Read A Beautiful Funeral (The Maddox Brothers #5)(14) online free by Jamie McGuire
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A Beautiful Funeral (The Maddox Brothers #5)(14)
Author: Jamie McGuire

“Guys,” I said, still holding up my hands, “I’m getting the hose. Don’t. Move. Mom is in there. Do you know what she’ll do if you step foot inside the house?”

Eli looked at Emerson with his trademark evil grin.

“I mean it,” I said, pointing at them. They giggled as I took the three steps from the porch to the sidewalk and then veered off into the grass toward the side yard to find the spigot.

America and I were both only children, and we knew we wanted more than one, and close together. By the time we’d had Emerson, we’d decided we were in way over our heads. Ezra was just a month older than Travis and Abby’s twins. Eli came two years later. Emerson two more after that. Unlike Travis and Taylor’s sons, mine were all quick to throw a punch, taller than every kid in their perspective grades, and unmistakably Maddox mean. Good thing I’d had some experience with that.

I grabbed the nozzle and pulled it from the retractable hose reel, unraveling it as I walked toward the porch. As soon as I rounded the corner, I dropped the hose and ran. The door was wide open, and the boys were gone.

“Damn it!” I growled, running toward the sound of America’s shrieking.

She was in the kitchen, already moving at warp speed. Emerson was sitting on the counter with his bare feet in the sink under running water while she was temporarily blinding Eli by yanking a shirt over his head. She was already threatening Ezra.

“If you move, so help me God!” she warned.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra said, standing uncharacteristically still next to the refrigerator.

The boys weren’t great at listening to me, but none of them dared to test their momma when she’d had enough. She wasn’t afraid to let us know when we were close to crossing that line, either.

“I’m sorry, honey,” I said, grabbing several rags from a drawer.

America was in the zone, far away from me. There was no time for meaningless apologies—or her acceptance of them. She was concentrating on the next thing that had to be done. By the time we’d wiped the last of the melted white mess from their mouths and hands, the boys were already running at turbo speed to their rooms, and America was sitting on the floor looking spent.

“God bless Diane for keeping your cousins alive for as long as she did,” America said.

I sat beside her, resting my forearms on my bent knees. “House looks good.”

“For the moment,” she said, leaning over to kiss me. “Still questioning our decision to remodel before they leave for college.”

I chuckled, but that faded as I pushed up to stand, bringing my wife with me. We both groaned, our aging bones just beginning to show signs of three decades of wear and tear. We’d spent a lot of time on that kitchen floor, making meals, making babies, and then on our hands and knees replacing the linoleum with updated tile. The popcorn ceilings scraped, granite countertops and new carpeting or tile installed throughout, every room but the boys’ painted Tony Taupe, lighting updated, and hardware replaced. The only things untouched were the oak wood cabinets and trim. Our house was nearly as old as we were, but America liked character and turning old into new rather than living in a space that didn’t need us.

Emerson ran in and hugged America. “Love you, Mom.” He darted off just as fast as he’d appeared, and she held out her shirt, revealing a white smear.

“We missed a spot,” she said, exasperated. “I wonder how many more spots we missed. We should do a second sweep.”

“He loves you, Mom. They all do.”

America’s eyes softened as she looked to me. “That’s why I let them live.”

From the moment two lines appeared on the pregnancy test, America was in love: more than she loved her parents, more than she loved Abby—more than she loved me. She made no apologies for putting the boys first, even before herself. When America took it upon herself to help me wrangle my roommate and cousin, Travis, neither one of us knew she was practicing to be a Maddox boys’ mother herself. The way she commanded their respect and retained her soft maternal side reminded me of my Aunt Diane almost daily.

“Summer camp?” I asked. I was a football scout for the Chicago Bears and traveled for a good chunk of the year. America was a saint. She never complained and never resented me for being on the road, or continuing in a job I loved, even if it meant a lot of lonely nights and solo parenting. Even if she had, I’d still think she was a saint. Sometimes, I wished that she would.

“Oh, yes. Fishing, camping, and starting fires. They can’t wait. We still have insurance, right?”

“Right.”

America sighed, intertwining her fingers in mine. Covered in cleaner, fingers pruney, and with a dust bunny hanging from her blond ponytail, she was stunningly beautiful. I felt a pang in the pit of my stomach. “I love you,” she said, and I fell in love all over again.

I opened my mouth to respond, but my phone rang. I rolled my eyes and then used my index finger and thumb like tweezers to pull it from the front pocket of my khaki pants. “Hello?”

“Hey, Shep. It’s, uh … it’s Trent. Are you home?”

“We’re home. What’s up?”

“You should come over.”

I paused, not expecting his answer. “N-now?”

“Now,” Trenton said without hesitation.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, already uneasy. “Is it Jim?” As expected, my question caught America’s attention. “Is he okay?”

“He’s okay. We just need you to come over.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to keep the worry from my voice. I knew Jim had been off lately, and I imagined that he might have gotten bad news from the doctor. “We’ll be there in twenty.”

“Thanks, Shep,” Trenton said before hanging up the phone.

“Jim?” America asked.

I put my phone away and shrugged. “I don’t know. They want us to come over.”

“Sounds urgent,” she said, watching my face for clues.

“I honestly don’t know, honey. Let’s just herd the boys toward the car. Twenty minutes is optimistic by anyone’s standards.”

“I can do it,” she said, walking toward the hall. “Boys! Car! Now!”

I watched her disappear into Eli and Emerson’s room and then searched for my keys and phone for a full minute before realizing they were both in my pockets. I cursed under my breath all the way to Ezra’s room, and then encouraged him to put on his Chuck Taylors so we could go. I knew for a fact America had started cleaning their rooms before even thinking about the rest of the house, and Ezra’s floor was already covered with clothes, toys, and …

“Rocks? Really?” I asked.

“Got them from James. He won them in a poker game.”

I subdued a smile, knowing exactly where James got his hustling skills from. “Tie your laces. C’mon, buddy, we gotta go.”

“Where?” Ezra asked in his mini-man voice. He reminded me of Thomas, always needing to know the details.

“To Papa Jim’s,” I said.

Travis and Abby’s twins had come a little early, making James and Jessica just a month younger than Ezra. Even without the influence of Travis’s kids referring to him as Papa, my kids would’ve still considered Jim their other grandpa.

“Yessss!” Ezra hissed, slipping on his Chucks without tying them and running for the door.

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