Chapter 04: We Shall Fight
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”—Winston Churchill
Other than a few nervous minutes for Ned when Eric and Sookie first got him into the taxi, the kitten slept on the ride to his new home. Although Tray texted to tell them that there was no sign of Sigebert, Eric and Sookie decided to play it safe by meeting him at the service entrance of Carmichael Tower.
In fact, Eric and Sookie had decided to play it safe for a while. They’d never gone into work together. Given the fact that Eric generally needed to arrive at least an hour before she did, that generally wasn’t even an issue, but they often went for evening walks together along the Hudson. They decided to put those on hold—at least temporarily. Beyond that, it was really only the weekends that they had to be more careful about being seen leaving or arriving together, and they knew that Henry and his team would help.
Ned popped wide awake as soon as they got home, and his mission seemed to be to smell everything. Eric and Sookie carefully followed Octavia’s instructions and took him to the room with his litter box first. While he was digging in it—seemingly intent to scatter a good deal of the litter on the floor—Sookie sat on the edge of the tub and watched the kitten, and Eric brought a little broom and dustpan from the utility room.
“We’re gonna have to leave those back here,” Sookie chuckled, gesturing toward the broom and then the floor.
Eric laughed and then felt almost proud when he saw Ned using the litter box for what it was meant to be used for before moving a seemingly huge pile of litter to cover his “work.”
“Well, at least he seems to have learned where to take a shit quickly,” he chuckled as he handed the water dish to Sookie, who filled it from the faucet. As soon as she set it down—on the other side of the room so that it wouldn’t fall victim to Ned’s future excavations in the litter box—the kitten ran over to it and took a drink. Meanwhile, Eric put a tiny bit of dry kitten food, moistened by water as Octavia had suggested, into the food bowl and set it down. Ned immediately chomped about half of it down before wandering out into the guest room to sniff around.
Eric and Sookie ordered pizza and spent the evening watching Ned’s various discoveries or being his pillow when he decided to collapse for one of his frequent cat-naps. They soon learned that Octavia’s assessment of their kitten was spot on. He did love to explore, but when he was ready to sleep, he slept like a log. He would find where Eric and Sookie were sitting, claw his way up Eric’s jeans like a spelunker, and then settle onto one of his humans—sometimes both of them. When he would awaken, Eric or Sookie would always take him back to the guest bathroom, which they’d already started calling Ned’s room, so that the kitten would continue getting used to his domain.
It wasn’t until 8:00 p.m. that Eric and Sookie’s mood became heavier as the first of their guests, Bobby, arrived. Amelia arrived a few minutes later, followed soon after by Pam. Henry and Thalia came up a few minutes after that, while Blake had stayed behind to babysit Thalia’s kids in the home they all shared downstairs.
After the group met Ned, who thrived on the attention of the humans, Eric and Sookie got everyone drinks. Then they all settled into the lounge in the “gray” part of the house.
Everyone was amused when Ned crawled up Pam’s designer slacks so that he could join the others on the couch. The look on Pam’s face as she tried to figure out how to deal with the kitten, whom she immediately dubbed the “clothing cleaver,” made everyone laugh—except for Pam.
Eric quickly got up and saved the kitten from “Aunt Pam” before bringing him to the opposite couch where Sookie, he, and Bobby had settled. The levity in the room quickly faded, however, as Eric began to tell Pam about what Nora had done the night before. He told her about the bug in his office, he told her about one of the Berts finding him at Amelia’s brownstone, and then he told her about the plan to make it seem as if Amelia and he had been having a series of rendezvous so that Sookie would be kept out of everything.
“Is that why you dyed your hair?” Pam asked Amelia after Eric had finished speaking.
“Yeah,” Amelia smiled. “Sookie opened the door for Eric last night, so the Bert might have glimpsed her. We thought it’d be better to play it safe and to make me a blonde.”
“Good,” Pam said. “Because when I saw you tonight, I was worried that you’d gone ‘Single-White-Female’ on me.”
Everyone laughed as Pam leaned in and gave Amelia a little kiss. Given the fact that Pam wasn’t generally one for public displays of attention, the gesture indicated her gratefulness more than any words could. Next, Pam got up and moved to the empty space next to Eric. She cuddled into his side for a moment before returning to her original spot.
The two siblings just looked at each other for a moment before Pam spoke up. “I’ve tried to hate Appius for your sake, but I can’t. However, I want you to know that I love you more, bror, and it has now come down to a clear choice. And I pick you.” She paused. “I swear that if our father gives me an ultimatum not to see you, I’ll cut ties with him—even if it means that I have to leave NP. I have a hard enough time not kicking his ass as it is.”
Eric smiled in appreciation. “It’s important that you don’t do that, Pam.” He took a deep breath and looked at Sookie, who was looking back at him and smiling a little. Little Ned was lying curled up on her lap—oblivious to everything except the string on Sookie’s hoodie.
Eric took another deep breath and looked around the room. He sighed. “Some of you know part of what I’m about to say, but Sookie and I feel it is important that you all know. We need your help, so you deserve to know. And Blake should know too,” Eric said in Henry’s direction. “Would you tell him for us?”
The ex-Navy SEAL nodded.
Eric took another deep breath. “My mother, Stella Larsson Northman, had a long-term affair with a man named Peder Lang. Though my parents had an open marriage, my mother hid her relationship with Peder. Complicating things was the fact that Peder, Stella, and Appius had a relationship altogether in college. Appius fell in love with both Peder and Stella.” Eric paused. “From what I can tell, Appius thought that he was the center of the relationship—that both Peder and Stella loved him, but not each other. When he found out that they loved each other too, he couldn’t stand it. He asked my mother to give Peder up to prove her love. She agreed and seemed to do just that. And then Appius broke ties with Peder.”
“But your mother didn’t really give Peder up,” Thalia commented perceptively.
“No,” Eric responded. “She chose Appius in almost every way. She married him and was a good partner to him. And I believe that she loved him very much. However, a couple of times a year, she would meet Peder. My father found out right after she died. And he became certain that I was Peder’s son.” Eric raked his hand through his hair. “I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that Appius took it upon himself to,” he paused, “punish me for my mother’s infidelity, and he set into motion a plan to get me to sign away—to him—what remained of my maternal grandfather’s fortune. I fell into his trap, and right after I merged Johan Larsson’s company with NP, Appius hit me with the news that I was not his son. But,” Eric scoffed ruefully, “the joke was on him. The DNA test showed that I was his.”
“Lemme guess,” Henry said, “he didn’t apologize.”
“No,” Eric said gravely. “His reaction was to blackmail me into signing a contract with him. It was a contract that I thought I could live with,” he said, looking at Sookie. “But I was wrong about that.”
“What does it entail?” Thalia asked warily.
“I am to become CEO of NP when I turn thirty-five; in exchange for almost complete autonomy, I will have to report to Appius once a year and keep the company performing up to a certain standard.”
“And if you don’t?” Henry asked.
“Then Appius or someone he appoints will come in and take things over for a year, though I will stay on as CEO officially—at a much lower salary, of course. My term as CEO is to be twenty years, and—after that time is over—I am to be summarily dismissed. I will get a trust fund left for me by my grandparents, but I will be forced to sell all my NP stock to Appius or his agent. But—those are not the parts of the contract that I can no longer live with.”
“What are those parts?” Thalia asked.
Eric sighed. “Another clause entails that I have to marry before I turn thirty-five and that the woman must meet certain qualifications.”
“And Sookie wouldn’t be qualified?” Henry asked, his words terse and his jaw tightened.
Eric shook his head. “No. She wouldn’t, but I won’t give her up.”
“And you’ve known this all along?” Henry asked Sookie.
“Yes. Eric told me the truth from the start,” she responded, smiling a little at the protectiveness in Henry’s tone. “And I was ready to settle for the time we could have.”
“But now we’re both done with settling,” Eric said defiantly.
“What is the penalty when you break the contract?” Henry asked Eric perceptively. “I know that Appius Northman would have put one into your contract.”
Eric nodded. “Yes. And there is really only one window during which I can feasibly break it too.”
“His thirty-fifth birthday,” Bobby clarified. “There is an ‘escape clause’ of sorts on that day; otherwise, he will be forced to pay Appius ten billion dollars.”
Thalia whistled. “Geez!”
Eric nodded. “Geez indeed. And, if I couldn’t pay, I’d have to plead guilty of stealing from NP. Suffice it to say that breaking the contract before or after my thirty-fifth birthday would likely land me in prison for fifteen years—at least.”
Eric looked around at everyone. “But on my thirty-fifth birthday, I am going to breach that contract. I’m not going to let Sookie go.”
Pam sat stunned for a moment. “You realize that Father won’t allow you to be CEO then.”
Eric nodded. “I know and I’m okay with that. But that’s not all he’s going to do.”
“What will he do?” Henry asked.
“When I breach the contract, he will take my stock and my trust fund. He will also stop paying my grandmother her stipend—a stipend which provides most of her income. And he will immediately shut down my division at NP, firing everyone.” Eric took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “A hundred and four people will be harmed when I break that contract, but I have to break it.” He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, it was to look at Sookie. His eyes held unshed tears. “I can’t live like I’d been living before Sookie came into my life—not anymore.”
She took his hand firmly, but gently. “Eric is going to warn the people in his division as he can and—if necessary—we’ll try to help them financially until they are able to find other jobs.” She squeezed his hand even as Ned bounced from her lap to his. “We’ll do everything we can for them.”
Eric sighed and gave her a little nod. “Yes. And I have a way to make sure that Mormor is taken care of too.”
“I can help,” Pam said.
Eric smiled at her. “Thanks.”
“What about your home?” Pam asked, looking around the room.
Eric inhaled deeply. “I won’t deny that I love it here, and I hope to find work that will let Sookie and me keep it, but it is just a collection of walls in the end.” He looked at Sookie. “And home is wherever we can be together now.”
She squeezed his hand again, trying to convey to him with her eyes just how grateful she was for his words and for what he was going to give up for her.
Eric garnered his strength from her. He took another deep breath and looked back at Pam. “I’ll have to break ties to everyone in the family except you, Alexei, and maybe Gracie—if Tamara lets me stay in contact with her without Appius knowing.”
“What about Appius Jr. You love him,” Pam said.
“Once I breach the contract and go against Appius’s wishes, you and I both know that he won’t allow me access to A.J. I figure that Tamara may defy Appius and let me stay in contact with Gracie—though I don’t want to create any trouble for either of them. Alexei will do what he wants. And I know that I won’t lose you. Hopefully, when A.J. is older, I can initiate some contact with him so that he knows how much I want to be a brother to him, but I know that Appius will try to block it just to hurt me.” Eric sighed. “He may very well give you that ultimatum you mentioned. Or he might fire you from NP.”
Pam let out a haggard breath and nodded in understanding. “I will be prepared. But what will you do for work?” she asked her brother.
Eric sighed and dragged the hand that wasn’t holding Sookie’s through his hair. “I will try to get another job in publishing; however, Appius will likely attempt to interfere with those plans as long as I am in the States. Sookie and I might move to Europe or Asia so I can work there. Europe would make more sense since I can speak Swedish and French. I’d hate to leave New York, but if it comes to that, I’ll have to. But—hopefully—Appius will forget that I exist and leave me alone.”
“He won’t,” Pam said. “He’ll try to keep hurting you.”
Eric laughed ruefully. “That’s what I figure. But we’ll survive.”
“And you’ll really go with him if he has to move?” Pam asked Sookie.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.
Eric squeezed Sookie’s hand. “Once I’m completely free of Appius, Sookie and I are going to get married and start a family.”
Pam smiled at them both. “You’ll make each other happy.”
“We already do,” Eric said quietly.
Pam nodded. “Yeah. And as long as you promise that your little spawns won’t be as hard on my Chanel as the clothing cleaver there, I’ll happily be Aunt Pam to your teacups.”
Eric chuckled. “No guarantees.”
Bobby glanced at his watch. “I hate to interrupt one of Pam’s rare human moments,” he said with a little snark and a wink in her direction, “but we’d better plan for what happens after 9:00 p.m. We have only fifteen or so minutes until show time.”
Pam glared at Bobby as he distributed copies of the “script” he’d drafted for that night’s “actors.”
Meanwhile, Thalia opened her laptop and accessed the program that she was using to tamper with the listening device’s signal.
Appius locked the door to his office and turned on his computer before pouring himself a glass of his favorite scotch and settling into his comfortable desk chair. Its upholstery was made from the skin of a porosus crocodile—a saltwater crocodile. The eighteen feet-long beast had been found in northern Australia in the Adelaide River. The saltwater crocodile was the largest of all reptiles. It was adaptable and deadly—a standard for all apex predators. Sitting in the chair reminded Appius of who he was, of who he needed to be, and of who Stella had made him to be.
He glanced at the Revolutionary War era clock on his mantle and saw that it was 8:46 p.m. He knew that he would soon have a full report from Sigebert, and he’d received a text from Wybert a half an hour before. Apparently, Ms. Amelia Broadway—or Amelia Carmichael—hadn’t been able to wait until 9:00 to visit Eric. She’d arrived at his home at a little after 8:00 p.m.
Appius savored his drink as his computer loaded the program he was using to overhear what went on in Eric’s home office. So far, he had been quite amused by what he’d learned. Appius smiled. He would need to send Stan a thank you note for securing the listening device for him. An FBI “friend” of Stan’s—a woman by the name of Lorena Krasiki—had gotten it.
Appius chuckled. He loved what a little bit of money and a good connection could accomplish. He also loved that—because of a little side-deal he’d made with Lorena—he now had proof that Stan was cheating on his wife. With Lorena! Of course, Stan had been sleeping with Appius’s own mother for almost a decade; however, Appius would never allow his beloved mother to become embroiled in a scandal. But that wouldn’t stop him from using other dirt against Stan—if it ever became necessary.
He took a long drink. While it was important to have dirt on one’s enemies, he felt that it was essential to have dirt on one’s friends.
Appius stretched out his legs under his desk and leaned back in his chair. The program that monitored the listening device was actually quite ingenious. It cycled through any ambient noise and recorded only things that reached a certain decibel level. Thus, Appius was immediately able to tell that Eric likely hadn’t been in his office since that morning. Sadly, Appius held out very little hope that he’d overhear anything of substance that night, and he lamented once again that he’d not been able to plant more bugs in Eric’s home, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that he’d be at least be one step ahead of Eric when it came to the business and personal affairs his eldest child conducted from his home office.
Appius typed out a quick text to Lorena, asking her if she could get her hands on more listening devices—as well as a tracking device for Eric’s personal vehicle. Eric didn’t seem to drive his Corvette often; thus, Appius hadn’t bothered with tracking it before. However, the elder Northman now felt the impulse to learn more about his son than ever.
Like a shark with blood in the water, he could sniff out that Eric had secrets just waiting to be discovered.
Sipping his whiskey, Appius listened once more to the recordings from that morning. Like a good little soldier, Eric had made sure that the Chinese delegation was taken care of before moving on to personal matters. Appius sighed and pulled out a cigar. He hated to admit it, but Eric couldn’t be faulted for how he’d handled things with the delegation from Guangzhou Press—or most matters of business, as a matter of fact. Though Appius had criticized Eric the night before for his almost-subservient behavior to Mr. Li and his people, Eric’s behavior was probably just what the Chinese executive had been expecting.
Unlike his pliable son, Appius hated the notion of adapting himself for anyone else. He’d always had the opinion that if people wanted to do business with him, then they needed to adapt to him!
He chuckled as he listened once more to his son’s side of a conversation with Amelia. It seemed that Eric had no compunction about sleeping around on Isabel Edgington. At first when he’d heard that Eric had rushed away from his home in order to meet up with a woman, Appius had been upset that Eric might fuck up things with Russell’s daughter. However, once he read Sigebert’s preliminary report giving the identity of the resident of the house Eric went to in Brooklyn, he had been much less dismayed.
The Carmichael family was at least as worthy of a potential alliance as the de Castros or the Edgingtons. Of course, Appius had hoped to manipulate Eric into marrying Freyda. Yes—he’d reveled in the notion of the erratic Miss de Castro driving Eric to an early grave. And, truth be told, he still had a few plans in reserve where the unbalanced woman was concerned, but if Eric continued being stubborn and kept insisting upon making his own choice about his wife, he could do much worse than Isabel or Amelia.
Heck—maybe the Carmichaels would be best. After all, when Copley’s wife had been alive, Cope had been one of Appius’s closest friends. However, Cope had changed from the single-minded, driven businessman he’d once been after he lost his life-partner. He’d pulled himself out of the New York social scene for the most part, and he now stayed in the Hamptons almost fulltime. And when Cope was in Manhattan, he tended to spend his time with his grandchildren—instead of at the exclusive University Club, where the most powerful men of the city congregated for society.
The elder Northman sighed. Truth be told, it had likely been Nora’s behavior at the NP party two years before that had initiated Cope’s withdrawal from Appius. But he didn’t blame Nora for the situation. After all, Cope had been single, and Nora had always been attracted to powerful men. No—he blamed Eric. Eric had been the one to escalate the situation by literally pulling Nora away from Cope and causing a spectacle. Appius pushed his fingers against the bridge of his nose to alleviate the tension that was building there. If Eric had just left things alone that night, Nora and Cope may very well have gotten together.
However, if Eric married Amelia Carmichael—or Broadway or whatever she wanted to call herself—it might work out well to Appius’s advantage. And it might help him to reestablish his friendship with Cope as well.
In fact, Amelia was just as good of a choice as Isabel in most ways. Sadly, Amelia wasn’t an only child, but she would inherit a good deal of money nonetheless, maybe even more than her brother since Paul Carmichael would likely inherit the company. The Carmichaels were “old money,” and they had loads of it. Yes—Appius thought—the introduction of Amelia into the scenario wasn’t bad at all. Now—if Eric fucked it up with one of the women, he’d have the other to fall back on.
His cigar trimmed and lit, Appius enjoyed a few puffs before opening and reading Sigebert’s full report, which had just arrived in his in-box.
Sigebert had arrived outside of Eric’s building the night before only a couple of minutes before Eric left it; luckily, however, Sigebert had been able to follow the cab that took Eric to Brooklyn. As he drove by the house, trying to get a glimpse of who answered the door, Sigebert had only seen a blonde pull Eric into the brownstone. And by the time he’d parked and returned to scope out the building, there was no sign of anyone. He’d caught a glimpse of someone an hour later, but the lights had been turned off before he could get a clear view. Given that the occupants of the home were obviously in for the night, Sigebert had returned to his car and contacted his connections in order to discover the identity of the woman Eric was visiting.
Appius scrolled through the pictures of Eric and Amelia, which Sigebert had snapped that morning and which were included in his report. Appius had actually seen the girl—Amelia—a few times, though it had been several years before. And even though the girl’s hair was now a different color, Appius had no trouble recognizing her. She was the spitting image of her mother.
It certainly seemed that his son was quite “close” with her. And that supposition had been confirmed by the phone call exchanged by them about an hour later once Eric had returned home. Sigebert had watched Eric’s building for another few hours before leaving in order to continue his research on Amelia. Appius chuckled. Apparently the eccentric girl ran some kind of Wiccan/magic shop in the Village. Appius didn’t have a problem with that, however. In many ways it would be better if Eric married a relatively mindless or “flighty” woman. Then, he’d control her money, which Appius figured Eric would use to expand the company, even though he’d ultimately get no return for his troubles.
With satisfaction, Appius leaned further back in his chair and thought about his son’s desperate need to please him—to earn his approval. Of course, he would never give it, but it was amusing to watch Eric squirm for it.
After Appius had discovered that Eric was his biological son, he had briefly considered trying to accept the child and building a relationship with him, but Eric would be forever tainted by his mother in Appius’s eyes. He was too much like her. And—if anything—Appius’s hatred for Eric continued to grow with each passing day.
But that didn’t seem to matter at all to Eric. Appius could still tell that the boy longed for acceptance and love. God knows, Appius had done his best to make sure that he’d never found either. Appius lamented the fact that Eric derived any pleasure from his relationships with Isabel and Amelia, but—at the end of the day—he knew that they were relationships based on position and convenience, not love. At best, Eric would have a marriage like the ones Appius had had with Tamara or Beth or Sophie-Anne. All of those relationships had been profitable, but none had been personally satisfying to Appius—beyond the children the women had given him.
Appius also hated the fact that Eric found pleasure in his work, but—then again—Appius knew firsthand that work was not a strong enough elixir to make someone content. Eric clearly craved family and love, and as long as Appius was able to control Eric’s access to those things, he would be able to easily maintain control over his son. He just needed to make sure that Eric never found out about John Northman’s Will. Appius scoffed. He refused to acknowledge John Northman as his father anymore—not after his betrayal!
He took several deep and calming breaths. Given the fact that only he, his mother, Nora, and Cataliades knew about the Will, the chances of Eric learning of it weren’t great. However, Appius wouldn’t put it past his father to have left Eric a clue or a letter regarding the Will’s contents, and that possibility was what Appius feared the most.
Meanwhile, Appius would continue to dangle just enough carrots in front of Eric in order to keep him in line. Relationships with his siblings were definitely some of those carrots. For some reason Appius couldn’t fathom, all of his other children seemed drawn to Eric in some way; even Nora was reticent about doing Eric harm, though Appius had been able to use her loyalty to him in order to get her to do what he needed.
Appius figured it was natural for Pam to be somewhat close to her brother. Appius hadn’t liked it, but she had spent quite a bit of time with Eric when they’d both visited Stella’s parents in Sweden. Appius had hated letting Pam have anything to do with the Larssons, especially Elsa, who was just as duplicitous as her daughter in Appius’s opinion. However, Appius had to allow it so that he wouldn’t show his hand too soon.
Luckily, Eric had clearly never told Pam anything about the paternity test; otherwise, she would have confronted him about it.
Appius chuckled. No—Pamela was his spitfire and had never been able to keep anything close to the vest; thus, he would know if Eric ever tried to turn her against him.
Appius took a puff of his cigar and considered Eric’s relationship with his other children. Over the years, Alexei and Eric had become relatively close during the few weeks when he was in the house for his winter breaks. Appius had been enraged when he discovered that Eric had taught Alexei how to swim. Appius had been planning to secure the boy lessons since Alexei had been somewhat frightened of the water.
Eric’s teaching Alexei had forever raised Eric in Alexei’s estimation. Even now, when Alexei chose to come home for Christmas—which he didn’t do often—his middle son would seek out Eric to speak with. There was something about Eric that seemed to calm down his younger brother, and—more than once—Appius had thought about asking Eric to speak with Alexei regarding his wild antics. But in the end, Appius didn’t want to encourage that relationship or give Eric any position of value in the family.
Then there were Gracie and Appius, Jr., both of whom had gravitated toward Eric even in their infancy and even though Eric was so rarely in the house. Appius wasn’t able to fathom how Eric so drew them to him, but the elder Northman had and would continue to use that knowledge to keep Eric on his hook.
And—of course—Appius knew that Eric loved NP, especially his own division, which was growing and flourishing.
Appius smiled. Yes—he had ultimate control over everything that Eric valued or wanted. And the best thing was that Eric had no idea of the control that he could have—if he knew of John Northman’s Will. Appius was determined to keep it that way.
As Appius puffed on his cigar, he was surprised when the program running the surveillance equipment clicked. That meant that there was a live signal. Appius smiled in anticipation.
“So this is where you work when you’re home,” a female voice said.
Amelia—Appius thought to himself.
“What? You wouldn’t call what we just did in the bedroom work?” came Eric’s smooth reply.
Amelia giggled. “I’d call that a work out.”
Eric chuckled and then Appius heard a muffled sound that seemed to indicate that the couple he was listening to was sharing a kiss.
“I want to take you on my desk,” Eric practically growled.
“Mmmm,” Amelia responded. “That sounds nice, but I’d rather have you in your hot tub—as you suggested earlier.”
“Why not both?” Eric asked gruffly as there were more muffled noises, this time accompanied by moans and grunts.
Appius was about to turn off the system, given the fact that he didn’t want to hear his own son having sex, when he heard a phone ring in Eric’s office. He sat forward with interest, wondering who could be calling.
A/N: Hello all! Well—it’s my week for working on this story! My goal is to get you at least one more chapter by this coming Tuesday (Wednesday, I switch back to Uninvited.) But—if you are following that story—you may know that I’ve had an avalanche of essay come in, so I’m working on my stories only during grading breaks (which translates to only an hour or two of “fun work” a day).
Thanks so much for all of you who continue to read and support this story! I appreciate it more than I can say! It’s so odd b/c Uninvited has so many more followers and reviewers than this story (probably b/c not as many people read the all-human stories). But that means that every single review/comment I get for this one is “more treasured” in a way. You all have been on this journey with me for a long time, and I wanted to make sure that you knew how thankful I am for that!