“Don’t look so down,” Uncle Dean said. We were at the airport. I had already checked my bags, and my flight was leaving in less than an hour.
“I feel like I’m letting him down,” I said.
Uncle Dean shook his head. “You’re not. It’s not a crime to live your own dream. Even if that dream looks different than what your father would have wanted for you. He would have been proud of what you’ve done for the company.”
I nodded. My dad would have been proud. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t given it my all for the past six years. I had done everything my late father would have wanted me to do. But I hadn’t been happy. I hadn’t grown up dreaming I would be the CEO of a billion-dollar company.
“And he would have been even prouder of you for taking your life into your own hands and deciding where you want to go with it.”
I looked at Uncle Dean. He had been my dad’s business partner, owner of half of the company I had inherited when my dad and my stepmom had died in a plane crash. He had been there for me from day one, taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes.
And he had bought me out when he realized how miserable I had become away from home. He had become like family to me, and I was sad to leave him behind, but I wanted to go back to my friends and family. I wanted to get back on the track I had been on before my father died.
“That’s your boarding call,” Uncle Dean said when they made the announcement. He pulled me into a hug.
“Remember,” he said. “No regrets. That’s the one thing I know your dad would have wanted for you, more than any fancy company and business title. If you regret the choices you’ve made, it doesn’t matter what they were or where they got you in life.”
“Thanks, Uncle Dean,” I said. “For everything.”
He smiled, and I thought I could almost see him get emotional, but it was gone as quickly as it had come, and he was the composed, collected gentleman he had always been. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked to the gate. I looked over my shoulder and lifted my hand in one last wave before stepping into the rest of my life.
On the plane, the sadness that I was leaving and the worry about leaving the company behind left me. I was headed back home. I hadn’t seen my friends in seven years. I had only seen my mom twice when she had come to visit in New York, and I was glad to be going back to Oregon. No matter how long I had lived in New York, it would never really be home.
It was weird to think I was a billionaire now. When I had helped Uncle Dean run the company, I’d had a taste of the lavish life my dad had lived, but I had never had as much money as he had. He’d left me the company, but his money had gone to charities. Now that I had sold the business to Uncle Dean, I had so much money, I could drown in it.
I wasn’t planning on living a different life than I’d always had in Portland, though. I was still going to pursue my dream of being a firefighter. It was what I had always wanted. Before I had gone to New York to step into my father’s shoes, I had studied fire engineering to give myself a leg up in my career, and I had completed the six-month training and certification courses. I had sent my information to the fire station I had worked through before I’d left, and they had been more than happy to take me back.
All I needed to do was a quick refresher for the next week and a fitness test to be sure I was up to standard. If I passed—which I was sure I would—I started work in a week.
The week had flown by, and by Friday, I was officially a fireman. I was confident and comfortable. It was as if I hadn’t ever left Portland.
I drove to The Cottage, a quaint family restaurant so popular, it had a waiting list. It was owned by the Castle family.
Jerrod Castle had been my best friend since kindergarten, and I was eager to see him again. I hadn’t seen him in six years. The Castles were hosting a party for my return as if I were the prodigal son.
The past week had been so busy, getting an apartment, doing my refresher course, and taking care of the small details, I hadn’t seen anyone other than my mom. I was eager to see my second family again.
The Cottage had been made up with lights, streamers, and a big banner that read “Welcome Home Ben,” and I laughed when Miranda came to hug me. Jerrod’s mom hadn’t aged a day.
“It’s so good to see you again, Ben,” she said. “Come on, everyone is so excited to see you.”
They were all there. I went to the bar area, and Harry, Jerrod’s dad, shook my hand and clapped me on the back. “It’s good to have you back,” he said.
“It’s good to be back.”
A woman walked past, and I had to look twice. It was Mila, Jerrod’s little sister. How old was she now? She was about five years younger than I was, which made her twenty-five. When I had left, she was just a kid, still finishing school. But the woman who moved between the tables, greeting diners, was everything but a child. She was beautiful. Her light brown hair was shorter than it had been when I’d left—it was on her shoulders now—but her big brown eyes were as beautiful as ever, and her smile? God, her smile.
And she was hot. Fuck, I wasn’t supposed to think of my best friend’s sister like that, but I couldn’t help it. I was a healthy male, and she was sexy as hell. I had seen her as my own sister before, but now? I was in trouble.
“Hello, Ben,” someone said next to me, and I turned to face my ex-girlfriend. I stifled a groan. What a buzzkill. The black curls, the green eyes. I hadn’t missed any of that. Coming home meant coming home to all of it, the good and the bad.
“Rachel.” I pushed my hands into my jeans pockets.
“I heard you were back in town.” I was sure that wasn’t all she’d heard. “You look good.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Oh, come on. Don’t be so short with me. I’m so happy you’re home. I missed you. Didn’t you miss me?”
I shook my head, and Rachel widened her eyes at how blunt I was being. But I had no reason to be nice to her.
“Ben, don’t be like this. We’ve put our differences in the past, right?”
“Our differences?” I asked, surprised. “Is that what you call it when you sleep with someone else while I’m gone?”
Rachel sighed. “We don’t have to do this again. What was I supposed to do? Wait for you to decide when you were finally coming back from New York? It took six years.”
“You were supposed to wait when that was what you told me, yeah. And we’ll do this every time I see you. I’m not interested in being friends. You know that.”
Rachel pouted and folded her arms across her chest. “I thought we could move on from it. We’re different people now. We’ve both changed. Why don’t we get together for coffee or something? Then, you can see how good we still are together.”
I shook my head. “I’m not interested.”
“Ben, you can’t be serious. You have a whole new life now. Don’t you want someone to share it with?”
She was referring to my money. I should have known that was what she was after. Rachel had never done anything if it wasn’t for personal gain.
“I’m going to keep saying this. Maybe eventually you’ll figure out that I’m serious. I don’t want anything to do with you.”
“Fuck you, Ben,” Rachel said and stormed off.
“You wish,” I called after her and chuckled, leaning my elbow on the bar.
“You don’t waste any time getting the attention of every woman in town, do you?” Jerrod asked, coming up to me. We clapped hands and pulled into a bro hug before Jerrod slid me a beer. “I should have known with you back, there will be no women left for us.”
I laughed. “Don’t be a dick.”
“I’m just saying, now that handsome Ben is in town—with a fuckload of money to boot—we stand no chance.”
I shook my head, still laughing. “You’re so full of shit. I can’t believe I missed this.”
Jerrod laughed and took a sip of his beer.
“So, Rachel isn’t getting in there,” he said.
“Not a chance,” I said. “She’s a gold digger on top of all the other labels I can give her.”
“Yeah, she hasn’t changed at all.”
“Why on earth did I date her?”
“You were lonely, and you needed someone to stroke your ego,” Jerrod said in a mocking tone.
I punched him in the shoulder. “Asshole,” I said.
He laughed and shook his head.
“It’s good to have you back, bro. I missed seeing you whenever I felt like getting drunk. I’m telling you, getting wasted without you was no party.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, well none of those idiotic nights for me anymore. I’m starting at the station on Monday. I have to keep my wits about me.”
“Oh, look at you,” Jerrod said. “All responsible and shit. I thought you had so much money, you don’t need to work anymore.”
I nodded. “But I don’t want to sit on my ass and grow old without anything to show for it. You know I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter.”
Jerrod nodded. “The only one of us who didn’t change his mind about what you wanted to do since day one.” He tipped his beer bottle to me.
I clinked my bottle against his in a salute, and we drank together.
“So, have you decided if you want to step into your father’s shoes with this place?” I asked, looking around the restaurant.
Jerrod nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ll take it over from them, after all. It’s really a good business.”
“You didn’t always think so.”
“We were all young and stupid once. And with Mila not getting into the business, I really want to keep things going.”
“Isn’t Mila doing it with you?” I asked.
Jerrod shook his head. “She wanted to be a nurse. Mom and Dad were pissed at first, but they let her do her thing, and she’s happy now. She works at Providence Portland Med Center.”
I was impressed, not only that Mila had chosen to save lives rather than run a restaurant, but that she had done something with her life. She had always had so much potential.
“It’s big of your parents to be okay with it,” I said.
Jerrod nodded. “They care about this place, but I think when it comes to their kids, they would rather we be happy than anything else. Besides, with me taking the place over, it’ll still be in the family. So, everyone wins.”
It was more important to be happy. I agreed with it now more than ever. I was happy to be home. Everything had changed, and everything had stayed the same, and I didn’t want to leave ever again.