“Hail to the chief.”

I chuckle at my son, Magnum, who greets me with a lazy salute when I arrive at my office that Friday morning.

“At ease, lieutenant,” I say.

Magnum grins crookedly and then winks at my secretary, who blushes like a schoolgirl. Even after all these years she’s been working for me, she hasn’t grown immune to my son’s charms. But she’s not alone. Every time Magnum shows up at headquarters, he causes a commotion among the female staff. If he ever agrees to pose in the annual firefighter’s calendar, these women will lose their damn minds.

Chuckling at the thought, I accept a stack of phone messages from my secretary before heading into my office. Magnum follows me and sprawls in one of the visitor chairs while I sit behind my desk and loosen my tie.

It’s almost noon, and I’m more than ready to take a break to have lunch with my sons. It’s one of our monthly rituals, in addition to our pickup games the first Saturday of every month. On the days we all meet for lunch, Magnum usually comes to my office so we can ride to the restaurant together. It gives him a chance to pick my brain and get my advice about whatever’s going on at his fire station.

Of all my sons, I knew Magnum would follow in my footsteps by becoming a firefighter. Although he and his brothers always loved it when I took them for rides on the rescue rig, Magnum’s the only one who never outgrew his fascination with firefighting. He collected replica fire trucks and enjoyed running around the house in my helmet, coat, and boots. And he’s the only one who counted fire hydrants whenever we rode around town.

At the risk of sounding biased, I can honestly say that Magnum is one of the finest firefighters I’ve ever known—and I’ve served with some of the best. His passion and dedication fill my heart with pride and joy. But I’m proud of all my boys. They’re ambitious and smart as hell, and they each worked their asses off to become successful in their respective fields. No father could ask for more amazing sons.

As I reach for the phone on my desk, I ask Magnum, “How’d everything go at the academy?”

“Good, good.” Magnum, who’s off duty for the next two days, taught a safety training course that morning. As he stretches out his long legs, I can’t help smiling. In his dark blue uniform, he reminds me of myself at his age. Sometimes when he drops by the house after his shift, Prissy takes one look at him, shakes her head and marvels, “I swear your father must have cloned himself when I wasn’t looking.”

Magnum merely grins and kisses her cheek before heading to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator. Between him, Maddox, and Mason, Prissy and I can never keep enough food in the house.

I pick up the phone receiver. “Let me return a couple calls and then we can head over to Mike’s for lunch.”

“No problem, boss,” Magnum drawls.

Despite the long work hours, hectic pace, and economic challenges, I love serving as chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. There’s never a dull moment on this job. One day can start off with a staff meeting where I discuss strategic initiatives with senior personnel. Two hours later, I could be speaking at a press conference to address public concerns about emergency response times. From there I could find myself debating budget needs with elected officials, or negotiating labor contracts with union leaders. In the middle of the meeting, I could be summoned to the scene of a large fire to direct my firefighters through dangerous rescue operations.

Even after all these years, I still get an adrenaline rush whenever I’m out in the field. Although I will never forget the deadly inferno that killed my parents, the nightmares that once haunted me are a thing of the past. Time—along with the love and support of a good woman—healed me.

Fifteen minutes later, Magnum and I head out for lunch. When Magnum offers to drive, I snort out a laugh. “I don’t think so.”

He looks affronted. “Why not?”

“You know why not. There’s a reason you’re not allowed to drive the rigs anymore, and it has nothing to do with your promotion to lieutenant. You drive like a lunatic, boy. If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to arrive at Mike’s restaurant in one piece.”

Magnum laughs. He knows I’m not exaggerating about his haphazard driving.

Once we’re on our way, my cell phone rings. When my brother’s number appears on the dashboard screen, I press the answer button and say warmly, “Hey, Sterl. Still joining us for lunch today?”

“Afraid not,” Sterling says apologetically. “I need to take care of a few things before Asha and I leave for our trip tonight.”

I smile at the reminder that Sterling and Asha are spending the week at a romantic bed and breakfast in Napa Valley. “I know you’re looking forward to having your lovely wife all to yourself for a whole week,” I say teasingly.

Sterling chuckles. “You bet I am. No cell phones. No frantic calls from her assistant. No interruptions.”

Magnum grins slyly. “Get it, Uncle Sterling.”

As Sterl’s rumbling laughter fills the car, my smile deepens. It does my heart good to see my brother so happy. He went through hell with that selfish bitch Celeste, and it took him years to recover from the pain of her betrayal and desertion. After the divorce, he threw himself into raising Michael and Marcus, always putting their needs above his own. Even though he was lonely, he rarely ever dated, and he stubbornly resisted Prissy’s matchmaking attempts.

I never would have imagined that a woman like Asha Dubois could be just what my brother needed. But she’s perfect for him, and I thank God for her.

“Before I run,” Sterling says, “did Prissy tell you that Celeste and Grant are coming to town next month?”

“No.” Just hearing Celeste’s name gets my hackles up. “What are they coming here for?”

“Grant is speaking at a medical conference downtown.” Sterling pauses. “They were planning to stay with Mike or Marcus, but you know the boys and their wives won’t be here that week. They’re all going on vacation with Manny and Taylor.”

“I remember.” My eyes narrow with suspicion. “What’re you getting at, Sterl?”

“Well, Celeste was wondering if she and Grant could stay here, but Asha won’t hear of it. You know she and Celeste don’t get along.”

I snort. “With good reason. Asha can see right through Celeste.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You may not want to hear this, Sterl, but that woman is up to no—” I break off abruptly and glance over at Magnum. He’s texting on his cell phone, pretending not to listen to my conversation. But I know better.

“Look, Sterl,” I continue, “your wife has every right not to want Celeste and Grant in her home. I don’t want them in mine either, so I hope that wasn’t what you were getting at.”

“Well…”

I shake my head in exasperation. “I love you, Sterl, but you take Southern hospitality to the extreme. Let Grant and Celeste stay at a damn hotel. I’m sure all their travel expenses are being covered by the conference organizer. But even if that weren’t the case, they can more than afford to pay for their own lodgings.”

Sterling sighs heavily. “You’re right.”

“Of course I am.” I grin. “You and Asha have a good time on your trip. We’ll talk when you get back.”

“All right.”

“Later, Uncle Sterling,” Magnum says.

“Bye, nephew. Be good.”

Magnum grins wickedly. “I’ll try, but I make no promises.”

Sterling laughs warmly.

After the call ends, Magnum slants me a knowing look. “Think you’ll ever forgive Aunt Celeste?”

I scowl. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

When we arrive at Wolf’s Soul, there’s a huge lunch crowd. The fellas are already gathered around our regular table in the corner. They’re laughing raucously and trading playful insults. I’m pleased to see that Marcus has joined us today. He, Manning, and Montana are in shirtsleeves, their ties tugged loose. Maddox is sporting his proverbial five o’clock beard with jeans and battered Timbs. Mason—who just came from the gym—is wearing a black tank, sweat shorts, and his top-selling sneakers that Nike paid him millions to endorse.

Michael is standing at the table with his arms wrapped around Reese, who stopped by to have lunch with him on the restaurant’s upper balcony—their Friday ritual. He’s smiling over her shoulder as she scrolls through Manny’s smartphone, gushing over the latest photos of Micah and his baby brother Maximilian—whom we call Max for short.

My precious grandsons are the apple of my eye. Prissy and I spoil them rotten, and we thoroughly enjoy keeping them whenever their parents go on dates or romantic getaways. Manny and Taylor always make good use of their time alone, as evidenced by the fact that they’re now expecting their third child.

When we learned that they were having a girl, no one celebrated more than Mama Wolf. Mike and Reese gave her her first great-great-granddaughter, Savannah, whose birth was followed by the arrival of Marcus and Samara’s daughter Milan. Mama Wolf can’t wait to welcome another beautiful girl into the family, and I already know Malia is going to have me—and her daddy—wrapped around her sweet little finger.

As Magnum and I saunter through the packed restaurant, people call out friendly greetings to us. We smile warmly, shake hands, and pat backs along the way.

When we reach our table, the fellas rise and playfully salute me. I laugh and wave them off before kissing Reese on the cheek. Her smooth mahogany skin is glowing with health, and her smile is radiant. Sterling adores her and Samara as much as I adore Taylor. They’re the daughters we never had.

I smile as Reese absently rubs her gently rounded belly. She and Mike have another baby on the way—a boy this time. They haven’t decided on a name yet.

“How’re you feeling?” I ask Reese.

Her smile widens. “I feel great. Can’t complain.”

Mike raises a brow. “Really? You complain all the time.”

As Reese sputters in protest, Mike laughs and kisses her forehead. “Just kidding, babe. How many times have I told you what a trooper you are? Even when you’re sick as hell and your back and feet are hurting, you hardly ever complain.”

Reese shrugs. “I’m an obstetrician. Treating patients with difficult pregnancies helps me keep things in perspective.”

I tweak her nose. “I hear you, baby girl, but there’s nothing wrong with you milking your ‘delicate condition’ to get some extra pampering.”

Mike grins teasingly. “Don’t give her any ideas, Uncle Stan.”

We all laugh.

When the phone in Reese’s hand rings, she glances down at the display screen and announces in a singsong voice, “Taylor’s calling.”

Manny beams with pleasure as he takes his phone from Reese and affectionately greets his wife, who’s on her way home from a weeklong concert tour in China. Although Taylor only travels a few times a year, she’s still tremendously popular. Since becoming a wife and a mother, she has composed songs for several other artists and recorded three more albums, including a jazz collaboration with Monty that earned them both another Grammy award.

I smile as Manny tells Taylor how much he and their sons miss her. I’m reminded of the times Prissy went on business trips when the boys were growing up. We were always lost without her. I know that Manny, Micah, and Max will be waiting to pounce on Taylor the moment she steps off the Gulfstream this evening.

As I take my seat at the head of the table, Monty turns from arguing with Mason to say to me, “Now that you’re here, pops, maybe you can settle something for us.”

“Uh-oh,” I say with mock dread. “What now?”

Before Monty can respond, my cell phone beeps. “Hang on a sec,” I tell my son.

I pull the phone out of my pocket to check the new text message. It’s from Prissy. She sent a photo of herself holding up two sexy negligees I’ve never seen before. One is black and the other is fire-engine red.

Pick one, Prissy’s message says.

A slow, delighted grin spreads across my face. Even after all these years, my wife still knows how to get my blood pumping.

I quickly type my response: Either one works for me. You won’t be wearing it long anyway.

I imagine her smiling wickedly as she receives my message. Seconds later, she writes back: Be home on time, Chief Wolf.

My grin widens as I respond: Just be ready for me, woman.

When I put away the phone and look up, the fellas are staring at me with a combination of amusement and disgust.

Mason shakes his head. “Please don’t tell me you and Ma were sexting again.”

“Okay. I won’t tell you.”

I laugh as a chorus of groans sweeps around the table.

Looking at my sons and nephews, I feel my chest swell with pride and gratitude. God has been so good to me. I couldn’t ask for a better family.

I couldn’t ask for a better life.