Aaron's already foul mood plummeted when he saw Keeley walk into class wearing an NYU hoodie over her uniform the following Monday. It was yet another reminder that she was leaving him. He only had a couple months left to forge enough of a relationship that they could stay in contact when he went to Harvard.
He tried talking to his parents about potentially going to Columbia instead—he had gotten into four different Ivy League schools—but that was fruitless.
The rare occasions both of his parents were home to have dinner with him were awkward enough already but the tension became thick enough to cut with a knife when he casually said, "I've been thinking about attending Columbia in the fall."
His mother was so scandalized she nearly dropped her salad fork. "Why on earth would you go to Columbia when you already got accepted into Harvard? That was a back-up school!"
"Out of the question," his father said while emitting a deathly aura. "Seven generations of Hales have attended Harvard. We have connections there. They have a building named after us. If you're going to succeed me someday, those connections are necessary."
"I can forge my own connections," he tried to insist. "Columbia has almost the exact same acceptance rate as Harvard and their business school is one of the best out there."
"Absolutely not!" Alistair Hale roared, slamming his hands on the table so it shook. "If you don't go to Harvard you can kiss your future role as CEO of Hale Investments goodbye!"
Aaron shut up and stabbed his arugula mutinously. That was a low blow. His entire life—both of his lives—had been spent devoted to his role as the heir of his family's legacy. His chance at a normal childhood was lost due to preparations for his eventual role in the company.
After Keeley died and he buried his grief in work, the company grew 64% in less than a decade. It was the most well-known investment company in the entire country by the time he had his heart attack and since he was the only child of an only child, it was handed off to his vice president.
How dare that man threaten to take away the only consistent thing in his son's life after all he did already!
Unfortunately, Aaron didn't have enough power to go against his father's wishes just yet. So that plan was out. Winning her over before graduation was Aaron's only chance unless he wanted to risk losing her to someone else while they were apart for four years.
He tried to set aside his temper and make pleasant conversation. "Nice sweatshirt. Did you have a campus tour over the weekend?"
Keeley eyed him warily. "Yeah, I did. My dad took me and we went to dinner afterwards to celebrate."
Aaron flinched slightly at the mention of her father. Sure, his former father-in-law was alive now, but that didn't change the guilt he lived with for nearly three decades.
"Are you close to your father?" he asked stupidly.
He knew better than anyone how much Keeley valued their relationship. She visited him once a week religiously in the early days of their marriage before business functions took over their weekends as he worked to consolidate his power within the company and boot Alistair out.
A soft smile played on her lips that he hadn't seen since he was reborn. She was usually blank-faced or scowling at him. "Very. He's all I have left."
It was on the tip of his tongue to correct her. She still had him. But she didn't know they had been married. He hadn't been all that great of a husband anyway.
Keeley certainly didn't think of him as family by the time she died after what he did. He wondered if it would have made a difference if she knew why.
As if she realized she was being too friendly, all expression drained from her face and she stared dead ahead at the whiteboard.
It took everything in him not to snap his pencil in half. He wanted to shake her and demand an explanation for her coldness. She didn't even know him! Why wouldn't she give him a chance?
After class, her friend—Lila? Layla?—was waiting for her outside the door. She looped her arm through Keeley's protectively as they walked toward the student lounge.
Aaron was curious enough to follow them at a distance since Keeley had eaten alone for weeks where he couldn't find her. He pulled the hood up on his jacket and sat at the table behind them, facing away. He could hear them but they couldn't see him.
"So my mom grounded me for the rest of the weekend because we stayed out too late," Keeley's friend huffed. "I couldn't watch TV or use my phone so I ended up doing a week's worth of homework in advance. What about you?"
"I wondered why I didn't hear from you after that. My dad and I visited our family in the cemetery to tell them the good news and we did a campus tour before going to dinner."
"Ah, so that's where you got the sweatshirt! Sorry about the cemetery though. That must've been depressing."
"It wasn't so bad. We always cry when we go but at least we were able to talk about happy memories later on."
Aaron couldn't see her face but Keeley's tone wasn't sad so he relaxed a little. The cemetery…he knew she lost her mom and brother long before they met but she only talked about them when she was drunk and her memories of them were often incoherent so he didn't know much else.
His guilt for his unofficial role in her father's death flared up. She lost so much in her short life and a lot of it was his fault. He wouldn't let it happen again.
"That reminds me…do you know anything about scrapbooking?"
Keeley's friend sounded confused. "That thing that old ladies do with photographs and craft supplies?"
"It's not just for old ladies! My dad wants me to finish my mom's scrapbooks for her before I graduate and I don't even know where to start. I could've sworn my mom had supplies for this but I guess she was running low because I can't find anything but some glue sticks and a handful of half-used sheets of stickers."
"Try going to a craft store. I'm sure you'll find what you need there."
Keeley sighed heavily. "Probably, but I don't know the first thing about what to get. Even if I did, I used to hear my dad complain about how expensive my mom's hobby was. This sweatshirt cost seventy bucks; we're broke."
"Construction paper is cheap," the friend pitched in.
"Yeah but my mom always used fancy patterned paper…I want to do this right for my dad's sake. Maybe I could see if the art room has any leftover paper like that. Or I could always walk my neighbor's dog fifty times to get a little extra cash."
The conversation turned to ways to make money on the side, which was something Aaron never contemplated in either of his lives. He was focused on the potential goldmine he just stumbled across. Finally he knew something Keeley wanted. Finding scrapbooking supplies couldn't be that hard.