Brooke was busy that weekend getting the kids ready for school. She knew Chase was, too. His mom was leaving on Sunday night, so she wasn’t surprised that she did not hear from him.
On Monday, the first day of school, Brinley was so excited that she could not stop talking at the breakfast table. On the other hand, Devon was silent until Brooke set his plate in front of him.
Devon shoved his plate away from him. “This is stupid.”
“You like egg bagels,” Brooke reminded him.
“It’s just so stupid!” he said again. “Why did we have to move back here, anyway?”
“I’ve already explained that many times, Devon.”
“I don’t like the reason. It’s stupid.”
“All right, enough. Three ‘stupids’ is enough. I know you are unhappy. I also know you are very nervous, and I am nervous for you. I know it isn’t easy.”
“You never had to change schools. You don’t know how hard it is.”
“I know how hard it is to fit in, Devon. I know you don’t make friends that easily, not like Brinley. You’re shy, like me. It isn’t going to be easy to get to know anyone, but I know if you give yourself time, you will make friends. Chase said he would have Josh introduce you around.”
“I don’t know why you have to date his dad, of all people.”
“His dad is nice to you.”
“Because he likes you, he has to be nice to me.”
“It’s more than that, Devon.” She was sure of it, because that was who Chase was now. He was nice, he cared about people. Not like he had been in high school. But she couldn’t seem to convince her son that Chase’s interest in them was real.
“He does like us,” Brinley spoke up. “Maddie says so. She says her dad is a lot nicer to everybody now that he is dating our mom.”
Chase hadn’t mentioned that to her, Brooke thought, smiling to herself. Maybe he did not know what Maddie was saying about him.
She walked with the kids the three blocks to the school campus, where they dropped off Devon first. “You don’t have to go all the way up to the door with me, Mom. Just say goodbye here.”
Standing on the sidewalk, watching him cross the parking lot and go in the door, was heartbreaking.
Brinley remembered where her locker and her classroom were. She seemed a little lost, though, as she waited to catch sight of Maddie. The kids from the school buses came and there was no Maddie. “You’d better go to class without her,” Brooke said.
“Here she comes.”
Brooke turned towards the door, where Maddie came as fast as she could without running. It was obvious she had been crying.
Brooke looked at Chase. He shrugged.
“Have a good day, Maddie.”
“Are you going to pick me up after school?”
“Just for today. Just this first day of school, got it?”
“Yes,” she said with a sniffle.
After the girls went into their classroom, Brooke turned to Chase. “What was that all about?” She fell in step beside Chase as they left the school.
“She had a meltdown when I tried to braid her hair. She was wiggling so much that it was lopsided, and that upset her even more, so she took the braid all back out. I had to redo it. She missed the bus. Josh got on it, but I had to bring her in. Now I’m going to be late for work, and Darrick is going to be mad.”
“I wondered how things would go without your mom to help out.”
“Do you think I can’t handle it?” She knew he wasn’t angry with her, but his tone still stung. “I’m sorry. It’s been a frustrating morning.”
“Tell me about it. I can’t tell you how many times I was told that it was a stupid idea to move here.”
He was parked on the street. “Hop in the truck, I will give you a ride home,” he said.
“That will only make you later.”
“Nothing I can do about it now. Darrick is already going to be upset.”
In her driveway, he bounced out of the truck and opened her door. When she stepped down from the pickup, he put his arms around her.
“If I didn’t have a job lined up that I’m already late to, I would think about playing hooky and watching a John Wayne movie with you.”
She put her arms around his waist. “I have to go in at nine.”
“I doubt if I will see you at the office today.” He leaned down and kissed her. The stress of the morning faded away.
When Brooke met the kids after school to walk home, Brinley was animated and full of excitement over her busy day at school and the new friends she made. Devon was sullen and silent. At home, he grabbed an apple and took off up to his room. Brooke wanted to go after him, but she would do that later, after Brinley was settled down. As a dutiful mother, she looked through Brin’s backpack with her and sorted out the papers that she would need to fill out and sign, so Brinley could take them back to school.
“No homework, but we have to read twenty minutes a day and that has to start tonight. We can read any book we want but it has to be a chapter book. I’ve already read all of my chapter books. Can we go buy some new ones?”
“We can go to the library one afternoon soon and use our library cards to get one,” Brooke reminded her, but she wasn’t even sure Brinley heard her because she was already talking about something else.
“We have gym on Wednesdays. We have to wear tennis shoes on the gym floor. Do you think my tennis shoes have the right tread on them? I don’t know what tread is, but I think it is something awfully important because the teacher talked about it like it was important.”
By the time Brinley settled down to eat her apple slices with a peanut butter and honey dip, Brooke felt as exhausted as if she had spent the whole day at school.
“Okay. I am going to my room to play. I really missed my ponies today.”
Brinley ran up the stairs only to come right back down again. “I forgot, I told Maddie she could come to our house tomorrow.”
“No, before school. I told her that her dad could drop her off here on his way to work and you could braid her hair for her, then walk us to school.”
“Brin, you had no business telling her that. That should be something that I take some time to think about.”
“I thought you would like that idea. Then you get to say hi to Chase.”
It really wouldn’t be a problem, Brooke thought as she snacked on her apples and dip. Maddie was a sweetheart, and she had been really distraught when Chase brought her to school today. Chase had been frustrated, and running late for work. A repeat of that tomorrow would only be worse. Since she braided Brinley’s hair almost every morning, it would only take a few extra minutes and she would have Maddie’s done, as well.
The thought of seeing Chase in the morning wasn’t a bad idea, either. She knew he was not a morning person, but she could fix a cup of coffee for him and they could have a few minutes alone before he left for work and—
She called Chase after supper and didn’t get an immediate answer. She did not hear back from him until after Brinley had gone to bed.
“Is everything okay?” she asked, hearing the stress in his voice.
“I would lie and tell you it is, if you would believe it.”
“This Mr. Mom thing isn’t going as well as you hoped?”
Her light approach was the right one. “Nope, not at all. I never realized how many papers the school wants us to fill out and return. I don’t even know the answers to some of this stuff. And I am sure not going to call my mom to ask what to do, because, well, I’m a big boy now, and I have my pride.”
“Did Maddie say anything about coming to my house in the morning?”
“She did. She said Brinley offered you up as a hairstylist, or some such thing.” His tone was light, but there was a question that she could not ignore.
“It surprised me that Brinley thought of it, but I think it might help Maddie’s stress level if we did that for a couple of days.”
“My stress level would drop, also. But I don’t want to impose on you.”
“I’m offering, so it isn’t an imposition.”
“I’m going to take your offer at face value and accept it. Gladly.”
She was going to embarrass herself if she put the offer out there and he rejected it, but she was still going to say it.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to you coming early and having a cup of coffee with me.”
She sensed his hesitation. “I’m not an early riser.”
“But I can be, given the right incentive. Would the cup of coffee come with a kiss?”
She giggled. “Maybe.”
“That would definitely bring my stress level down. Why don’t we give it a shot? I have to leave your house at seven-thirty. I’ll try to get us there around seven.”
“Oh.” Brooke thought of Devon. He might not appreciate guests before school.
“I haven’t talked any of this over with Devon. He might not like it.”
“Believe me, he won’t like getting blindsided. Why don’t you talk to Devon and put the plan out there? If he doesn’t want any part of it, we will ditch the coffee idea and just leave Maddie there for the hair braiding.” He laughed. “But don’t think you will get away without serving up a kiss, if we can steal a second away from their eyes.”
“I don’t think Brinley would mind, but I don’t think Devon is ready to see me wrapped up in your arms.”
“Oh, so you were thinking of that kind of kiss? I was thinking just a chaste peck on the cheek.”
“Sure you were.” She didn’t believe him for a moment.
It was time to tell Devon goodnight. Earlier in the evening, when he came down to supper, he said he wasn’t hungry. Even though the Tater Tot casserole was his favorite, he only ate a little before disappearing back into his room.
She knocked on the door.
“Come in,” came the muffled sound.
She expected him to be in his chair playing a video game. Instead he was sitting at the desk underneath the window, a textbook in front of him.
“Yeah. Vocabulary words for English class.”
“How’s it going?”
“Not bad. They are pretty easy.”
“Was the day pretty bad at school?”
He shrugged, but she thought she saw a tear glint in his eyes.
“I don’t know how to make it better for you.”
“Take me back to Detroit. I would even live with Grandma if I could go back to my old school. Here, I’m different than everybody else. They all look at me like I’m an alien. And I don’t even talk with an accent or anything.”
“You would really live with Grandma?” She picked up the one thing she could lighten his mood with.
He grimaced. “No, you’re right. I couldn’t do that.”
“I’ve got something I want to ask you about.”
“About Maddie coming over? Brin told me.”
“Would it be all right if Chase brings her over early, and has a cup of coffee with me before he leaves for work?”
His eyes widened and he looked angry for a moment. Then the anger subsided, and his eyes were thoughtful. “Are you going to marry him?”
“I don’t know if he will ask me.”
“If he asks?”
“I’ll let you know what I decide, if and when that time comes. But don’t breathe a word about it to anyone, most of all Brinley. She will tell everyone, and sometimes things can get miscommunicated.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess, if you want to see Chase, I don’t care. What am I supposed to do while he’s here?”
“You’ll be getting dressed at seven, and have breakfast at seven-fifteen, same as we’ve planned every morning.”
“Okay. But tomorrow, can I just have some toast and peanut butter? The eggs made me a little sick this morning.”
“Was something wrong with them? Did they taste funny?”
“I just didn’t feel good after I tried to eat them.”
“Nerves, probably. But yes, toast and peanut butter are fine. Maybe a banana or yogurt with it?”
Josh balked at having to ride the bus, while Maddie was going to get a ride into town with Chase.
“Do you understand that she is going there so Brooke can fix her hair, so we don’t have a repeat of the meltdown we had yesterday?”
“Yeah, but Dad, the bus ride is an hour long. And we’re only ten minutes out of town. I could go early, and maybe shoot hoops in the school parking lot.”
“For an hour? I don’t think so.”
“Well, can I go with you to Devon’s house?”
“What would you do there?”
“I don’t know, play a video game or something?”
“You do realize you would be expected to walk to school with Devon, his mom and the girls, right?”
That thought deterred him for a few minutes.
“I guess that would be okay. Will you think about it, Dad?” Josh asked.
“I will let you know tonight. Now get out there before the bus goes on by.”
“They always stop and honk, like they did yesterday.”
“Yeah, well, you almost missed it yesterday. Don’t delay.”
Maddie came out of her room, in tears.
“What’s wrong, Maddie?”
“I don’t know if this shirt matches these shorts.”
The shorts were a white denim with purple vertical stripes. The top was flowers. Chase wasn’t a fashion expert, but – “No, they really don’t, princess.”
Then the tears flowed. “I don’t know what to wear.”
“I thought you and Grandma bought new school clothes.”
“I can’t remember what matches.”
“Well, let’s see if I can help you figure it out.”
Chase went upstairs to Maddie’s room. No wonder she could not tell what matched. It looked like she had emptied the contents of her dresser out onto her bed trying to find something that went together. He fished out a purple t-shirt with ruffles on the sleeves in the shade of purple on the denim shorts. “I think this is the one Grandma intended with those shorts.”
Maddie’s lip trembled. “Are you sure?”
If he told her he wasn’t sure, then there would be another eruption of tears, and he would be late for work again.
“I’m one hundred percent sure!” he said. “No, a thousand percent sure!”
That earned him a smile. “You’re silly, Daddy.”
“Yes, that’s me. Silly Daddy. Now how about it, Princess? Are you ready to go get your hair styled?”
There was a sparkle in her eyes that made him think of Lisa, the way he had remembered her when she was a cheerleader. Before life happened. The thought came unbidden, then he shoved it away. “You’re a very pretty girl, Maddie.”
“As pretty as Mommy?”
Oh, his heart. He put his fist to his forehead for a moment. Then he got down eye-level and looked at the image of them both in the mirror.
“You are prettier than Mommy.” She giggled and kissed his cheek. Since they were running late, he scooped her up and carried her down the stairs and out to the pickup.
When he got to Brooke’s house it was already quarter after seven. There wouldn’t be any time for coffee this morning. But he could really use a hug, he thought, after the grueling morning with Maddie. Just a few moments in Brooke’s arms, and the world would be right again.
Brooke opened the door before they reached it, showing that she had been waiting for them. Her eyes flew to Chase’s and she looked worried. He smiled, but it didn’t feel like a real one.
“Hi, Maddie,” Brooke said, leaning down. She touched a ruffle on Maddie’s shirt. “Look at that pretty purple. A perfect match for those shorts.”
“Do you have ESP?” Chase asked, incredulous.
“Maddie, come in my room a minute,” Brinley called out. “We have to pick out a ponytail holder.”
After Maddie disappeared, Brooke turned back to Chase. “Things didn’t go well, I take it?”
“Another meltdown.” He walked in and stood inside the closed door for a moment. “She couldn’t find a top that matched her shorts.”
“Oh, that’s why the ESP comment. She found one that matched perfectly.”
“I found it. She had every article of clothing out on her bed. Do you know how hard it is to find that shade of color among all the other purple and pink?”
Brooke’s eyes reflected a tenderness in them as they held his for a moment. Then she wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned against his chest. He instantly relaxed, and wrapped her up in a hug that released all the stress of the morning. Of the past fifty mornings, he thought irrationally. “You do have ESP,” he whispered in her ear.
“Why, did you need a hug?”
She couldn’t have guessed it quicker if she tried.
“I’ve got to go.” He stepped back and leaned down to kiss her. Aware that the girls could walk in any minute, he went for her cheek, but at the last second, he brushed his lips against hers. Before she could respond, he opened the door and left.
His frustration over the situation with Maddie this morning followed him onto the job.
Dustin called him on it after a few mutterings. “Man, you didn’t get your coffee this morning, did you?”
“I never realized how spoiled I was with Mom helping out.”
“Yeah, well, we all knew it.”
Chase sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess you probably were more aware of it than I was. It doesn’t help that this surgery fell on the first week of school.”
“Has it been that rough?”
Chase told Dustin an abbreviated version of his morning with Maddie. “And she asked if she is as pretty as her mommy. What am I supposed to say?”
“Lisa was very pretty. And Maddie looks a lot like her. What did you tell her?”
“I told her she was prettier than her mommy.”
Dustin grinned. “Good call. You have a way with women, you know.” He slapped Chase on the shoulder.
“Yeah, right. That’s why my high school sweetheart left me for someone else.”
“It was nothing on you that she left you, Chase. It was her own stupidity, and the alcohol.”
“Without the alcohol we might have had a chance.”
“It would be good to think that way. If you don’t, you will drive yourself crazy wondering what you could have done differently.”
“I do that enough as it is.”
They packed up their gear and loaded it into the truck. “Hey, we’re near that bakery, aren’t we?” Chase asked.
“Yeah, the one with the good donuts. We have to go by there on our way back to the shop.”
“Let’s stop in. I can load up on coffee and donuts. That will help my mood.”
“A donut always helps my mood,” Dustin joked.
Dustin paid for his coffee and donut, and waited impatiently while Chase stood in front of the donut case. “Just get the long john already.”
“I’ll have the custard long john, and an apple fritter, to go,” Chase said. He didn’t answer the question in Dustin’s eyes. He paid for two coffees, and filled one large cup with hazelnut and one with dark roast.
“Where are you going with that extra donut and coffee?”
“I’m dropping it off to someone on our way back to the shop.”
“Gee, I wonder who that someone might be?” Dustin laughed. “I’ll drive,” he said, and Chase handed him the keys. “I don’t think you can concentrate on anything except that coffee and who it’s for.”
Dustin parked in the driveway behind Brooke’s car. Chase’s heart pounded as he walked up to the door. He held the drink in one hand and stuck the donut bag in his mouth, then knocked loudly on the door. He was just pulling the bag out of his mouth when Brooke opened it. She looked shocked.
“Chase? Shouldn’t you be working?”
“We’re heading back to the office. I stopped by the coffee shop and thought of you, so I brought you this.” He handed her the coffee, and the donut bag.
“You really did this for me?” She was surprised, but her smile showed her delight. He was glad he had thought of it.
“As a thank you for helping out with Maddie this morning.”
“I didn’t mind at all. And she was fine after we braided her hair.”
“I can’t stay, but—” Chase stepped into the house and closed the door.
Their kiss was pure sweetness. The first one, anyway. The second one was longer and passionate, and left them both breathless.
He grinned. “Yeah, that will get me through my day.”
“What is Dustin going to say? I’m so embarrassed that he knows we are kissing behind the door.”
“Dustin is great about this, believe me. He saw me through the worst, and now he gets to see me happy again. He’s all about my happiness.”
Brooke laughed, shaking her head. “He’s going to be knocking the door down if you don’t get back out there.”
“You know my brother pretty well.”
“Patience is not one of his virtues.”
“No, you’re right. Call you tonight?”
“You better.” Her remark was so unexpected that it flustered him. He missed the door handle the first time, then beat it out of there.
Dustin was drumming his fingers on the dash in time to a ‘Seventies rock song when Chase opened the truck door. Chase couldn’t meet Dustin’s eyes. He knew his brother guessed what had transpired behind that closed door, but he wasn’t man enough to admit it was true.
“Did you get what you were after?” Dustin asked with a grin.
“You just wait until you fall for someone, hard,” Chase said.
“Not going to happen,” Dustin swiftly pointed out. “Been there, done that. Can’t trust any woman.”
“Your time is coming.”