Mason Jones scowled at the phone sitting on his desk, signing the last line of the document and sliding it to the man sitting across from him.
“Do you need to answer that?” the man asked, arching an eyebrow over his ice blue eyes.
“No,” Mason said. “It can wait. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No. This is the last of it. As of Monday, Heritage Consulting will open under a new board of directors, and you’ll be nothing more than a shareholder.”
“Provided the check clears,” Mason said with a polite smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Yes, of course,” the man said.
He slid a printed check to Mason, his smile almost feral and far from genuine. But Mason didn’t care. He knew that they would probably change the name and completely revamp the entire company, and that was fine with him. He’d given the employees six months’ worth of their salary as a bonus the week before, so they were free to walk away if the new owners were not a good fit.
For two of those employees, that six months would carry them to retirement, where they would draw off a fund that the new owners could never touch, giving them a healthy amount of money in addition to whatever they contributed themselves. That same retirement fund was guaranteed to the rest of the employees once they were of age, the accounts held separate from the business accounts.
The rest of his loyal employees had received the bonus along with a glowing letter of recommendation should they decide to search for work elsewhere, and their benefits had been paid for an entire year, alleviating any guilt Mason might feel if the new owners canned every employee and brought in their own. It had cost Mason a sizeable chunk of the four hundred million he’d just made selling the company that had been in his family for generations, but it was money he didn’t need.
He’d been born a billionaire, the last of his line.
“I envy you,” the man said warmly as if they were old friends instead of longtime competitors. “To retire at thirty-four and have the rest of your life ahead of you, that must—”
“I’m not retiring. I’m just moving onto something a little more relaxing to fill my free time with.”
The man closed his mouth abruptly, visibly annoyed at being interrupted by someone twenty years his junior, but Mason was beyond caring. The deal was done, a life filled with stress and long hours nearly behind him. He was ready, and Jeremy Long was standing in his way.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Mason said. “I wish you the best of luck, and I appreciate your business. I’ve made an appointment with my bank to remove my name from the business accounts as soon as this check clears. I will let you know when that happens, but since it’s Thursday morning, that should be done by Monday, if not sooner.”
Jeremy nodded, but Mason was up and motioning towards the door.
“It’s not yours yet,” Mason said. “The packing crew will take care of my office this afternoon, so you have all day tomorrow to make it your own.”
“I look forward to it,” Jeremy said.
He took Mason’s cue and stepped out of the office, making his way to the elevator with the same hurried pace with which he did everything. Mason closed the door and grabbed his phone, returning the call he had missed as he packed up his laptop and placed the check in a zippered interior pocket.
“Bethany, hi,” he said when the woman picked up on the first ring.
“I found her,” Bethany announced excitedly. “And you were right. She didn’t even know the property existed.”
“That’s good news. When can I meet with her?”
“That’s what I was going to tell you. It turns out that she knew exactly where to look for the documents, and she found the deed right away. It has the property line all laid out, and she has everything she needs to prove that she’s the rightful owner and the only heir to the property. She was very excited to meet you about the property.”
“She wondered if you would meet her up there this afternoon.”
“On the mountain.”
“Does she live near there?” Mason asked, a bit perplexed.
“She lives in Seattle.”
“I’m in Seattle. Go ahead and call her back, and I’ll meet her here.”
“I offered that, but she was adamant that she wanted to see the property and talk to you there.”
“She seemed a little…quirky. Very friendly. When I told her about the property, she was so excited to tell me all about the stories her grandmother had told her that I thought I was never going to get her off the phone.”
Mason pinched the bridge of his nose, not sure he was ready for such an encounter, but he shook his head and forced a smile even though Bethany couldn’t see him through the phone.
“You know what, it’s fine. I’ll just start my weekend early and drive out there after lunch. I should be there around four at the latest.”
“I’ll let her know,” Bethany said.
“Thank you, Bethany. As soon as this property closes, I’ll cut you a check for your bonus. You’ve been a big help through all this.”
“You’re welcome,” Bethany said. Mason could see her beaming with pride through the phone. “It was a lot of work, but I told you I would find every owner and convince them that they wanted to sell. This one took some doing, but it was worth it.”
“It really was,” Mason said before he said goodbye and hung up the phone.
He dropped the phone in his pocket, put the strap of the laptop case over his shoulder and across his body, and walked quickly to the door. His hand was on the knob when he stopped, turning around to take one last look at his office. There was a twinge of sadness at leaving behind everything he’d worked for since he had taken over for his late father when he was twenty-two. For more than a decade of his life, he’d spent forty hours a week at that desk, and this was the last time he’d ever see it.
He walked past the elevator, making his way through the bullpen instead, where his employees had already finished cleaning up after the big breakfast he’d had catered in that morning.
“Why are you all still here?” he asked, smiling. “It’s a paid long weekend. Enjoy!”
He shook hands with everyone as he went through, noticing that nearly half of the desks had a single cardboard box already packed up, cubicles devoid of any personal touches, computers turned off, keyboards and office supplies neatly put away.
Mason pursed his lips, nodding his understanding.
“For those of you who are pursuing work with other companies, I don’t blame you, and I wish you the best. Everyone staying, good luck. Make sure that bastard Jeremy treats you better than I did.”
The group laughed, acknowledging the animosity that the competing firms had shared for decades.
“If you’re ever not happy, don’t be afraid to find something better. If I can ever help any of you, you have my number.”
Someone in the crowd sniffled, and Mason shook his head.
“I’m humbled by you all. I grew up on this floor, and you’ve all made me a better man and leader. I wish you all the best.”
He said his final goodbyes and hurried out of the office. The applause was abruptly silenced by the fire door as it closed, leaving him alone with his thoughts as his footsteps echoed in the deserted stairwell. He shook off the nostalgia and squared his shoulders. There wasn’t time to think about everything this place had been to him over the last decade and beyond. His own father had worked himself to death making this company profitable, and Mason had no interest in taking that path. He had bigger dreams. He wasn’t about to wait until the end of his life to live those dreams.
He hurried through his errands, pulling his sleek, navy blue Jaguar F-Pace into the space beside his Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk well before lunchtime. He transferred his things to the other vehicle, then ran inside to shower and change. Already planning to spend the following week in the cabin, his Trackhawk was packed and ready to go.
He was on the road again before his hair had a chance to dry.
Excitement coursed through him, making the already long drive seem to take even longer as he recapped the past eighteen months. With Bethany’s help, he’d found the owner of every property on Bear Mountain, buying up an entire mountain one property at a time for nearly double what they were worth. Selling Heritage Consulting had recouped most of what he’d spent, and the rest hadn’t even put a dent in his sizeable fortune.
It had taken a lot of negotiating to convince some of the people to give up homesteads that had been in their families for generations, but in the end, money had won out, and everyone had handed over their deeds for a price.
Everyone, that was, except Clara Finch. Her grandmother held the rights to one of the largest properties, second only to Mason’s six-hundred-acre ranch on the very top of Bear Mountain. The Finch Homestead was much more modest, but what it lacked in living accommodations was made up for in prime acreage. The nearly four-hundred-acre parcel held most of the natural resources he planned on tapping to keep the community completely off the grid, including a small, spring-fed lake that was teeming with fish. The Finch place was vital, and he almost had it.
Glancing at the folder that held the thick contract, he took a deep breath and sighed happily.
“Almost, Mason. Almost.”
Finally guiding the Trackhawk off the freeway, he took the exit for Little Hope, a small, friendly town of one hundred that hadn’t managed to make it on any map. According to his GPS, the roads stopped there. But Mason knew better, having stopped more than once in the little town that was the last bit of civilization before the long, winding road that would take him up Bear Mountain. The people were friendly, and the town had a gas station and a quaint little market that covered all the basics.
Today, he didn’t stop, flying right down the one-lane highway that went on for another ten miles before it began to disintegrate gradually until all that was left was a dirt road just wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other.
The Trackhawk was meant for roads like this, and the ride remained relatively smooth the entire way to the fire road that meandered up the mountain and eventually led to the very top and the two-story, self-sufficient luxury cabin that Mason now called home.
He was making good time and would be there more than an hour before he was supposed to meet up with Clara. Good, he thought. That would give him time to unload the large cooler filled with groceries he’d brought, along with the boxes of canned and dry goods. He planned to build a stockpile that would last him through the winter, loading the Jeep up when he went back and forth from his house in Seattle to this one.
Once he was completely moved, he would sell the house in Seattle, cutting the last tie he had to the outside world. He could have easily paid a company to pack and move everything for him but keeping this place a secret was his number one priority. If people found out about Bear Mountain, it would defeat the entire purpose of buying it all and turning it into an off-the-grid community.
When he got to the top of the road and took the final curve, he was surprised to see a small, dusty Subaru Forester parked in front of the gate, blocking access to his property.
“Gotta love a woman who’s early,” he said, hitting the button on the sun visor that would open the gate and waving her through.
When the road widened enough for her to pull over, she did, letting him lead the way. He parked in the garage, leaving the large door open so he could meet her in the front where she had parked.
“You must be Ms. Finch,” he said warmly, stretching out his hand to the blonde haired, hazel eyed woman who stepped out of the car.
“Please, call me Clara,” she said.
She shook his hand, but she was too busy taking in the scenery to make eye contact. As she turned, the sun hit her hair and he noticed then that there were streaks of pastel colors throughout it..
“This place is beautiful,” she said. “I can’t believe that I didn’t know about it until Bethany called me.”
Mason chuckled, amused by her sense of wonder. He’d felt the same way when he’d first laid eyes on the place almost two years before, and the feeling had lingered.
“It is beautiful, but this isn’t your family’s property. This is my home. The land your grandmother owned is down that road about a mile.”
“That’s a road?” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“It needs a little work, but I have time and money to invest in updating the infrastructure without negatively impacting the land around the homes.”
“There are more homes up here?”
“There are,” he said, too cautious to share more than that with her.
She was the only one who had insisted on coming out to Bear Mountain to complete the sale, so he knew that she was aware of the location. But the less she knew, the better. It would be easier for her to keep it to herself if she thought there was nothing extraordinary about the place.
Mason had a feeling that keeping her thoughts to herself wasn’t one of Clara’s strong points.
“I am sorry about the loss of your grandmother,” Mason said.
“It’s alright. She had a long and happy life.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I hate to be nosey, but I do need to verify that you are the only relative that could possibly have ties to this land.”
“It’s just me. My parents passed away when I was a baby and I was raised by my grandmother. I’m the only child of her only child, so there is no one else.”
He nodded, not sure what to say. Thank you seemed a bit cold, but Clara didn’t notice the awkward silence.
“Shall we,” he said, motioning to the door. “I have some things to unload, so I’m going to leave you to read the contract at the table and—”
“I actually want to see the cabin now, if that’s alright.”
“Well, okay, I guess we can do that. Do you want to ride one of my four-wheelers? It’s a bit of a hike.”
“Will my car fit through?”
“It will,” he said slowly.
“I’ll just follow you.”
He stood there on the porch for a moment, weighing his options and then shaking his head. It was fine. He would show her the place, and then he would bring her back and have her sign the papers. It seemed simple enough.
“Give me a few minutes,” he said. “I have some food in a cooler, and I don’t want it to spoil.”
“No worries,” she said sweetly, following him as he walked to his car.
“What are you doing?” he asked, when she was still following him when he got to the garage.
“Work goes faster when everyone works together,” she said, as if he should have known that. “Point me in the right direction and I’ll help.”
He almost stopped her, but he decided to humor her instead. He handed her a box, then grabbed the cooler and lifted it out of the cargo area with ease. Well-defined muscles bunched under his skin as he walked, turning sideways to go through the door that Clara held open. She stayed in the kitchen and put the perishables away while he finished unloading, and they were done in no time at all.
Too bad she’s not one of us, Mason thought, watching the tall, curvy woman get into her car while she waited for him to lead the way on his four-wheeler. She would have made a great neighbor.