On Monday, after finishing up their last job of the day, Chase and Dustin returned to the office. Chase walked up to Baylee’s office door. “Did Darrick interview Brooke?”
“Yes, he hired her.”
Chase felt glad. For Brooke’s sake, he told himself.
“He’s worried that it will be a problem with her working here, and the two of you dating.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
“Are you going to continue to date her?” Baylee asked curiously.
He wanted to. “I hope so.”
“Is it serious?”
“Am I serious about dating her? Yes. Am I seriously in love? No. I don’t her know well enough yet. That’s the reason for dating her.” He said it all like he was joking, but he knew he was already starting to fall for Brooke.
“See, this is the problem I am worried about.” Darrick had come out of his office without them hearing him. Being in the Army had done that for him, his ability to move around without making any noise. “You are all standing around talking about Brooke dating Chase.”
“It won’t happen again,” Baylee said quickly.
Chase agreed. “We can be professional about it.”
“See that you are.”
That night, Chase waited until after he tucked Maddie in to call Brooke.
She answered on the first ring. “Hello, Chase.”
“I hear that you are our new bookkeeper.”
He could almost see her smile. “Yes, Darrick hired me. Thank you.”
“All I did was ask him to give you an interview. My mom talked him into giving you a shot.”
“That was nice of her.” Brooke’s gratefulness came through in her voice. “Baylee mentioned that Darrick has been wanting to upgrade the computer program. I told her I have worked on the new program, if he wants to make the change.”
“I’m sure he will. He’s been working on bringing the business into the twenty-first century since he took over.”
“He doesn’t seem very happy to be there.”
She was a good judge of character. Darrick didn’t admit to resenting his move back home to take over his dad’s job, but Chase knew he wasn’t very happy there. When his dad became unable to work, Chase had taken over for him. But he’d been dealing with Lisa’s cancer. He’d had more on his plate than he could handle. Darrick had been having marital problems, so he didn’t hesitate to come from Florida and step in.
“You got that impression from your interview?”
“Yes, I guess I shouldn’t have said that.”
“He left behind some unfinished business when he stepped into Dad’s shoes.”
That there was more to the story, he wouldn’t say. Perhaps down the road, if they were still dating, and he wanted to talk about his family’s secrets. But there was much about his own marriage that he did not want to share yet, let alone his brother’s marital problems.
“I was glad when he stepped in, honestly. I like installing and fixing the heating and cooling systems, but neither Dustin nor I wanted to take over the paperwork and bids. Darrick is more suited to be the boss.”
“I can see that.”
She sounded worried. Chase wondered if Darrick had intimidated her during the interview.
“He’s pretty harmless. You won’t have to worry about him giving you a hard time.”
“I’ve worked with worse.”
“You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.” He held his breath, hoping she felt as he did, that she wanted to continue to go out with him.
“That sounds nice.”
“What do you have planned for Friday?”
“I don’t have any plans.”
“Would you like to do dinner again? Just the two of us?”
“I would like to go out with you alone, but I left the kids with a sitter today. I will be leaving them again for a few hours on Wednesday and Friday while I meet with Baylee and learn the job.”
“Makes sense not to leave them on Friday night, also.”
“If you want to come over and bring the kids, I can make pizza.”
She had mentioned something like that on their dinner date. He was impressed that she was inviting them to her house. She was protective of her kids, things like not ordering pizza delivery or letting her son play football. She must trust him, because she was opening up her home and her life to him and his kids.
“I can bring pop and chips,” he offered. “It’s a special occasion, right?”
He wondered if she were blushing. She gave a nervous laugh.
“Maybe I will see you in the office on Friday.”
“But you can’t talk to me. Darrick wouldn’t like that.” She sounded so serious.
“Not even to say hi?” Chase asked. When he heard her laugh, he knew she was teasing. “Oh, I get it. We can’t upset the boss, can we?”
Now he really wanted to see her, to see her smile and the way her eyes sparkled when she laughed.
Chase didn’t see Brooke in the office on Friday. Darrick sent him out on a furnace inspection while she was there. He’d done it grudgingly. He wasn’t going to let Darrick push him around, but he didn’t want to discredit Brooke by making an issue of it.
When he got home from work at four-thirty, he called Brooke to make sure their plans were still on. He didn’t tell her that while Maddie was excited to see Brinley again, Josh resented having to go.
After Brooke confirmed that she was expecting them, the kids got ready to go. Josh grumbled about having to shower and change his clothes.
On the way to Brooke’s house, Josh amped up his complaints.
“Why do we have to do this?”
“I’d like to introduce you to Brooke, and she has kids the same ages as you two. It will be nice for you to get to know them.”
“Why are you dating her?” Josh asked.
“Brooke is a friend from high school. She’s a great person, and I like spending time with her. You kids will be in school with her kids, and they are new to the school. It would help them adjust if they know they have a friend already.”
“He could at least play football.”
“He likes video games,” Chase said.
“I hope he’s got some good ones.”
“I’m sure he does.” But Chase really wasn’t sure. Brooke seemed strict with her kids. He wasn’t sure what kind of video games she allowed her son to play.
He pulled into the driveway of the small house and took a deep breath. He wasn’t as prepared for this as he wanted his kids to think. It was scary, to test out the waters of their fledgling relationship by introducing their kids. Well, the girls had met, but he knew the boys would not warm up to each other as quickly.
The door opened when they got near it. Brooke’s daughter stood there with a big smile on her face. “Hi, Maddie.”
Brooke stood behind Brinley. She gestured for them to walk in, then closed the door behind them. Her shyness was back. She seemed as nervous as he did about meeting his kids, even though she had issued the invitation. He wondered briefly if Devon had the same attitude as Josh.
Chase laid a hand on Josh’s shoulder. “Brooke, this is my son, Josh. Josh, this is my friend, Brooke.”
He studied her to see if she minded him calling her a friend, even though they were dating.
Her smile relaxed. “It’s nice to meet you, Josh.”
Josh’s face turned red.
When Brooke led them into the living room, Devon stood there, his hands in the pocket of his Nike hoodie. “Hello again, Devon,” Chase said.
Devon shrugged. When Brooke frowned at him, he said, “Hi.”
“This is my son, Josh.”
There was no instant chemistry between the boys, and their discomfort made Chase shift his feet.
“I’m going to show Maddie my room.” Brinley pulled Maddie towards the stairs.
“I was waiting until you got here to make the pizza,” Brooke said. “The dough is ready, but I wasn’t sure what you and your kids like for toppings.”
“They like pepperoni,” Chase said.
“Maddie picks off the pepperoni,” Josh reminded him.
“Yeah, I guess she does.”
“I can leave some with just cheese.”
“Do you want some help?” Chase asked.
“If you want to keep me company in the kitchen, you can. Devon, why don’t you show Josh your room. It will be a half hour before the pizza will be ready. You can play a video game.”
Devon shrugged and looked at Josh. “Do you want to?”
Josh shrugged. “I guess.”
Chase watched the boys walk upstairs, then turned to Brooke. “I don’t know how this is going to go.”
“I know. But it’s good for Devon to get to know your son, since he will be seeing him in school.”
“Right.” Chase carried the grocery bag with the pop and chips into the combined kitchen and dining room.
“You can put the pop in the fridge.”
Chase tried not to look long at the contents of her refrigerator as he set the pop inside, but he could see a generous amount of vegetables and green stuff. It reaffirmed that she was health conscious. He wondered if that would become a sticky point between them.
“I have a cup of coffee ready for you.” Brooke handed him a mug. She pushed a little glass dish towards him and handed him a spoon. “There is sugar if you want to add it.”
He met her eyes, and she was smiling at him. “You remembered.” He felt impressed that she had. It showed she was interested in what he liked.
He watched as Brooke set two pizza pans on the table and put a ball of dough on each one. He felt like he was hovering, so he pulled out a chair and sat down, sipping his coffee. “I’ve never had pizza from scratch. Only the frozen kind or delivery. Pizza always means a night off from cooking at our house.”
“I hope you like it. I’ve been using the recipe for a long time.”
“I’m sure we will.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I know kids don’t always like new foods. I don’t expect them to eat it if they don’t like it.”
“They will. Since we have been living with my mom, they have learned to eat whatever she cooks. She makes a lot of casseroles, and they eat even when it isn’t their favorite meal.”
He watched as she pressed the dough to the pans and spooned a red sauce over it. She added pepperoni to half of one pizza. “I’ve got bacon and Italian sausage, also. And green peppers and mushrooms.”
“I think Josh would like the bacon along with the pepperoni. For me, anything is fine.”
She gave him a sideways glance. “Even mushrooms?”
He grinned. “You got me there. Mushrooms are not my favorite, but I can eat them.”
“I’ll leave them off half.” She added the rest of the toppings to the pizza, and put mushrooms on half. “Devon will eat the pepperoni.”
‘You should add more pepperoni to that pizza, then,” Chase said. “Maddie will only eat one or two pieces. She isn’t a big eater.”
Brooke added a few more pepperoni to the first pizza, leaving a small section of it plain. She generously sprinkled shredded cheese over both pizzas and set them in the preheated oven. “There, the timer is set.”
She brewed a cup of coffee for herself and sat down.
“Now I can relax for fifteen minutes.”
“I’m impressed. You’re very efficient in the kitchen. And I hear you are efficient at work, also.”
She blushed. “I am still learning everything.”
“Baylee sings your praises.”
She smiled, remembering that Baylee had told her on the day she interviewed that Chase had sung her praises.
“I thought I would see you in the office today.”
Chase frowned. “Yeah, well, Darrick had other ideas. He didn’t want me interfering with your work, so he sent me out to do a furnace inspection while you were there.”
“Oh. Is this going to be a problem?”
“Darrick will try to make it one, but I’m not going to let him continue. Friday is my day to get the paperwork done. He can send Dustin out next time.”
“I met Dustin today. He seems pretty nice.”
“He jokes around a lot, so it’s hard telling what he will say to you.”
“He said it was nice to meet the woman who brought his brother out of hibernation.”
He didn’t tell her what Dustin had said about her. His brother had told him that she was a twenty on a scale of one to ten, and she was worth ten of Lisa.
Brooke sipped her coffee, glad to have something to hold in her hands. They were trembling. She had felt nervous all day, actually since Wednesday, when they made plans to get together at her house. She liked Chase, but she had seen the jealous look on Maddie’s face when they were having donuts together. And Devon had been giving her a hard time, not wanting to meet Josh, at least not having to meet him in his home. She had wondered if Devon did not like the idea of her dating again.
She’d gone the rounds with Devon about having Josh come over. It had almost been enough to make her call Chase and cancel. She hadn’t been interested in any man since Carl had passed away. But she liked Chase. She hoped they could continue to date, until they could see where this attraction between them was going.
Although Devon resented the intrusion into their home, Brinley had been all for it. She had talked about Chase and Maddie a lot since their donut “date.”. She’d been excited about showing Maddie her room and her toys. She hadn’t even argued when Brooke made her pick up her ponies and vacuum her carpet.
The girls made their way into the kitchen. “I smell the pizza,” Brinley said. “When will it be ready?”
“Patience, Brin.” Brooke looked at the clock. “Five minutes to go.”
Maddie stood beside Chase, and he put his arm around her. “Brinley has a pony ranch, like mine.”
“That’s nice.” His smile included both Brinley and Brooke. “Horses are Maddie’s favorite thing.”
Brooke liked that the girls had something in common. “They’re Brin’s favorite, too.”
“Yeah, I want to get a real one, but Mom says we don’t live on a ranch so that isn’t going to happen.”
“There is a ranch near here where we’ve taken Maddie to ride before,” Chase said.
Brinley’s eyes got big. “Oh, Mom, can we go?”
Brooke’s eyes met Chase’s. “I think you opened up a can of worms.” She couldn’t get angry when she saw the grin, and the warm light in his eyes that drew her in.
The timer went off. “Go and tell the boys the pizza is done, Brin,” Brooke said.
Brinley went up about three steps, then yelled, “Pizza’s done!”
Brooke shook her head. “I could have done that.”
Chase stood up. “Where are your glasses? I can pour the pop.”
“First door to the right of the sink.” She glanced in his direction, as she set the pizza pans on the top of the stove. He seemed at home in her kitchen, as he took down the glasses and lined them up on the counter.
“What kind of pop did you bring?” Brinley asked.
“Sprite and orange,” Maddie said. “Sprite is my favorite, and Josh likes orange.”
“We don’t get pop very often. Just when we want to celebrate.” Brinley obviously did not remember that she had told Chase that the previous week.
Chase remembered. “Is this a celebration?”
Brooke smiled. “Yes, it is. We’ve never had company over for dinner.” She could tell it wasn’t quite the answer he was hoping for.
The boys came down the stairs, looking relaxed. Apparently, the gaming had gone well. Brooke was glad. “There are only four chairs out here, so if you boys want to take your pizza and pop into the living room you can. You can find a movie on Netflix.”
Chase shook his head. “Are you sure you want the orange pop in there?”
“It’s okay. It won’t hurt the floor if they spill something, as long as we wipe it up quickly.”
“Why can’t we go in there too, Mom?” Brinley asked.
“I know how excited you get, and your arms flail around.”
“Like this?” Brinley demonstrated, nearly knocking a glass of pop off the table. Chase caught it in time.
“Exactly like that. Be careful,” Brooke scolded.
Brinley dominated the conversation at the table.
After they finished their pizza, Brinley asked about dessert.
“My grandma and me made chocolate chip cookies,” Maddie said. “We brought them with us. Can we have one, Daddy?”
Brinley clasped her hands together dramatically. “I love chocolate chip cookies! We never get cookies.”
“Only on special occasions?” Chase said. The wink he sent Brooke’s way made her blush.
The girls went off to play.
Alone with Chase, Brooke asked, “Would you like another cup of coffee?”
“Are you having one?”
She nodded. “I think a cup of coffee will go good with a chocolate chip cookie.”
“I may be partial, but I think my mom bakes the best chocolate chip cookies. And she loves to have Maddie help her. It’s good for Maddie.”
“Brinley baked cookies with my mom last week,” Brooke said, as she prepped the coffee. “They were the refrigerated cookie dough with sprinkles, but Brin enjoyed it. I’m not sure my mom liked the mess, though.”
“Is that why you don’t bake cookies? Because it’s messy?” He cringed as if he thought the question was inappropriate.
She laughed. “Maybe. That and because I can’t stay out of them when they are warm. I like something sweet with my coffee.”
He studied her for a moment, his gaze lingering. It didn’t make her uncomfortable, but she was suddenly glad that she walked on her elliptical every morning. The admiration in his eyes when they met hers made her tingle inside. “But I can guess you don’t allow yourself to have something sweet with your coffee very often.”
“You’re getting to know me pretty well.”
“I hope to.”
Brooke fell silent when she saw the warmth in his eyes. He wasn’t holding anything back. He wanted to continue to date her. She still didn’t really know why.
“Here’s your coffee.” He reached out, wrapping his hands around hers as they held the cup. The brush of his hands on hers made her tremble a little. She saw desire in his eyes, and for a moment it felt like the world stopped.
He released her hands, and took the mug. She sat down and picked up cookie. The silence stretched between them as she focused on the cookies. They were freshly baked, and the taste of the crumbly dough and sweet chocolate made her stifle a moan.
She glanced up and saw that he was watching her. Her face grew warm. “These are so good.”
“I’ll let my mom know you like them.” He sipped his coffee. “The kids seem to be getting along.”
He’d brought up the elephant in the room, his expression serious. She wondered how Josh had felt about coming over tonight. Had he given Chase a hard time, as Devon had with her?
“I worried about Devon and Josh. But they seem comfortable with each other.”
“I bet neither one of them will admit that they had a good time.”
She gave a little laugh. “Of course not. They won’t want us to know that.”
“Do you think we could get together again sometime?”
Her heart beat a little faster. The thought of spending more time with Chase was very appealing. But she didn’t know how things would work out with their kids.
“Chase,” she said softly. “What are you doing here?”
He leaned forward and covered her hand with his. “You invited me, remember?”
She pulled her hand away and touched her flaming cheek “I did, didn’t I?” How could she have forgotten that she was the one who had set this all up? He had accepted her invitation, but she had definitely done the asking.
It was so unlike her. “I don’t ask guys out on dates. Yet I invited you in for coffee the night of the reunion, and now tonight, with our kids. What was I thinking?”
He sat back, chuckling. She could hardly meet his eyes. She was a goof, inviting the hottest guy in high school over to her house, twice!
“I don’t think anything less of you for asking.” At the smoothness of his voice, she brought her gaze back to his. “You did what I wanted to. I didn’t want to drop you off the night of the reunion and leave. I had just gotten reacquainted with you. Acquainted with you, really,” he added with emphasis. “You and I never talked in high school, but I wanted to. And knowing that you might be interested in getting to know me better, I was crazy not to accept your invitation.”
She wanted to believe that he was sincere, and if the look in his eyes was anything to go by, he was telling the truth.
“And besides, before you get yourself worked up over inviting me over tonight, I’m the one that asked you out, remember? You gave me an option for how we could spend time together. I would tell you that I brought the kids to meet yours, so they could get acquainted before school starts, but we both know that isn’t the whole truth. If that was the only way I could see you tonight, then I convinced my kids that was the reason we came over.”
“And now that we have all spent time together?”
“I’d like to do it again.”
She wanted to go out with him again, but she wasn’t sure how to fit him into her life.
“I never dated in high school. And Carl asked me out the second week of my freshman year. I have no experience with this at all.”
If she’d thought that would turn him off, the warmth in his eyes surprised her.
“I like it that you haven’t dated a lot of men. And that you were faithful to your husband. There was a reason why I chose you that night to dance with.”
Her coffee was cold now, but she swallowed what was left in her cup. Michelle had told her that Lisa had cheated on him. Was he going to bring that up now?
“I’ve lived here all my life. I know how most of those girls acted in high school, and I know how they have lived their lives since. I married Lisa, and I stayed faithful to her. I haven’t found anyone I’ve wanted to date since she passed away. Not to mention any names, but some of them have been around the block a few times.”
She somehow knew he was talking about Megan. Megan had hung out in bars before her marriage, and since her divorce, that’s where she spent her weekend nights when her ex had the kids. Barbara was most often with her. Megan hadn’t been selective in what she’d told Brooke about her one-night stands.
“How did you know I wasn’t like them? I’ve been widowed for three years. I could have been dating a lot of guys in Detroit since my husband passed away, and you wouldn’t have known.”
He leaned forward again, and this time she didn’t pull her hand away when he touched her. She really wanted to know his answer, so she met his gaze, seeing the seriousness in his eyes.
“I just knew.”
Whatever Chase had been about to say was interrupted when the Josh and Devon walked into the kitchen. The boys noticed their hands joined together on the table, and neither of them looked happy about it.
“What time are we leaving?” Josh asked.
Chase slid his chair back and stood. “Let’s help clean up, then we probably should get going.”
Brooke took the plates and scraped them in the garbage disposal, then loaded them into the dishwasher. Chase dumped out the glasses and handed them to her, and she added them. He didn’t try to touch her hands and she avoided eye contact.
“Thank you for the pizza,” he said.
“Thank you for coming over, Chase.”
When Brooke and Brinley stood in the doorway as Chase and his kids walked outside, Brinley asked in her loud, exuberant way, “Can we do this again?”
Maddie turned and lifted pleading eyes to Chase.
“Can we, please?” Maddie begged.
Chase’s eyes met Brooke’s. “I hope so.”
She wasn’t sure what to say. Did he think this was going to work out? He didn’t wait for her answer, and she felt badly about not encouraging him to call her again.