Penance: An Oak Grove Suspense

Chapter One Judson

“It’s five o’penance-cover-promo_0004_front-vertical-coverclock on Friday, get out of here already.”

I look up from my computer to my best friend and business partner, Grant. We started J&G Construction about twelve years ago, right after graduating college. Technically, we were already in the construction field while attending college, we just didn’t have a legitimate business until after.

“Some of us have a company to run.” I look back to the screen and he’s blocking my view with a catalogue. “You’re thirty-three, it’s time to grow up, move that thing.” I knock the construction catalogue out of his hand.

“No, I’m serious, Jud. You need to go home. You have a wife and kids waiting on you. Enjoy your week. I know how to run this company. I swear it won’t fall apart while you go on vacation. Have some fun for a change.

I give in with an exasperated sigh as I stand from my chair. I do work too much and I need to spend more time with my family. “You’re right. I’m going home. Finish up the reports for the week and be sure the men get their bonuses.”

He salutes me. “Will do. You make sure you give that gorgeous wife of yours a kiss from her favorite pseudo-brother and give my niece and nephew a good squeeze with loud raspberries from Uncle Grant.”

Grant isn’t exactly related to me. He is like a brother and plays the part of uncle for the kids. He loves them like they’re his own. I couldn’t ask for a better man for the title of uncle for my twins.

“Will do, but Shan is only getting a kiss on the cheek from you.”

He guffaws. “You always ruin the fun. You know she has the hots for me. It’s my killer abs. Maybe you should work on a set of your own.” He lifts his shirt to display said abs. “That beer belly isn’t attractive.”

I roll my eyes as I grab my jacket. “I don’t have a beer belly. I have more abs than you. Besides that, Shannon doesn’t have the hots for you. She thinks you’re cute. Cute, Grant. You know what that means? It means, like a puppy. She babies you, because she feels sorry for your sad pathetic butt.”

“You keep telling yourself that, bro. I know she wants me. I’ve got the whole package,” He gestures to his abs again. “I have everything a woman wants; money, great hair, a gorgeous chiseled face, green eyes, and a body you could bounce a quarter off of.”

Grant is probably the vainest person I know. Sure he has a heart of gold and would treat a woman like a queen, but he won’t let that side of himself out. Well, except with Shannon, my wife. I think they’ve been friends just as long as Grant and I have.

“You, you are lumpy and dumpy with your boring brown hair and brown eyes, and that hideous beard. The tats are the only thing you have going for you.” He continues, but I ignore him.

“You keep talking like that and you’ll never get a wife. A good woman won’t care about any of that. She’ll love you because you’re faithful, hardworking, and kind. If she’s only into your money and physical features, then you need to run, man. Run fast.”

“Yeah, well, you got the last good one. No one in this small town is as good as Shannon, not even her stupid sister.”

I can’t help but laugh. Shannon’s sister is the total opposite of my wife. Shannon is sweet, kind, and beautiful. She’d do anything for anyone. Krissy is probably as vain as Grant, and talks and drinks like a sailor. They went on three dates. I thought they’d kill each other.

“I still don’t know why you went out with her.”

“I don’t either. I guess I thought it would get better. She is related to Shannon; some good had to rub off right?”

“Nope.” We both laugh.

“Mistakes happen, but I’m never barking up that tree again.” He shivers in disgust.

I laugh at him again. “I’m going. Get that stuff done. Don’t wait until last minute.”

“I know. Get out of here already!”

I finger salute him and turn to leave. I hear something hit the door, which means he probably threw something at me, typical immature Grant behavior. I walk to my company truck and climb in. I pull the visor down and glance in the mirror. Grant is right, I do have brown hair and eyes, but my wife says they are soulful and full of love. Sappy, I know, but physical features have never been something I cared a great deal about. I’m fit. I take care of myself, but I don’t stress over it like Grant. I never have. I’m content with my six-foot-two, medium-build frame, and even my occasional need for glasses doesn’t bother me. I’m happy that I found a wife who accepts me for all my flaws. Believe me, there are a ton of them.

I head home, glad to finally be able to spend the week in my hometown of Oak Grove. My parents still live there and their house is our first stop on our vacation. Even though we’re close, we rarely see them. Life just gets in the way. I jog up the front porch steps of my home. It’s a modest size home with three bedrooms and roughly eighteen hundred square feet. It was one of the first houses Grant and I built. At the time, Shannon and I didn’t have children. We thought we’d always live here, but we have a larger family now and with all the stuff a family of four comes with, the house seems small, too small. One day we’ll have something bigger, but for now this is home.

“Honey, I’m home,” I call in my best Ricky Ricardo voice, as I enter the house.”

“Daddy!” The excited voices of my five-year-old twins come barreling through the hallway.

I scoop them up to hug and kiss them. Then, I administer the raspberries from their uncle, which sends them into fits of giggles and squirms.

“You’re home early,” my wife beams as she comes around the corner. She’s holding a dish towel in her hands and wearing her cleaning clothes. Her face is flushed with exertion and her dark hair is pulled up in a messy bun, but she couldn’t look more beautiful to me than she does in this moment. I put the kids down and draw her into my arms, kissing her deeply.

“Well, that was unexpected,” she says breathlessly. “What brought that on?”

I shrug as I set her right. “No reason. Just missed you.”

She blushes. I stroke her cheek. I’ve always loved her blush. She’s so fair complexioned that it doesn’t take much to get the color in her cheeks.

“I’ve missed you too. You’ve been working so much lately.”

I sigh, running a hand through my short hair. It’s true. I hate it, but it’s been necessary. I do it all for them.

“Well, I’m off for the next week. Let’s go have some fun. Who’s ready for a vacation?” I ask everyone excitedly.

The kids scream, jumping up and down, before running off to their rooms to pack a bunch of toys and other things I’m sure that they feel are necessities, which really aren’t.

“I’ve almost finished packing. I cleaned up the kitchen while waiting on the last load of clothes in the dryer.” Shannon walks back into said kitchen as she talks.

“The house doesn’t need to be perfect for us to leave.”

She stops and turns around to face me with her hands on her hips and her head cocked to one side. She gives me ‘the look’. You know the one your wife has when you’ve apparently said the dumbest thing on the planet? Yeah, that one.

“Judson Hardenbergh, I know you did not just say that. Do you not know to whom you are speaking?”

I can’t hide the smile on my face, she’s so stinking cute when she’s flustered. I wrap my arms around her waist. “I know to whom I am speaking. I also know you worry too much. The house looks perfect, it always does. Let’s just hurry and get out of here so we can get an early start to this trip.” I kiss her softly a few times before pulling back. “What do you say?”

She pretends to think about it for a moment then smiles her beautiful broad smile. “Let’s do it. As soon as the clothes are out of the dryer and packed, we can go.”

“Awesome. I’ll go wrangle up the twins. I’m sure they have half of their rooms put in their suitcases by now.”

“I’ll do that while I wait on the laundry. You go shower and change.”

She cuts me off my path and directs me to our bedroom. I swat her butt playfully as she runs off. Subtlety is not her strong suit, but she’s right. I do need to shower and change. It takes me about twenty minutes and by the time I get to the foyer, she’s already loaded the truck with our luggage and the kids. She has to have everything a certain way. She says it’s like Tetris for adults and she enjoys doing it, but she’s really a bit of a control freak. So, I indulge her. No use trying to fight about it when it’s not going to change.

I throw my arm around her shoulders and kiss her head. “I would’ve helped you know.”

“I know, but you worked today. Everything is in except the cooler. You can grab that.”

“Sure thing. Are we going to load it to go forty-five minutes away?”

“No, it’s empty, but we’ll need it when we go camping on our property.”

I nod. I’d completely forgotten about going out to our property. When my grandfather passed away last year, he left me about fifty acres of land in the mountains of Oak Grove. There’s an old house on the land, set with plumbing and electricity, but it needs major renovations. The house itself isn’t in horrible shape. The foundation and framework are still in great condition, but the inside is lacking. We don’t want anything over the top or fancy, but it needs to be practical with two small children. We’re going to ‘camp out’ for the first few days of our trip and plan our renovations. We want it as a getaway. Some place we can escape to when life gets too heavy.

“I need to grab a few things and my computer. I don’t know why that slipped my mind.”

“I got your laptop, but I didn’t know what tools or equipment you’ll need.” I smile at my wife, she’s so efficient and thoughtful. She could totally run my business better than I do, and certainly better than Grant.

I kiss her forehead. “You’re perfect.”

I turn and jog back into the house and grab the things I need. It takes me about fifteen minutes and then we’re finally on the road.

“Daddy, will we see bears?” Josie asks.

I look at her in the review mirror. Her blonde curls fall in her eyes. She looks just like my wife, but with blonde hair. Shannon says she gets it from her brother. I’m not sure what she gets from me. Both of my kids look like my wife, but she says they act like me. I don’t really see it.

“I don’t know, baby. I hope not. They can be dangerous.”

“Yeah, they’ll rip your face off,” Jayden explains.

I chuckle, but my wife scolds him. “Jay, don’t say things like that. You’ll scare your sister.” He huffs and crosses his arms over his chest, mumbling under his breath.

“Yeah, buddy. Girls don’t like to be scared. We have to protect them.”

“I would!” he insists. “I’d kick any bear that came near Mommy or Josie.”

“I know you would. You’re a great brother and son, but let’s keep the scary bear talk between us boys.”

“Yeah, okay,” Jayden mumbles, completely put out. It makes me smile. I remember being little and my dad always telling me I couldn’t do certain things because of my sisters. It was tough growing up the only boy.

“When we get to nan and pop’s, we can go out to the garage with pop. I bet he’s working on something really awesome.”

Jayden perks up, his blue eyes meet mine in the review mirror. “Yeah, and no girls!”

“Right, no girls!” I reach my hand back and he give me a fist bump, sealing our pact.

The rest of our short drive is pretty silent. My wife and I hold hands, and the kids stare out the windows, only talking when they see something they find amazing. It’s pretty much our typical car ride. Once we arrive at my parents’ house, however, they are on full blast excitement mode. They absolutely love coming here. I feel guilty that I don’t bring them more often. I make a mental note to try to change that. We hug my parents and unload the suitcase with our clothes since we’re only staying overnight. We’ll be heading out to the property in the morning for a few days. We’ll be back here on Friday and visit again until Sunday when we go home. It’s not much of a vacation, but it’s all we need.

“Hey, Pop. Can we go out to the garage for man time?” Jayden asks about ten minutes into our visit.

My dad kneels down to Jayden’s eye level. “You want to see what I have in the works?”

Jayden’s eyes grow big. “Yeah! Is it really awesome?”

Dad pretends to think for a minute. “Oh, I think it’s pretty awesome. Let’s go check it out.”

“No girls!” Jayden yells as he takes dad’s hand as they take off out the door. I follow along chuckling. “Wow!”

He enters the building wide eyed and totally enthralled with what he sees. My dad’s garage, or workshop, is about twenty-four hundred square feet of almost completely open space, full of tractors, lawn mowers, tools, and everything a little boy would find to be fascinating. I’m pretty fascinated myself.

“Yep, that’s a big engine. I’m putting it in that tractor trailer outside,” dad explains as my son runs around looking at the engine, which is quite a bit taller than he is.

“Can I help? I bet this is what Optimus Prime looks like on the inside.”

We chuckle. “Oh, I’m sure, but he has the AllSpark, this one doesn’t.”

Jayden’s face falls a bit. “Oh, it would be so cool if he was a transformer. I wonder if we could get an AllSpark?”

Dad pretends to think about it. “I’m not sure, but I’ll check into that.” He ruffles Jayden’s hair. My son accepts his grandfather’s word on the matter and moves on to the next cool thing he sees.

“How’s the business?” Dad asks as we watch Jayden tinker with the tools.

I lean against the counter. “It’s okay. Grant has been slacking more than normal. I left him with some end of the week reports and the bonus checks. I just hope he actually follows through.”

Dad shakes his head. “That boy needs to grow up already. Settling down with a good woman would do him good.”

I snort. “I don’t think that’ll happen. He likes to date, just not the same woman more than a few times.”

“His parents should have raised him better.”

That is a typical dad answer. No matter what a person does wrong, their parents are to blame. Except for me, of course. When I do wrong, it’s all on me.

“They can’t all be perfect like you and mom.”

He looks at me with a big grin and slaps my shoulder. “You remember that.”

We hang out in the garage for a few hours before my mom calls us to dinner, which is a feast. After dinner, we all sit in the living room and watch the kids play while the adults talk. It’s been great to sit and visit. I can’t believe we haven’t done this in so long. By ten everyone in is bed, eager for the next day to begin.

Chapter Two

Judson

On our way to the cabin the next morning, we stop for supplies and any other last minute things we might need for the weekend. I can see the kids practically bouncing in their seats as we follow the road through the woods. When we finally stop, they both immediately jump out of the car and run towards the cabin.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Shannon asks.

“Yeah, the structure is good. It just needs electrical work, kitchen and bathroom upgrades, and whatever else we decide to change. It’s a good house.” I pull her close and give her a soft kiss. “It’ll be great.”

“I hope so. I can see potential. I think some work outside will make it really cute.”

“There you go. Get into the spirit.” I grab her hand and lead her into the cabin.

“Daddy! This place is so awesome!” Josie squeals as she runs after her brother from room to room, like two blonde blurs. I grab her and Shannon grabs Jayden.

“I know this place is pretty great, but it needs a lot of work and you need to be careful. We’re going to get it cleaned up so we’ll have a nice place to campout,” I explain to them.

“I’ll help clean. Can I help clean, Mommy?” Josie asks excitedly.

“Of course you can. Do you want to help me get our supplies from the car?”

“Yay!” both kids scream as they run out to the car.

I can’t help but chuckle. “I wish I was that excited about cleaning up this dirty old place.”

“Seriously, I think I’m getting asthma just being in all this dust.”

Shannon coughs for effect and I roll my eyes. She’s so dramatic, but I know she is really excited about being here. She’s talked nonstop about the things she’d love here, but until today, she’s only seen pictures.

“I’ll open all the windows and uncover the furniture. You guys work on getting the cleaning stuff inside.” I give her a peck on the lips and we part ways.

It doesn’t take me long to clear the furniture. There’s not a ton here. The house itself is about fifteen hundred square feet with two bedrooms and one bathroom, but the loft space is plenty big enough to create a master bedroom with an additional bathroom and a small entertainment area. The floor plan is pretty open, but it’s still too small for our growing family. My grandparents lived here the last twenty years of their lives. Before that, it was used as a hunting cabin, so it’s pretty basic. I regret that I never brought Shannon or the kids up here to visit when they were alive, but everyone always met up at my mom and dad’s since it was bigger and more centrally located.

“Jud, do you know if the water is on?” Shannon yells up the steps.

I jog down. “Yeah, but the valve is shut off. I’ll get it. We need to let everything run for a little while. The pipes need to clear.”

“Okay. How long do you think?”

I shrug. “Just until the water runs clear.”

It takes us about two hours to get everything opened up and the dust cleared out, but when we’re finished, we can tell the place will be worth fixing up. The house is honestly in great shape and probably wouldn’t need a whole lot of anything. However, I know Shannon and I know she’ll want things a certain way. Not that it’s a bad thing.

“This place is so awesome!” Jayden says as he plops down on the sofa. I sit beside him.

“Yeah, you think so? What makes it so awesome?”

He seems to think about it for a moment before saying, “Well, it’s old. I like that. There’s a hole in my bedroom wall. I can see outside! I bet I could bring Xander up here and we’d be able to play war all day!”

I laugh. I absolutely adore my kids and their imaginations. “I bet you could, but this is just a family cabin. We’ll come here to just be us and spend quality time together. But you can play with Xander at home any time you want. Okay?”

He nods. “Yeah, okay. This is just our place.”

“Right.” I lean back on the sofa with my hands behind my head and he copies me.

“Look at my two men. You guys look right at home, but why don’t we see if we can get the grill fired up and have some hotdogs for dinner?”

Jayden shoots up. “Can I help, Dad?”

Smiling, I ruffle his hair. “Sure. Why don’t you get the hotdogs while I get the grill out of the truck?” He runs off. “Never a dull moment with him.”

Shannon giggles. “Never. He never stops moving for long.”

“Yuck, Dad. Stop kissing mom! We have hotdogs to grill!”

I pull away from my wife and laugh. “I’ve been summoned. They’ll be in bed before you know it.” I wink at my beautiful wife.

Jayden and I cook up the hotdogs while the girls handle the sides. We eat less than fifteen minutes later. It’s a fun and boisterous affair, but I couldn’t be happier than I am at this moment with my family. After we finish eating, I start up a small fire for some s’mores, one of our favorite family treats. After eating, singing silly songs, and just having some together time, the kids are lying against us completely wiped out.

“I’ll carry her if you get him,” Shannon says, lifting our daughter into her arms. I nod lifting my sleeping son and carry him to the room we’d readied earlier in the day for the kids.

After laying both of them in bed, I wrap my arm around my wife. “We did good. They are perfect.” I kiss her head.

She smiles as she hugs my waist. “Yeah, they are perfect. This place will be great once you have it fixed up. Will you use the company?”

We continue talking as we walk into the living room. “Nah, I think I want to do this one on my own. Maybe have Grant up for a weekend.”

She looks at me like I’m crazy. “That makes no sense. You’d be up here every weekend for months trying to get done what your men could have done in three weeks.”

I don’t really expect her to understand. “I know, but my granddad built this place. I’d like to fix it up myself, in honor of him.” She nods, but by the look on her face, I can tell she’s disappointed. I decide not to worry about it now. Hopefully, one day she’ll understand why I want to work on this myself. “Are you tired?”

“No.”

“Good, let’s go over the plans. Tell me what you’d like to have and I’ll do my best to make it happen.”

We talk until well after midnight, putting together a plan for the house. Shannon has a lot of ideas and surprisingly most of them are doable. I did have to draw the line on adding on a third bedroom, it would be nice, but it’s not in the budget right now.

The next morning we explore the woods around the house. My grandpa had made several trails for us grandkids to explore when we visited him and grandma. It wouldn’t take me long to get them back into shape and start to explore deeper into the woods with the kids.

“Whoa! This is so cool!” Jayden and Josie exclaim as they run towards the pond.

“Did you know this was here?” Shannon asks.

“Of course. My cousins and I used to come up here every time we came to visit my grandparents. That’s why pops made the trails.Actually, if I can get them all cleared correctly, they will form a maze of sorts.”

“That’s neat. I think the kids would like that.”

I wrap my arm around my wife as we sit on a rock and watch our kids running around playing. We let them play for about two hours before we go back to the house to pack up and head over to my parents for a cookout with the rest of the family. The kids act as if they didn’t just see my parents a day ago. It sends a pang of guilt through me again. I should get them over here more often. It’s not like we live that far away.

“Baby brother!” I turn to see my sister, Lyla, walking towards me. She’s eleven years older than me, but we’ve always been closer than me and my other sister.

“Hey, sissy.” She grabs me and squeezes me as tight as she can. I chuckle. “Still can’t pick me up. You better stop trying you’re getting really close to forty-five.”

She smacks me. “Shut up, brat.” I just smile at her. I adore both of my sisters, but there’s something about Lyla that has always just clicked with me.

“Shannon,” Lyla says, her tone changing, still polite, but more reserved. They’ve never seen eye to eye on anything, especially where I’m concerned.

“Lyla, nice to see you.” Shannon is just as short as Lyla. I know nothing I do will change how they treat each other, but it does strain my relationship with my sister. I always feel that I have to choose between the two.

“Hey, Aunt Ly, you wanna see the transformer pops is building?” Lyla raises her eyebrow at me; I just smile and shrug as Jayden pulls her towards the garage.

I turn to Shannon. “Do you think you can be nice?”

She rolls her eyes. “If she can.”

“Whatever.” I don’t bother getting into it with her, there’s never a solution. Neither of them will change. I walk over to the patio, where my mom and my other sister, Emily, are sitting. “Hey, Em.” I bend and give her a hug and kiss.

“Hey, baby brother. Hey, Shannon. Love that outfit. Where did you get it?”

I look over to Shannon. She looks awkwardly down and blushes, that’s odd. She shakes her head then says, “Oh, I can’t remember, probably a mall department store.” She looks highly uncomfortable and with Emily, that’s not something that happens. They have always gotten along.

“If you remember let me know. It looks really high-end.” I have no idea what Emily is talking about, but I will admit I’ve never seen the outfit and it does look new and nicer than most of her clothes.

“Sure. How are the girls?” Shannon easily changes the subject and the three women talk for several minutes about Emily’s teenage twin daughters. Thirteen is apparently a very tough year.

“Earth to Judson,” Emily says shoving me.

I shake my head and turn towards her. “What?”

“I asked how the cabin was.”

“Oh, sorry. It’s good. I think we can fix it up with no problems. Are you sure you’re okay with me getting it?”

She looks at me like I’m crazy. A look I’m used to getting from her. “Shut up. No one cares that they left it to you.”

“I know, but I feel a little selfish taking it.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m not …”

“If you say adopted. I’ll throat punch you.”

I can’t help it. I start laughing. “Well, it’s true. I heard aunt Rose saying something about grandpa giving it to me because I’m blood.”

“Sweetheart, you know that’s not true. No matter what that old bat has to say. My parents loved you and your sisters the same,” Mom tells me.

“Yeah, bubbie. We don’t even remember being adopted. I was barely one and Lyla was four. I don’t feel like they gave it to you because of blood. I think it’s because you’re the only grandson. I mean he had five granddaughters, splitting it between us would have been impossible. Besides that, it’s not like you wouldn’t let us use it, if we wanted.”

“Of course. You guys can use it anytime, mom and dad too.”

“See nothing to worry about. I’m going to go check on my kids. They’ve been sneaking their phones out of my purse all day. Boys are already on their minds.” Emily ruffles my hair as she passes me.

I have to admit, my fear has been that I got the house because I’m a blood relative since I learned it was left to me, but mom and Em are right. My grandparents never treated them less than me. We were all just the grandkids, no separate distinction was ever made.

Dinner with my family is great despite the slight negativity between Shannon and Lyla. Shannon isn’t acting like herself tonight either. She’s been on her phone texting someone and has avoided some of the nosy questioning coming from Emily. I’m not sure what’s going on, but by the time we get home she seems perfectly fine, so I don’t mention anything. She sometimes just gets into these moods and it’s better for me to leave her be until she’s over whatever she has on her mind.

The rest of the week passes way too quickly and before I know it, I’m headed back to my office and the daily grind. It’s the Monday after our trip and I’ve been here all of five minutes. I can tell that my week long vacation was a mistake.

“Grant!” I yell from my office.

“What’s up?” He pokes his head into my office doorway

I’m so frustrated with him. I got into this business with him as my partner so he could help with this stuff, but he always makes a mess of the paperwork.

“What is this?” I ask, gesturing at the pile of scattered papers on my desk.

“What do you mean?” He wanders in and over to me. He picks up a few sheets then puts them back down. “I paid the guys like you asked and wrote up the bonus checks.”

“There was more in the account for bonuses, they should have had at least two-hundred each. Did you seriously write out twenty dollar checks for each of them?”

“Uh, yeah. That’s what it averaged out to for each. There wasn’t as much in that account as you thought, I guess.”

“You’re supposed to be the one with the accounting degree, yet I always do all the work. I don’t understand why you can’t do this job.”

“I can do the job. If you get off your high horse you’ll see that there was only twenty dollars to give each guy. The account only had three hundred bucks. Spread that out between fifteen guys it’s twenty each.”

I shake my head. “That’s not right. There was three thousand in the bonus account. I double-checked before I left. I never give out bonuses less than two-hundred dollars.”

Grant grabs my computer keyboard and pulls up our accounting software and sure enough it shows only three hundred was in the account. That makes no sense. I scroll through all the entries and find nothing that says otherwise. Even the last deposit made is different. This isn’t the actual bank account. It’s just an account on our software that isn’t linked to our bank. I use it to budget out and divide up our monies. So, the only way I’ll be able to tell if anything was changed or if there is an amount missing is to have an expert examine the program. I know I’ll have to investigate further, but for now, I’ll leave it be.

“Sorry. I guess I read it wrong. I’ll let the guys know a real bonus will come soon.”

“Hey, man. Don’t worry about it. Things like this happen. So how was the trip?”

Even though I don’t really want to be talking about this right now and I’m still steaming over the books, I concede. It really looks like, other than leaving a huge mess on my desk, Grant actually did what I asked him to do. I can’t fault him if it was in fact my oversight.

“Good. I want to draw up the plans this week and get started on it in a month or so. I figure it will take me about six months to complete it on my own.”

“Why not use the guys? We are light on projects the next few months.”

“I don’t have money to pay them. I’m doing this out of pocket. It’s not a company expense.”

“You could make it a company expense. I’m sure we can find a work around.”

I blow out a frustrated breath and pinch my nose. This is the crux in our relationship. I want to do everything by the book and legal. He doesn’t mind skirting the rules or completely breaking them.

“Grant, this is my livelihood. I have a family. I can’t take chances like that. I can’t wind up in jail for embezzling or fraud. I don’t want a go around. I want to fix my cabin with my own two hands. I got into this business because I love construction. I like making nothing into something. I don’t understand why you’re always looking for the ‘easy’ way to do everything.”

Grant snorts. “What good is it to own your own business and do well, but still struggle financially?

“I’m not struggling financially.I just don’t have extra money to pay for everything Shan wants done to the cabin and pay guys to do it. Besides, like I said, I want to do this on my own.”

“You’re so stubborn.”

Okay, so that pisses me off. I’m not stubborn. I’m a reasonable man. I’m also a law abiding citizen.

“You know what? Maybe, we should just part ways. I mean, we can’t agree on how to run this business, so why keep putting ourselves through this? It’s clearly not working.”

I stand. He stands.

“Jud, that’s not what I want.”

“Well, I don’t want to do this with someone cutting corners. I know I had three thousand in that account when I left. So where is it now?”

“Are you accusing me of something?”

“Maybe.” I put my hands on my hips and stare at him. He hates when I glower.

“Jud. Man, come on. We’ve been in this business for a long time. I’d never do something against you.”

“Then why are you even mentioning a work around? It’s obviously something you’ve at least considered.”

“Of course it’s something I’ve considered, because it’s not wrong. It would be a job for the company. We could give you a discounted price. It’s a win-win. We would only pay the men. I’m not trying to pull one over on you.”

I think about that for a moment. I guess that would be legal. I’d pay the company for the work like anyone else, but the way he makes it sound is like he wants to leave it off the books. Something is going on here that I really don’t understand at the moment. My mind keeps going back to the money. I know I had it in there and I won’t rest until I find out what happened to it. Grant looks down at his phone and grimaces.

“I need to take this. Are we cool?”

“Sure, but I still want to check to be sure something isn’t going on with the money missing?”

“Yeah, we’ll work on it, don’t worry.”

He leaves. I sit back staring at the mess on my desk and the computer screen that tells me I have a zero balance in my bonus account. It really makes no sense. I’ve never been so wrong before. I organize my desk and check into my other accounts. I can’t find that extra money anywhere. It’s like it just disappeared. My gut tells me that something is going on with Grant and he’s not being one-hundred percent truthful with me. For right now, all I can do is trust that he is and move forward until I know differently.

Chapter

Three Judson

“Daddy, will you play babies with me?” Josie asks. I smile at my girl. She looks so much like her mother.

“Of course, sweetheart. Let me change and I’ll be right there.”

“Okay, Daddy.” She runs off to the den and I head to my bedroom to change.

Shannon is in our room texting on her phone. She doesn’t look happy. “Hey, what’s wrong?” I lean across the bed and kiss her cheek.

She startles slightly. “Nothing. My sister is trying to stir up trouble between me and mom.”

I nod. This isn’t anything new. Krissy is always trying to cause issues. She thrives on drama. “Josie wants me to play dolls with her. I’ll be in the den if you need me.”

“Okay, I’ll start dinner in a few.” I run my finger over her pinched brow, smoothing it out. She relaxes and gives me a small smile, placating my worry.

In the den, I play with Josie until dinner. After dinner, I go outside and chase both kids around the yard. By nine, I’m exhausted and ready for bed myself. I have a lot to do in the office tomorrow and I want to go in early. Shannon is in our room, on the phone, again. This is really starting to annoy me.

“What’s with you and that phone today? Is Kris really causing you that much trouble?”

“Uh?” She looks up confused.

I try to hold my temper, but with what happened with Grant this morning it’s hard. “Why have you been on the phone all day?”

“Kris is just really in a bad place. I thought at first she was trying to stir up trouble between us, but she’s really having a rough time with the guy she’s dating. He has a gambling problem. She’s been trying to get him to stop. I’m sorry, I’ve been so wound up with this. I was just trying to help her.”

I guess I can’t begrudge her helping her sister. “I get it, I do, but maybe you could just tell her you’ll catch up with her later so you can spend some time with us?”

“The kids are in bed.” She turns to her phone, typing something else.

“What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing. I told you, Krissy needs me right now.”

“Fine. I’m going to bed, can you do that in the living room?”

I’m done trying to get through to her, sure I could come out and say, I need her, but I don’t want to do that. I want her to choose me over her sister, which I guess is selfish. I’m just really spent right now after my day at the office. Sleep is definitely what I need. I watch her leave the room without a word or look to me. Something is definitely going on with her and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say her sister had little to do with it.

~*~

“Good morning, Judson,” Kate, my receptionist, says as I enter my office the next morning.

“Morning, Kate. Can you get Clay Barstoe on the phone for me?”

“Sure thing.”

I go into my office and pull out all the documentation I have for all of my accounts and everything that Grant is supposed to handle, but rarely does, for accounting purposes.

“Mr. Barstoe is on line one.”

“Thanks, Kate.” I pick up the call. “Clay.”

“Hey, man. What’s going on? You never call me at the office.”

I run my hand over my beard and take a few seconds to gather my thoughts. “Yeah, I was wondering if you could meet me for lunch. I have something I need to talk to you about. I need your discretion.”

“Of course. You guys want to meet me at Clyde’s?” Clay asks.

“No, just me. I don’t want Grant to know were meeting.”

“Whoa, yeah okay. Why don’t you pick us up some sandwiches and come to my office? It’ll be more private.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be there at noon.”

“See you then.”

I hang up and blow out a deep breath as I stare at my ceiling. Clay is one of my best friends and a silent partner in our business. He’d originally offered to do all the accounting work for us, but at the time, that seemed silly considering Grant has a degree in accounting and Clay has his own business. Now, I’m thinking that having a third party involved in the daily work might have been a smarter move. Clay helped us with all the start-up, but he’s never been an active participant.

“Hey, man. You’re here early,” Grant says as he strides into my office and sits on the chair in front of my desk.

“Yeah, just trying to get all this mess straightened up.”

“You’re so anal. I had it under control.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore. What’s done is done. How’d your meeting with the potential client go?” I don’t want him digging deeper into this. I want to find out if something is up before I even ask him. I have a huge feeling he’s lying, I just don’t know if it’s about the books, or something else.

“It went really well. That’s what I came in here to tell you. They want us to come up to the site. They have a few things that they want us to change up, and they have a couple of other jobs they want to present to us.”

I’m impressed. He’s really done a lot to get this contract. He’s been in negotiations with Holts and Smith Lodging for months now. They just lost their contractor six months ago and have been shopping around to find builders who can match the expertise of their pervious company in building log homes.

“Yeah, I can do that. When do they want us?”

“He said he’d like us to come up Wednesday, if we can swing it.”

I check our calendar. It looks like today is the only day this week where we’re starting a new job. Grant and I always make sure we’re on site for day one. We go over the timeline and general information with the crew, but after that, we only spot check the site and have weekly meetings with our foreman.

“That’s doable, I think. Let me double check with Shan.”

“Sure. I’ll be ready to head to site in about twenty.” Grant stands to leave. “Unless you need something else?”

“Nope, that’s good. See you in twenty.” I gather up all the files I need for Clay and grab my laptop. I stop at Grant’s office. “Hey, I’ll meet you there. I have some errands to run around lunch.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll leave here in a few. See you there.”

I’m glad he didn’t ask any questions, but then again, he seemed preoccupied with his phone. He was as wrapped up in it, as Shannon was last night. I just don’t understand the obsession. If you have that much to say to someone, why not actually call them?

Grant shows up to the site about twenty minutes late, so our time with our men is very rushed. When we first started the company, Grant and I did most of the work ourselves, but that has slowly changed over the years. I don’t mind. My passion is furniture anyway. Originally, Grant and I had talked about opening up a shop for hand-crafted furniture, but the market wasn’t as strong, so we went with construction. I make furniture on the side in my spare time, it’s a great stress reliever for me.

I arrive at Clay’s office about ten minutes after twelve. His assistant pokes her head out of the lunchroom to tell me he’s waiting for me in his office. I nod and grab our lunches, heading to the back. Clay is pretty much a minimalist and doesn’t bother with a lot of décor.

“There you are. I thought I was being stood up,” Clay says, his jovial spirit is contagious as always. It makes me wish I was here to shoot the breeze instead of bringing the heavy.

I laugh. “Nah, Grant was late to site so it took us longer to get things going. I brought you an Italian with the works from Gino’s, hope that’s okay.”

“You know it’s my favorite. So what’s going on with Grant?” He asked, digging into his sandwich.

“I don’t really know. He’s been on his phone almost nonstop. Even during the meeting with our workers. I had to get his attention several times. Then, as soon as we were finished, he was out the door. He only stopped to ask me if I was going home. He’s been acting really strange.”

“That does sound strange. He’s always been so collected. I mean, he’s totally irresponsible at times, but he normally pulls through. Do you think he has a girl?”

“Maybe. I thought that, but he seems worried, and with the accounting mess, I’m wondering if he didn’t do something and is now trying to cover it up.”

Clay nods his head. His eyes brighten and he points at my laptop as he swallows his bite of food. “Yeah, yeah, what’s going on with that? That’s why you wanted to talk, right?”

I nod my head swallowing my own food. “It is.”

I take the next several minutes to fill him in on everything that I found when I came back from my trip. He asks questions that I do my best to answer. I really thought I was on top of things but now I’m questioning if I ever was. We also spend some time talking about Grant’s careless attitude towards my questions and concerns.

“It was almost like he was trying too hard, to make it seem like I was the one in the wrong.”

“Let me take a look at what you brought. I might need to keep it for a couple of days. Will that be okay?”

“Well, I need the laptop, but the files yes.”

“That’s okay. I can save your laptop files on a drive, but let me look at it while you’re here.”

“Sure. We’re leaving Wednesday for a meeting with a big lodging company. We placed a bid to be their next builders, so hopefully it’ll go well.” I power up the laptop for him and open the program.

“Yeah? That’s great. Let me know how it goes. You know, if you want me to step back into the company, I will. Just say the word.”

I nod my head. I know he’s right. He helped us get off the ground, then took a back seat. It might be a smart move to have him step back in, maybe not take over the accounting, but be that third voice when Grant and I disagree.

“I might need you. I’ll let you know.”

I watch as he goes over the documents on the computer. He jots a few things down, but otherwise just clicks through various windows. After about ten minutes he looks up to me.

“I don’t see anything from here, but I’ll go through everything more thoroughly this week and let you know.”

He backs up my files to a portable drive and makes copies off all the paperwork I’ve given him. I pack up my stuff and leave the office feeling a little better than I did when I went in. I know Clay will be able to figure everything out for me and at least set my mind at ease. I head back to the office. It’s already three and I have several things I need to do before I can go home this evening.

“Hey, Kate. Is Grant in?”

She smiles at me quickly before she frowns. “He is, but he asked that he not be disturbed.”

“Is he on his phone still?”

“He was the last I saw him, but he’s been in the office for about an hour. I’ve heard a lot of cursing.”

“Okay, I’ll give him a few, but if he comes out, tell him I need to speak with him.”

“Sure.”

I look at his door for a moment, before I head to my office. I put away all my files and pull out the blueprints and other materials I’ll need for our meeting out of town. We’ve mostly gone digital, but I always like to have a hard copy of the blue prints for a visual in my meetings. It’s one of the many things Grant and I disagree on, not that it really matters.

“Kate, said you wanted to see me?” Grant pokes his head into my office.

“Yeah, I’m just getting everything set up for our meeting. Did you handle the travel arrangements?”

“Yeah, I had Kate do that this morning. Our flight leaves at nine and gets there about ten. Our meeting is at lunch.”

“How long will we be staying?”

“We come home Friday afternoon. They want to drive us around to different sites on Thursday. We’ll have some downtime to explore, but they want us to come to dinner with them both nights. This is a really big account for us, Jud. We need to wine and dine them.”

I run my hand through my hair. He knows I hate being away from my family. “I know that. I’m going, but I just hate leaving Shan and the kids that long.”

“It’s three days. They’ll be fine. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen.”

I grimace. “I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just plan not to have any more overnight trips for a while. This is the second one in the past month.”

“Agreed. I’m heading out for the day if you don’t have anything else.”

“I’m good. I have the presentation ready. I think I’ll leave at lunch tomorrow and spend the rest of the day with Shannon and the kids.”

“Sure. Sounds good. We’ve got this Jud, don’t worry.”

“You’re right.” And he really is, with all the work he’s put in already, this will be a breeze. But, I’m a worrier by nature and I can’t help but fret over every last detail.

 I’m home by dinner time. I haven’t broken the news to Shannon yet. The last time I had to go away on business she was pretty upset about me leaving. The kids are wild tonight and Shannon looks frazzled. She’s still on her phone more than I’d like her to be. Normally, this isn’t an issue. She’s never glued to it, but the past two days have been a flurry of activity. I think with Grant being on his all day and her on hers, since the moment I walked in the door, has really sent me over the edge.

“What’s with you and that stupid phone?”

Shannon looks up at me surprised. “What? What’re you talking about?” She sits there blankly staring at me for several long moments.

“You’ve been on your phone for two days. You’ve not heard anything I’ve said to you. What’s going on with your sister that could possibly be more important than interacting with you husband and our kids?”

She is angry. It’s written all over her face. “How dare you accuse me of not taking care of the kids? They aren’t babies, they’re five. They don’t need me on constant guard. I have taken care of them.”

“Jay was by the road when I pulled in. I could have hit him if I wasn’t being careful.” I stare at her.

“Did you punish him? He knows he’s not allowed by the road.”

I shake my head. “No, I didn’t. He’s five. He knows he’s not allowed, but he still needs reminders. You should be outside with them, Shan. We’ve talked about this.”

She rolls her eyes. “Just because we talked about it, doesn’t mean I agree with you. They are fine playing outside by themselves. I check on them every few minutes. Besides that, I’ve been sitting by the front window where I can see them. I had stuff I needed to take care of, so I did.”

“What stuff?”

“My sister. I told you that.”

“What’s really going on with Krissy?”

She stares at me again. She slips her phone into the back pocket of her jeans, then pushes her brunette hair off her face. “I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone, including you. I intend to keep my word. Excuse me, I need to go check on my children.” She walks off.

Growling, I shove back out of the kitchen chair making it hit the ground hard. I don’t have time for this. I follow her outside. “Shannon, we really need to talk. I don’t care if you tell me about your sister’s problems or not, but we need to talk about my trip.”

She whirls around to face me. “What trip?”

“Grant and I have to go out of town for a business meeting.”

“Oh, that,” she says softly.

“What do you mean, ‘Oh, that?’”

She puts her hands on her hips and stares at me. “How long have you known about it and not said anything? I called the office to talk to you today and Grant said you were out on lunch. I tried your cell, but you didn’t answer, as per usual.”

“I did have a lunch meeting.”

“With who? Grant said he didn’t know, so it couldn’t have been work related.”

She’s tapping her foot now, so I know she’s getting really angry. Stupid Grant. “I just had lunch with Clay. Would you like to call him to confirm?” I hold out my phone. Her ire deflates as she shakes her head no. “As for not answering my phone, I can’t answer it when there’s no call.” I scroll through my missed call list, I don’t see her name. “I don’t have any text from you either. You can check the phone if you want.” I hold it out to her again and again she shakes her head. I know she’s lying.

“I don’t like fighting. I wanted to have a nice evening with you and the kids before I have to head out of town. Can we just forget all this and maybe watch a movie or play a board game?”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” She wraps her arms around me and I respond, hugging her tightly to me. I press my cheek to the top of her head.

“I’m sorry too.”

“You’re coming back Friday, right?” I nod.

“Yeah, I’ll be home Friday evening. We can go out to dinner.”

“That sounds nice.”

We head inside and order a pizza. We end up playing board games with the kids until it arrives and then watch a movie while we eat. Things started out a little rocky, but the evening ends on a high note.

“Let’s put them in their beds and then head to ours,” Shannon says with a suggestive voice. I quickly agree and before long I have her just where I need her.

Chapter Four

Judson

I was hoping after our night last night that Shannon would snap out of whatever funk she was in, but as soon as she woke up in the morning, she was on that stupid phone again. I almost snatch it out of her hand, but decide not to, because I really don’t want to fight before my trip.

“I’m heading out.” I say as I walk into the den from the kids’ room. Shannon is sitting there typing away on her phone. “Shannon?”

She looks up with a dazed expression. “Huh?”

“I’m leaving.” I point to the door for emphasis.

“Yeah, okay. Bye.”

Anger surges through me and even though I had decided not to grab the phone earlier, I can’t control myself now. I grab the phone and throw it across the room. It shatters against the brick of the fireplace.

“Judson!” She shrieks, jumping up and running to the phone like I’ve just thrown a puppy. “Why in the world would you do that? What’s wrong with you?”

I snort. “What’s wrong with me? You’ve been on that thing nonstop since we came back from vacation. You barely opened your eyes this morning and you’re on it again. What is so important that you can’t even say goodbye to your husband?”

“I told you, Krissy is having a hard time. I was in the middle of an important conversation, Judson. Now, I’m going to have to go to the store and get a new one because we don’t have a house line. What if there’s an emergency?”

“I shouldn’t have thrown it, but you have to realize how frustrating this is for me.”

“I never begrudge you for your hour long talks with your sister, who we both know hates me. I never say a thing, but when my sister needs me, you fly off the handle?”

“Right, an hour is nothing compared to a week of being on your phone day and night. If your sister is having such a hard time, why not go to her or better yet, have her come here?”

I’m not being cruel. If Krissy is in trouble, no matter how I feel about her, I’d do what I could to help her. Even if that meant she had to stay at our house. But, I doubt that she’s really talking to her sister. Never in the time I’ve known my wife has she ever been on the phone with her sister, or anyone, this much.

“She can’t come here. You can’t stand her.”

“You know me better than that. If your sister is truly in this much trouble, I‘ll do whatever I can to help her. I’m not heartless.”

“I didn’t say you were heartless. Kris, won’t come here anyway, but maybe after you get back, I can go visit her.”

I grab her hand and give it a squeeze. “Sure. , and I am sorry about your phone. Take the kids to your mom’s or call my mom; I’m sure she won’t mind coming down. Go get you a new phone.”

“Yeah, okay. I think mom can keep them. Have a safe trip. I’m sorry I’ve been so distant.”

“I love you,” I tell her. No matter how angry or upset I am, that fact never changes.

“Love you too. Be careful. Call me when you get there.” I agree, and kiss her before I leave.

I don’t think everything is magically better, but we’re headed in the right direction. Getting to the office doesn’t take long and Grant is already there, surprisingly.

“You ready to go?” I ask.

“Almost. I came in about an hour ago. I needed to put the finishing touches on the presentation.”

“I’m impressed. You’re really taking this seriously.” I slap his shoulder in praise.

“Of course I am. This is a multi-million dollar deal. If we get this, we’ll be set for life. Our names will sky rocket in this industry. This isn’t small town, Jud.”

“I’m aware. I’m just surprised you care. You’ve never seemed this interested before.”

“I know. I should have been, but this is different. I just feel really connected. Things have just … clicked with this project. Does that make sense?”

I nod. “Of course. I get that way on all of my furniture projects.”

“Right, so this is something I feel like we can do well. I think the log cabins and homes will really tie in nicely with your furniture making abilities. These places really eat that up. They want the handcrafted touches throughout.”

“Wow, I had no idea you’d already talked to them about my furniture.”

I’m honestly shocked and feel guilty that I’ve questioned his loyalty. I may have to call Clay off. Maybe I was wrong. God! I hope so.

“I was going to tell you. I’ve just not seen you. You’ve worked a lot less since your vacation.”

I rub a hand over my face. “Yeah, I’ve felt a bit guilty for not spending much time with my family. I’m working on that balance.”

He takes a turn clapping me on the shoulder. “You’ll find it. I’ll be ready in five if you are.”

“Yeah, I just need to get a few things from my office.”

I head into my office and grab a couple of files I need for our meeting and make sure I have the building plans. I have everything on a portable drive, but I also have hardcopies of everything. Digital definitely has it perks, but I still like the old school touch of handing them a set of blueprints and I think customers like that as well.

“Wheels up in two hours. We need to hurry.” Grant raps on my door.

“I’m ready.”

We head out to my SUV and get out on the road to the airport within minutes. The flight is only an hour, but it saves us the eight-hour drive by car, for which I’m thankful. We use the hour to go over our plans for our presentation and trouble shoot a few last minute issues that arise without discussion. This is the part I love; this is why I chose him as my business partner. He is good at seeing the holes in the plan, or noticing things that will make the whole process run smoother. He has a degree in accounting, but his real skill set is public relations and project management. I think I’ll talk to him about bringing Clay back in. If we get this account, Grant will really need to focus on this account and not have any other distractions. Once we arrive, we are escorted by a hired car to one of the fanciest hotels I’ve ever seen and certainly nicer than anywhere I’ve ever stayed.

“Wow, check this place out.” Grant says as he walks around the suite, arms wide as he gazes around. He reminds me of Jayden right now. He has a wide-eyed childhood expression on his face.

I chuckle. “Yeah, this place is over the top. But if we nail this account down, then we might be staying in places like this more often.”

“Heck yeah, we will. Look a mini-bar.”

“That stuff is way overpriced. Come on, we have to meet them for dinner soon.”

We head over to the hotel restaurant at about ten to five. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Smith are already at a table near the back of the dining area. Everyone is all smiles when we reach them. They all stand and shake our hands, motioning for us to sit down.

“Judson, Grant, it’s good seeing you both again. We missed you at the last meeting, Judson,” Mr. Hunt says in good nature.

“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. I was out of town.”

“Time with family is very important.” Mr. Smith says as the waitress comes around and takes our order.

“It is. I haven’t been able to get away with them much the past year. I’m hoping to change that. Thank you both for inviting us up. I can’t wait to see the build sites and discuss planning further.”

“Mr. Smith, I was telling Judson about the expansion to your offices. Is that something you wanted to talk about today?” Grant asks.

“Please, enough with formalities, you can call us Allen,” he pointed to himself, “and Scott.” He gestured to Mr. Hunt. “But to answer your question, yes, among many things. We really liked your ideas, Grant. I’m pretty confident that we’d like you both to oversee these projects.” Allen turns to me. “Grant told us you’re into furniture making?” I nod and set my drink back to the table. “What type?”

“I do custom pieces. I did most of the furniture in my home. A bedroom set for my wife and I, and our kids’ room. I did the end tables and coffee table for the living room, the kitchen table, and I’ve done some similar pieces for family and people in our area.”

“So you think you could do rustic furniture for our cabins and offices?”

“I think so. I’d like to get an idea of what exactly you’re looking for, but I don’t think that will be a problem.”

“How long does it take you?” Scott asks. The server arrives with our food, so I wait to answer until she’s gone.

“Depending on the piece, rustic furniture is much easier than a piece that has clean lines and intricate detail.”

I grab my phone and pull up several pictures of my work to show them. They seem impressed enough. I’m in the middle of explaining my time frame when Grant looks down nervously at his phone.

“Excuse me. I need to get this.” He points to his phone then darts off towards the bathroom.

“I hope everything is okay.” Allen says.

I sigh and wipe my mouth with my napkin. “I’m sure it is. If he’s not back in a few minutes, I’ll go check on him.”

Grant doesn’t come back, so I get up and head in the direction I last saw him. When I’m almost to the bathrooms I hear him, he’s standing in a little alcove with his back to me.

“I told you, it’s not that simple,” he says into the phone. “You don’t have to do that. I swear it will only be a few days. I’ll be back in town Friday night. I can meet you Saturday.” There’s a long pause. “How am I supposed to do that, if you won’t stop calling me?” I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it doesn’t sound good. “I’ll be home by Saturday.” He pauses again. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.” I should probably go back to my seat, but I can’t bring myself to leave. He turns around and looks at me with wide eyes. “Jud.”

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Nothing. I’m just mapping something out. I don’t want to jinx the project. I’ll tell you all about it after it’s confirmed. Okay?”

“Yeah, if you’re sure.”

“Positive. Let’s get back to our meeting.”

We talk until late in the night. I feel very confident that we’ll be working with these guys for years to come. This isn’t only going to put our construction company on the map, but it’s going to allow me to do what I love most and build furniture.

The next morning we get up early and head out to the property for the build site. It’s mostly covered in trees and mountains, but there is a large area that has been uncovered as construction had begun, but then abandoned.

“Morning gentlemen.” Allen greets us as we step out of the town car. “Morning.” Grant and I say in unison. I stand with my hands on my hips looking around.

“Quite the mess you have here,” I say, squinting to see against the bright sunshine.

The men laugh. “It sure is. The company we were using had some conflicting schedules and other issues, and just weren’t able to finish for us. I’m hoping you boys won’t have any issues.”

“I don’t foresee any, sir,” I tell him, and I don’t. This whole project seems to be a cakewalk. Sure, it’ll be hard work, but this is a dream job.

We spend the next couple of hours exploring the land and talking about the structures we plan to build. They were completely impressed with my attention to detail on my blueprints. By the end of the day, we have closed the deal and signing the contract. We should start on this project within the next two weeks.

On the drive back to the hotel, Grant’s phone rings. He groans. “Hello?”

He’s quiet for a long while, his hands are clinched into fists. The car slows to a stop in front of the hotel and he darts out of the car. I follow. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I can tell he’s angry. I have to jog to catch up with him.

“Why would you do that?” He turns to me, his face still pinched in anger. “I need to go. I‘ll call you later.”

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing. I need to get up to the room. I’m going to have to head back early.”

“You sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

“I will, but not now. It’s family issues. My grandpa’s estate is causing upset.”

I nod. His grandfather had passed just a few weeks ago. The family was still in the process of divvying out his assets, and from the little bit he’s actually told me, his mom and her brother are fighting horribly. I just leave him be and head back to my own room. I call Shannon, but she doesn’t answer. I shoot her a text to let her know I’m free to talk until dinner, then I decide to lie down for a while. I’m not sure how long I’m asleep when my phone wakes me.

“Hello?” I say, trying to clear the grogginess from my voice.

“Is this Mr. Hardenbergh?”

I clear my throat again. “Yes, it is who’s this?”

“This is Shelly Adams from the Brantsville Sheriff’s Department. I’m calling to inform you that there has been a fire at 1505 East Brooke Road.”

“A fire? Is everyone okay?”

“I can’t confirm that, sir. I’ve only been told of the fire and asked to contact you.”

I’m about to reply when Grant bursts through the hotel door. He looks wide-eyed and panicked as he looks around the room until his eyes meet mine. I hang up the phone.

“Krissy called me. She’s been trying to reach you, but she had your number wrong. Your house …”

“There was a fire, the police just called. They couldn’t tell me if everyone was okay.”

“I don’t know. She said they’ve rushed Shannon to the hospital. We need to go.” I stand there unable to move. A fire? There was a fire in my house. That seemed impossible. What could have happened?

“Jud, we need to get going.” Grant shakes my shoulders I blink and shake my head. “Right. We need to call and get a flight out.”

“It’s taken care of. I was talking in the lobby with Allen and Scott when I got the call. Their assistant arranged it for us. We’ll be in the air within the hour. Hurry, get your stuff together.”

I go through the motions of packing and dressing. We’re ready to go within ten minutes and in the air less than an hour later, like he said. I don’t remember the flight or the drive from the airport to the hospital. When we enter the emergency room, something snaps me out of the haze I’ve been in for the past two hours, and I hurry over to the reception desk.

“I’m looking for my wife, Shannon Hardenbergh, and our kids, Josie and Jayden.”

The nurse types on the computer then says, “Just a moment. Let me get a doctor.”

I wait impatiently for about five minutes before a doctor appears and motions us to follow him. I see Krissy standing in the hall and I know. I just know it’s not good.

“Oh, Jud,” she says, before bursting into tears and flying into my arms. I’m numb. This can’t be happening. “I’m so sorry.”

I look over at the doctor. He clears his throat. “Mr. Hardenbergh, Your wife suffered a great deal of smoke inhalation and burns on over eighty percent of her body, there wasn’t much we could do for her. I’m sorry.”

I take a deep breath, trying to hold off my emotions so I can speak. “My kids.” It’s all I can manage. Grant wraps his arm around me in support, but he doesn’t look much better than me.

“I’m sorry, your … burned beyond recognition …”

I don’t hear anything else the doctor says. My ears ring and my head swims. I can’t see anything as I crumble to the floor, sobs wracking my body. Krissy is still in my arms and Grant still beside me. The three of us hold on to each other as our grief grips us, rooting us to our spot on the cold hospital floor.

I have no idea how much time has passed, but I hear myself asking, “May I see my wife?”

“Of course.”

The doctor points to the room beside us. I look at Grant, whose eyes are red and his face stained with tears. This is hard for him, of course it would be. Shannon was like a sister to him. He helps me to my feet and into the room where her body lies under a white sheet. Krissy and Grant stay there lending me their support, but in the end, I ask to be alone. They leave me with her, and I pull the sheet down to see her face. They’ve cleaned her up, and there doesn’t appear to be burns on her face, but there are several scrapes and bruises like she was hit with something, maybe something falling during the fire? I’m not sure.

“Oh, Shan.” I lean down and kiss her. I can’t believe she’s gone. A sob rips through me as I stare at my wife, my best friend, she can’t be gone. “I need you. Oh, God,” I wail, falling down to my knee, clutching her burned lifeless hand.

“Judson.” I hear Grant, but I can’t respond. Strong arms wrap around me, lifting me from the floor, and sitting me onto something soft. A chair. “Jud, man. Snap out of it. You have to breathe. Come on, buddy, in and out. There you go. Again. Can you open your eyes and look at me?”

I take a few seconds to control my breathing before blinking my eyes and looking at my best friend. “I can’t do this. Why is this happening?”

Grants face contours into a painful grimace. A few tears slip down his face. He blinks them away and clears his throat. He reaches out a hand and places it on my shoulder. His voice shakes. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. This is absolutely horrible. Do you want to go home and get some rest?” He seems sincere enough, but the question angers me.

I shove him away, he stumbles over some equipment and falls to the floor. “I have no home. It burned to the ground with my family inside! I have nothing left of my children to even say goodbye to! Nothing!”

“Jud, I’m sorry. I know. I’m sorry.” Grant gets up from the floor, holding his hands up in surrender.

Sighing, I run my hand through my hair. “I’m sorry. I just can’t believe this is happening. Why? Why did this have to happen?”

Grant stares at me for a long moment. I notice then, that he has been crying. This is hurting him too, he loved my children as if they were his own. My wife was one of his best friends.

“I don’t know, Jud. I don’t know why this happened today.” I find his use of the word “today” odd, but I let it go as he continues speaking, “You can stay with me, as long as you need.”

I can see he’s trying to be strong for me. I love him for it, but right now, it’s not what I care about. I can’t worry for him and how he feels when I’m too raw with my own emotions right now. I just nod in response to his question. I turn back to Shannon, taking her hand again. I don’t know how to even describe how I feel. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this new reality. My wife and children are dead. I have no one left. I can’t even give my children a proper goodbye because they say there was nothing left to identify them, save for some teeth.

“I’ll be in the waiting room when you’re ready to leave,” Grant says, but I don’t respond.

I pull over a chair and just stare at my wife. My reason for living is gone. I should just end my suffering and be with my family. I nod a miniscule amount and decide I will do that but I need to at least give her a proper burial before I join her. I stand, kissing her once more.

“I’ll see you soon, sweetheart.”

I turn and leave the room to find Grant leaning against the wall on his phone. I don’t even have it in me to care anymore. I don’t even know why I have this irrational hate for the device, but right now, I hate everyone and everything.

The next week is a blur. Shannon’s parents help with the funeral planning. My family steps in to help me with the insurance and legal work for my home and anything that remained from it. The only thing left untouched was my fireproof safe. Inside was all our important papers, but also photos of the family, the kid’s birth, parties, silly things they did, and all our family portraits. But, as nice as it is to have those, it does nothing to ease the gut wrenching pain in my chest.

The funeral itself is … difficult. There’s no other way to explain it. The sorrow is so deep, so earth shattering, I can only take one-second at a time. Seeing three caskets, two empty save for the stuffed animals, photos, and cards people brought. I can’t stand to look at them. My children should be in there, but there wasn’t anything left but ash. Actually, none of this should be happening at all. My kids should be at school or playing in our front yard. This isn’t fair. They had their whole lives ahead of them. I can’t say that I handled the service well. I spend most of the time crying or staring off into space. People talk to me, but I don’t hear anything. I answer questions and respond to condolences as best I can. But honestly, I want them all to leave me alone.

A few days after the funeral and over a week of sleeping on Grant’s couch, I decide that I’m not going to kill myself. The more I thought about it, the more I recognized that it would be a dishonor to my family, my wife, and my children to end my life. I grab the few things I have and head to the office. Kate looks up at me startled.

“Judson, how are you?” she asks. I know she’s just being nice and I’m sure she’s worried about me. I just can’t find it in me to care.

I ignore the question. “Grant in?”

“Yes, in his office.” I nod and head right in, not bothering to knock.

“Jud, what’re you doing here?”

“I’m leaving. I thought you should know. I think you should have Clay help you run the business. I spoke to him this morning on the way here. He’s already a silent partner so it would make sense for him to step up. I just can’t be here right now.”

“Where will you go?”

“Oak Grove. I’m going to finish my cabin.”

Grant nods. “What about Holts and Smith?”

“If they want me to make the furniture, I can do that. Just send me all the items they want in an email. I’ll keep in touch. I won’t have internet for a week or so, but I’ll have my cell and the service is good enough.”

“You’ve thought this out?” “I have. I can’t be here, surrounded by all the things that remind me of them. I need to be alone, I need to get away.”

“Okay. I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll call Clay and set up a meeting. I’ll keep you posted and I’ll send you your check monthly, just like we do now. It’s a leave of absence. We’ll deal as best as we can.”

“If something comes up you can’t handle, call me, but otherwise I don’t want to be bothered with the day-to-day activities. You and Clay can manage that.”

“I wish I could change your mind. Just be careful, okay? Call me if you need someone to just talk to. I’m here for you.” I can tell he doesn’t agree with my choice, but I’m glad he’s respecting my wishes.

“Thanks. Just email me with the details I need for the furniture. I’ll send you back a price list. We’ll go from there.”

“I will. Bye, Jud.”

He stands and comes around the desk. We hug, then I turn and leave. I don’t look back, I can’t. I have to get out of here. I can’t even bare to go into my office. There’s too much in there that reminds me of them. I jump into my truck and head to my hometown of Oak Grove. Hopefully, I can find some peace while there