BRAUN & NATALIE
“The last order of business. Board members of The Cavern, it’s that time of year again. Time for the yearly sign-up sheet tae make its rounds. There are three areas on this sign-up sheet that need you attention: Grandstand Performance Night for the talent show. Volunteer duty; now that we have two new board members, everyone only has tae sign up for one-day-a-week volunteer duty. As all of you ken, each board member is also required tae sign up for a ministry class, either a financial planning class, a recovery class, and a self-defense class this coming year. Each class, as you also ken, is on Saturday and Sunday mornings.”
Our monthly meeting is always at The Caverns, in the conference room and always on a Saturday at The Caverns. Forrest Kincaid is the owner and executive minister of The Caverns, a mission dedicated to the community, and on the front-end, a world class five-star restaurant and winery
Having inherited The Caverns from his uncle, Benjamin, who used The Caverns as a winery and restaurant, Forrest hit the ground running and applied many much-needed touches to the old restaurant. Soon, economic hardships put pressure on a lot of people in the community; so, with the help of his brothers and sisters-in-arms, we turned the restaurant into a place of comfort and safety for not only the board members but also people looking for help. That was ten years ago, after he finished his military service. We’ve been close friends since before Forrest took over The Caverns.
The Caverns served the first set of service women and men, all of us seated here, all ex-military service personnel except Del. However, Del has earned his place on the board—not only is he a veterinarian, but he is also a children’s minister at the shelter in town.
After returning home, Forrest’s group sessions helped us all acclimate back into civilian life. During the last seven years, we’ve all noticed a need in certain areas of the community to help those who are downtrodden and financially set back. We’ve serviced that need with no financial support from outside government sources. The Caverns mainly relies on private donations.
Our organization dwells in a repurposed, old copper mine. Forrest thought that if we retained the old winery name, the people in the community would remember the address, which is used for a mission downstairs and a restaurant above.
Forrest slides a clipboard to the center of the long, dark, mahogany, rectangle-shaped table. When no one reaches for the sign-up clipboard—we all just stare at it instead—Forrest sits back down in his chair at the head of the table and does what he always does. He watches.
“Let’s not all sign up at once,” Forrest says and smiles.
I look around the table at the other eight board members called for this monthly meeting. There
are the original members: Thane, Griffin, Duke, Kane, Chandler, Jasper, Valerie, Gil, and of course, our two brothers and board members now living up in Montana: Remington and Quint. Each of us now looks at the others, waiting for someone else to grab the board.
Board members, what we call ourselves, are required to volunteer to serve the community no less than once a week for as long as we remain members of The Caverns. Servicing those in need of mental health counseling or financial planning counseling, or who are in need of deliverance ministering, is what we all are certified and degreed to do. We all enjoy full-time careers along with having and using some area of ministry certifications.
I don’t mind serving the community, but what I do mind is the Performance Night Talent Show at The Caverns’ yearly gathering. A formal ball, hosted by us for those who are influential in the philanthropy circle. Here, they come to eat, be entertained, and give us big bucks to continue to serve.
Tired of watching everyone stare at the clipboard, I reach out, snatch it up, and set my name to some dates.
Next to me, my future brother-in-law, Chandler, asks, “You letting those dates stand?” “I am,” I say and pass him the clipboard.
Whenever Chandler comes to The Caverns with Jacks, I stay away. We’re careful to make sure both of us are not in The Caverns at the same time because Jacks—my baby sister—is a little matchmaker, and I’m tired of her introducing me around as her unmarried, single, older brother.
Chandler and I go as far back as high school. He left for college, and I left for the service. I went on to the Rangers and he went off to medical school. He and old Doc Martins are the best doctors in town.
For two years, after Jacks came home from college, Chandler chased after her up and down the roads of Cody, and six months ago, the little spitfire finally said yes. So, he’s not wasting any time. He gave her six months and not a day later to get a wedding and reception together.
Alexandra, or Lexie as she likes to be called, signs up next, after Chandler. “Well, the last time I taught a women’s self-defense class, I had a really great turnout. One of my students even made the news a few months ago for the self-defense tactics she learned in my class, which saved her life. So, since I’m a woman of habit, I’ll sign up for the same class.”
I’ve always thought Lexie was a classically beautiful woman. Gorgeous, pecan-colored skin, with beautiful, dark-brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a head full of long dreadlocks. She’s a retired Marine and the only female board member.
Once everyone else has signed up, Forrest reaches for the board and nods with satisfaction. As much as I love this club, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been able to get out of the office at a decent time without being too exhausted to come and help out here. But since I’m a detective
out of the Cody, Wyoming police department, I’m still serving the community.
After my one tour of service, I returned home and went straight into college to earn a degree in
criminal justice and business. A few years later, I made detective.
Cody, Wyoming, where I lay my hat, is a town of maybe a hundred thousand people, not
including those in and around town and the farmlands. Even for a small close-knit, safe-enough town, Cody has had rough times now and again. Though there are big advancements sprouting up, Cody will never lose that down-home feeling.
“So, are we done?” Delcan, or Del, my brother, asks. He’s thirty-four, younger than me by two years, a fact I never miss a chance to remind him of. Del, and his high school buddy and business partner, Gilford, are two of Cody’s best vets.
As children, Jacks, my brothers, Eleemon and Delcan, and I were as close as four siblings could be. We all did everything together back then. But life has a way of pulling everyone apart. Somehow, and with persistent encouragement from our ma, we try to come together as often as our schedules allow. Most importantly, we always find our way back home.
“Yes, Laird Delcan, that will be all,” Forrest says with a slight smile.
Good, I think. I get up from my seat, wanting to have a word with Del, but Forrest calls out
before I even reach the door, “Laird Braun, kin you hang back a minute? I need a moment of your time.”
Everyone looks at me as they all begin to file out of the conference room. We all know whenever Forrest wants to talk to one of us in private, he’s about to ask a favor from us that we’d rather avoid, though we always carry them out, out of respect for our friendship with him.
“Better you than me,” Valerie mutters as she walks past me.
I’ve known Forrest Kincaid since our days in the military. Forrest, of Scottish descent, served
in the British Armed Forces overseas. Our units brushed shoulders a few times in the past, and he and I got along well enough.
Anyone who looks around this conference room and Forrest’s private quarters can spy his heritage everywhere. His family clan colors are splattered from the rugs on the floor to the old,
family tapestries hanging on the wall of the conference room to the ancient swords over the fireplace.
Forrest closes the door behind Griff, then walks back over to the table, where I sit back down. Forrest takes the seat next to me. Yeah, this isn’t good.
“Braun, let’s talk, shall we?”
“Yeah, I get that,” I say and sit back reluctantly. “What’s up, Forrest?”
“You’ve been a board member here since after my uncle Benjamin owned the club when I returned home, and I used this very conference room for our session. It’s been, what, ten years?” Forrest asks in his Scottish accent.
He knows full well how long I’ve been a board member here. “What do you want to know, Forrest?”
“Aye, well, I’m getting tae that. You see, it’s been close tae five years since you’ve been around two with any lady.” He leans back in his chair.
At The Caverns, to give respect to the spouses of board members, and those of other members, wives are gifted with the title of Lady, and husbands are called Lairds. Of course, this is because of Forrest’s Scottish heritage.
When Forrest left his father’s home in Scotland, his father never wanted him to join active duty. As a result, after Forrest enlisted, the two men didn’t talk for years. Then Forrest’s uncle left him The Caverns. In order to make up for not talking to his son for years, Forrest’s father offered him anything that was within his power to give him.
Forrest’s mother loves pearls. Forrest knew of a cache of pearls locked up in one of his father’s storehouses. All that Forrest wanted was that cache. That is why each Lady of The Caverns who is a board member or the wife of a board member is given a string or strings of pearls.
“Yeah. So? What’s on your mind, Forrest?” I ask, trying to hide my agitation, and purposely ignoring his question.
Now, everyone, including those who come to The Caverns for help, knows that Forrest goes to the extreme when it comes to aiding others. So, if he’s fishing at something, he either wants something from me or thinks that something is not as it should be. If ever there is something that seems out of sorts, according to Forrest, it is his business to set things to right.
“Well, is there a point where you will put effort intae getting out and confront Natalie about what happened?” he asks.
I raise an eyebrow at that clear observation.
I have a lot of respect for Forrest. He holds two sermons a week, one here at The Caverns in
the Gathering Hall and another down at one of the retirement homes, along with Bible studies one
night a week. And for all that, he never accepts the honorarium offered to him for speaking at funerals or performing wedding ceremonies, and he never passes out any a collection plates after service.
Forrest’s take on no donations comes from the fact that Christ, our Savior, never asked for an honorarium for spreading the Word of God. Since Christ is the Word, Christ essentially would be charging himself.
“Well, as you ken, Chandler’s married tae Lady Jacqueline, Quint’s married to Lady Penniford, and Remington just married Lady Phoebe—the first board member’s marriage in over ten years.”
“No, Forrest, I didn’t know that,” I say sarcastically. “What of it?”
Quint and Remington are our brothers from Montana. Neither are ex-military, but both men
had a hand in getting The Caverns where it is today.
Now, I know what he’s getting at. Forrest has a beautiful sister, Sophia, a famous ballet dancer
who lives in New York.
“You asking me to show Sophia around?” I say in mock surprise. “What? Oh, no,” he corrects me, shaking his head.
I look at him with furrowed brows, and he continues, “Not that anything is wrong with you taking Sophia around town. Goodness forbid. I’m just concerned about you and need a favor.” “I figured that. I’m fine, Forrest. So what would this favor be?” I ask.
“Well, Lady Jacqueline is having her best friends come for her wedding and the Gathering, and I thought there is something that you should be privy to.” He doesn’t once break eye contact as he speaks.
I’m not going to like this. “You playing matchmaker, Forrest?” “Good gracious, no. I would ask a favor of you, though.”
“Get to it, Forrest,” I say with clear agitation in my voice.
Undeterred, he explains, “Well, it seems that we have a big-name potential donor coming tae the Gathering, invited by Lady Jacqueline.”
“I would consider it a favor if you would take this donor in hand and show her all that The Caverns has tae offer.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to ask?” I throw my hands up. “So, you will do it?” he asks, looking shocked.
I get to my feet, place my knuckles on the table, and lean forward. I don’t have time to suck up to some cranky old man. “Why didn’t you ask one of the others to babysit?” I coldly ask.
He leans back in his chair, and with one finger at his temple, stares at me. I hate it when he does this. He’s studying me again.
“All the other board members have been placed with potential donors except Mr. Thane and Mr. Griffin. I’ll enlist their help in time.”
I think on what he’s asked me to do. With Forrest, it’s always a good idea to scrutinize every angle of any favor he asks before agreeing to it. Not seeing any harm yet, I finally say, though still leery, “Yeah. Anything to bring in donations.”
“So, I kin count on you tae do this favor?” he persists.
“Of course. Just introduce me to the donor, and I’ll take it from there.” I then rise from my
chair, preparing to get out while I can.
“Hold one moment longer, please, Braun.”
I turn around, waiting as Forrest grabs his cell from off the table, apparently typing out a text. When he’s done, he leans back in his chair and asks, “Now, dinnae you want tae ken who this potential donor is?”
“No, just point me in his direction, and I’ll try to do the rest,” I say in a rush, trying to hurry this along. I’m no stranger to this rodeo, having sucked up to rich philanthropists before for The Caverns.
“That’s good. Kin you sit a moment longer, please?” he requests.
“One favor a year, Forrest,” I grumble, but I oblige him.
“Do you by chance ken who our sister’s friends and business partners are?” He asks.
Sophia and Jacks are good friends. Forrest had been looking for a roommate for his sister, and Jacks was looking to share a flat in college. So, we introduced the two, and they hit it off. They’ve been best friends ever since.
“Yeah…” I look at him with derision. “Sophia and…” I have no clue.
Jacks and I are close, but Jacks is her own woman, and other than straying from the teachings
of Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t dare interfere in her life. She’d bite my head off. Jacks is the manager of some really famous celebrities. Jacks and Forrest’s sister, Sophie, had attended the same college program at the University of Edinburgh.
“Imagine after all the years Sophia has lived with these women, and Natalie has never been seen, by me.”
“Aye?” He looks at me, expecting me to know.
I push my chair back, kick my booted feet up on the table, cross them at the ankles, then lean
back in my chair. Forrest and I stare at each other a moment before I finally admit, “I don’t know, Forrest. Who?”
Forrest smiles, gets up, walks to the head of the table, grabs a file from a nearby cabinet, and then comes back to lean on the side of the table next to me. He sets the file on the table and opens it. I take my feet off the table and stare down at the picture of the most beautiful woman in the world. Her gorgeous eyes stare back at me.
“She is absolutely beautiful, isn’t she?” Forrest says.
That’s the only thing he’s said so far in this exchange that I agree with. From her picture,
Natalie Sweetwater is stunning. I can tell no photoshopping has touched that photo. Full lips, high cheekbones, a straight nose, and almond-shaped eyes. It’s easy to see her Native American heritage. She’s absolutely gorgeous.
Now, the only other person besides me who knows I was married in that botanical garden, other than her and the minister, is Forrest, and that’s only because I confessed my secret marriage to him, two years ago. I needed him to help me understand if I was shown some spiritual insight into my future that night in that garden.
“Well, I’ve done some investigating…”
“You mean, you were being nosey,” I interject.
This does not deter him. “Aye. Sure, sure. Well, I think I have a bit of news that you might not want tae hear…or you may want tae hear it.”
It must not be life-threatening; otherwise, he would have told me by now. I wait. He’ll get to it soon, so I sit back and act as if the news he has on Natalie doesn’t bother me when in fact, nothing can be further from the truth.
There are days when I go without thinking about her, and then there are days, long hours, when I think about nothing else. I ponder the life we may have had together and wonder when I will get that call—that she’s found out we’ve, in fact, been married this whole time and wants an annulment.
The pain I used to get in my chest whenever I would think about Natalie is now a dull ache, felt whenever I think about the wife I can’t call my own. I don’t know if it’s love I feel for Natalie or longing for the wife ordained to me.