The last floorboard went in just as the sun began to disappear behind the trees on the western side of the property. Savannah turned on the porch lights, then headed inside and returned a moment later with two beers. She handed one to Mac, then the two of them sat on the top step and watched darkness steal over the bay. The scent of fresh-cut wood heightened the salty tang in the air with a homey scent.
Mac rested his elbows on his knees and drew in a deep breath. He hadn’t felt such a sense of satisfaction in a long time. His shoulders ached, and he had the beginnings of a sunburn on his arms and face, but every inch of him was sated by the feeling of good, hard work. “Thanks.”
Savannah glanced over at him, surprised. “For what?”
“For the beer, but mostly for letting me help you.” He drew in another breath. What was it about newly cut wood that carried that scent of new beginnings? Fresh starts. Hope. They were all feelings alien to Mac for far too long. “I needed that today.”
“Bad day in corporate takeover world?” She bit her lip and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I keep saying things like that and I shouldn’t. You helped me, and I appreciate it.”
“What I needed today wasn’t about work. It was…personal.” Even as he said the last word he could feel himself closing that door, the one that divided him from the people in his life. Outside of his brothers, Mac had few friends. Almost no close friends. Something about being the man at the top created an automatic dividing line, and the guys he used to shoot hoops with or play a few rounds of golf with suddenly saw him as an outsider. Then his days had become consumed by work, and except for working lunches and dinners, and the occasional run through Boston Public Garden, there wasn’t much time for hanging out with buddies. And certainly not enough time for heart-to-heart conversations about the ups and downs in his life. Especially not the latest monkey wrench.
He couldn’t go to his brothers with this thing about Colton. Not yet, anyway. Nor did he really want to drop that information in their laps, as it had been done to him. They were moving on with their own lives, marrying great women. The last thing Jack and Luke needed was to be saddled with another stress. Some would argue Mac didn’t need it either, but the monkey wrench was there, nonetheless, expecting him to fix this.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Savannah asked.
“Yes. No.” He let out a breath. “I don’t know. I don’t tell people my personal problems.”
“Okay.” She leaned back on her elbows, the beer dangling from her fingers. She didn’t push him, didn’t seem the least bit bothered that he didn’t want to open up. Which had the inverse effect…
He wanted to let her in. What was it about Savannah and her easygoing attitude that drew him to her? Led him down roads he’d always avoided?
He debated letting the subject drop. But there was no more work to distract him, and the thought of going back to his hotel room and turning on his computer didn’t fill him with the same sense of relief it normally did. This whole thing with Colton was too big to dismiss with hours of work, even with an entire house renovation. The subject needled at his every thought, hung heavy on his shoulders. He needed to talk about it, figure it out. But this wasn’t a business problem he’d debate with his CFO or a lawyer friend. This was Mac’s life. The life he’d thought was based on one truth and turned out to be based on a lie.
“Oh, look,” Savannah said softly, pointing across the yard at the bird house her father had built. Time had weathered the paint job a little, but the bird’s home, sitting atop a high pole, was a damned close match to the main house. “The momma bird is feeding the babies.”
A bright blue bird with a rust-colored chest was perched on the edge of the house, while a smaller, hungry mouth extended from the opening and snatched at the worm in the parent’s beak. A loud chorus of hungry chirps came from inside the birdhouse, and soon two more heads pushed their way out, each wanting a piece of the worm. A moment later the momma bird flew off, probably to bring back another treat for her hungry brood. The babies chirped a while longer, then settled back into the box.
“I love seeing the new family every year,” Savannah said. “It’s like they’re part of my family, too.”
“Is it the same birds that return every year?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes the parents die and the fledglings find a mate and return to this birdhouse. I love that their family is constantly changing.”
A constantly changing family. He had that right now. If there was one thing Mac had always counted on, it was the steadiness of the Barlow family. He knew whenever he came home to Stone Gap his parents would be living in the same house, and his brothers would tease him with the same jokes. There was something…comforting in that, as much as he said it annoyed him. But now those dynamics were changing, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it or who to turn to for advice.
He glanced over at Savannah, at this woman who would do pretty much anything for the father she had loved, and who got sentimental about a pair of birds. He wondered what she’d have to say if she unearthed a secret sibling. Would she welcome them with open arms or want to bury the truth and pretend it didn’t exist? He wanted to know—wanted to know all that and more about this intriguing, beautiful woman beside him.
Never before had he gotten personally involved with someone whose company he was trying to buy. He’d especially never kissed the owner of one of his potential purchases. Or thought about sleeping with her every five minutes. This thing—whatever it was between himself and Savannah—seemed like more than he’d had in a long time. It wasn’t just about being attracted to her. It was something bigger. Something with deeper roots. Already, he felt as though she wasn’t just a fellow business owner. She was also a…
Okay, so maybe he didn’t kiss his friends like he’d kissed Savannah. And maybe he didn’t picture his friends naked a thousand times a day. But one thing was true—Mac Barlow, indomitable millionaire CEO, could sure use a friend right now. He took a long pull off the beer, then let out a breath.
“I have a brother I didn’t know about,” he said.
The words came out surprisingly easy, considering Mac wasn’t a man who shared much—if any—of his private life with people. But there it was, the fact that he had kept concealed from the brothers who shared his DNA and the mother who loved him dearly. Told to a woman he had known for a handful of days.
“Really?” Savannah turned to look at him. “That’d be enough to throw anyone for a loop.”
“I just found out a couple weeks ago from my uncle. He and my dad don’t talk—a family argument gone wrong years ago—and he told me I needed to tell my family about my half-brother.” For the hundredth time, Mac wished Uncle Tank had just called Bobby, instead of handing off the task to Mac like a relay baton. “I haven’t told my brothers or my mother yet, but I confronted my dad this evening. That’s where I went after work, to see him.”
“How’d that go?”
“It sure wasn’t sunshine and roses. He didn’t explain, but he also didn’t deny it.” Mac took another drag off the beer. “Turns out my whole childhood was a lie.”
Savannah seemed to think about that for a minute. “I don’t know if the whole thing was a lie. One part, maybe. But the rest was your story.”
“Bookended by this other brother and another woman.” Mac sighed. “My dad never told anyone.”
“Maybe because he didn’t want you to look at him the way you are probably looking at him right now.” Savannah shrugged.
“And how is that?”
“Like he destroyed everything you thought you knew.”
Savannah was right. That was exactly how Mac was feeling. It was as if the world he’d grown up in, the world he had known as well as his own name, turned out to be a figment of his imagination. He wasn’t born to two people deeply in love. Hell, he wasn’t even the oldest. There had been another, older than he was, and another woman who had had Bobby’s heart. It turned out the Barlows’ solid marriage, which had served as an example to the three boys, had been built on shifting sand.
“But that’s exactly what my father did. My mother, my brothers—they’re all going to be devastated when they find out.”
“They might handle it better than you think.” She took a sip of beer, then set the bottle on the step below her. “People make mistakes, Mac. They screw up, and they hurt the ones they love. Nobody’s perfect, and learning to accept that the people we love and idolize are imperfect is part of life.”
“My father didn’t just make a small mistake. He made an entire family. Do you know how this is going to break my mother’s heart? Their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary is coming up. How the hell am I supposed to tell her before that?”
Mac shook his head. “Somebody has to. My half-brother said he was coming to town to meet the family, and I can’t just let him show up without giving them fair warning of what happened. I need to make a plan, find a way to break this news without it doing too much collateral damage.”
“No, you don’t.” She laid a hand on his, a hand of friendship, of comfort, connection. “This isn’t a business you can fix up and flip. It’s not a company that needs help increasing its bottom line. It’s life. And life is messy and complicated and sometimes very painful. You clean up the messes you make, but you don’t have to clean up the messes other people made.”
“What, you’re saying trust my father to tell everyone?” Mac shook his head. He couldn’t even imagine that disaster. Bobby with his gruff and direct way dropping this bomb into Della’s life. Into his sons’ lives. “I can’t do that. He’s not the most touchy-feely guy in the world.”
“And you are?”
That made Mac laugh. “Point taken. But still, my father delivering news like this would be like throwing a bowling ball into a china shop.”
“Yes, but it’s his news to deliver.” She took another sip, then set the bottle down again. “And that means you have to do something you don’t like to do.”
She grinned. “Give up control and let someone else handle this.”
“I’m not trying to control this.”
“Really?” A bigger smile curved up one side of her face. “Because I hear a man saying that he has to be the one to tell his mother and brothers. That he doesn’t trust his father to do it. That it’s all up to him to deal with this, rather than letting the one who made the mistake deal with the aftermath. This is crappy news for your family, I agree, and no matter how it’s delivered, it’s going to have ramifications. But it’s not your information to deliver.”
Savannah’s words eased the tension in Mac’s shoulders. She was right. He wasn’t the one who had stepped out on his wife. He wasn’t the one who had created another child. He wasn’t the one who had to undo the damage that was going to be done. “So you’re saying I should be support staff instead of CEO?”
She laughed. “I’m saying exactly that.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t much like to be the one in the backseat. That kind of thing makes me…uncomfortable.”
“I don’t think you can learn how to be a good leader until you learn how to be a good follower.” She got to her feet and put out a hand to him. When he touched her, it was like sending fire through his veins. Her smile warmed something deep in his gut, made all the tension melt away. “And with that, Mac Barlow, I have the perfect project for you.”