“What are you doing here?” Jeff growled.
Fara put her hands on her slim hips. “Now Jeffrey is that any way to treat your family?”
“I’ve told you before, Casey is welcome anytime. But until you can show some self respect, you are not.”
“Well I’ll have you know that I was invited.”
“By who?” Greg snapped.
“By me.” Donna Brenner set a sack of groceries on the counter. “If any of you have a problem with that, you may take it up with me in private.”
“So can I have the room or not?”
“No…” Jeff began.
“Take it.” Grace interrupted.
Fara blew a kiss in Grace’s direction. “Thanks baby doll.” She dragged her cheetah print luggage into the room and nearly slammed the door.
“Mom, may I speak with you?” Jeff tramped over to his mother. “Why would you bring her here?” He growled.
“Son, you know good and well if your brother was here, he’d want her here.” Jeff opened his mouth to protest but stopped.
“What about Paul? Doesn’t he get a say?” Phillip asked. Paul shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Sure, Paul do you mind if she stays?” The look in his mother’s eye dared him to say yes. Slowly, he shook his head. Donna smiled, obviously satisfied. “Then it’s settled. And I don’t want to hear another word.”
Jeff stomped out, followed by Phillip and Greg. Katrina and Denise began to help Donna put away the groceries. Grace touched Paul’s arm. He raised his eyes briefly to acknowledge her but then turned and walked away.
Grace followed him. He went into a dense part of the woods that opened up to the perfect view of the lake. “Pauly?”
He jumped and turned around. “Grace, you scared the mess out of me.”
She giggled. “I’m a mom, stealth is my greatest asset.”
Paul chuckled. “What’s wrong Pauly?”
He sighed. “Seeing her, it’s like…it’s like opening old wounds.”
Grace held out her hand and Paul helped her down a big hill. She wrapped her arms around his waist. “Tell me what happened?” Paul sat with his back against the hill. He pulled Grace down with him.
“We used to camp out here, always, when we were growing up. Dad would load up the camper and we’d drive down for the week and just be a family. Ronnie and I found this place. We used to come out here and play pirates. He was my best friend.” Grace again slipped her arms around him. She knew he needed the comfort.
“For their thirty-fifth anniversary, Dad wanted me to build a cabin for the family. Ronnie and I lived together. I dated Fara in college and when I graduated, Fara asked to move in with me. I didn’t think it was a good idea but Ronnie talked me into it.”
Paul sighed and massaged his temples. This was the hard part. “So, I was spending a lot of time at the lake, building the cabin, while my fiancé was home with my brother.” Grace grimaced.
“Well, not long after that, she came to me and told me she was pregnant. I knew it wasn’t my baby; we hadn’t done anything. But I loved Fara and I just knew she loved me so I was going to marry her as soon as possible and we were gonna raise the baby.” He paused for a while.
Grace looked up. Paul was wringing his hands together, fighting with himself. “But that wasn’t the case. Because then my brother came around the corner and told me I couldn’t marry her.”
Grace hurt for the poor man beside her. He never deserved that. “I said ‘Why Ronnie? It may not be my baby but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it.’ And Ronnie shook his head and told me it was his baby.” Paul laughed under his breath.
“He told me they had been seeing each other for over a year now, behind my back. He told me they were in love and they were gonna raise the baby together.” Paul shut his eyes tightly and pressed his fist to his forehead. “I have never been so mad at a human being in all my life.”
Grace rubbed his arm. “I’m sorry Paul.”
“I could have killed him that night. He was my brother and he had gotten my fiancé pregnant. Ronnie and I never fought. Not even when we were kids. I ordered him out of my house. It wasn’t my house, we shared rent. So, Ronnie left and things started to get really bad. He started drinking. And they had Casey. My name is Paul Casey. They named her after me…and she was beautiful, Grace. But I hated her. I didn’t go to the hospital, I didn’t stop by. I didn’t want anything to do with any of them. So I poured myself into my work. The cabin came up in record time. So we had our first vacation in the new cabin. Ronnie and I had a birthday party in the cabin. And when we got home, he died a week later.”
Grace wiped a tear from her own eye.
“When we were leaving, Ronnie came up to my truck and he looked so sad. I had barely said two words to him the entire trip. He came to the truck and with the best smile ever, he said ‘Happy birthday, Ham. I love you.’ That was what he called me when we were little. I was Ham and he was Duck. He was so sorry for what he’d done. I could see it in his eyes. But I looked at him and my last words to my brother were ‘I’m leaving. Back up.’” Paul buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t get to say good bye because I was too stupid and angry. And when I got the call, I was devastated. I had lost my best friend.”
Grace pressed her lips to his cheek. “I’m sorry Paul, I’m so sorry.” She hugged him tightly as he sobbed. She hadn’t known any of this.
Paul felt like a fool. He had only ever told Allan that story. And he’d cried then too. However, then, Ronnie had just died. Allan had been so supportive. He’d eased the guilt Paul felt. But now, Allan was gone too. Just like Ronnie.
Grace held him even after he had ceased to cry. Paul stroked her arm softly. Grace closed her eyes to revel in the sensation. She missed having Allan hold her this way.
“Thanks.” He mumbled.
Grace smiled up at those beautiful brown eyes. “For what?”
Paul shrugged. “For being there, I guess.”
Grace snuggled closer. “You’re welcome.”
The scream tore through the trees. Paul jumped up, pulling Grace up with him. They ran down to the bank. A crowd of children was hovering over somebody. “What happened?” Paul barked as he came to the scene. Jack and Lilly pointed to Andrew.
Andrew look near tears. “I’m sorry Paw, I’m sorry.”
Jeff came up and picked his son up off the ground. “Andrew, what happened?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“What did you do?”
“I hit him. I’m sorry. I didn’t want him to get hurt.”
“What do you mean you hit him? With what?”
“He head butted him by accident. They were running and ran into each other.” Natalie answered.
“He’s okay Andrew, just a busted nose. He’ll be alright, okay?” Andrew fought tears. Paul pulled him close and kissed his head.
“He’s okay buddy. He can come play in a little bit.” The boy nodded, still unsure.
Jeff passed the boy on to his mother. “I’m going to fire up the grill. Boys, wanna help?” For some reason, it was tradition in the Brenner home that on the first day of vacation, all the men would gather around the grill and watch it light up. “Are we gonna wait on Dad?” Jeff pointed to the black car pulling up.
Paul nodded. “Oh, good timing.”
“Papa!” Natalie cried. She ran to the black car, closely followed by Kelly.
Thomas hugged his granddaughters close. “Hello girls, how are you?”
Jack and Lilly were close behind them and were now hugging their Papa as well.
Andrew shrugged and ran to hug the man as well. Paul smiled. Andrew didn’t know a stranger.
“Who are you?” Thomas chuckled as he lifted Andrew up.
“I’m Andrew, I’m four.”
“Well, I’m Thomas, I’m sixty-eight.” Andrew’s jaw dropped.
“Are you really that old Mr. Thomas?”
He chuckled. “Yes, and you can call me Papa.”
“Okay Papa.” Andrew placed his little boy hands on both sides of the man’s face. “You look like Santa Claus.”
Thomas laughed. “I do?” Andrew nodded. “Well what do you want for Christmas?”
Andrew thought for a while. He leaned up and whispered into Thomas’s ear. The old man smiled and nodded. “I’ll do my best. But, what you can do now, is pray for it.”
Andrew nodded. “I do that all the time.”
Thomas smiled. “Then, it’s all in God’s hands.” Andrew scrambled down.
“Hey Grace.” Thomas hugged her.
“Hey Mr. Thomas.”
Jeff held out a lighter. “Come on Dad, I’m starving.” Thomas shuffled over to the grill and snatched the lighter from his son.
“Brenner Family Vacation of 2004 has now begun!” Thomas lit the grill as everyone cheered. Grace giggled at how excited everyone was. She had no idea what she had gotten herself in to.
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