They checked out at eleven the next morning. Brooke picked up Devon first so they could have some time to talk before picking Brinley up.
“Did you have a good time?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“I thought you would say yes, you definitely did.”
“They talked about a few things that I don’t know about, because I wasn’t there when they happened. I told them I was going hunting and that I rode quads. They just looked at me kind of strange.”
“Nah, it’s okay. Detroit wasn’t much fun after Dad passed away.”
“And now things are fun?”
“Yeah. You’re more fun now, too.” His comment did not surprise her. She was enjoying her life for the first time since Carl’s accident.
“I feel a lot better.”
“It’s because of Chase, isn’t it?”
She went for honesty. “He’s a big part of it. Do you mind?”
Again, the shrug. “I guess not.”
They picked up Brinley. As Brooke had known, Brinley talked constantly about the fun she had with her friends. Devon plugged in his earphones and ignored his sister.
Brooke stopped an hour out of Detroit so they could stretch their legs and eat lunch, without having to eat in the car. She was tired, having stayed up so late last night. She did not want to admit it, but Brinley’s constant chatter was getting on her nerves.
When they sat down in the booth, she took out her phone. She had a message from Chase.
Chase: Can I see you tonight?
Chase: I’ll see you then.
On Sunday morning, Chase shared a cup of coffee with his mom in the sunroom after breakfast. She looked tired, and he worried that she was working too hard taking care of her sister. He recalled the strain she’d been under, both physically and mentally, during the days of his father’s illness. He’d moved in after Lisa died and helped, but the drawn look and worried frown hadn’t faded from her until well after the funeral was over.
“Is it becoming too much for you to take care of your sister?”
“Not really. I’m just homesick, I guess.”
He didn’t want to tell her how much he and the kids had missed her, because his reasons were selfish. Being Mr. Mom had been difficult especially with football practice three evenings.
“How long will she need someone there?”
“For a couple of weeks yet, I’m sure. She has a home health nurse coming out to change her bandages and bathe her. I think she is depressed, and I don’t want to leave her alone just yet.” His mom straightened her shoulders and smiled. “Now, let’s talk about how your week went. And be honest.”
“We managed.” That was all he could say about it.
“Maddie said you took her to Brooke’s house so Brooke could braid her hair. I thought you were able to do that.”
Chase explained the first few mornings, and his mom was sympathetic. “I’m sure it’s hardest on Maddie to not have a woman’s touch.”
“I think it is, but it’s good for her to be a little independent.” Chase cringed when his mom look offended at his words.
“Do you mean to tell me I spoil her?”
“No more so than the rest of us.”
Irene sighed. “It’s so hard not to spoil her. I like having a girl in the house again. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long ago since Baylee was eight and helping me bake cookies.”
“How is Baylee doing?”
“She called the other day to ask about one of my recipes. I guess she is doing a lot of the cooking because her roommates don’t have any skills.”
“It’s hard to believe it. She didn’t like cooking that well.”
“No, she didn’t, but at least she learned how.”
“Ouch. Are you saying I didn’t?”
A smile curved her mouth. “Your dad wouldn’t let you boys in the kitchen.”
That surprised Chase. “I thought it was you who didn’t want us to help.”
“We talked about it, but your dad was pretty old-fashioned. He wanted to raise up men, not mama’s boys.”
Chase grimaced. “And now I’ve become a mama’s boy.”
“You took care of your family for a lot of years, Chase. When you shouldn’t have had to.”
“Let’s not bring up my marriage right now, Mom. A lot of things went wrong with it, but my cooking and doing the housework was not our downfall.”
“How is Brooke?”
Chase wouldn’t admit to the mistakes he’d made with Brooke, except he wanted his mom to stay with the kids tonight while he went over to Brooke’s house and talked.
“I think I messed up.” He told her what the problem was, that Brooke was going to a bachelorette party where there would be alcohol.
“She doesn’t drink, you know.”
“I know. I just—”
“She’ll understand. If the two of you are going to be in a relationship, then she needs to know what went wrong in your first marriage.”
“It’s hard to talk about, but I hope to do it tonight, if you’ll stay with Maddie after I tuck her in.”
“Where else would I go?”
As Chase put Maddie to bed later that evening, he debated whether or not to tell Maddie where he was going. He felt that it was unfair not to tell her. And unwise. Brinley would know he was going to see her mom, and she was talkative. His daughter would find out, and it was better that Maddie hear it from him than from Brinley later.
“I’m going to go to Brooke’s house in a little while, Maddie.”
“Why do you want to go and see Brinley’s mom?” Maddie asked.
“Because I like her. I like to spend time talking to her.”
“What do you talk about?”
“Work, you kids. Grownup things.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“I’d like her to be,” he admitted. He saw Maddie’s lip tremble. “Is that okay with you?”
“I miss Mommy.”
“I know you do.” Chase put his arm around Maddie, and she snuggled against his chest. Lisa may not have been a good wife, but she had been a good mom.
“Don’t you miss her, Daddy?”
Ah, what did he say? Did he miss the damage Lisa had done to his marriage? Did he miss the way she had come running back when she found out she had cancer and the other guy dumped her?
She had pleaded with him for forgiveness, but he had wondered how sincere it was. Or if she was just bargaining her way into heaven.
In the end, though, he realized that Lisa had changed. Cancer had humbled her. She turned to the faith of her childhood during those final weeks, when she learned there was nothing more the doctors could do for her. Chase had told Lisa on her deathbed that he forgave her because it brought her peace. It was a daily struggle to put forgiveness into practice.
Maddie took his silence for grief. “It’s okay, Daddy. We will see her again in heaven.”
Maddie was so sweet to try and comfort him. Chase felt his throat clog up with emotion. He squeezed Maddie’s shoulders and dropped a kiss on top of her head. “I know we will. Now, it’s time for you to get some sleep.”
Maddie lay down and he covered her up to her chin, the way she always liked. He bent and kissed her one more time on her forehead.
He realized as he walked out of the room that she had not told him that it was okay with her if he saw Brooke, but then, she was eight. She could not decide what was best for herself, let alone decide what was best for Chase. And right now, he knew that Brooke was the best thing that had happened to him in a long time.
He showered and trimmed his beard. It was still hot out, and he did not feel like dressing in a polo shirt and denim shorts. It was just an impromptu visit, not even a real date. He decided to wear his basketball shorts and a T-shirt. And not just any T-shirt, but one that said “Coach” on it, that was well worn and soft.
When Brooke opened the door, he realized she’d gone casual, too. She wore yoga pants and a T-shirt, and her hair was in a ponytail. She looked younger than thirty-three. “Wow, you look like you’re seventeen.”
She laughed. “I don’t think so, but that’s a nice compliment. Come on in. Brin is asleep, I just checked on her. And Devon came down a few minutes ago for a drink and snacks. He’s all set to play video games for the next couple of hours.”
“Does he play online?” Chase asked.
“He does, with some friends from back in Detroit. I monitor it pretty closely, and the other kids’ parents do, too. That was the agreement we all made when the boys wanted to go online, for their safety.”
“Josh plays online with Trevor.”
“That’s Darrick’s son, isn’t it? He’s older than Josh?”
“Darrick has a picture of him on his desk.”
Chase didn’t want to talk about Darrick and Trevor. That could lead to questions about Darrick’s wife. If Chase’s own marriage was the fault of Lisa’s infidelity, Darrick had messed his up all by himself. He hadn’t been unfaithful to Jordyn, but he’d caused so much heartache that their marriage couldn’t survive.
He held up a plastic container. “I brought some of Mom’s cookies. You told me you like something sweet with your coffee.”
Her eyes lit up, and he realized he had made a good call.
“Yes, that sounds wonderful.”
He followed her into the kitchen. “Do you want dark roast or a mild blend?” she asked.
He watched as she prepared his cup. He could think of nothing except how it felt to kiss her. His heartbeat sped up as she looked up and caught his eye. When she handed him his coffee, he leaned down and kissed her. Mindful of the hot coffee, he kept the kiss chaste and brief, but his heart sped up anyway. He took the mug from her, and she prepared one for herself.
There was a cushioned swing on the back deck, and they sat down on it. She balanced the plate of cookies on her knee. When he reached for one, he thought about copping a feel of her thigh, shapely beneath the yoga pants. He decided that would be pretty juvenile and refrained.
She was absorbed in her coffee and cookie. He knew she had no idea that his thoughts tonight were dangerous. She had been all he had thought about all week. He had gone through the motions of work, and being a dad, but even during the intense football practices he had to be careful that his mind didn’t stray to their shared kisses.
“Your mom makes the best cookies,” Brooke said.
“I know. I can cook, but I’ve never baked anything except those biscuits that come in a can.”
“But you survived this week, right?”
Chase sighed. “I managed to cook and keep the dishes done up. Mom didn’t say anything about how the rest of the house looked. I don’t think it met her standards, or yours either, I have a feeling.”
She moved her coffee cup and plate of cookies onto the small table at her side of the swing. She curled up her legs beneath her and turned so that she could see his face clearly. “I’m not going to judge you based on how clean you can keep a house. I see how hard you work all week on your job. I won’t think you are lazy if there are dirty dishes in the sink.”
Her words settled on him like a gentle breeze. He set his coffee cup on the table at his side. He put his arm around her shoulders, and she moved closer. He reached out and lifted her chin so that he could look into her eyes. The desire he saw there mirrored his own. He could feel his heart pounding as he leaned forward and kissed her. All he could think about was Brooke and how wonderful she felt in his arms.
Before they could take their relationship any further, there were things he needed to tell her. He reached out for her hand and held it, as if weighing his decision to tell her about his marriage.
“Lisa had an affair.”
There was so much pain in Chase’s eyes that she knew it cost him to talk about Lisa. She wrapped both of her hands around his, and focused her attention on him.
“It was three years ago. According to her friend, it wasn’t the first time. It seemed to come out of the blue, because I hadn’t known she was unhappy. When I confronted her, she said she wanted out of the marriage, and she moved in with him.”
“Yeah, me too. I thought we were still in love. She was ready to contact a lawyer and start the divorce when she found out she had cancer. Her boyfriend dumped her. She had burned her bridges with her parents, and she did not have anywhere to go. So I let her move back in, and I took care of her.”
“You still loved her, didn’t you?”
“I did. Not in the way I had before, and I couldn’t trust her. But she was my wife, and I had loved her for a long time. I don’t think you can just stop loving someone because they hurt you.”
“No, I don’t think so, either. And you can’t stop loving someone just because they die.” She spoke from her own experience.
“Do you still love your husband?”
“I do still love him, but it’s different now. I have been slowly letting go, learning to live each day without him. I love the memory of him, and I always will. But it doesn’t dominate my thoughts like it did.”
“When did it change for you?”
It wasn’t a simple curiosity for him. He was hurting. Maybe it would help if she shared.
“The decision to move back home was a way of putting the past behind me, of letting my life with Carl go. But in reality, the grief is always changing. There are times I think I am over it; I can move on with life, but then an anniversary date will come up, or something about the kids, Devon, especially, reminds me of Carl, and the pain surfaces again, but only briefly.”
“So I am not going crazy.” She saw the relief in his eyes, the acceptance. “I want to be over Lisa. Sometimes the past has a hard time staying in the past.”
“As long as you move forward, and not stay in the same place, I think it’s okay.”
“I want to move forward. With you.” He sat back. “I think it was the alcohol.”
“What was the alcohol?”
“Lisa drank, often.”
“Oh. I guess I never knew that.”
“I admit, I partied in high school. And we hung out in the bars before we were married. It’s just what we did. When she became pregnant with Josh, we quit drinking. I gave it up for good. After Josh was born, she liked to have a few drinks when we went out. I didn’t think it was a big deal, not at first. But then it got to be more often, and she would go out drinking with her friends. I can’t count the number of times she came home after having too many drinks and passed out on the bed.”
The tone in his voice darkened with his emotions. He was still hurting. “She got pregnant with Maddie, and cut back the drinking. But it started up again a year or so later. I found out that during that time, after Maddie was born, she cheated on me a few times, before settling into an affair with the man she left me for.”
“I have just spilled my guts to you.”
“I know. And it doesn’t go any further than here. I don’t gossip, I never liked it, and I won’t share what you told me.”
He grinned. “It’s been a long time since I kissed a girl in the moonlight.”
She wasn’t sure if she moved closer, or if he did, but they shared some tender kisses. When the passion started to flame between them, he broke off the kiss.
“I should go.”
“It’s getting late,” she agreed.
After she walked him out the front door, she said, “Mom asked if you would like to bring the kids and go out on the pontoon tomorrow. My sister and her husband are coming with their two kids. They would all like to meet you.”
“They know me.” He grinned when she rolled her eyes.
“They know of you. They would like the chance to get acquainted with you. If you think you would like to do that.”
“I think it’s time. I forced you to spend time with my family last weekend. What did you say yesterday, ‘turnabout is fair play? What time should I show up?”
“We’re going out around one.”