When Ben woke up, instead of getting up, he turned over and looked at the picture of Grace he kept on his bedside table. Today was going to be hard. It was Cole’s first birthday, another first without her.
Ben’s mother planned Cole’s birthday party to make it easier for Ben. It wouldn’t be large, because everyone else lived too far away. But Nick, Rachael, Emma & Casey were coming. He had missed them terribly in the 6 months he had been back in Willow Creek and was looking forward to seeing them. Nick said Sofia might stop by too.
When Cole came toddling into his room Ben knew he had laid there too long. He normally got up well before Cole did.
“Daddy…Hold you,” cried the little boy and held out his chubby little arms.
Ben pulled Cole up into the bed and snuggled him. “Hey buddy. Give your Daddy some birthday hugs! Or maybe some birthday tickles!” he growled as he began to tickle his son eliciting screams, giggles and cries for more.
When Cole finally tired of the game, Ben hugged him close. “You hungry buddy?” he asked.
“Hun-gy,” repeated Cole.
While the two of them ate breakfast together, Ben couldn’t help but reflect over the past year. He knew he couldn’t have done this without the help of his family. Sadly, in spite of how helpful his mother had been in the three weeks she and Leroy stayed with him after Grace died, it had done little to bridge their gap. When his mom hugged him as they were leaving, it had felt awkward and forced.
However, when he called for help almost 5 months later, they had welcomed him home with open arms. Never judging. Just giving him space, which somehow made it easier to swallow his pride and accept their assistance. He remembered what Leroy said after Grace died, that he wasn’t ready for their help. Now, it seemed, he was.
He hadn’t been with anyone since Grace. He didn’t think he ever would be, didn’t want to be. And, he was okay with that. Cole was his life now. Emma needn’t have worried about him going back to one night stands. That was a thing of the past.
The only downside to living in Willow Creek was he still had to hide Audrey and her offspring. The ‘deal’ they offered him was to be the supplier in Willow Creek. He had desperately wanted to get out of supplying the dealers, but he remembered the slashed teddy bear, trashed apartment and the feel of cold steel jabbed in his side, so he agreed. He had argued there was no way to move the plants undetected to Willow Creek, but the assholes had arranged for their transport in the dead of night.
So far things were going well, just a different set of thugs. He had a good routine down and the drops were going smoothly. Plus, it was keeping him from having to take Leroy up on his job offer, allowing him to look after Cole, which was all that kept him sane. He told his parents Grace had a life insurance policy he had collected so they wouldn’t question how he got his money. The words had tasted foul coming out of his mouth.
Ben actually had a backyard, albeit small, so he planted a garden as a cover for the need to buy gardening supplies. It had proved to be therapeutic for him.
Being outdoors with his son playing in the backyard while he tended the garden or worked out on the treadmill calmed him.
When Cole started squealing and playing in his food, it jarred Ben back to the present and he remembered again it was his little boy’s first birthday and the anniversary of Grace’s death. Sadly, those two dates, only a week apart, would be forever intertwined. Ben took a deep cleansing breath to steel himself to face the day. Time to get Cole bathed and ready to go.
Ben waited one minute too long. Cole was throwing his uneaten food over the side of the high chair, delighting in the way it splattered on the floor. “No, no! Cole! Don’t throw your food,” groaned Ben, fussing at the little boy.
Cole looked up at him like he might cry, his little bottom lip quivering. For an instant, Ben thought he had seen a ghost. It was Grace staring back at him with those giant blue eyes. Cole looked so much like his mother, it took his breath away.
Then, Cole smiled, showing his little baby teeth and the spell was broken. Ben could breathe again. He felt bad for fussing at the little boy on his birthday and smiled back at him. “It’s okay Buddy, Daddy’s not mad. It’s your birthday!”
“Birfday!” mimicked Cole. Ben laughed and pulled himself together. He lifted Cole from the high chair to stop any further messes. “We need to get you a bath so we can go to Gigi’s house.”
“Papa! Kota!” squealed Cole.
“Yes, Papa and Aunt Dakota will be there too,” said Ben smiling. Cole loved Leroy and Dakota. He knew if they were seeing Gigi, Ben’s Mom, that he would also see Papa Leroy and Aunt Dakota.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ben and Cole arrived at his Mom’s house. Ben took a deep breath and went inside.
“Gigi!” squealed Cole when they walked in the door. He toddled towards Kaitlin as fast as his little legs would take him. She scooped up her youngest grandchild and smothered him with kisses much to his delight.
Leroy walked over and joined them. “Hi Ben. He’s such a good baby. You really have done a good job with him.”
Ben laughed remembering the morning escapades. “You can say that because you didn’t see me trying to feed and bathe him this morning!”
A flicker of sadness went across Leroy’s face before he covered it up with a laugh. “Come in here and sit down. I want to talk to you for a minute.”
They sat down on the couch in the living room. Kaitlin took Cole to see Ben’s sisters in the playroom giving them privacy. “I wanted to talk you again about that job offer,” said Leroy, “It still stands. I spoke to Kate and she is willing to watch Cole. We won’t be ready for a couple of months but you can start anytime you are ready. I’m going to need some help with landscaping the public areas as well as designing the Community Center. I wanted to give you the option before I offered it to someone else. You would be in charge of the design and production working closely with me and the sub-contractors.”
Ben didn’t know what to say. It actually sounded like something he would really enjoy. “Why me?”
“Because your mother tells me you are excellent and I have seen you work with your hands. The garden at your house, it’s well done and lush. You’re very good at everything I need.”
The doorbell rang interrupting their conversation. Leroy stood up still smiling. “You think about it and tell me later. Looks like your friends are here. I’ll help your mom in the kitchen.”
Ben opened the door and was engulfed in hugs by his friends. He had missed them more than he realized.
After hugs and kisses, Rachael and Emma took off to find Cole leaving him with Nick and Casey. They followed Ben into the same room he and Leroy had been in. “How are things going,” asked Nick.
“Good. In fact, Leroy just offered me a dream job. My folks and sisters have practically adopted Cole. I live in a real house with a yard. Things are – quiet – and simple. Drama free.”
“No ladies knocking down the door?” asked Casey.
Nick rolled his eyes at Casey. “What an asinine thing to say,” he said then directed his attention to Ben. “So, Ben, are you going to work for Leroy? It seems like a great opportunity and you can grow productive things.”
Casey didn’t know about Ben’s grow room closet, he didn’t think, but Ben knew exactly what Nick was driving at. If only it were that easy, thought Ben. “I haven’t decided, it will be an adjustment. It will mean leaving Cole with Mom all day. We haven’t been separated since….”
Nick’s face said it all. He was furious that Ben still grew weed and wanted him to take the job. He was seriously think about taking the job, but he couldn’t stop growing even though he wanted to.
The doorbell rang again and this time it was Nick’s sister, Sofia, and her boyfriend.
Sofia immediately hugged Ben. “Oh Ben, it’s so good to see you. How are you doing?” she asked, concern evident in her voice.
Damn, she’s grown into a gorgeous woman, thought Ben. He kissed her on the cheek before releasing her. “I’m Good. God Sofia, it’s so good to see you. You look wonderful!”
“Excuse me!” said the older guy that walked in with her.
Sofia backed away, looking embarrassed. “Ben, this is my boyfriend Jesse Buckner. Jesse, this is Ben.” She smiled warmly at Ben. “He was my very best friend growing up.”
Ben smiled back at Sofia and laughed. “Yeah, we were fishing buddies almost every weekend.” Then he turned his attention to Jesse and offered to shake his hand.
Instead of shaking Ben’s hand, Jesse quickly pulled his hand back. “Yes. I remember you,” he said, the disgust apparent in his tone. “You dated my sister and dumped her after you got what you wanted.”
He turned and looked at Sofia angrily, “How could you possibly be friends with him? I thought you were a better judge of character. He’s nothing but a womanizer. Keep your slimy hands away from my girl.”
Sofia’s eyes got wide at his comment. She tugged on Jesse’s arm while pushing Ben away. “Jesse, why don’t we go find Cole and give him his present.”
Ben wanted to punch the asshole. Not for what he said about him, but for how he was talking down to Sofia. She didn’t deserve to be treated with such disdain. “You need to apologize to Sofia. She didn’t do anything wrong!” said Ben trying to get in his space.
“And he’s still a jerk!” spat out Jesse. He grabbed Sofia by the arm. “Come on Sofia, we are getting outta here. This ass can’t tell me what to do.”
“And you can’t tell her what to do either!” ground out Ben, “Let go of her!”
Nick grabbed Ben and held him back. “Calm down. Let them leave,” said Nick at the same time Sofia pushed Ben back towards her brother.
“We are leaving, aren’t we Sofia? I can’t stand to look at you another minute. Keep away from her. Do you understand?” spat out Jesse. He pulled on Sofia’s arm and roughly guided her towards the door.
Ben reached out to her. “Sofia, you don’t have to do what he says.”
Sofia turned to look at Ben. “It’s okay Ben,” she said softly. Then she mumbled to Jesse, “I’m sorry Jesse, I didn’t know,” and let Jesse lead her out the door.
Nick released Ben once the door closed. “You okay man?” he asked.
Ben was furious that Nick just stood there. “Are you going to just let him treat your sister like that?”
“Ben, he just went protective. It was his baby sister. Sofia and Jesse have been together for a couple of years now. She started dating him at the end of her senior year. He’s fine. He was just upset that Sofia and you have history.”
“Yeah!” said Casey, “Ben jumped my ass about Em and I didn’t even do anything!”
“Shut up Casey!” they both said simultaneously and kept on talking. “Nick, it doesn’t make it okay for him to talk to her like that,” said Ben trying to calm down.
“Ben, unfortunately, you have a reputation back in Twinbrook. I’m sorry, but it’s true. His sister just happened to be one of the girls you went out with and dumped. Forget about it. It’s over. Come on, let’s go sing Happy Birthday to your son.”