Chase was pretty nervous about taking Devon out hunting. He’d talked to Dustin about it. His brother was the only one who was aware of how he felt. When one was prepared and knew the lay of the land, hunting was a safe sport. There were unknowns while taking out young hunters, especially one as green as Devon. Chase’s years of teaching hunter’s safety had given him the perspective that Devon was a quick learner and a natural good shot. But sitting in a blind with a twelve-year-old kid and a weapon that could kill a human as well as a deer was a little unnerving. Especially when that twelve-year-old belonged to someone as special to him as Brooke.
Josh had been a little upset when he found out that Devon was going to hunt in his dad’s blind. But Brooke was more confident about letting her son go out as long as Chase was in the blind with him. What she didn’t realize was that Dustin was the better leader of the hunters’ safety classes. Dustin had more patience when it came to training the prospective hunters how to load and shoot a rifle. He was confident and a hands-on leader. Chase would’ve preferred that Devon was matched up with his brother for that reason. But to tell Brooke all of that would undoubtedly have meant the end of Devon’s chance to hunt, so he and Dustin had decided that Chase would handle it well enough.
The plan was for Devon to spend Friday night with them, so he’d be up and ready before dawn without Brooke having to get Brinley up to drive him over. He’d pick Devon up at six, which would give them plenty of daylight for target practice.
Maddie was going to spend the night with Brooke and Brinley. Even though Maddie was in third grade, she’d never spent the night away from home. She’d been invited to a couple of slumber parties with friends in her classes, but she’d always been too shy to go. And Chase had been okay with that. He didn’t know the parents of either of the girls who invited Maddie. There were so many things a parent had to watch out for these days when their child was staying in someone else’s home.
But not with Brooke. Chase had no qualms about how Brooke would treat Maddie. Brinley and Maddie had only had one fight. Brooke had been fair in how she handled her daughter and his. Brinley could be a demanding child, and was a natural leader. Maddie was shy by nature and a follower. But her feelings could get easily hurt, so there were bound to be squabbles.
He admired Brooke’s skill as a mother. Maybe she erred on the over-protective side, but she had a good relationship with both Brinley and Devon. She’d moved back to their small town to give her kids the kind of upbringing she had. He knew that had taken courage. She’d been shy in high school and hadn’t had a lot of friends. Devon reminded him of the Brooke he’d known back then. Devon hadn’t wanted to leave his friends in Detroit. He’d always assumed that Brooke had friends there too, that she might miss. But she’d established herself here in town, and was making a life for herself and the kids.
There was a lot that he admired about Brooke. Admiration was too inadequate a term for what he felt for Brooke. He was falling hard for her, and he didn’t see any signs of it fading away any time soon.
On Friday night, Dustin and Darrick were pitching in for pizza. Since he was ordering takeout anyway, he offered to bring a pizza for Brooke and the girls. She’d declined, saying she thought they’d have more fun making their own.
“Brinley said her mom is going to let us each make our own pizza,” Maddie said on their way over to Brooke’s house.
“How can you eat a whole pizza?” he asked, enjoying the sparkle in her blue eyes.
“Daddy, they’re going to be little pizzas, like this.” She held up her hands and showed him how small she thought the pizzas would be. Hearing her say Daddy gave him a heartache. He’d always think of her as his little princess, but when would she cease to think of him in terms of “daddy” and start calling him “Dad?” For Josh it’d happened when he was younger than Maddie, about the time he started preschool. Probably when he heard how other kids referred to their dads.
Brooke had told him that Carl used to call Brinley “Princess.” She said it was hard for Brinley to hear him call Maddie that, so he’d tried not to say it in front of her. Still, he couldn’t hide his affection for Maddie forever. If they were to have a future together, he’d still think of Maddie as his princess. He’d treat Brinley as a daughter, but she wouldn’t hold the same place in his heart.
He figured that was how Brooke would feel, also. But he knew she’d be a fair and affectionate stepmother.
How had his thoughts winded up there?
After they made their pizzas and ate them, Maddie and Brinley helped stir up a batch of cookies. Then they played in Brinley’s room. Brooke went up at eight o’clock and told them it was time to put their pajamas on. Maddie took her backpack and went into the bathroom to change, obedient and a little nervous looking. Brinley changed in her room.
When they came downstairs, Brinley shrieked. In the dining room, Brooke had made a tent with some sheets over the dining room table. Inside the tent were pillows and sleeping bags. It made a cozy space for the girls to giggle and sleep.
They crawled around in the tent for a few minutes. Brooke called them into the kitchen, where she had hot cocoa with tiny marshmallows waiting for them.
“Can we take it in the tent?”
“Sorry, Brin. You’ll have to drink it out here.”
Maddie looked a little like she was going to cry.
“Are you okay, Maddie?”
“I want to go home.”
“Oh.” Brooke wasn’t surprised. It was Maddie’s first time to be away from home at night. She and Chase had known it might be a problem.
“I’ll tell you what, Maddie. After you drink your cocoa, I’ve got a movie on my tablet that you and Brinley can take into the tent with you. You can think about it during the movie. If you still want to go home when the movie is done, I will call your dad to come and pick you up.”
Maddie nodded, her face changing to excitement.
Brooke had downloaded an animated Disney movie that’d been popular when she was a kid. The girls had never watched it. She left them in the tent watching the movie and cleaned up the kitchen. When she checked on them a half hour later, they were curled up in the sleeping bags watching the movie on the tablet between them.
“Are you doing okay, Maddie?”
Maddie nodded, barely looking up from the movie.
Another half hour, and Maddie was sound asleep.
Brinley turned off the movie.
“I’ll wait and watch the rest of it when Maddie wakes up in the morning,” she said.
Brooke sat on the couch with a cup of coffee and two cookies. Her phone was on the coffee table. It rang, and Chase’s number showed up on the screen.
“How is everything going?” Chase asked. “How is Maddie?”
“She said she wanted to go home a little while ago. But then she started watching a movie, and fell asleep.” Brooke told him about the tent she’d made for them in the dining room.
“My brothers and I used to make tents like that. Only we called them forts and took our toy guns with us, hiding out from the bad guys.”
“Yeah, with three brothers there was a lot of playing with guns.”
“You still play with guns,” she teased.
“True. Mom said she invited you for lunch tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, she called earlier tonight. I’ll be there. I haven’t had venison chili for a long time.”
“My mom’s chili is awesome. She’s making fresh bread to go with it.”
“Sounds really good. I haven’t had home baked bread in a long time, either.”
“She does it up nice during hunting season.”
There was so much more they could talk about, but it was late, and he had an early morning. “I guess I will see you tomorrow,” he said, and they ended the call reluctantly.
Brinley woke up at her usual six o’clock time on Saturday. Maddie was still asleep, and Brooke made Brinley come out of the tent, so she didn’t disturb her guest. Maddie slept another hour. She was anxious to go home. It was early yet, but Brooke wanted to do what was best for Maddie.
“Do you girls want to go and get donuts this morning?”
“I do, do you, Maddie?”
“Can we go back to the bakery where we went with my daddy?” Maddie asked, hope in her blue eyes.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Brooke said.
The girls talked and giggled on the way over to the bakery. They picked out their donuts. Maddie stuck with her custard long john, but Brinley wanted to try an iced cinnamon roll. Brooke was about to get the apple fritter when she saw a sad look on Maddie’s face. She chose a long john, also. The smile she received from Maddie made her choice worthwhile.
The girls got a milk, and Brooke filled a large cup with hazelnut coffee. She missed Chase, but she enjoyed the conversation with Brinley and Maddie.
Up until Maddie started talking about her mom. Brooke suffered through Maddie pointing out all the good things she remembered about her mom, and how pretty she was. It was clear that Maddie missed her mom, and possibly was reminding Brooke that she wouldn’t measure up. Brooke already knew she couldn’t hold a candle to Lisa’s beauty. But she knew she could be a loving and faithful wife, and if Chase was looking for a wife, that’d be what he was looking for.
She’d thought Lisa had soured him on the possibility of marrying again, but he’d told her that he’d never said he didn’t want to get married again. That meant that he wasn’t against the idea.
It was almost ten o’clock when she arrived at the house with the girls. Maddie ran into the kitchen, where her grandma was. Brooke and Brinley followed her.
Irene smiled at Brooke as she listened to Maddie’s chatter. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Brooke?”
“No, thank you. I took the girls to the bakery, and just finished a large cup. That will last me for a while.
“Josh shot a deer, so they’re bringing that up on the quad,” Irene said.
“That’s good,” Brooke said. She didn’t have to ask about Devon, but Irene said it, anyway.
“Devon didn’t get a shot this morning. Nothing came close, Chase said.”
Brooke felt disappointed, but there was the afternoon hunt, and tomorrow, yet. There was still a chance her son would get a deer.
Maddie and Brinley went upstairs to play. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Brooke asked, even knowing that Irene didn’t like help in the kitchen.
“No, it’s all set. But I think I will sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee.”
Irene poured a cup and sat down at the kitchen table across from Brooke.
“How did Maddie do?”
“She got homesick last night. I thought she might be all right if she watched a movie, and when I checked on her half an hour later, she was content. She fell asleep half-way through the movie and they finished it this morning.”
“She and Brinley get along really well.”
“Yes, they do. They’ve had a couple of squabbles, but they seem to work it out.”
“Like sisters,” Irene said, sipping a cup of coffee. Brooke couldn’t gauge her expression.
Chase’s mom smiled at the correction.
“You don’t think you will marry Chase someday?”
“I don’t think he will ask.”
“He seems serious about you.”
How could Brooke tell Chase’s mom that she didn’t think he’d be serious about marrying her? Maddie’s discourse of her mom this morning had reminded Brooke that she was nothing like Lisa. Chase was sure to discover soon enough that she wasn’t as beautiful or as charming as his first wife.
The door into the garage opened up and the men’s and boys’ voices came through the house before they did.
Devon walked into the kitchen. Brooke saw the disappointment on his face.
“I didn’t get a deer,” he said.
Chase came in behind him. “We didn’t see any from our blind. Trevor got a shot, and missed. Josh shot a buck.”
“That’s great. And there’s still time yet, Devon. Right?” she directed her question at Chase.
He grinned. “Got tonight and tomorrow yet.”
That seemed to make Devon feel better.
“Hey, Devon. We’re going downstairs to watch a movie. Want to come?”
Devon nodded and followed Josh.
Darrick came into the kitchen. He and Chase sat at the table, and their mom brought them coffee.
“Do you want a donut?” Irene asked.
“No, I think just coffee,” Chase said. “I’ll wait for the chili.”
“I’m looking forward to the venison chili,” Brooke said.
“I’m surprised you like venison. Your dad wasn’t a hunter, and I know your mom has always turned down offers of meat.”
“My mother-in-law cooked venison and wild game that my husband and father-in-law shot,” Brooke said. “I’m afraid the attempts I made to cook it didn’t go over very well with my husband, so I left it up to her.”
Chase looked thoughtful at the mention of her husband and in-laws. Darrick seemed to notice it, too.