I wiped the sweat from my brow and shifted the phone to my other ear. “Look, Edna. I can’t come back for her now. That’s why I send money. You’re her grandmother. Your daughter had the custody, not me.”
The sound that came through the line was Edna’s last nerve snapping. “She’s your daughter, and I’m fifty-eight. I already raised my children. Besides, she doesn’t need your money. She needs a father.”
“Fine, I’ll up the allowance. How’s that? I’m not even in the country. I can’t raise a daughter in this—Look, I’m about to get on a plane, okay? I don’t have time for this.” I hung up the phone as my client, James Bivens, got out of his car, looking like a drug lord. With all of his private island investing, he probably was somehow linked to those kinds of people. What I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me, and I tried really hard to focus on my own business.
“Good to see you again, Gage.” He threw out his hand, and I took it, giving him a firm grip to make an impression.
“How’s it going, James? Are you taking time to play on those islands, or are you busy collecting them?”
He’d bought up every available resort on every island he could find, and because of a chance meeting in New Orleans after Katrina, he hired me as his contractor.
“No rest for the wicked,” he said, patting me on the back and offering a wink.
Like me, he was an opportunist, and while some might not like his ethics, I liked his ability to earn a buck. He’d helped me turn my own family-owned construction business, R&R Enterprises, based in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, into a billion-dollar company. Not only had I rebuilt half of the gulf coast after Katrina and Rita, but more recently, I had the task of rebuilding my hometown after a wildfire destroyed most of it. I’d taken my knowledge for efficient building across the world and was currently on my tenth multi-million-dollar project with Bivens.
As we headed over to the small plane, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my gut. I’d never liked flying in the small puddle-jumpers, especially knowing we were going to be up in the air for a half hour circling small private islands no one had yet inhabited. Biven’s own plane was too big for this kind of travel, and while I had access to a private jet, I didn’t own one myself.
We strapped ourselves in, and James rattled off some instructions to the pilot in Spanish so fluent, it made me wish I’d paid attention in Spanish class instead of spending my time focused on Mrs. Rodriguez, my teacher.
I took a deep breath and held it as the tiny plane took off and climbed higher than expected. “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” I kept my voice low, and James laughed.
“I’ve used him before. He’s got the best-looking planes around, trust me.” He cleared his throat and turned to point out the window. “See that? That’s the area I want to build on. It’s already pretty clear, and there’s a nice fresh-water source nearby.”
“It’s nice. Do you want the same style you’ve been going with?”
“If it’s not broke; you know what I’m saying?” He laughed, and then his face fell flat as the small plane took a hard shake.
“Jesus,” I said, gripping onto my seat.
“That’s right, pray,” James mumbled. Then he said something to the pilot in Spanish I couldn’t understand, but I imagined it was something along the lines of watch what the fuck you’re doing.
The pilot yelled something back and then started to poke buttons frantically and talk in his native tongue.
“Fuck! Hold on, Gage.” James braced himself, and I grabbed onto a bar that was next to me as the plane started to shake violently. I looked and saw nothing but trees below, and suddenly, fear froze me to my core. My little girl, Olivia, had already lost her mother, and now, she’d lose her father, too. I had all but pushed her onto her maternal grandmother while I tried to make my millions, but I had only seen her a handful of times. I’d always thought she’d be better off without me, but now, I wasn’t so sure.
Edna’s previous call was coming back to me now as the little plane spiraled and the pilot fought hard to get it under control. I closed my eyes as the trees below got closer, and sure enough, the awful sound of branches ripping through the thin metal filled my ears. The scratching was like nails on a chalkboard times a thousand, and like demon talons reaching up from the ground to drag me to hell.
“You’re going to go out in a blaze of glory, motherfucker.” The voice of my childhood best friend Noah went through my head. That motherfucker had been right all along. I saw Olivia’s eyes, so big and blue like mine, looking up at me for the first time when her mother and I were barely hanging on to our relationship the day she was born. I’d failed her, and now, I’d never get another chance. She’d never even know me.
Those demons finally ripped their way into the plane, and one twisted branch cut into my chin as my body was slammed into the ground. Then suddenly, it was still around me except for the winding down of the plane in the distance.
It took me a moment to get my bearings; eyes fluttering and heart sputtering, I let out a groan and tried to make sure all of my limbs were intact. Once I accounted for every little finger and toe, and all of my other important appendages, I looked around to see James was stuck in his seat beside me, bloodied and unmoving. The front part of the plane had been tossed not far from me, and the back part of the plane was feet away. Both were in flames.
James was so still that I thought he was dead, but then I saw his hand move as I fought with my seatbelt. Lucky for me, the thing had held better than I expected, and my seat had acted as my own personal carrier. All things considered, it looked like an angel had plucked us from the plane and put us on the ground. I got out of my seat and saw the leaking fuel from the back end of the mangled wreckage. There would be no time for assessing James’s wounds. I grabbed the seats, which were still welded together on a frame, and dragged them into a group of trees where I took cover, only to hear the moans of the pilot in the distance.
I thought he was dead, tossed from the plane as the branches tore it apart. Instead, what was left of the mangled seat remained, and he was twisted beneath a pile of metal. I couldn’t leave him there.
I staggered over, still trying to find my land legs, and the heat grew intense. I knew the pilot was badly injured, but that plane could go up any minute, and I needed us both to be far away from it.
I grabbed hold of him, and thankfully, he pulled away from the wreckage freely. As I hit the trees for coverage, I swore to myself that if I made it out alive, I’d do everything I could to raise my daughter and leave a better legacy for her. Suddenly, the plane exploded into a fireball that shook the earth so hard, it knocked me off my feet.
“Daddy, that tiara is too pink. You need one that’s blue for a boy.” Ollie reached up and took the shiny, plastic crown from my head and then went to the toy box and found a silver one. “Here, this will work.” She placed it on my head, and I smiled big.
“How do you like it?” I straightened the thing as she sat down and poured me a little more tea into the child-sized tea cup.
“Here, have another sandwich.” She put one of the ham, egg, and cheese halves on my tiny, plastic plate.
“Thank you.” I did my best to teach my daughter manners. Even though she could be a pistol at times, she was coming along nicely. Most of the thanks were to her grandmother, Edna, who had cared for her since her mother’s death, but soon, I’d have Olivia full-time. “Breakfast is amazing.”
“Ava makes the best breakfast sandwiches in the world. She’s also very pretty, don’t you think?” She smiled big and waggled her brows. Ava was a beautiful woman, but she was far too old for my tastes. She was also old enough to be my mother, as were the other women on my staff.
“That she is.” I couldn’t disagree.
Helen, the maid who had been working for my family since I was a teenager, walked in and put her hands on her hips. “I specifically asked Ava not to encourage this.” She looked at me with a scowl as I sat there dressed for work in my suit with a tiara and a hot pink feather boa, surrounded by stuffed animals.
Ollie turned and met my eyes, then waited a moment, as if to see if I whether or not I’d take the older woman’s side.
I cleared my throat and pulled off the feather boa. “It’s just now and then; it can’t hurt. Besides, I gave my permission, and since I’m participating, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
She glanced down, and my eyes followed to the carpet where the feather boa had shed and crumbs had fallen. “It’s only encouraging her to have food up here, sir, and then we’ll have pests.”
“As I said, it’s only now and then.” My voice commanded such authority that Ollie cringed.
Helen’s face screwed up like she’d eaten a lemon, and then she turned and walked out without another word.
“She’s so mean. I don’t like her.”
“It’s not nice to say that, Ollie. She’s just doing her job and trying to make sure the house is tidy for all of us. And she’s right; we’re making a mess, so let’s make sure we clean up before Daddy has to leave for the day.”
Ollie stepped around her little table and climbed up into my lap. Her big blue eyes were much brighter than mine, and they made me melt. I was unable to resist her power. “Daddy, why can’t I go with you to work?”
“I’ve got to meet with clients and go to locations where it’s not safe for a little girl. Besides, there are laws and code that say children of a certain age can’t be around some of my tools while they are in use.”
“I want to be big and work.”
“Don’t be in a hurry, kid.” She already seemed much older than her four years, but she would be five in a few months, about the time the back and forth ended and she stayed with me full-time.
I imagined Edna was counting down the days and had probably already ordered tickets to one of the private island resorts that I’d made my fortune building. She’d done me a great favor taking on her granddaughter, and now that I had finally come to my senses and was standing up not only as a father, but as a man, she could have the retirement she’d worked so hard for.
It had taken me nearly dying to see the error of my ways, and my life had changed drastically since that plane crashed down with me in it.
I could still smell the fire and feel the lick of heat against my skin when the wreckage exploded. I’d pulled two men to safety, and although I only did what I felt anyone would do, I’d been declared a hero by my client.
“You saved my life.” James had looked up at me with amazement, his arm smashed, and clearly in shock. All he could do was repeat it over and over. “You saved my life.”
I was still trying to find a way to get help when the rescue crews showed up. Luckily, someone had heard the distress call, and a few boats had seen the explosion.
The pilot, though near death when we were finally airlifted to safety, made a full recovery, but he had a permanent limp. James had continued on without missing a beat. I’d taken on the project with him, but this time, I sent my foreman from the States to go and lead the crew to get the job done.
“Daddy?” Ollie waved her hand in front of my face and smiled.
“Let’s get this picked up so I can go to work.”
She giggled and jumped up and down, singing the clean-up song that she had learned from Edna. I played along until my phone rang, and then I left her to it.
“Hello, Gage. How’s it going?” The man called me at least once a day, but this call was a little earlier than expected.
I took the tiara off my head and unwrapped the boa from my neck. “I’m good. Just spending a little time before breakfast with my daughter.”
“Well, I hate to interrupt, but I need you to come down. I have a big project I’d like you to look over for a friend of mine.”
“Come down? As in fly down?”
I heard the sigh in his voice and then he gave a short chuckle. “I know. I just thought it had been long enough that maybe you were ready to get back on the horse.”
After my airlift and the return home, I’d sworn off airplanes and hadn’t climbed in one since. Despite James’s resilience, he understood my hesitation and had gone out of his way to try and reward me for saving him without being too judgmental. Since I refused to take money, he’d been sending me work left and right.
The sound of papers shuffling came through the phone, and I imagined him behind his desk with a stern look on his face that he tried to hide with a half-hearted smile that never left his voice. “It’s just this client. He wants a few warehouses in three key locations. I know you can do the job, and it’s good money. Besides, it’s a bit sensitive, so I wouldn’t trust it with just anyone.”
He made it sound like he was making me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I couldn’t help but wonder what this client needed the warehouses for. A year ago, I would have taken the job and not thought too much about it, but I had more to think about than money now.
I owed my daughter better, and I was going to deliver this time around. I raked my hand through my beard and felt the line of the scar that I kept hidden beneath the beard from the crash. If I ever needed another wake-up call in life, I’d shave.
I left Ollie’s room and headed for my home office. “This isn’t one of those jobs where I can’t ask too many questions, is it?” I needed to know what kind of situation this was.
“You can always ask questions, my friend, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to give you an answer.”
“I don’t want to build some sweatshop for third-world slaves who are no older than my daughter, so if that’s the case, I’ll pass.”
“Duly noted. So, I have another project. It’s for another friend of mine. I’ll fax you the plans, and you can give them a look. Easy money, legit, right up your alley.”
“Sounds much better.” I grabbed my case and headed back to Ollie’s room as I said my goodbyes and hung up with James.
“All done, Daddy. Ava said I could cook.” It felt good to know she liked at least one person on the staff, though most didn’t have time for children.
“That’s good, honey. You be good and play, and I’ll check on you later. You know you can call if you need anything, right?”
She let out a dramatic sigh and gave me a sassy look. “Yes, I know.” She ran over and hugged my legs, and I bent down to hug her neck and steal a kiss.
“Good girl. I love you.”
“Love you, Daddy!” She ran over to her toy box and grabbed a teddy bear to put in the chair I’d been in. I guessed that was my stand-in. I gave a chuckle and hurried out before she gave the fluffy guy my crown and boa.
On my way downstairs, I passed Helen, who turned away when she saw me. “I made sure she cleaned up her mess.”
“Yes, sir, but I just cleaned the uneaten portion of your food from the sink. Please inform your daughter that we don’t have a garbage disposal.” Her attitude had taken a turn for the worse since Ollie had come into our lives. And it was going to take me to turn it back around.
“Helen, I know you weren’t around me when I was a child, but I’m sure you’re familiar that they tend to need a little guidance. So, I suggest that when you see my daughter, you tell her that yourself.” Her eyes widened. “I’m asking for a little patience. It’s bad enough I don’t want to go into the office these days.”
Helen let out a breath and met my eyes. “Then don’t. You’re the head of the company; you have a nice office here. Trust me, I know. I clean it whether you use it or not. So why not do what your father used to and work from home?” She gave me a pat on the back and then went to the kitchen.
She had a point. Maybe that was the solution. It wasn’t as if I was needed at the office to keep things running there. Hell, I’d spent most of my time out of the country before the crash.
I’d been so determined not to let the crash do me in completely that I had started using my old office, but retiring sounded like a good idea. Let someone else deal with the headaches.
Like everything else, I’d think it over. It wasn’t like me to make a decision in haste.
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