©2019 by Author Christina Butrum.

IT TAKES TWO

CHAPTER ONE

If there was one thing Clayton was sure of, it would have to be the fact he refused to learn the business side of things. Too many numbers, miscellaneous calculations, and he didn’t get along with math. Sure, there would come a day when his father would retire and leave the business to him, but today wasn’t that day so Clayton couldn’t care less. 

His parents had bought the place back when Clayton was in diapers. They were nothing short of proud of their accomplishments in this life, beginning with their children and topping it off with running the business. 

He gave them plenty of credit. Running a business wasn’t an easy thing to do. He knew that much to be true, only because he often overheard the conversations between his father and mother about the daunting debt and the constant threat of closing up shop. 

His father refused to believe this place would ever shut down, and to this day, his beliefs had been right. There was no sign of closing anytime soon, or at all for that matter. 

Thinking about his father’s stubbornness made him reflect on his own. He had definitely inherited that gene from him and was proud of it. He wouldn’t be anything if not stubborn. 

The door to the back entrance swung open, pulling Clayton from his thoughts. His aging father approached the work area as he watched his footing carefully with each step. “Well, look who decided to show up,” Clayton called out, stabbing his knife into the ham flank hanging next to him. He would work on getting the rest chopped up and in the smoker after a much-needed conversation. “What’s up, old man?”

His father pulled up a chair next to Clayton, leaning back as he crossed his arms over his chest. Clayton had seen that look before. It was supposed to be a stern look. A serious look his father never quite mastered unless he was pissed off about something. 

Sliding onto a nearby stool, Clayton waited to hear what his father had come to say. “Well, this year hasn’t been easy, and I’m not sure it’ll get better from here,” he said, releasing a sigh before continuing on, “I’ve put in a lot of thought on how best to approach this getting old thing, and there’s not much more thinking I can do.”

Clayton knew his father’s health wasn’t the greatest. Especially when his father’s stress level went through the roof once the doctor’s scared him half to death with the C word. Thankfully, it was just that—a scare—and nothing more. Damn doctors and their tests anyway. 

“Your mom and I have been talkin’ about what we’d like to do once we get rid of this place,” his father said, glancing around with a hint of regret in his eyes. 

Clayton scrubbed a hand over his face. “Wait, what?” He had heard his parents mention selling the business plenty of times before now, but not like this. Even when the economy took a hit a few years back and his parents thought it might be best to sell out before losing it all, they hadn’t. Again, thankfully they hadn’t reacted without thinking things through, because the economy straightened up and business picked right back up to how it had been. 

His father shook his head and said, “Not the way you’re thinking.”

“Well, that’s a relief, I guess?” Clayton wasn’t sure how to react to what his father wasn’t saying. He had never been good with reading between the lines. Heck, that’s just who he was. Straightforward, hold the sugar. 

“Your mother and I want to travel. Do things we’ve never had the chance to do because of this place,” his father said, waving a hand around to showcase his hard work and dedication. “And I don’t mean that like I’m regretting anything. We just want to enjoy what’s left of our lives, if you know what I mean?”

Clayton knew exactly what he meant. He heard his father loud and clear. His parents were ready to retire, which could only mean one thing…

“You look like you’ve seen a damn ghost,” his father said, slapping him on the shoulder. “What’s the matter, Son? You getting cold feet already? I haven’t even told you what our plan is.”

His father didn’t have to tell him anything. He already knew. His parents had made plenty of mention prior to now about handing off the business to their oldest once the time was right. And by right, they meant their definition, not his or anyone else’s. 

“You know how your mother and I feel about this business,” his father stated rather than questioned. Clayton could only nod as his thoughts ran wild with the idea of taking over the business and running it straight into the ground. A lot of pressure would be put on him. Everyone in town, not to forget his own siblings, would have front row seats to watch him fail.

“When we first opened this business,” his father said, taking it upon himself to break the awkward silence between them. “We had a lot of things to think about. We had you, a mortgage, and barely enough money to make a living as it was.”

Clayton nodded along with his father’s words. Having heard these words several times before, Clayton knew exactly what was coming next, but for the first time in a long time, he was more than willing to hear them once more. 

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” he said, patting his hand on the pocket of his shirt before reaching in for his cigarettes and lighter. “This place was on the market no more than a few days when your mother got the idea to buy it.”

He placed a cigarette between his lips, stalling for a minute as he reminisced on the recalled memory. Flicking the lighter, he pressed the flame against the tobacco and inhaled deeply only to exhale a dark cloud of smoke a few seconds later. Clayton held his breath, waiting for the smoke to clear. A bad habit his father would never give up. Even after the cancer scare, they all thought he would have tossed them aside. Not a chance. 

“She had this perfectly painted thought on how this place would look with just enough tlc.” 

Clayton couldn’t imagine his mother any other way. She may not share their stubborn trait, but the determination she had when an opportunity came about was pretty damn close to being stubborn. She never took ‘no’ for an answer. If she wanted it, she got it. 

“Wasn’t more than three days later and we were lined up at the bank lookin’ to borrow some money.” His father half coughed, half chuckled before saying, “You know how your mother gets when an idea comes to mind?”

Clayton nodded. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he shared some of that trait with her. It only made sense because of how unwaveringly stubborn he could be when it came to doing something he wanted to do, or didn’t want to do for that matter. 

“So, we got the money, bought the place, and spent damn near a whole year trying to get it up and running,” his father admitted. More proof this business was built with blood, sweat, and tears. Something to be proud of. Stamping out his cigarette, his father said, “All while knowing it would take a miracle to make it something worth the investment, but you know what?”

Clayton smiled at his father’s instant change in tone. “We made it, and look how far we’ve come,” he said, once again showcasing the place with a quick fan of his arms. “All because of stubbornness and determination.”

Catching a glance at the time, Clayton said, “What do you say we take a break and grab a bite to eat?”

“Sounds good to me,” the old man said, hopping down off the bar stool as he followed Clayton through the entryway leading them to the deli side of the business. “But only because I know who’s in charge of making the food.”

Clayton laughed as they entered the deli. Leave it to his father to be so ornery in his old age. “I’m sure Mom will love to know that.”

“Mom will love to know what?” his mother asked as she rounded the counter. She wrapped her arms around Clayton before planting a kiss on his cheek. It never failed. No matter how old he got, she would continue to peck him on the cheek. He had learned the hard way when she did it in front of a group of his buddies after football practice. She loved to dote on him and embarrass him the only way she knew how to back then. Now, it didn’t bother him. One day, there wouldn’t be any more smudged kisses on his cheek from her, and it would leave him looking back on all the times she’d done it and he’d cherish them forever. 

“Dad was just saying the only reason he agreed to grab a bite to eat was because he knows who’s makin’ it.”

“Aww, what a sweetheart you are,” she said, wrapping an arm around Clayton’s father and pulling him in for quick kiss before guiding him over to an empty table. “You two sit here,” she said, pointing each of them into an empty chair. “I know just the thing my boys would like to eat. I’ll be right back.”

“See what I mean?” his father said, hiking a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the spunky woman making her way back behind the counter. Clayton couldn’t help but chuckle. The love his parents shared was one in a million. There was no way he would ever be so lucky to find a love like theirs. Not in this town, anyway. Everyone around here was already happily in love and off the market. 

“Just wait until you get yourself one of those,” his father said, a smug grin plastering his face. “Speaking of which…”

Clayton’s mother approached their table just in time. Clayton didn’t want to talk about his nonexistent love life. It was bad enough he thought about it quite often without needing his parents to point it out to him. “Here’s what I’ve got,” she said, sliding a plate full of food in front of each of them.  Clayton’s eyes widened at the amount of food on the plate. If he was going to eat everything, he would be in a food coma and sent home for the day. He would eat most of it, though, because working all morning had worked up an unforgiving appetite. “Enjoy.”

Taking a bite of his smoked ham sandwich smothered in cheese and mayonnaise, Clayton was thankful for taking a break. The food hit the spot. He watched his father chew on a couple of bites, and it was obvious he couldn’t swallow fast enough to get back to the topic they left off on before being interrupted by delicious food. Dabbing his mouth with a napkin, his father looked over his shoulder before saying, “You know it’s your mother’s wish to see you get married, right?”

Clayton nearly spit his drink across the table. What kind of crap was that? Was his father serious right now? Playing that card in order to get him to marry someone soon? 

Choking down his drink, he said, “I see.”

“I’m not jokin’,” his father said, taking another bite from his sandwich as he kept his eyes focused on Clayton. 

“I didn’t say you were,” Clayton said, shifting his eyes away from his father’s in search of his mother, who was now busying herself with a pile of dirty dishes. That woman never stopped. Never stopped working, thinking, hoping, planning… He hated to be the one to break it to her, but if he had to, he would. There was no wedding in the future. At least, not his anyway. He was sure one of his younger siblings would tie the knot long before he did. At the rate Cayden—his youngest brother of the three—was going, he would be saying I do here real soon. Right out of high school and into college, he had girls lining up at his dorm room for him. Of course, he only had eyes for just one—thank God—and she was a keeper for sure. It only took his brother two months before popping the question, and it only took her a split second to say yes! 

Clayton had received a Snapchat about it. Everyone and their dogs had their phones out recording the proposal. It had been the talk of the town there for a while. But the excitement had faded just as quickly, and now everyone’s attention was back on Clayton. 

“I was thinking about paying your tuition,” his father said, carrying on with his sandwich as if he didn’t just drop a bomb on Clayton. 

“Tuition?” Clayton cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair. First retirement, now paying for college? They hadn’t done that when Clayton was eighteen, so what the heck was his father wanting to do that now for?

“You know, for college,” his father said, again keeping his eyes on his food while Clayton processed what he was trying to say. With a subtle shrug, his father dropped what was left of his sandwich on his plate and looked up at Clayton. Another smug grin crossed his face before he said, “I figured it worked for Cayden. It might for you as well.”

Clayton tossed his head back, allowing a loud guffaw escape his throat. “You’re hilarious if you, for one second, believe that you’re sending me back to college just to find a girlfriend.”

Shrugging, his father said, “More like fiancée, but whatever.”

Clayton couldn’t believe it. Of all the things his father could say right now, he was choosing to say this? He looked over at his mother, who was more than enjoying the show. She only offered him a slight shrug and a smile. She was in on this, too?

“Dad, I’m way too old for college, for one,” he said, knowing his age had nothing to do with it. There were plenty of people older than him who were sitting in classrooms listening to lectures day after day. “And for two, you don’t go to college to pick up women.”

It was his father’s turn to toss his head back laughing. “I know that, Son, but it worked for Cayden, and I just figured you’re going to need some education in business management if you’re going to run this place.”

There it was. The truth of the matter. His father knew Clayton would fail at running the family’s business. There really was no denying the fact that Clayton wasn’t book smart when it came to the business side of this place. He knew how to slice and chop up the meat and throw it in the smoker, but he honestly had no clue how to keep track of the books. 

“Who said I’m going to run this place?” Maybe he would run it, but surely it wouldn’t be by himself. He would have his sisters and brothers to help out if needed. Maybe, he supposed, if they weren’t caught up in their own lives. 

“We did,” his mother said, approaching their table before taking a seat beside him. “And we think you’re going to do just fine.”