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But seeing those bright little blue eyes in that crib, that face smiling in recognition, and those chubby legs pumping madly as I walked over to pick him up—I forgot about the sacrifices and relished the exponential rewards. This little boy is so worth it.

I carried Ollie out onto the porch of our two-bedroom cabin and stared east across the water toward Kauai. He was only six months old, but he loved to watch the seagulls swirl around us. If “bird” isn’t his first word, I’ll be shocked. He pulled his thumb out of his mouth long enough to make an “ooh” sound, then shoved the thumb back in. “Ooh.” Close enough.

It was a beautiful, clear, blue-sky day in Hawaii. I almost didn’t miss Minnesota at all. I bent down, picked up a rock, and launched it off the cliff in the general direction of our former home, as I did each morning and evening—my “good morning” and “good night” to Sophie. She would have loved it here. I still missed her—some days, a little; other days, a lot—but if there was a heaven, I knew she was in it. I was certain—or at least I’d convinced myself—that she was happy for me and what I had with Tara and Oliver.

Oliver cooed at another passing seagull, and I glanced down at the water in the cove about sixty feet below our cliff-side porch. It was glassy and clear. There was a small boat about two hundred yards offshore with two people in it. I could tell one of them was my son, Danny, and one of his two German shepherds was with him—either Six or Dice. But the other person was hard to make out—sweatshirt on, hood up, and back turned to me. I figured it was my daughter, Hayley, or Danny’s lovely bride, Kate.

I turned out to be wrong on both guesses. The telescope on our porch helped me identify Emily, Tara’s daughter. That made sense too. She loved fishing and snorkeling with Danny and Blake. She spent way more time with those two than she ever did with her mother and me. I’d gladly admit it—they were definitely more interesting than we were.

When Oliver was born, Emily moved to the tree house—the Big House—with all the others, sharing a room with her new best friend, Abbey. Considering the main house was a giant tree house, I couldn’t blame her for that either. That place was incredible. Plus, her moving out gave Tara and me additional privacy. Emily was almost fourteen, plenty old enough to know what the two of us were occasionally up to, and she didn’t want to be anywhere near that.

Another boat sat just outside the cove. There were two people in that boat, but I knew who they were without having to look closer—Trey James and Torrey Wixell, Danny’s bodyguards. Former Navy SEALs, they went wherever he went, governor’s orders. Their room was even next to his and Kate’s in the Big House.

They were great guys. Trey, nicknamed “Trigger,” was built like Vin Diesel but taller—at six foot five. Danny described him as both “the fastest draw I’ve ever seen” and “six kinds of nuts.” I’d seen Trigger tackle an injured wild pig, and cliff dive from forty feet without hesitation, so I was confident Danny’s descriptions were appropriate. Torrey went by “Twix,” but not for any apparent reason beyond the combined letters in his first and last names—Torrey Wixell. He was a workout fanatic, and seemingly half fish. Supposedly, he could hold his breath underwater for three minutes. Twix was relatively short—compared to Trigger—at only six foot one, but similarly built like a linebacker. He was covered head to toe in tattoos—well, except for his head and toes—and he was missing a front tooth. He hid that well though since he seldom smiled.

A squeal and scattered barking echoed across the cove and up to our porch as Danny helped Emily haul a fish into the boat. Lunch.

My mind and stomach were apparently in sync, as the hunger alarm rumbled through my body. The coos from the bundle in my arms reminded me I had a bottle warming in the kitchen for Oliver. “Let’s go eat, buddy.” I smiled down at him. He waved his arms wildly in reply—almost clapping—as if to say, “About time, Dad.” Or something to that effect.

As I walked into the kitchen, Tara was standing at the counter with her back to me, making coffee. “Oh, so now you get up.” I walked up behind her, kissed her cheek, and casually tugged up the back of her T-shirt for a peek, drawing a quick hand slap. Dang it. She had panties on now.

“Hey now.” She turned with a huge grin and kissed me, holding her arms out for Oliver. “Why don’t you give him to me and go take a nice cold shower.”

I handed him over and tried to push my luck one more time, but she laughed and walked away. “You can’t fault a guy for trying,” I called over my shoulder as I headed toward that cold shower. “With an ass like that…”

“Ryan!” she scolded. “Language!”

Oliver squealed. I laughed. “He doesn’t mind.”

“Well, I do,” she replied, even though I knew she didn’t. “Besides, I think you had enough fun last night.” Her laugh echoed down the hall.

Yes. Yes, I did. Can’t believe I get that whenever I want. Or—who am I kidding—whenever she wants.

“Hey, did you run into the door again this morning?”

“What?” I feigned ignorance. I could hear her smiling. “What do you mean ‘again’?”

She was still laughing. Yeah, ha ha.

The cold shower woke me up and calmed me down. I dressed, stole Tara’s toast from the toaster, and headed over to the Big House.

TWO – The Big House (Ryan)

---------- (Wednesday. July 20, 2022.) ----------

It was kind of an insult to call the Big House a house. It was more of a tree castle. Blake and Sam had channeled their inner Swiss Family Robinson in creating this 4,400-square-foot “palace in the sky.” They wove it around twenty or so thick trees clustered above the eastern cliffs. Exposed as it was, the strongest of winds barely swayed it—talk about incredible engineering. The first floor was roughly twelve feet off the ground—a little extra insurance for tsunamis. Two staircases and two wooden ladders led to the only four legitimate entry points, with a fire pole down through the floor of the kitchen and a zip line to our front porch as alternative quicker exits. We even had a one-person, generator-powered elevator, although we mostly used that for moving supplies.

The main floor had a huge living area, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a wraparound porch with bridges running off it to various storage sheds, our generator room, and two bathrooms—each with pumped water for the showers, sinks, and toilets. The plumbing was complex—if not altogether irrational—but it worked, so there were no complaints. The second floor had three more large bedrooms and a “strategy room” with a ladder leading up to a covered observation deck—from which we had nearly 360 degrees of unobstructed views.

Four telescopes fastened to the railings faced each direction—and four inflatable rafts were hooked to the roof—in case we lost the ones stored down in the cove. The observation deck had one more amenity worth mentioning—zip lines. A pair of parallel 200-yard zip lines ran to and from the last house on the island, Blake and his sister Kaci’s place. The zip lines were the quickest way back and forth—from our second floor to their front door and from a 20-foot platform at their place to the base of the Big House. While they were built mostly for emergencies—the kids loved them. The final zip line was the “Intimidator.” The kids weren’t allowed on that one. Even scares the crap out of me! It went from the roof of the deck to our dock down in the cove, a terrifyingly steep 600 yards away. It had taken Danny, Blake, and Sam almost as long to build and secure that one zip line as it did for them to build the entire tree palace.