid to rest. I've … I've given this a great deal of thought. I've prayed about it. I'm not really sure why but I do feel like I'm fulfilling one of the things that I've been put on this earth to do. If you can just … find some way to … to …"

"I'll put it in writing as an addendum to the Pre-Nup if that will make you feel better."

Embarrassed I said, "I hate to say it but yes, please do that. And … and if it would make you more comfortable you can add that if for whatever reason you find that I'm morally incapable of …"

"Leah, I've known you long enough to know that isn't something I need to worry about but likely the lawyer will have something to say about it. Soon this will be all behind us and we'll be able to go back to our normal lives."

I nearly laughed at him when he said that. Normal lives? I was beginning to wonder if I would ever return to "normal." I missed dull, still do. I wanted things back the way they were when I was a kid and life so much simpler. But I also knew to get that I'd have to give up too much.

So we were married in a small chapel near his office complex. I wore a dress I had made for a state fair competition during highschool. The dress had come in third place. I'd matured since the dress was made and no longer thought of myself as Sleeping Beauty waiting for my prince to kiss me awake. I stopped believing in fairy tales when Hank cheated on me for the last time. I wanted the dress to reflect that. I took off most of the heavy lace and beading. I cringed remembering all of the hours I spent attaching it by hand but this wasn't the first time I'd had to make over clothing so I set my mind to the task at hand.

When I got down to the basic shell I was left with a simple corseted sleevless dress with an a-line skirt and a small chapel length train. I attached three rows of faux pearls instead of sleeves. I restrung the corset top with new silk ribbons that Bea and her mother helped me tie on my wedding day. Instead of fancy beading I wore my great great grandmother's pearl necklace and my mother's pearl drop earrings Dad had given her after I was born. I wore my hair in a Grecian up-style and also had faux pearls woven through the curls that, just for the day, I allowed to go without the discipline of the flatiron. The skirt fell to the floor over the top of a petticoat lightly stiffened with boning at the hem; plain and unadorned. My shoes were ribbon sandals so it was almost like being barefoot under the dress. The only other item that completed the look was my bouquet of three white calla lilies tied with a plain white ribbon.

Because my own minister had been scheduled at a mission conference we used Bea's uncle who was an ordained minister, though not currently shepherding a church. Mateo was extremely uncomfortable; it was easier for him to open his wallet than it was for him to open his mouth.

"I understand you want a very simple ceremony."

After looking at Mateo and deciding he was turning out to be absolutely no help I said, "Yes. We … we would like a ceremony that shows our commitment but doesn't get terribly … mushy. If you could leave out … love … and make a bigger deal out of honor and respect that would be perfect."

He gave a perplexed smile, "Usually the people I marry want it the other way around. It is all about love and they want to remove the 'honor and obey' portion."

"Oh, I don't have problems with obeying or honoring or respecting … whatever you want to call it. We are just both … private … and the people attending the wedding are mostly there because … frankly because they are just nosey. A few people are close friends like Bea but for the rest of them … neither one of us has family attending and this is primarily to make a public statement to let people know that we've made a public commitment to our common goals."

He quirked an eyebrow but agreed to alter the marriage vows to leave out the word "love" despite finding the request unusual. As we left the rehearsal, Nydia let it be known that it was past her bedtime and that she was in no way pleased by the fact. She finally calmed down after we had been on the road for a few minutes and was asleep before we got on the interstate to return home on the other side of town.

"Thank you."

Mateo had startled me out of my mental list making and I asked, "What?"

"I said thank you. For handling the ceremony details."

"Uh sure. You … you didn't want to add or change ..."

"No. No, you handled it well."

The next day was the wedding and I didn't know 90% of the people there. Some of my friends from church came, a few highschool friends, and Bea and her mother of course. The reception was a mix of catered elegance that Mateo had ordered for the occasion and homemade goodies brought by the people on the bride's side of the aisle. In deference to the time of day the only liquor was the bubbly used to toast us with and I made sure that there was enough nonalcoholic refreshments to satisfy those that didn't or couldn't imbibe.

A hyper young man approached us immediately after the ceremony and told us where to stand and what to do as he flashed an uncountable number of photos. As the young man bounded off to "get some shots" of the reception I turned to Mateo and asked, "Who on earth was that?"

"A last minute wedding present from one of the Board members. It's her nephew and he is starting up his own business."

"Oh. Will he expect …"

"It's all taken care of."

I thought everything was going smashingly well despite being nearly blinded and had actually started to relax and have a good time. That is until Rachel showed up with her fiancé in tow and Papa Lazaro not too far away listening in.

"Oh my. We were all just so surprised … well, is there any other announcement that you plan on making in the near future?"

I'm not stupid but it took me a few moments to figure out what everyone was snickering about. "If you are wondering if I'm pregnant the answer is no. Whatever type of relationship that you and Mateo had in the past Rachel, I can assure you that he has never been anything other than a perfect gentleman with me. I respect him a great deal, and he me."

"How … lovely for you I'm sure. Obviously your relationship isn't built on excitement. I'm afraid I always did find Matt a little boring."

"Then obviously we don't value the same characteristics in people. I prefer Mateo's honesty and consistency. I know I can trust him implicitly. He is a real man and has worked hard for his position. No one gave it to him just because he was family or because he was dating the boss's daughter."

Youch, you would have thought I had tied a lit firecracker to that she cat's tail the way she took off out of there. It wasn't until I left to change the little flower girl's diaper … Mateo had carried her in his arms and she had pulled off his boutonniere and thrown it into the pews much to everyone's amusement … that I learned that Mateo had several people tell him about my run in with Rachel.

"Leah … I realize that … Rachel can be …"

"Mateo, if I embarrassed you I apologize; however, I won't be browbeaten by her or her paramour. What they did to you was inexcusable. The problems that they caused with Nydia's custody is why we are here today. I respect that you still have feelings for the woman but I have to say I don't have much respect for her. Someone that would use a baby like Nydia as a pawn is not someone that I want to make nice with."

After a brief but silent struggle he said, "Very well. I am asking you however to remember that I must work with these people, many of whom sympathize with the Lazaro family. I can't afford to make too many enemies."

I took a breath and counted to ten before saying, "All right. I will be as polite as I am able. I … I'm sorry. I don't want to cause problems of any sort. I'll do my best to avoid her without making it look like I'm running from her."

Suddenly he relaxed and leaned against the wall. "The two of you are very different but there is a lot that is similar." I did not appreciate the comparison in the least. "Leah, I know this is a lot for both of us and will take some getting used to and … some compromises for both of us as well. My concern is to protect what we've built so that we can protect Nydia. Rachel is used to having her own way and will go to great lengths to get it. She is going to try and push you and she'll have her friends attempt to rattle you as well to find out more than she has a right to know. I suppose I should have expected this. Just do what you can. Something is up around the office and I need to be on guard."

"Something to do with …this situation?"

"No, at least I don't believe so. It's at the top and Mr. Lazaro is nervous. Lots of closed meetings with the Board. He's avoided the VPs' meetings for two weeks now and he's usually in there as the Board's representative. The last time it was like this one of the major partners left and took a chunk of the customer base with him. Whatever it is, it is big."

Big? I should say it was. A week after we were married the news came down. Mr. Lazaro and two of the Board members were caught in a ponzi type investment scheme. They used the firm's good name to cover for their activities and now the SEC is involved. The firm is under heavy investigation, even those that had nothing to do with the scheme. Mateo was one of the first portfolios investigated; he was cleared two weeks later but it hasn't helped much. Many of his clients have pulled their accounts, not just from him but from the firm and the firm has lost a great many accounts and is in danger of failing. Despite being cleared by the SEC the firm decided to put Mateo first on the chopping block to act as a public scapegoat. They didn't get one in Mateo because he pulled a preemptive strike.

Mateo has a friend from college that works for a local FOX news affiliate. He took his story to the airwaves, explaining his position and that the SEC had cleared him and now that they had he felt free to leave the firm. The news piece came out before the firm's Board could oust him. Mateo also contacted all of his clients personally and explained things and made recommendations for local brokers to continue their investments. He left with a clear conscience and a clean slate … but that brought problems of its own.

No one is hiring right now, not even someone of Mateo's talent. He sits at his desk all day long and sometimes long into the night doing who knows what. I can tell he is stressed. We aren't close enough for me to know what to do to help him. I've been a wife for a whole month but nothing has really changed in most respects. I'm no more than the housekeeper and nanny that I was before. Nydia is our one bright spot. Every day lunch is a picnic in the backyard and an hour of play time with her uncle. She loves having Mateo home to play with. I honestly believe she is the one reason he is trying to hold on.

I know I should be nervous. I am but more out of concern for the boss … I mean Mateo. I did something today I didn't think through enough. When I went to the grocery store and vegetable stand I used my own savings to pay the bills. I was able to get some really good deals so when I came in I pulled up to the garage to unload rather than pack everything through the house. Mateo saw the abundance and pulled himself out of his office chair long enough to help. He said he'd take the receipts and key them in for me but when I casually explained that the money hadn't come out of the house account he started wigging out.

For the first time I got to see Mateo's temper directed at me, and I don't like it. It flashes hot and I got scorched. Thing is, he got a dose of my temper in repayment as well.

"No Mateo, you listen to me. We agreed that this was a partnership for Nydia's benefit. It is not going to kill me to foot the bill every once in a while and it isn't going to kill you to let me. To be honest I don't know what state your financial affairs are in; I never considered them to be any of my business. As far as I know they still aren't any of my business so long as Nydia is taken care of. If there is something you need me to know you'll tell me and I'm fine with that because that was the agreement; you keep yours and I keep mine. And the reason I haven't taken my 'pay' out of the house funds is because I no longer work for you but with you. I'm trying to help for crying out loud! Acting like a wounded water buffalo because I'm not spending your money hand over fist simply doesn't make any sense to me!"

I have no clue what it was I said but his lips started to twitch. "I haven't lost my temper like that in a long time Leah. I'm afraid this entire situation has … has …"

"Got you bent out of shape?"

"Yes, to put it mildly. Yes. We need to talk. Not tonight, I still have some reports to finish. Do you have time tomorrow?"

"Nydia and I were invited to a MOPS play date in the morning but we'll be back before lunch."

"OK then, we'll have lunch and then Nydia will go down for her nap and that should give us the time we need for our discussion."

So my day is planned out tomorrow; today actually, it is past midnight. At least the day is planned until I find out what Mateo wants to "discuss." After our fight – the first one I've ever had with him in nearly two years – I did a lot of soul searching and analyzing the unexpected changes that have occurred in my life since I left college. It all seemed so simple once. Now I feel I'm on the brink of yet another change. Where is this one going to take me?