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The Wrong Girl - Chapter 1, Part 1


Jake

A high-pitched voice carried down the hall. “Daaaad, where’s my Spider-man book?”

I was elbows deep in a box full of loose tupperware, searching for something that resembled the dishes I still hadn’t unpacked. “I don’t know, Ethan; where did you leave it?”

“I didn’t leave it anywhere. You packed it!” The reply was accusatory.

He sounded exactly like his mother, which immediately raised my hackles. I forced myself to draw in a slow breath and unclench my jaw before replying.

“Then check the boxes in your room, buddy. Anything that was yours went in there.”

“There’s like a hundred of them!” Oh man, here we go. “I’ll never find it.” I could practically hear the tears already.

I glanced up to spot Olivia silently watching me with wide brown eyes. “Honey, can you please go help your brother find his comic books? There should be a box in his room labeled ‘books.’”

“Sure Dad,” she nodded seriously, then took off down the hallway with the determination of a soldier headed into battle.

“Thanks Livvie!” I called after her, but if she heard me, she didn’t reply.

Giving up, I scooped an armload of plastic wear out of the box and directly onto the floor, and I could finally spot the multi-colored dishes the kids liked at the bottom of the carton.

Olivia would eat on whatever I gave her—I’d swear she was easier than half the Airmen I led—but Ethan insisted they have the same. And if he didn’t have his particular green plate and special blue cup, the world would implode.

The doctor agreed with me that his behavior was a little immature for seven, but he also agreed with my ex wife that our home life was probably a contributing factor. He said Ethan would grow out of it when he was ready.

So, in the meantime, I had to placate my own tiny dictator.

And they say America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.

By the time the kids appeared, I had two bowls of cereal, twin glasses of orange juice, and two slices of toast with peanut butter—cut into triangles, naturally—set out on the dining table. The house was still an absolute wreck from the move, but I managed to clear a space for them to eat.

Ethan’s splotchy face and glossy eyes were a dead giveaway: he had definitely been on the verge of another meltdown, even though the comic book was clenched in one hand.

I purposefully made my voice extra bright. “Oh great, you found it. Thank you, Olivia!” I hinted.
My eldest gave me a silent nod, then steered her younger brother to their seats and pushed him in. He muttered a thank you, then inspected his meal carefully and compared it to his sister’s. Once he was satisfied, he picked up his spoon.

Olivia followed suit, and when my eggs were ready, I slid them onto a matching plastic plate and joined them at the table with my coffee.

“Daddy, you can’t use that. It’s my plate.” Ethan glared at me with all the fire a seven-year-old could muster.

“I’m sorry buddy, but I couldn’t find the norm—I mean, I couldn’t find my plates in all the boxes. Do you mind if I use this one just for breakfast? I promise I’ll unpack before you guys come back from Gramma and Grandpa’s Sunday.”

A sweat broke out on my back. If my troops could only see me now, pouring sweat in fear of an angry second grader.

Ethan seemed to consider it, then nodded seriously. “Okay, but only for breakfast.”

“Thanks buddy,” I smiled, but he’d already turned his attention back to his lucky charms and was busily scooping out the marshmallows.

Breakfast was always a quiet affair for us. To be fair, all meals seemed rather quiet, as of late. The kids and I… were still getting used to each other. It was Cheryl who knew how to lighten Olivia up or calm Ethan down with just the right words.

Which made sense. She was their mother. And while I was either working all day or deployed for months, she had seen them through every skinned knee and tantrum.

Of course, she had also just decided she was over it and left—not even pretending to want our children. She stuck around to see the divorce through and made some vague promises about ‘having the kids to visit’ once she ‘was settled’ and then disappeared. Over a year later and she hadn’t even called them. She’d answer if we called, but they’d pretty much stopped asking for her.

It fucking killed me, but I knew it was a good sign that they weren’t relying on her for emotional support any more.

I just wished I was better at giving that to them.

I glanced at my watch and sighed, then finished the last gulp of my coffee. “Okay guys, we have ten minutes before we have to be out the door. Just put your dishes in the sink when you’re done, and make sure you’ve got everything you want for the weekend in your backpacks. Gramma and Grandpa have pajamas and everything already for you, but bring any toys you want.”

“What about my toothbrush?” Ethan stared up at me stonily.

“Gramma bought you a brand new toothbrush to use just at her house.” I grinned at him in encouragement.

“I don’t want a new toothbrush. I want my raptor toothbrush.” 

“You know what? I told her how much you loved it, so she bought the exact same one. Now you have two raptor toothbrushes, one for each house. What do you think about that?”

“It’s not the same,” he shook his head. “It’s not my raptor toothbrush.”

“Okay, buddy, if you want to bring your toothbrush to Gramma’s house, that’s fine. Just put it in your backpack when you’re done eating. I need to finish getting dressed.”

Ethan scowled, then turned back to his food.

“Olivia, make sure you both wash your hands and that he doesn’t forget his toothbrush, please.” I kissed the top of her head as I passed.

“Sure, Dad.” Even though I used my gentlest tone and smiled widely, she replied with the stern expression of a hardened warrior taking orders.

Deflated, I placed my own dishes in the sink and headed for my room.

Experience had taught me not to wear my work clothes at the breakfast table, because accidents were bound to happen. I couldn’t say how many times I ended up with jelly or coffee spilled on my pristine dress blues. 

Since it was my first day at a new job in management civilian style, I figured it was a smart idea to dress to impress. I’d only worn the charcoal suit once—for divorce court—so it was still impeccably clean. Shirt bright white and starched, red silk tie spotless.

By the time I reemerged from my room, the kids were waiting silently by the door, faces clean and backpacks on. My heart pinched at their serious expressions—I hated they were so sullen all the time, but I had no idea how to change it.

Hopefully, this move to Aspen Ridge would be the fresh start we all needed. With my parents here to help and the beautiful mountain scenery, it was an ideal place to settle our family and put down some roots. It was a place the kids could make friends, settle in, and perhaps we’d all find some more joy in our lives.

I just prayed it worked.

Mom and Dad were waiting on the porch when we arrived, eager to spend time with their grandkids. The tightness in my chest loosened, confirming that I’d made the right choice, moving us here. Military bases provide a lot of support for families, but they don’t compare to living a few blocks away from your parents.

As soon as we pulled into the driveway, the kids were unbuckled and tearing toward the house with eager smiles. I followed up the stairs to greet my parents, relieved to see my two serious children joyful about something.

“I don’t know who’s more excited, you guys or the kids,” I teased. Ethan had jumped into my dad’s arms and my mom was already telling Olivia the itinerary for their weekend.

“Well, we’ve got to make up for lost time, son.” Dad greeted me with a hug and a firm pat on the back. “This is the first time we’ve all lived in the same state, let alone the same town.”

“I just hope you don’t get sick of us,” I chuckled. “They’re old enough to ride their bikes here once I get them unpacked. I have a feeling they’ll be over a lot.”

“You’re always welcome, Jake,” Mom replied with a warm smile. “You all can join us for dinner any time, too. The house has been quiet for too long, and I know you’ll be working all day.”

“Nah, we wouldn’t want to put you out, Mom. You should take more time to relax. Maybe you should come over to our house for dinner.” Instinctively, I glanced down at my watch.
“Speaking of working all day, I had better not be late. Love you guys. Call me if you need anything.”

Dad waved me off. “We’ll be fine. Tell JJ hello for me!”

“Will do. Thanks again, for everything.”

“Nonsense.” He shook his head. “You don’t need to thank us for watching our grandchildren.”
“All the same, they can be a handful, so call me if you need anything.”

Dad just waved, so I climbed into the truck and took off. I used my GPS to get to the Aspen Ridge Lodging office, so I had no trouble navigating through the ski resort's downtown.

Of course, being the end of summer, there was no snow to be seen. The mountains were bald rock at the peaks, with bright grass-covered runs trickling downhill between swaths of evergreens. The town itself was an attractive cross between the charm of the old west and the sleek appeal of modern mountain style. It’d been a while, but I’d visited once on a ski trip and had always loved Aspen Ridge. When my parents retired here, I’d sworn we’d visit every season to ski.

That’d been four years ago, and this was the first time we’d come. But we were here to stay, hopefully, so I supposed that’d make up for it.

Despite the season, the small resort town was packed with visitors, thanks to warm weather activities like mountain biking, rafting, and horseback riding. I made a point to arrive at the tail end of summer. I wanted the kids settled before school started, and my boss wanted me on board before winter, their busiest season.

I navigated to the resort parking garage and inserted the card I’d received in the mail, granting me permission to park for free. Thankfully, since signs at the entrance proclaimed parking to be $35 a day.

After a final once-over, I grabbed my shiny new briefcase—which was empty apart from a few sheets of paper—and followed directions for the main offices.

My pulse raced, but I tried to focus on the important things.

One, I already had the job.

Two, training leaders was basically what I’d done for my entire career, culminating in a stint at the Air Force’s prestigious Officer Training School. Turning one flighty woman into the successful CEO of a ski resort would be cake after whipping groups of sullen college grads into battle-ready lieutenants.

Three, this was the best opportunity I was likely to receive in Aspen Ridge, and for the kids’ sake—and my own—I needed to be near my parents. JJ Tremont had promised that once his daughter was ready to take over, he’d make sure I had a position in upper management.
So first the daughter, then the cushy job with a view of the gorgeous terrain. 

I made it to the elevator and mashed the button for the top floor, then closed my eyes and pictured the new dream I was chasing. Afternoons spent on the slopes, teaching the kids to ski.
Finally being able to attend school events, holidays with my family, a community that didn’t exist around a military life. I’d resigned myself to a long career of service, and Cheryl’s decisions had ripped that right out of my grasp… but perhaps there was a better life waiting for me here.
The elevator slowed to a stop, and the doors opened.

Showtime.
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