On Friday, Devon grumbled about going to Baylee’s party. “I don’t know her. I barely know Chase, and I don’t think Josh likes me very well.”
“It will be a good chance to see each other doing something besides video games. Chase said to tell you they are getting the quads out. They’re going to ride back on the trails in the woods and check the trail cameras.”
“I can go with them?”
“Yes. They have two quads. Josh is too young to drive one, and so are you. One of you will ride on the back of Dustin’s, and one will ride on the back with Chase.”
Brinley, of course, was beyond excited.
“I get to see where Maddie lives. We can play with her horses. I can ride quads, too, can’t I, Mom?”
“I think they will give you a ride.”
“We’ve never been to a bonfire,” Brinley said. “What’s it like? How do you roast hot dogs?”
As Brooke explained the details to her kids, she realized why she had moved back home. She wanted her kids to have the kind of life she had grown up with. Enjoying a bonfire and hot dog roast had been a part of her life.
She was looking forward to seeing Baylee, and Dustin treated her okay. She did not mind spending time with him. Darrick, of course, was another story. He was wary of her socializing with the family outside of work, but she had grown used to his scowl and it did not scare her.
Baylee opened the door when Brooke knocked. “Oh, I’m so glad you came, Brooke. And these must be Devon and Brinley.”
“This is Baylee,” Brooke introduced her to Devon and Brinley. “It’s her going away party.”
“Why are you going away?” Brinley asked.
Baylee put her hand on Brinley’s shoulder. “So I can go to college and become a teacher for kids like you.”
“I like you,” Brinley said.
“I like you too, Brinley.”
Maddie came running into the room. “Hi, Brinley!”
Brinley ran up to her and hugged her. “I came to play with your horses!”
The girls skipped up the stairs.
“She’s a sweetheart,” Baylee said.
“I never know what will come out of her mouth.”
Baylee looked at Devon. “Josh and the guys are out in the back yard. I will take you out there. Brooke, you come too,” she said.
“I’ll say hi to your mom first,” Brooke said.
“Okay, but don’t volunteer to help out in the kitchen. She doesn’t let anyone else in there.”
“That’s what Chase has told me. I thought he was joking.”
Baylee led Devon to the screened-in sunroom, where a door opened onto a back deck.
Brooke walked into the kitchen. Chase’s mom stood at the table, mixing a big bowl of potato salad. She looked up when Brooke said hello.
“Hello, Brooke. Glad you could make it.”
“How are your plans coming to go to your sister’s house?”
“Oh, they are all in place. I worry, though. It’s major surgery. And if they find cancer, like they suspect, she will need to start radiation and chemotherapy.”
“Chase didn’t say anything about that.”
“I haven’t told him.”
“Oh, am I supposed to keep it from him?”
“If he asks, no. You can tell him. If he doesn’t bring it up, then you shouldn’t bring it up, either.”
Brooke felt puzzled. “Why don’t you want him to know?”
“I think he is worried about being on his own for two weeks. I don’t have the heart to tell him that it may be a lengthy recovery time.”
“I think he can handle it. Maddie said he knows how to braid her hair.”
“He learned when Lisa moved out—” Irene looked at Brooke guiltily.
“He told me that she left him, then moved back in when she had cancer.”
“He trusts you, then. None of us have ever told anyone that Lisa moved out and then moved back in when the cancer hit. I don’t even think the kids were aware that she was living with someone else. But word got around, anyway. No one has ever heard it from one of us.”
“I don’t gossip,” Brooke said. But it was apparent that Irene did not believe her. “I know you probably find that hard to believe, being that my mom thrives on it.”
“I just hope he hasn’t misplaced his trust. He’s already been hurt. I don’t want to see him go through something like that again.”
Anger flashed through her that Chase’s mom would be so bold to say that. She did not give her a reply, instead left the kitchen. She walked out onto the back deck, where Baylee was standing. Beyond the deck, there were two quads parked and running. Dustin and Josh were on one, and Devon was climbing on behind Chase. They were all wearing helmets. Chase waved, and then they were off across the field towards the woods.
Baylee sat on a chair, and Brooke sat in another one nearby.
“Is it hard to watch Devon go off on one of those?” Baylee asked, studying Brooke’s expression.
“Yes. I trust Chase’s driving, though. And Devon was so excited.”
“When I was younger, Chase would take me and my friends for rides on the back of his quad.”
“How many years are there between you two?”
“Eight years. We got the quads when he turned sixteen, I was only eight, and I would beg to be taken for rides. He loved to drive them, so I got my way often.”
“He’s really nice to my kids.”
“He’s a nice guy.”
When Baylee did not elaborate on it, Brooke said, “But don’t hurt him, right?”
Baylee blushed. “I didn’t say that.”
“I hate to be the one to remind you, but Chase approached me and asked me to dance. I didn’t approach him.”
` “I know. Why did you dance with him, when you told two other guys you don’t dance?”
Brooke’s face flamed. “Because he was Chase Reed.”
“Did you have a crush on him in high school, like every other girl?”
“I did. But that is not what I feel for Chase now.”
“It’s more than a crush?”
“Yes. I’m attracted to him, but I genuinely like the man he has become.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. I’ve never seen him happier, you know.”
Baylee laughed. “Maybe that is pushing the envelope. I haven’t seen him this happy in a long time.”
“Your mom already warned me not to break his heart.”
“Oh. You’re getting it from all sides, then.”
“At first it bothered me, especially when your mom said it. Then I was picturing the reverse, if this were my family, and Chase was meeting my mom and dad, and my sister, for the first time since we started dating. I have a feeling they would say the same things to Chase, or at least imply them.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not afraid of breaking his heart. I am afraid that he will break mine.”
She did not add, and my kids’ hearts, but she thought it. And had thought of it more than once.
When Baylee didn’t reply, Brooke changed the subject. “Who all is coming tonight? Any more of your family?” She smiled wryly. “Just so I know how many more warnings to watch out for.”
“No, it’s just us, and my friends, mostly from high school, that I still hang out with. Not too many.”
“Is Darrick coming?”
“Are you kidding? Going somewhere socially? Ha.”
“I thought he would bring Trevor and ride quads.”
“No, not tonight. He thought it should be just about Josh and Devon getting acquainted.”
“Or Chase thought that?”
Baylee looked guilty. “They talked about it at work. It was really Darrick’s idea.”
She would have to trust Chase’s sister on that one.
The girls came outside. They went and played on the wooden swing set. “Aunt Baylee, come push us,” Maddie called out.
Baylee stood up. “Duty calls.” When Brooke started to rise. Baylee waved at her to sit back down. “Don’t worry about getting up. I don’t mind pushing them on the swings. I might climb on the third one and swing myself.”
Brooke wasn’t surprised. Baylee may be twenty-five, but she had a younger person’s heart. Untouched by the hardships of life.
She watched the girls and Baylee. Then the noise of the quads told her that the guys were returning.
Chase and Dustin parked the quads, leaving them running. Josh and Devon got off. Maddie ran towards them. “Can I ride, Daddy?”
“Hop on! Come on Brinley, hop on the back of Dustin’s,” he called out. He put the helmets on the girls that the boys had been wearing. The helmets were too big, but they offered some protection.
Devon and Josh walked up to the deck. Brooke could see the excited look in Devon’s eyes. It was obvious he had enjoyed the ride through the woods.
“Is it okay if we go in and play video games?”
Josh spoke up. “My dad said we could play until time for the hot dog roast.”
Brooke smiled at Josh. “Well, then, go ahead. Wait, Josh. How did the game go?”
He grinned, looking a lot like his dad. “We won. Twenty-one to seven.”
Baylee walked up onto the deck. Brooke braced herself for more personal questions, but Baylee seemed to have run out of things to say to her.
Dustin and Chase brought the girls back and dropped them off Dustin rode his to the pole barn behind the house. Chase stood by his and waved to Brooke. “Come on, you have to go for a ride, too.”
She felt flustered. She hadn’t planned on riding the quad with him. She looked down at her tan capris.
“You might get a little dirty,” Baylee said, following her train of thought.
What was a little dirt, when Chase was eying her with a cheeky grin that made her heart do crazy things?
He put the helmet on her and fastened it, then sat down on the quad. She climbed on behind him. “Hold on tight,” he said, grinning at her over his shoulder.
That was no hardship, she thought, as she wrapped her arms around his waist. If that wasn’t enough to stir her senses, the exhilaration of flying down the trail through the trees was enough to get her heart racing.
“Slow down!” she yelled near his ear.
“This is slow!” he yelled back.
She saw that they were stopping in a clearing, near a hunting blind. He stopped the quad, turned off the ignition, and got off.
“Did you run out of gas?” she asked, seriously at first. Then she saw him take off his helmet, and that grin that made her heart race was back on his face.
“Maybe on purpose.”
He lifted the helmet off her head and wrapped his arms around her.
She could feel her face flaming red. “What are you doing?”
“Sneaking off so we can make out.”
“Your family is going to know.”
“They will suspect it.”
“And my kids?”
“Last I heard, the boys were heading in to play video games, and I saw the girls go in the house when you were getting on the quad. I’m sure they are wrapped up in their horses.”
She relaxed and put her arms around his waist. “Don’t you care what your brother and sister think? Or your mom?” she asked, half-serious.
“Dustin will give me a hard time. Baylee will be amused, and my mom will be horrified. Does this seem like I care?”
He leaned down and captured her lips in a kiss that showed he definitely did not care that his family knew what they were doing. Awareness that no kids were watching them made them bold. The sparks that ignited between them could have started the woods around them on fire.
Slowly, she came to her senses and broke away from his arms. “I think we need to go back.” Her voice was shaky. He didn’t try to speak, but he kissed her lightly before putting her helmet on. Then he turned away and buckled his helmet on as well. She put her arms around his waist as he drove around the trail that would lead them out of the woods, back into the reality of their families waiting for them.
She was glad that he did not drop her off in the yard to walk back to the deck by herself. He kept going until they got into the pole barn, then he stopped and shut it off. She took off her helmet and he hung it on the handlebar, beside his.
Some of Baylee’s friends had arrived, and they were standing on the deck, talking. Chase put his arm around her shoulders, and they walked to the house together, knowing that almost everyone’s eyes were on them.
“Let’s go check on the girls.” He nodded to Baylee’s guests as he led Brooke into the house.
Even after the quads were put away and the bonfire was lit, Chase’s mind was still reeling after the kisses they had shared in the woods. He couldn’t seem to get enough of Brooke. Knowing she felt the same way was a hazard that he had not counted on when he asked her out. He went through the motions of checking on the girls and watching them play. He helped his mom carry food out to the table on the deck. He joined Dustin at the fire pit to see how the fire was coming along.
When the kids came out of the house, he focused his attention on them.
“We’ve never had a hot dog roast,” Brinley said.
“Never?” He looked at Brooke. She shook her head. “Your mom’s been slacking on your education.” He showed with a grin that he was teasing, and Brooke smiled.
Chase put a hot dog on a stick for Brinley. Devon got the idea and prepared one for himself. Chase showed them how to get close to the fire, but not too close. Maddie joined him at his other side. He put his arm around her. “Need any help, princess?”
“No, I know how to do this.”
Brooke watched the kids roast their hot dogs, then helped them prepare their buns. There was room at one end of the table for them to sit down, so all four of the kids sat and ate their food.
Chase walked over to Brooke with a stick. “Do you want me to roast it for you?”
“What, and miss all the fun?” He grinned at the teasing look. Man, she was beautiful.
Even more so in the firelight, he realized, as they stood side by side roasting the hot dogs. Her cheeks were rosy, and her eyes when they met his danced with a happy light. He was in over his head. But he didn’t care. He was going to ride this wave and see where it took them, instead of running away from the emotions he felt.
Baylee and her friends started up a game of volleyball after they ate their hot dogs. They let the kids play, so it wasn’t about competition. “Come on Chase!” Baylee called out.
“I’ll pass,” he called back. He sat on a bench beside the fire and pulled Brooke down to sit beside him. They could watch the volleyball game, and enjoy the coziness of the fire.
Dustin built up the fire, then joined the game. Chase’s mom came out and sat in a chair near them.
“Your kids are having fun, Brooke.”
“This is why I moved home from Detroit. I wanted them to have the small-town life that I grew up with.”
“Hot dog roasts?”
“That wasn’t specifically in my plans, but they have never roasted a hot dog or eaten a s’more. I feel like they have been missing out.”
“But aren’t there things they are missing out on by moving back home?”
“There are. It was hard for me to take them out of their school. Devon still hasn’t forgiven me. But we lived with my mother-in-law. I couldn’t afford to keep my house after Carl passed away.”
“Didn’t he have life insurance?”
“Mom!” Chase was angry at the line of questioning. Brooke reached over and covered his hand with hers.
“I don’t mind answering. Unfortunately, it was something we put off doing until it was too late. There was a policy from work, enough to give him a nice funeral and pay for a couple of months of expenses, until I could decide what to do. But we owed a lot on our house, and the taxes were high. By moving in with my mother-in-law, I was able to keep the kids in their school. That situation wouldn’t have worked long-term.”
His mom looked offended. “Chase has lived with me for two years. It’s worked out very well for us.”
“But we both know I plan to look for a place to move into with the kids, after February.” Chase’s reminder was gentle.
“What do you think about buying this place from me?”
His mom had not mentioned selling before.
“Are you serious?”
“I probably should have brought it up when we were alone.” His mom looked guilty as she glanced at Brooke.
“Brooke doesn’t repeat what she hears,” Chase was quick to point out. His mom looked doubtful.
He glanced at Brooke, who shrugged as if to say his mom did not believe her.
“I’ll know more after I spend a couple of weeks with your Aunt Grace. She can’t keep up on her house by herself. Her kids are trying to convince her to move into a senior apartment. She doesn’t want to give up her home. I’m considering moving in with her, to share expenses.”
“I didn’t realize you were thinking of moving out.”
“I think we both know it’s time for a change,” she said quietly.
Chase wondered if it had anything to do with Brooke coming into his life. Maybe his mom could not accept that he was dating again, and he was happy. But then he remembered that they had always planned on him moving out when she turned sixty.
He hadn’t realized she was considering moving out and selling the place. He would like nothing more than to raise his kids in this house, where they could run free in the yard and enjoy the out-of-doors. But he did not want to let his mom know how much he would be interested in buying. She might feel pressured to move out.
He shrugged. “I guess it’s something to think about.”
The volleyball game ended. Maddie came up and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Can we make s’mores now?” she asked.
Her face was sweaty against his cheek, but her arms wrapped around his neck filled him with tenderness. He loved his kids. They were the best part of his marriage to Lisa. Without them, he thought he would have given up on life a long time ago.
“Sure. Do you want to help Grandma bring out the fixings?”
“Come on Brinley,” Maddie said. The girls scampered off with his mom to the house. It was great that the girls got along so well, considering that he and Brooke were hitting it off.
Josh sat down on the bench beside him, and Devon sat on the other end by Brooke. The boys were getting along great, he thought, but they were twelve. If they were bonding, they were not likely to show it.
After the s’mores were made and eaten, he could see that Maddie was getting tired. She crawled onto his lap and rested her head against his shoulder. Brinley had climbed onto Brooke’s lap, also, and looked sleepy.
He did not want the night to end. Brooke looked over at him, and he could see that she was debating whether to take the kids home.
One of Baylee’s friends brought out a guitar. He sang a campfire song that had been pretty standard at all the bonfires Chase remembered growing up. As he heard the voices of Baylee’s friends singing “Pass it On,” he put an arm around Brooke’s shoulders. Somehow, sitting here, surrounded by their kids, in the firelight, just felt like home to him.
“Can we go home now?” He heard Devon’s whisper.
Brooke glanced at him. “I think it’s time for us to leave.”
“I’ll walk you out to your car.”
When they were heading out, Baylee saw them. “Oh, don’t leave yet. I want to get some pictures of you and your kids, Brooke.”
“Mom—” Devon mumbled.
“How about of just Brinley and I?” Brooke suggested.
“Okay.” Brooke and Brinley posed for the camera.
“Now one of you two, with Chase and Maddie,” Baylee said.
Maddie and Brinley put their arms around each other, smiling for the camera. Chase stepped closer to Brooke, and put his arm around her shoulders. She glanced up at him. Her face was flushed from the fire and her hair was windblown. But it was the happiness in her eyes that caught his breath. He couldn’t look away.