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Ruby McCall checked the digital clock on the Prius dashboard: 10:07.
When was the last time I drove this road on a weekday morning?
She couldn’t remember. Ever since her first year of college at Montana State, she’d made routine visits home to Marietta—an hour or so drive away. But those visits had become less and less frequent after she’d landed a management position with Homestake Insurance, headquartered in Bozeman.
A mistake, it turned out.
She’d known this day was coming, but the way it went down had left her a little shaken. She glanced at the note-taking app on her phone, perched in its holder on her dash. She’d made a list of possible career options that she planned to run by her mother—important, since the one that called to Ruby the most would require Rosemary McCall’s help.
She cleared her throat and practiced the spiel she’d been formulating in her mind ever since the security guard intercepted her in the Homestake lobby a few hours earlier. “Getting fired might be the best thing that ever happened to me, Mom. I’m looking at it as an opportunity to try something new. If not now, when? I won’t turn thirty for another couple of months. I don’t have a husband or kids to worry about uprooting.”
Um…maybe nix the last part.
An extra shot of anxiety made Ruby’s gut complain. She took one hand off the steering wheel to unsnap the waistband of her slacks. She yanked the black-and-white-patterned top free and let out a sigh.
“Too much sitting at a desk and stress eating from dealing with a neurotic boss. Another reason to change careers.”
Her gaze remained glued to the road instead of the postcard-gorgeous, snowcapped vistas in the distance. Sunlight streamed through the windshield. She cracked the side window and sucked in a deep breath of crisp spring air.
No snow today, thankfully.
“May in Montana is decided by the weatherman’s roulette wheel. Blizzard one week. Top down on the convertible the next,” her father liked to say.
Her belly complained again.
“Please let Dad be at work,” she murmured under her breath.
Known for his short temper and strong opinions, Diamond Jim McCall didn’t embrace change—even the good kind—with aplomb. Ruby had grown up using her mother as both a sounding board and an advocate for any decision Ruby made that might run contrary to Diamond Jim’s initial wishes.
But, in this case, Mom probably wouldn’t be thrilled by Ruby’s proposition. Twelve years ago, she’d been quick to shoot down Ruby’s suggestion that she postpone college for a semester or two to stay in Marietta to work for Summit Construction alongside her then-boyfriend, Boone Fielding, who’d just lost his father to a heart attack.
“You will do nothing of the sort, Ruby Jean,” Mom had said in a tone Ruby would have expected from her father. “What happened to Nolan Fielding is a sad shame, but it has nothing to do with your future. Jim told Boone he can work full-time and we’ve even given him a raise. I can’t give Boone a raise and add you to the crew. That would be like taking money out of Boone’s pocket. Is that what you want?”
“Of course not. I love him.”
Mom hadn’t even tried to understand. “We all have plans that don’t come true when real life gets in the way of your dreams. Just ask Boone.”
Ruby had left in tears and run to Boone. Her rock. Her best friend.
But overnight, the boy she’d fallen in love with had turned into a man she barely recognized. “I know you want to help, Ruby, but all I can focus on right now is Mom and work and digging us out of this hole my dad left behind.”
His blunt dismissal sounded more Jim McCall than Boone Fielding. He’d made her feel like she was a burden, not the partner she’d intended to be. Hurt, indignant, and unsure about her feelings and the status of their relationship, she’d left for college and never looked back.
Since traffic was remarkably light, she tapped her phone’s screen again to check the bullet points she’d dictated earlier.
“I have marketable skills and a great employment record.”
Truth. She had no intention of apologizing to anybody for her past career choices.
“I learned a lot from working in a large corporation.” She paused and added in a resigned tone, “Most importantly, I learned that I don’t ever want to work for a large corporation again.”
Adam Manley’s furious face flashed across the screen in her mind. The Madman, as Ruby and her best friend, Jenny Baxter, called their boss, completely lost it last week when Ruby demanded credit for the proposal she’d just turned in. Why didn’t I record the encounter? A spoiled four-year-old has more self-control.
She glanced at the speedometer and eased her foot off the gas pedal. She couldn’t afford a speeding ticket. Especially not now that she was unemployed.
Not a word she ever thought would apply to her. Diamond Jim McCall’s daughters were not slackers. They’d learned the value of hard work at their daddy’s side as soon as they were big enough to pick up nails on a construction site. Every summer until they’d left for college, Ruby and her two younger sisters worked for Summit Construction.
Normally, she’d have called either Amber or Jade to share her earthshaking news the moment she reached her car in the Homestake parking lot.
But not today.
She’d been through enough collective bargaining meetings to know the plan with the most logical and well-defined talking points always won. Employing the study method she’d picked up in college that involved reading aloud the facts she needed to memorize into a miniature tape recorder, she cleared her throat and touched her phone’s screen again. “Open new note.”
“What do you want it to say?” the voice she’d dubbed “Surly” responded.
“Point number one. The summers I spent working for Summit Construction are some of my best memories. Yes, the job was hot and dusty with noxious fumes and bad music from that stupid FM station with the worst commercials on the planet, but”—she stressed the word—“I can’t tell you how much satisfaction I felt at the end of the day looking at the fruits of my labor standing right there in front of me. I miss that sense of immediate reward. It’s definitely something I never saw in my current…er, former job.”
She also knew that if Diamond Jim agreed to take her on as an apprentice, she’d be spending forty hours a week in the company of Boone Fielding—her first love and biggest regret.
She decided to be candid about that elephant in the room. “Point number two. Thanks to Homestake’s ‘Community Service’ program, I participated in the Habitat for Humanity ‘house-raising’ last fall that Boone Fielding oversaw. To be honest, that experience reawakened my interest in building.”
And honestly, it didn’t hurt that Boone showed up looking like an Adonis in a hard hat and Carhartt jacket, with a neon green safety vest, a bullhorn, and a binder filled with jobs.
She fanned her face, recalling her dreams over the next month. Steamy enough to make her sign up for an online dating service, which, unfortunately, cost a pretty penny and produced zero Adonises—with or without hard hats.
She and Boone had barely exchanged a dozen words the whole day. And most of their exchanges were generic—a sort of old-friends-but-not-really kind of dialogue. But she’d run a review reel of the whole day over and over in her head so often she knew their first conversation by heart.
“Ruby. This is a surprise.”
“Me, too. Aren’t you supposed to be in Marietta?”
“A contractor friend volunteered to run this, but he hurt his back and asked me to step in.”
“Nice of you.”
Those broad shoulders she’d never quite forgotten nor been able to replicate had shrugged with typical Boone humility. “He’d have done the same for me. Are you a regular Habitat volunteer?”
Heat had seared her frozen cheeks. “Not really. Job requirement. Last weekend was warm and gorgeous. Working outside sounded like a great idea, so I signed up.”
Even slightly blue from the bitter Montana wind, his lips still made a hot shaft of lost chances slice through her insides when he smiled. “Yeah, Mother Nature is being a bit testy today. But once we get moving, we’ll be too busy to notice the frostbite.”
Humor. Crap. I forgot how much he made me laugh back when we were dating.
She’d spent the rest of the build avoiding him as much as possible, but despite the distraction her guilty conscience had imposed on her, she’d still managed to enjoy the work.
She checked to make sure the app was still open then said, “Point number three—or, possibly, sub-point two: The satisfaction of seeing the walls sided and the roofing completed on the build left more of an impression than I cared to admit at the time. The work was eye-opening—and not because Boone was being his usual kind, organized, thorough self, although I appreciated the fact he treated me like any other volunteer with a modicum of construction knowledge.
“My team leader for the day was a man Dad’s age. He was slow and methodical and talked my ear off, but, honestly, the time flew by and I went home realizing how much I missed being on a job site.”
When she’d mentioned this revelation the following Monday at work, Jenny had sniffled with fake sympathy. “You poor girl. It’s obvious you missed your calling. If only you had an in with some construction company somewhere on the planet, you might be able to blow this popcorn stand and follow your dream.”
They’d laughed. Jenny always made her laugh.
Unfortunately for Ruby, Jenny and her engineer husband, Rolf, were headed to Texas, where he’d taken a job in the aerospace industry.
But Jenny’s joke had planted a seed.
“Point number four. Mom, you’re probably thinking, ‘My daughter has lost her mind. Not only is she unemployed, but also she wants to eschew her college degree in favor of a job in the home construction field.’ My response is: it can’t hurt to ask. If you’re absolutely positive Dad will turn me down, I’ll update my résumé and send it to a headhunter, but I figured I owed it to myself to find out if there’s a place for me in Summit Construction.”
If Mom was on the bubble about hiring her, Ruby had a way to sweeten the deal.
“Point number five: I know my carpentry skills are rusty—and the industry has probably changed since the last time I was on the job. But I have some money saved. If I were to move home, I wouldn’t have to pay rent on my condo, so I could afford to work for minimum wage if Dad’s willing to take me on as his apprentice.
“I have no idea how Summit is doing financially, but, Mom, the last time we spoke, you said something about Dad feeling overworked and stressed. I could help. We always worked well together in the past. Maybe he could look at me as a legacy hire.”
A green highway sign appeared.
She turned off her phone a second after clicking on her blinker.
She drove through the streets of her hometown unseeing. No detour to Main Street to grab a bag of her mother’s favorite candy from Copper Mountain Chocolates. Ruby didn’t want to make small talk with owner Sage or any of the regulars she might bump into.
She glanced at the five-by-seven-inch plastic container on the seat next to her laptop. If Mom hated Ruby’s idea, the trip to Marietta wouldn’t be a complete waste. She’d worked well past midnight the night before to finish her latest jewelry design: a dozen copper-twisted turquoise rings. She was pleased with the way she’d been able to bring out each stone’s unique personality and beauty.
After her talk with her mother, Ruby planned to drop by Bailey Zabrinski’s jewelry store on her way back to Bozeman. Although ten years Ruby’s senior, Bailey was one of the most positive and downhome glamorous women Ruby had ever met. The two had bonded over jewelry—the creative outlet that helped Ruby maintain some balance in her life after spending her day in a workplace determined to drain her soul of every bit of joy.
“You’re a natural,” Bailey said every time Ruby brought in something new. “People love your designs. I’d be jealous if you were doing this full-time. Since it’s only a hobby, I don’t feel threatened.” Even though Ruby knew her friend was teasing, she always appreciated the pat on the back—something she never received from her day job.
“Too bad the profit from a dozen rings won’t make my car payment, let alone cover rent and insurance.”
The “living at home” bit of her proposal might make her sisters think she’d lost her mind, but Ruby would cross that bridge when she got to it. First, she had to convince her mother she was serious about applying for an apprenticeship with Summit Construction.
As she pulled into the driveway of the home where she grew up, another thought struck her. What if Dad agrees to this and Boone says no? A month or so ago, Mom had mentioned Boone’s proposition to buy part of the company. Ruby had been bogged down at work at the time and never got around to asking how that turned out. Mom hadn’t seemed too happy about the idea.
“You know, Ruby,” middle sister Amber said when the subject came up, “I’m totally in favor of it. The folks should be thinking about downsizing and possible retirement. Dad can’t work forever.”
Retirement. So not a word she could imagine coming from Diamond Jim McCall’s lips.
Relief flushed through her as she pulled into the driveway. Her mother’s car sat in its normal spot in the garage. No sign of her father’s work truck.
The two-story home where Ruby grew up occupied one corner of the property and on the neighboring lot, her father had built the three-stall Summit Construction shop. A sidewalk connected the two structures, but her mother had insisted on a fence around the house and yard. It separated the two spaces, even though it did little to obscure the view from the back deck of trucks, lumber, trailers, and the usual clutter from multiple jobs going on at any one time.
As she gathered her things, a thought hit her. “Of course she’s here. It’s Friday. Payroll. Duh.”
Mom had handled Summit Construction’s books for as long as Ruby could remember. Dad even remodeled their home’s original front porch to house an office, which Mom could access from the kitchen while clients and employees entered from a new deck without going through the house.
Ruby trudged up the steps. With her hand shaking more than she liked, she tried the office door first.
Hmm. Odd. Payroll usually takes her all morning.
She lifted her fist to knock but changed her mind. Going in through the office felt too formal, especially given her reason for being there. She walked the short distance to the main door of the house in three steps. The door was never locked. She wasn’t even sure her parents had a key.
“Hello…Mom? Are you home?”
She didn’t get an answer, but the murmur of voices drew her toward the kitchen. As she passed through the cased opening, she heard her mother’s voice loud and clear. “Jim, the company is in trouble. I’ve been telling you this for weeks but you won’t listen.”
Ruby’s heart jumped in her chest. Have I ever heard Mom raise her voice at Dad?
Sure, they’d argued about small things over their thirty-two years of marriage, but Ruby had never witnessed a shouting match between them. Plus, this time, Ruby detected something more than anger in her mother’s tone. Fear?
“I heard you, but I don’t have time to talk about it. I gotta get to work.”
“This isn’t like you, Jim. You’ve changed. And that derelict farmhouse you bought at auction? It’s to blame.”
Dad grumbled something that sounded like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know you, Jim. And I know what you’re trying to do. You think that by remodeling the only home you ever knew, you can change the way you remember your childhood, don’t you?”
Dad slammed something—his hand?—against something else—the desk? “Don’t go all woo-woo on me now, Rosie. I’m cleaning up the place and putting it on the market. Just like I have a dozen other times over the years. What’s the big deal?”
Mom’s desk chair creaked, as if she were leaning across the desk to reach him. “None of those remodels meant anything to you, personally. None of them belonged to your late uncle.”
Late uncle? The man Mom called an asocial loner, probably suffering from PTSD brought on by his service in Vietnam? If Ruby remembered correctly, Dad’s uncle was a bachelor who Mom said “had no business trying to raise a little boy all alone in the middle of nowhere.”
“That house on Carlton Road is your only connection to your family. I get it. But the place is consuming you, Jim. And it’s gobbling up money like a black hole eats planets.”
“I’m a little over budget. Big deal. We’ll make it up on the sale.”
Ruby inched closer, trying to figure out the best time to announce her presence. Through the open doorway of the office, she saw her mother point to something that looked like a profit and loss statement on her desktop computer’s screen. “I’m not a Realtor, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know a quick, profitable flip house from a money pit.”
Mom moved her mouse and clicked it. “Maybe you’ll take my concerns more seriously if you see the numbers in black and white.” She crossed her arms and rocked back in her chair as she waited for the printer to cough up its pages.
Now. While the sound of the printer covers the fact they didn’t hear the front door open or close.
“Mo…om? It’s Ruby. Are you here?”
Ruby walked into the kitchen at the same moment her mother hurried out of the office, partly closing the door behind her.
“Ruby, you never come on a Friday morning. Why aren’t you at work?”
Ruby set her phone, laptop, jewelry box, and insulated water bottle on the counter before turning to greet her mother.
“Hello to you, too, Mother dear.” She kept her tone light, but her jest didn’t bring even a flicker of a smile to her mother’s lips.
Shorter than Ruby by a head—more Jade’s height of five-five—and a good twenty pounds heavier, Rosemary Charles McCall, who had turned fifty-six a few months earlier, always seemed comfortable in her own skin. No fashion diva, Mom knew what styles worked for her, and, as usual, today she wore khaki slacks, lace-up sport shoes, and a navy blue pullover with the Summit Construction logo on the breast pocket. Her chin-length bob—a medium brown threaded with silver—was in need of a trim. Maybe she’s been too busy dealing with her husband’s break in sanity to be bothered.
Ruby slipped the strap of her small red leather purse over her head and added it to her pile on the counter. She took a step toward her mother to give her a hug, but Rosemary’s body language and the intense look on her face stopped her. “Um…actually…I got fired this morning.”
Mom blinked in obvious confusion, as if the words made no sense. “You what? No. That’s not possible.”
“Oh, it is possible, Mom. I can’t say I didn’t see it coming, but I was a little surprised at how humiliating it felt being escorted off the premises.”
Instead of the sympathy Ruby had expected, Mom groaned and put a hand to her face as if the news was more than she could handle. Ruby tried to lighten the moment. “It’s okay, Mom. Really. Sounds worse than it was, but now I can say I know what they mean by the term ‘walk of shame.’”
Mom showed no sign she’d even heard Ruby’s attempt at humor. “So, what does this mean? Are you out of money? Do you need to move home?”
Her questions were so far from the response Ruby had anticipated it took her a minute to recall the steps of her plan. “No, Mom. I have savings. I’m not broke or homeless. In fact, I came here to talk to you about my future plans because I’ve decided it’s time to do something I really want to do.”
Rosemary waited, her hands moving nervously at her sides.
Ruby raised her voice, still pretending she didn’t know her father was in the office. In for a penny…and out of a dollar, as Jade might say. “I want to work for Summit, Mom. I’ll start as an underpaid flunky if Dad will let me be his apprentice. What do you think? Will you ask him for me? Just to break the ice. I have a pitch ready to go.”
As she’d expected, her words brought a loud and colorful response from inside the office. “Fired? Ruby Jean McCall? Are you kidding me?”
The door to the office swung open and James Roscoe McCall, the man everyone called Diamond Jim, surged foreward, forcing Mom to step aside. Ruby could tell Mom must have called him to the office before he could leave for the job site because there wasn’t any hint of sawdust on his black Summit Construction golf shirt. His iron gray “summer cut” still looked freshly combed—no telltale line from his usual ball cap.
“Oh, hi, Dad. What are you doing here? I thought you’d be at work.”
“I live here. I work here. Which is not something you can say. What the hell were you thinking, Ruby Jean? Only an idiot gets the boot from a decent-paying job without having a backup plan. Do you have a Plan B?”
Ruby gave her mother a pleading look but got nothing in return. She braced her shoulders and swallowed twice, trying to recall the talking points she’d outlined on the drive here. “Um…not yet. But I will. I’m not unemployable. I have a college degree.”
“Thanks to your mother and me.”
Ruby looked between them. “Jeez, Dad, give it a rest. I worked for Summit since I was eight and never got paid a dime. None of us did. Because you promised if we worked for you, you’d pay for college.”
“Which we did,” Mom said.
Ruby turned to face her. “And I appreciate that, but you know—maybe Dad doesn’t—but you know how much college costs beyond tuition. I worked my butt off all four years. I took out loans. I’m okay with that, Dad, and I’m grateful for the help you and Mom gave, but I did work for it. I’m not a slacker in any way, shape, or form.”
Dad stomped to the kitchen counter. Although he wasn’t a big man—five-eleven at best, he had a way of projecting a larger-than-life persona that kept his employees on their toes and his daughters on a short leash. That panache had its place in business, but Ruby knew his gruff demeanor could backfire on him. She remembered several times that it had caused a rift with clients and a division among his employees. Mom once told her that the best thing about having Boone around was his level head and even temper, which more than made up for Jim’s brash attitude.
“Dad, I’ve done everything in my power to live up to your expectations, but this is my life and I can’t keep working at a job I hate. I was a team player ever since my first day on the job, but after the company was bought out, things changed. Management doesn’t give a fig about the people they employ. It’s a toxic environment that was making me sick. Literally.”
Dad’s expression didn’t show the least bit of sympathy.
Really, Dad? You don’t care if my job is killing me? Maybe I don’t want to work for you. She hesitated a second but the momentum of preparation outweighed any momentary doubt. “I came here today to ask for a job, Dad. I want to go back to something I enjoyed doing. I know there will be a learning curve, but I’m not afraid of hard work. I want to learn from the best. And that’s you.”
Ruby spotted her mother’s cringe, which seemed to say, Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you?
Before she could move on to items two, three, and four on her list, Dad made a low growling sound. He lifted his right hand, index finger ready to make his point.
“Well, you listen to me, little girl…”
His voice rose in tenor and volume, the way it had any time he bawled out an employee—or one of his children. Ruby didn’t like it, but even as a child, she’d known to wait until he’d thrown his fit before trying to talk sense to him.
Mom put a hand out as if to keep Ruby from making any sudden moves—much as she might if faced with a dangerous animal. “Jim. Please. Take it easy.”
Ruby frowned. Dad’s flushed face looked abnormally red. As if it might explode.
He didn’t acknowledge Mom’s presence, much less heed her advice. “Life isn’t easy, Ruby Jean. Things happen that you don’t have any control over. But you have to live with your decisions, and hopefully they don’t come back to bite you in the…in the…”
He broke off the rant to gasp a couple of times like a guppy suddenly ejected from its fishbowl, grabbing at his chest with both hands as if someone had stabbed him. A hoarse hissing groan escaped his lips. He looked toward Mom in shock and sudden panic, then his eyes rolled back and he pitched forward.
“Jim!” Mom lurched in his direction, trying unsuccessfully to intercept his head before it struck the corner of the counter on his way to the floor. He landed face-first, blood splattering across the pristine tile.
Ruby’s knees nearly gave out as she cleared the distance between them. “Dad? Dad!”
She dropped to the floor and felt for a pulse in his neck. In doing so, she turned his head. Blood gushed from the ugly gash near his temple, dousing her fingers.
With her unbloodied hand, she yanked open the drawer where Mom kept kitchen towels. She grabbed a wad and pressed one against the wound, applying steady pressure as she’d learned in a first aid course. “Mom, call 9-1-1. Hurry.”
Rosemary used the landline to make the call, her tone surprisingly calm as she recited their home address and the nature of their emergency.
Ruby’s fingers shook as she pressed the clean cloth to Jim’s temple, watching in horror as her father’s face went from red to white. Shock? She put her lips close to his ear. “Stay with us, Dad. You’re the strongest man I know. You can do this. Please don’t die. We need you. I need you.”
She had no idea if he could hear her, but Ruby knew without a doubt that no matter what happened next, her life had changed forever today.
End of Excerpt