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Burke Burdett had lost himself.
The man he had always believed himself to be had vanished. Nobody needed him anymore. Nobody wanted him. Nobody even realized that he had gone.
It had happened so quickly he still didn't know where he fit into the grand scheme of his company, his family or even his own life. But he did know thisyears ago he had made a promise and now he had to see that promise through, even if it meant he had to go someplace he swore he'd never go to ask help of someone he swore he'd never see again. Even if it meant that he had to trade in his image of Top Dawg, the eldest and leader of the pack of Burdett brothers, to become somebody that nobody in Mt. Knott, South Carolina, would ever have imagined. If Burke ever hoped to find himself again, he was going to have to become Santa Claus.
Fat, wet snowflakes powdered the gray-white Carolina sky. Dried stalks of grass and weeds poked through the threadbare blanket of white. Everything seemed swathed in peace and quiet solitude.
Winter weather was not unheard of in this part of South Carolina, but Burke Burdett had rarely seen it come this early in the year, nor had he ever considered it the answer to somebody's prayer. His prayer.
He looked to the heavens and muttered mostly to himself but not caring if the God of all creation, maker of the sky, and mountains and gentle nudges in the form of frozen precipitation, overheard" And on Thanksgiving Day of all times."
It had to be Thanksgiving, of course, one of the few days when Burke took the time to actually offer a prayer much beyond a mumbled appeal for help or guidance.
This time he had asked for a little of each and added to the mix a heartfelt plea, "Please, prepare my heart for what I am about to undertake. Give it meaning by giving me purpose."
If he were another kind of man, he could have waxed eloquent about love and honor and humbling himself in order to learn and grow from the experience. But he wasn't that kind of man. He was the kind of man who wanted to feel productive and useful. There were worse ambitions than asking to be useful to the Lord, he believed.
So he had left his prayer as it was and waited for something to stir in him. It had stirred outside instead. Snow. In November.
The whole family had ooohed and ahhhed over it, and for an instant, Burke recalled how it felt to be a kid. And just as quickly he excused himself and drove awry from the family compound of homes.
Now in the vacant parking lot of the old building that housed his family's business, the Carolina Crumble Pattie factory, Burke did not feel the cold. Only a dull, deepening sense of loneliness that had dogged him after spending a day surrounded by his family. In years past that family had consisted of his mom and dad, Conner and Maggie Burdett, his three brothers, Adam, Jason and Cody, and maybe a random cousin or two in from Charleston. This year two sisters-in-law and a nephew had been added. But it was the losses that Burke simply could not shake.
Age and grief had ravaged the tough old bird who had once been the strong, proud Conner Burdett, left him thin and a little stooped, worn around the eyes and unexpectedly sentimental.
Sentiment was not the Burdett way and seeing it in his father made Burke think of weakness and vulnerability. Not his father's but his own.
Burke clenched and unclenched his jaw and squinted at the low yellow-and-tan building where he had worked since he'd been old enough to ride his bicycle there after school. It did not help that the realities of the changing market had their business by the throat and had all but choked the life out of what had once been the mainstay of employment for much of the town of Mt. Knott, South Carolina.
They had made a plan to deal with that, or rather, his brother Adam had. He had gone out into the global marketplace, learned new techniques and made powerful allies. He was the one, the family had concluded by an almost unanimous vote, who needed to take the reins now. That plan had come at a cost. Burke, who had always carried the title Top Dawg in the pack of Burdett boys, had been asked to step aside.
Step aside or be forced out. By his own family.
In doing so Burke had lost his place not just in the family but, he thought, in the whole wide world. Not that they had fired him outright. They had asked him to stay on in a different capacity, but they must have known he'd never do it. After all, who had ever heard of Upper Middle Management Dawg?
So he had tendered his resignation and never returned, not even to collect his belongings. Until now.
Adam was to take on the job that Burke had held, for all intents and purposes, for a decade now. Adam, with his expertise in international corporate business dealings. Adam, with his new ideas for marketing and distribution. Adam, with the one thing that made him the most honored in the eyes of Conner Burdett, the thing that would assure them all that their name and reputation and even their business would go ona son.
Burke didn't even have a girlfriend. How was he supposed to compete with that?
He wasn't, of course. To know that, Burke only had to think about Adam and Josie and their son, Nathan, how happy they had looked today seated at the massive Burdett dinner table together. Love and joy and wanting the best for those you care about, doing your best for them, that was what mattered. Winning?
Winning, Burke decided as he let out a long, labored sigh, was for losers.
And for the first time in his life, Burke felt like a loser. Not because of the loss of his position with the company or the unlikelihood that he would become a husband and father anytime soon, but because he had failed at that one thing that really mattered in life.
Burke shuddered. The wind whipped at the collar of his brown suede coat. He pushed his gray Stetson down low, as much to hide the dark blond hair that everyone in town would recognize as to protect his head and ears from the cold. Today, Thanksgiving Day, he felt the cutting ache of the loss of his
mother down to his very bones. She had died two years ago, come Christmas Eve. Two years.
Yet it felt so fresh that he could still feel the heft of her coffin as he led the procession of pallbearers that day. He flexed his hand as if to chase away the memory of the icy brass handle he had clutched to take his mother to her final resting place. But it had been too long.
He had let too much time go past and now he had to face the truth.
Until this year the running of "the crumble," as everyone in Mt. Knott affectionately called the business, had kept him busy. It had occupied his time, his thoughts, his energy. He hadn't even had time for dating, much less a real relationship, for seeing friends or making a real home for himself or any of the niceties most people his age took for granted. He certainly didn't have time to take on some silly pet cause of his mother's. One he didn't understand, didn't approve of and had only learned about when she was on her deathbed. Even if it was the one thing she had asked that Burke and Burke alone, of all the brothers, undertake. Her dying wish.
He swiped a knuckle across his forehead to nudge back his hat, ignoring the sudden sting of a flake that swirled beneath his Stetson to land on his cheek.
His finger brushed over the faint old scar that jagged across his eyebrow.
Conner had given it to himthe scar, not the business. The Crumble he had had to fight for in every sense of the word. He'd used the law, his family's consensus and finally even his fists to win his birthright as oldest of the four Burdett sons. His birthrighthis place as head of the Burdett household and CEO of the family's already foundering enterprise.
Burke had gotten that scar the night he'd taken over as head of the family business. He'd been running it behind the scenes while his mother was sick, without much input at all from the rest of the family, but Conner's name had always remained painted in gold on the glass of the door to the big office. Until that night. That night everything had shifted, like a great jutting up of land along a fault line. They had all known it would come one day but had done little to prepare for it.
That night Adam had cashed out his share
of the Crumble factory, taken the inheritance his mother had left and run away. And Conner and Burke had pushed their always contentious relationship to the edge.
He hung his head. Even after all these years, even though he and his father had made their peace, Burke felt a pang of regret that it had gone so far. But his father's grief over losing Maggie had driven them to the brink of bankruptcy. Adam's actions had sealed the deal.
It was either challenge his father and take over or lose everything that they had worked to achieve.
Burke stroked the memento of that fateful night. Two things had happened then that would forever shape the rest of his life. First, he'd become a man, the leader of his family, the one they would all depend on. And second, he had decided, as he saw his father sobbing in misery over the remnants of what had once been a proud life, that Burke would never let himself need another person the way his father had needed his mother. It was a man's choice, as he saw it. You cannot love one person that much and still have enough left to serve the many who depend on you.
He'd been true to his word on both counts. He'd applied the ruthless business tactics that his father had taught him, slashed jobs, cut the budget to the bone, stripped away bonus plans and reduced salaries, starting with his own. It wasn't enough.
And as for needing anyone?
Need was some other person's weakness. Not his. Ever. Except
There was his mother's dying wish.
A wish too long ignored.
A job that no one in Mt. Knott could know about, much less help him with.
He needed to take care of that.
Christmas was only five weeks away. Time was running out.
He'd looked at his predicament from every possible angle. In order to preserve everything his mother had worked so hard to keep secret for so many years, he would require a certain type of person. Someone from out of town. Someone who would work hard, collect her sizable paycheck and then go away before December twenty-fourth to leave his family and his town to celebrate the sacred holiday, without so much as a backward glance. Someone who shared his beliefs that business is not a personal thing, that sentiment breeds weakness, and that needing someone is not the cornerstone of a good life but a roadblock on the way to the top.
He forced his hat back down low on his head and made his way toward the building at last. He would duck inside and grab the box that had been waiting there for him ever since he had cleared out of his office to make way for Adam. In it he'd find a phone number on a business card. Tomorrow morning, he'd have to make the trek to Atlanta.