THEY SAID you could remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when a life-altering event took place. I could do better than that. I could tell you the date and time too. May 9, 7:04 a.m…. It was a Monday. Of course. I was standing in my kitchen, cradling a cup of coffee while reading the news on my iPad when my cell phone rang. I didn’t think twice about it. It rang all the fucking time. The setting was almost always on vibrate, but last night I’d changed it, thinking I didn’t want to miss Taylor’s call in case he decided to come by. He didn’t call. And he didn’t come over. I didn’t really think he would, but when we ran into each other at the farmers’ market in Union Square Sunday morning, I’d foolishly hoped he might. That was our spot. It seemed like providence. A sign of some sort telling us we should stop this nonsense and get back together immediately. True, Taylor had confessed he’d been cheating on me with one of my coworkers for the past six months, but… still.
The second round of incessant ringing served as a reminder I was a complete moron for wanting him back. And when I saw the name displayed on my cell, I knew the caller would agree wholeheartedly.
I didn’t recognize the voice on the line. It was masculine but a little high-pitched. Definitely not Dad. Whoever he was, he was calling from my father’s phone. My heart slammed against my chest in a wave of instant panic.
“Just Zeke, actually. You’re calling from my father’s phone. Is he oka—?”
“He fell and hit his head. We called 9-1-1. The paramedics said it looked like a superficial wound, but there was blood everywhere and—They’re taking him to Mount Sinai on First. I’m following now with William. Filipe doesn’t speak much English, so Rand is staying to help mind the store and—”
“Whoa! Hang on. Where was he?” It was a stupid question. However, I felt nauseated from the unexpected adrenaline rush and was struggling to catch up and make sense of this conversation.
“At Bowery Bagels,” the caller replied with a heavy sigh. “I’m so sorry. I—I don’t know what else to say. I’m sure he’s fine, but—I’ll meet you in the emergency room.”
“Wait! Who are you?” I asked, staring into the open great room of my condo in a trancelike state.
I noted the sun’s reflection on the shiny dark hardwood floors and the way the tiny flecks of dust sparkled like fairy dust in the air. But I felt as though I were in a vacuum. Sound was muffled, and the light was suddenly too bright. I pushed away from the island and moved with purpose toward my bedroom, forgetting I’d been waiting for a response until the caller spoke again.
NAVIGATING CROSSTOWN traffic on a Monday morning was not for the faint of heart. I was grateful I had a driver to deal with crazy cabbies and everyday idiots who beeped their horns with annoying regularity and zigzagged around slower vehicles like they were on the Jersey Turnpike. Hector was worth every dime I paid him to chauffeur me around Manhattan at a moment’s notice. He’d worked for me for five years now and knew my dad well. He was suitably distraught when I explained why we were taking a twenty-block detour rather than heading directly to my Wall Street office. I called my secretary and filled her in as well. Gina had been with me nearly as long as Hector. She was extraordinarily organized and could be trusted to rearrange my schedule until I was able to make it back downtown.
“I’m hoping this is a matter of cleaning a superficial flesh wound, giving him a Band-Aid, and sending him home. I’ll check in later,” I said hurriedly.
“Okay. Good luck. By the way, your brother Abe just called. I could be wrong, but I didn’t get the impression he knew about your dad,” Gina said before adding, “I’ll keep you in my prayers, Mr. Gulden.”
Fuck, I had to call my brothers. I started with Jonah and Dave before leaving a message for Abe. I couldn’t help uncharitably wishing Benny had called Abe first. Most people who knew my family knew the unspoken golden Gulden rule: Abe dealt with Dad, I dealt with Mom. If Benny was an employee, he was brand-new. Then again, just because I didn’t know anyone named Benny didn’t mean my dad didn’t. Pops knew everyone.
I BRACED myself for the dreaded hospital smell the moment the automatic doors opened. The antiseptic lemony scent had a way of getting in your clothes and under your skin if you stayed too long. The emergency room waiting area was already crowded with a diverse-looking brood who were either sick or waiting for news of a loved one who was. I scanned the area once more before heading toward the haggard-looking nurse with bright red hair and blue eye shadow behind the reception desk.
“Hi, Lynn,” I said, noting her nametag. “My father was admitted less than an hour ago. I called on my way and was told to check in with emergency but—”
“What’s his name?”
“George Gulden. He fell, but I think it may have been serious and—”
“I’ll check in and let him know you’re here.” Lynn kept her gaze on her computer and reached for a clipboard. “I know they’re going to do a CT scan, but I think they’re running other tests first. I have some paperwork for you to complete in the meantime and—”
“Paperwork? Wait. My dad is seventy-two. There’s no time for paperwork. My brother will be here soon. He can deal with that. I just want to see my father and make sure he’s okay. Has the doctor seen him?” I asked.
I glanced at the large black-and-white clock hanging behind her head: 8:10 a.m. On a normal Monday, I would have been at my desk for almost three hours by now. This was what I got for slacking off the day after yet another agonizing Mother’s Day. It seemed like a good plan yesterday. Now I wasn’t so sure.
“Not yet. He’ll be with your father as soon as he can. Here’s the paperwork. Your name is listed first to call on your father’s information card in case of emergency. And since you’re the first to arrive, this is yours. Do your best,” she added in a somewhat sarcastic tone, placing the clipboard in my hands. She turned away from her desk before I was able to tell her where to shove said paperwork.
It was just as well. There was no point in engaging in a standoff with the nursing staff to see who could out-asshole the other. I’d win, hands down, but I had nothing to gain by making enemies here. I pulled out my phone, deliberating ignoring the “no cell phones allowed” signs posted throughout the area. The waiting room reminded me of an airline terminal. Cold and sterile. A strange juxtaposition to the obvious worry on the faces of the family and friends slouched in uncomfortable-looking upholstered chairs. I kept my distance as I paced near the entrance, willing my brother to answer his phone pronto.
“I’m on my way. How is he?” Abe asked when he picked up.
“I don’t know. I just got here.” I sighed. I raised my right hand to my head, forgetting I was holding a clipboard. “They handed me a bunch of forms to complete and told me to take a seat. I hope the doctor makes an appearance soon. I’ve got shit to do and—”
“Zeke, don’t be an asshole,” Abe growled. “Fill out the damn papers and sit tight. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I maturely resisted the temptation to fling my cell across the room when he hung up on me. Fucker. My phone vibrated a second later with an update from Gina, kindly letting me know she’d blocked out my day so I could deal with my crisis. I huffed unhappily.
“Gina, I’ll be in by ten. I just need to see my father. In the meantime, I want the Feldman Group account info forwarded immediately. Has the underwriter finished reviewing the portfolio? It’s a no-risk proposal. I don’t want to mis—”
“Excuse me. Are you Zeke?”
I stopped in my tracks and turned toward the young man standing a few feet away with an expression of acute sorrow on his pretty face. My first thought was he was the nursing assistant assigned to escort me into the hallowed emergency room. But I immediately knew I was wrong. First of all, he wasn’t wearing scrubs or a name tag, and secondly, if he was in the medical field, the streak of electric blue in his short dark hair and the gloss on his lips, indicated he was definitely off-duty.
Gina was still talking. Something about one of the managers handling a trade.
“No one handles anything without my approval. Send me the file.” I hung up, then inclined my head toward the young man. “Yes. I’m Zeke. And you are?”
“Benny Ruggieri. I called you ear—”
“Thank you. I appreciate it. What happened?”
Benny let out a rush of air. He looked shaken and upset. “It was strange. He was fine, but I told William I thought his coloring was off. George’s, not William’s. He seemed normal enough at first. Very cheerful and friendly. You know… like he always is. He was talking to Rand about—”
“Did he keel over? Did he lose consciousness? I still don’t know anything other than he’s currently behind a curtain somewhere waiting for a CT scan. That sounds serious.”
“It’s good that they’re doing all those tests. I— It happened so fast. It was scary. Blood was everywhere, but the paramedic said head wounds bleed a lot and….” Benny shivered dramatically and hugged his arms around his body. “I’m sure he’ll be fine, but they won’t tell us anything because we aren’t family.”
“William came with me to the hospital. He just left for school. He has a class at nine. You might know him. William is Rand’s boyfriend. You know, Rand used to work for George until a few months ago.”
“I know who Rand is, but—”
“Well, he came with him at the last minute. I was surprised ’cause it was kinda early still, but George was really happy to see him. He asked Rand about the band’s upcoming trip to Europe and—”
Oh my God. The guy was a talker. If he didn’t get to the point soon, I was going to lose my fucking mind.
“Stop!” I ran my hand over my jaw and reminded myself the guy had done my father a favor and deserved my attention and whatever patience I could muster on this fucked-up Monday morning. I softened my tone as I continued, “Just… tell me what happened. Please.”
Benny’s eyebrows knit with irritation. He crossed his arms and gave me a thorough once-over. Diva-style. The slightest lift of his eyebrow let me know he was not impressed with my three-thousand-dollar Armani suit or my no-nonsense attitude.
“I was getting to that. He was leaning on the counter like he was tired, and he was definitely pale, but he was still smiling and asking questions. I kept my eye on him. He made me nervous. Call it a sixth sense, but I could tell something was wrong. The next thing I knew, he was on the ground. We called 9-1-1 and… here we are.”
Benny shrugged, wordlessly indicating he’d finished his story. His expressive eyes were tinged with worry. It was telling that my father could incite that kind of concern from people who were practically strangers. Everyone loved Dad. George Gulden was a New York City legend, renowned for his sunny personality and, yeah… bagels.
My great-great-grandfather first made the doughy bread treat by hand in his native Poland. He had a small store in Warsaw and taught all his sons the family trade. When my great-grandfather moved to New York City in the late 1800s, he followed in his father’s footsteps and sold bagels in the Lower East Side on a street corner. My grandfather opened the Bowery location in the late 1940s and aptly named it Bowery Bagels. But it was my dad who expanded the business and made it into a New York institution of sorts.
I was the second of his four sons and the only one who hadn’t gone into the family business. However, that didn’t mean I didn’t know more about bagels, cream cheese, or family tradition than the average joe. I could bore anyone senseless explaining the importance of water quality, kettle boiling, and plank baking when it came to creating the perfect New York-style bagel. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t friendly enough to make it behind the counter for an extended stretch without wanting to clobber someone who couldn’t decide between pumpernickel and onion. My insanely stressful Wall Street job was more suited to my no-bullshit personality. Though when my phone began a new round of buzzing, I wasn’t so sure. I ignored my cell and studied Benny.
“Thank you. How did you know to call me?”
He cocked his head and gave me a funny look. “George talks about you all the time, but of course, he calls you Ezekiel.”
“He’s got a thing against shortening first names.”
We shared a halfhearted smile, a symbol of an unlikely kinship between two strangers sharing a burden of concern. A sudden wave of awareness washed over me, the way it did when intuition took on a clairvoyant quality, warning me to pay attention. To what, I didn’t know. Before I could contemplate the absurdity of having any connection to the blue-haired stranger whatsoever, the nurse called my name.
“I have to go. If you’re staying, would you mind looking out for my brother, Abe? He’s about five ten, a little heavy around the middle, and—”
“I know Abe.”
“Sure. I’ve met all your brothers at the store at one time or another. Don’t they live in Brooklyn? George mentioned you were the only one who lived in Manhattan,” Benny said, brushing his blue bangs from his forehead.
The gesture was curiously elegant. I was interested in spite of myself, though the niggling sense of attraction was more bothersome than titillating. Benny was cute. Pretty even, but he was not my type. He was slender and small at maybe five foot eight. That made him easily four inches shorter than my own six feet. Other than the electric-blue fringe in the front, his hair was a dark brown. It offset his light brown eyes, pointed nose, square jaw, and golden skin beautifully. He was effeminate-looking in a way, and yet not obviously so. Something in his voice made me think he was affecting a tone a notch or two below his usual register. But the way he dressed gave him away. The tight black jeans with red Converse sneakers were one thing, but the snug-fitted, white T-shirt depicting a fish on a rod with the words size matters was sure advertisement that he was “that” kind of gay.
Benny set his hands on his hips and gave me a lopsided grin that let me know I’d been caught staring. “Well?”
“Huh? Oh. Yeah, Abe lives in Brooklyn,” I said, stuffing my phone back in my suit pocket distractedly.
He smiled kindly and pointed toward the redheaded nurse waiting nearby. “You should go. I’ll wait for Abe.”
I nodded in acquiescence and at the last second squeezed his shoulder impulsively. It was meant as a gesture of solidarity. An innocent, physical show of appreciation and support. The immediate zing to my fingertips was alarming. I glanced at him again, making sure to linger on his weird T-shirt in an effort to get my balance back. However, the moment our eyes met, I had a notion something was cosmically compromised in my world. How else could I explain the feeling I’d met someone extraordinary?