Brinley was beyond excited when she woke up and found out they were going to the mall. “You promised I could get a Build-a-Bear the next time we go. Can I, really?”
Brooke had forgotten that. During their shopping trip in August, Brinley had begged to be allowed to buy and create a stuffed animal at the popular store. Then they were focused on shopping for school clothes, and Brooke had made that promise. She wondered now whether she should let Brinley buy one. Maddie would want one, too, and she wasn’t sure if Chase would go for that.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” she said.
Devon was a little groggy as he ate his egg bagel and drank his orange juice. He wasn’t as excited as he’d been the past couple of days, because he doubted that he’d get to shoot a deer. But he got ready and they were at Chase’s house a few minutes before six.
Chase came out of the house. Brooke didn’t get out of the car, but she rolled her window down. He leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Good morning. Hi, Brinley,” he said.
“Mom said we’re going to the mall, and you and Maddie are going with us,” Brinley said with excitement. “Mom promised me I could get a Build-a-Bear.”
Chase looked clueless. “I promised her that in August, that we’d get one on our next trip to the mall,” Brooke said. “But she knows that may not happen.”
“When I pick you up later, you can explain to me what a Build-a-Bear is and we can talk about it. Are you ready to kill a deer, Devon?”
“I hope we see some.”
“Me, too,” Chase said. He waved at Brooke. She backed the car up and turned around, but not before she saw Chase put his arm around Devon’s shoulders as they walked back to the garage.
His genuine liking for her kids was something that she hadn’t expected, but it was a welcome part of him.
“Can we get donuts?” Brinley asked on the way back into town.
“No coffee shops open on Sunday in this town,” Brooke quipped.
“What about McDonald’s? They’re open this early.”
Actually, an extra shot of caffeine this morning sounded pretty good. “I guess we can do that,” Brooke said.
As a special treat, they went into the dining room and ate. Brooke had a muffin with her latte. Brinley ate a hotcake breakfast and drank some milk. She asked for pop, but it was going to be a long day. Brooke didn’t want to give her daughter any reason to be more excited than she was. As it turned out, Brinley talked all through breakfast and on the few blocks’ ride to their house, excited about going to the mall with Maddie and Chase.
“Chase must really like you, Mom,” she said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he told us he hates shopping, and he is going to go to the mall with us.”
That was true, Brooke said. Chase had admitted that he hated to go clothes shopping, but here he was buying a new suit for a wedding. And he didn’t like weddings much, either. The fact that he was doing this for her, meant a lot to her. She was excited to introduce him to the bride and groom. The people she had worked with before Carl passed away would be there. So would most of Carl’s colleagues, as the groom had worked in the same law firm as Carl. She would have a chance to show off Chase to them. He’d look handsome in his suit, that much she knew. She’d be proud to show him off.
More than that, it’d feel good to show everyone that she was moving forward with her life, and that she was happy again. It seemed important somehow to let the people she’d known when she was married to Carl know that she’d found someone new.
An hour after they got home, she received a text from Devon.
Mom, I shot a deer!!!!
Congratulations, great news!
It’s only a 4 point.
That’s still good news. How does it feel?
Soon after that she received a text from Chase.
Your son has good aim. Perfect chest shot.
Thank you so much for taking him out.
Glad to do it. Always good to see a new hunter take down his first deer.
I’ll have to do something to celebrate with him.
Come on over tonight after shopping. We’ll let you help us cut it up.
Ha-ha. Too big a mess for me.
I’ll take a shower and then we’ll head over that way.
A short time later, Chase called.
“Dustin and Josh want Devon to stay here while we go to the mall,” he said.
“Oh, I’m surprised,” Brooke said.
“They’ve had some real bonding time this weekend. Dustin is going to take out the quads now that the hunting is done.”
“What does Devon want to do?”
“Here, I’ll let him talk to you.”
“Congrats on the deer, by the way.”
“Yeah, that was awesome!” Devon’s voice rose in excitement.
“Do you want to hang out with Josh and Dustin today?” Brooke asked.
“Yeah, if I can. It beats sitting at home all day.”
“You can always go to the mall with us.”
“All right. You can stay. But don’t cause any trouble.”
“You know what I was thinking?”
“We could get a Playstation, then Josh and I could play online with each other.”
“Maybe for Christmas?”
“That’s a long time away. Let me talk to Chase.”
“I didn’t put him up to it,” Chase insisted first thing.
“I know. It’d be a good idea, if—” She didn’t complete the thought. If she and Chase were going to continue in a relationship, it’d be nice if their sons could play video games online together.
“Maddie and I are ready to head over there. I thought I might leave my pickup at your house and we can take your car. Easier to get around in the traffic.”
“I suppose you want to drive?” She was mockingly sarcastic, but he took her seriously.
“I guess it’s a guy thing.”
“I don’t know, can I trust you with my car?”
“You trusted me with your kid and a shotgun,” he reminded her, joking now.
“True. That was pretty brave of you.”
Maddie and Brinley were so excited when they got into the car that they talked all the way to the freeway. Chase looked a little nervous. Brooke knew how to drive in city traffic, but she didn’t think Chase was all that comfortable with it. And Brinley’s chatter could get on a person’s nerves. Even if she was her mother, she admitted that to herself.
“I brought my tablet,” she said when Chase turned on the freeway ramp.
He looked puzzled.
“It has videos on it.”
She handed the tablet back to Brinley, and after that there was only the sound of the movie and the giggling from the back seat.
“Good call on bringing the tablet,” he said after a bit. Then he looked embarrassed. “Not that I mind the girls’ chatter.”
She reached out and put her hand over his where it lay on the console. “Believe me, I drive back and forth to Detroit with my kids. I know how tense the traffic can get, and the noise can make it worse.”
“I think your kids are great, you know.”
“Thank you. I like your kids, too.”
“That’s good. And they seem to get along well with each other.”
She wasn’t sure where he was going with the conversation, but she agreed.
“Even the boys are bonding,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would.”
He flipped up his palm and entwined their fingers. She felt the strength in his hand. It was amazing, this connection that she felt with him. Knowing he felt it too was almost unreal to her, even after almost two months of dating. She couldn’t help but wonder where their relationship was headed.
He squeezed her hand. She looked up at him. He briefly made eye contact before turning his attention back to the road. But it was obvious he was thinking about her, when he said, “You got quiet all of a sudden.”
She squeezed his hand back. “Thank you for agreeing to go to the wedding with me.”
He grinned, even though he couldn’t look at her. He removed his hand and put it on the wheel as the traffic grew thicker. The rest of the drive through the city was pretty intense.
As they neared the mall, Brinley asked, “Can we get a Build-a-Bear?”
Chase had forgotten to ask what a Build-a-Bear was.
“It’s a store where they put together their own stuffed animal,” Brooke supplied the information. “I promised Brinley on our last trip that she could get one the next time we came, but if you don’t want to, we can wait for another time.”
“Sounds like something Maddie would like.”
“They’re kind of expensive.”
He glanced at her, and met her eyes. The fact that she was concerned for his finances grated on him a little.
“You’ve seen my paychecks. You know I can afford it,” he said, turning his feelings into light humor.
“I know you can. I wasn’t sure how much money you spend on your kids.”
He was angry now.
“Because I don’t buy my son hundred-dollar shoes?”
She blushed. “It’s something that—” She hesitated, and he saw her eyes dart back to Maddie. “It’s something that was said.”
He glanced in the rearview mirror, and saw the girls looking at them in concern. He wanted to know who said what to Brooke, but the girls sensed their tension and it was bothering Maddie. He smiled at his daughter.
“Would you like a Build-your-Bear, Maddie?” She nodded, her eyes wide. He smiled. “Then it sounds like fun.”
The car was easy to maneuver through the mall traffic. In spite of being uncomfortable and feeling cramped in the driver’s seat, he’d liked how the car handled on the freeway. Definitely went smoother at the higher speed than his pickup, and it ran quietly.
The thought did occur to him, though, that if the boys had come with them, he’d have had to bring the pickup. This car only seated five. His pickup had a bench seat in front and there were six seat belts, but it’d have been pretty crowded, also.
He carried his thoughts a step further. If they were to get married, would they need to get a minivan or an SUV? Would she trade in her car? Did she make payments on the car? It wasn’t new, he guessed about four or five years old.
She was looking at him in concern. “I can park this easier than my pickup,” he said, finding a space close to the entrance.
He wanted to find out what was said about his finances, but he decided to put that on the back burner and enjoy their time together. As much as he could enjoy shopping for a suit, he thought wryly.
“Where to first?” he asked when they were standing in the center of the mall.
“You look a little overwhelmed,” Brooke said, taking his hand.
“I feel like it.”
“Let’s do Build-A-Bear first!” Brinley shouted excitedly.
“I think we should do the shopping for a suit first, before the girls get tired,” Brooke suggested.
“Yeah, Mom says I’m no fun to shop with when I’m tired and grumpy.”
“Well then we should do it first,” Chase said. “Because when I get tired of shopping I get grumpy, too.”
That made the girls giggle, and Brooke squeezed his hand. Suddenly he didn’t care that he had to shop for a suit. Just being here, with her, and their daughters, was a good experience. Another first for them.
They looked in one of the department stores at the suits. He wasn’t sure what he was shopping for. “Just any suit will do, won’t it?” he asked.
“May I help you?” a salesman asked.
“I’m shopping for a suit,” Chase said.
“What size do you wear?”
Chase told him his shirt size, and the man studied him thoughtfully. To the point where Chase was embarrassed. “I think this is the size you’re going to need,” the salesman said, taking a medium-weight navy blue suit off the rack.
“I think we’re looking for something in black,” Brooke said.
Chase was subjected to trying on a half dozen suit jackets to find the brand that fit and looked the best. The salesman was almost too helpful, and Brooke was picky. Really picky. She found something she didn’t like about each jacket.
“I don’t think we’re going to find it in here,” she said, when Chase shrugged out of the sixth jacket.
“Really?” the salesman sounded disappointed.
“Yes. Let’s see what our other options are, somewhere else,” Brooke said.
After they left the store, she said, “I could tell you were uncomfortable.”
“Ya think?” He stretched out his arms and shrugged his shoulders. “Now I’m sweating.”
“Daddy hates to sweat,” Maddie spoke up.
Brooke looked at him with amusement in her eyes.
“Yes, she’s right. I do.”
“It probably didn’t help that the salesman was overly interested in how your suit jackets fit,” Brooke said.
“Let’s just shop the next store on our own. We have my general size now so you can help me find something you like.”
“What about what you like?”
“It’s a suit,” he said. “Not much to like about it.”
Brinley looked up at him. “You do get grumpy when you get tired of shopping, don’t you?” Brinley asked.
Chase frowned, but Brooke was laughing. He grinned sheepishly.
“I think we need to look up the Build-a-Bear store. Give me a chance to cool off before I have to try on more suits.”
“Yes!” Brinley said excitedly.
Maddie had never done a workshop before, and Brinley had. So Brinley tried to tell Maddie what she should buy and what she should do. It didn’t go over well with Maddie, or with Chase.
Before it could get out of hand, Brooke said, “Let’s let Maddie look around a little more, Brin. Give her some time to see what she really wants. You come and show me what you have in mind.”
Separating the girls turned out to be a good choice. And an interesting one. When they met back up by the counter a few minutes later, they both held the same bear.
“Look, Maddie!” Brinley squealed. “We’re twins!”
“Age-wise, they could be twins,” Chase said, smiling over their daughters’ heads at Brooke.
“Heaven help me if Brinley had been a twin,” Brooke said, rolling her eyes.
They watched as the clerk helped the girls stuff their bears. Chase put his arm around Brooke’s waist, and she leaned her head against his shoulder. The world seemed to right itself. After they were done stuffing the bears he said, “I think I’m ready to tackle the suit shopping again.”
This time when a salesman asked if he could help, Brooke waved him off. “I think we can handle it,” she said.
The suit jacket that she held out was a black one, but not a coal black. It’d faint checks on it.
“Checkered?” he asked.
“Window-paned. A classic look.”
“Why don’t you try it on, with the pants, and we will see how it fits,” Brooke suggested. “You can tell if you like it or not once it is on you.”
He went into the dressing room and tried on the pants. When he put the jacket on over his polo shirt, the weight of the fabric on his shoulders felt just right. It fit like it was made for him. He took a minute and looked at the full-length mirror in the dressing room before walking out where they could see him.
He knew it was the right suit when he saw the way Brooke’s eyes lit up when she saw him.
“I think this is the one,” she said, meeting his eyes with an admiring look. He felt his face flush, and not from the heat of the suit jacket. He’d been used to women’s admiring looks since he was a teenager. It was a fact he’d been conceited about in high school, but during his married years he’d learned to ignore it. Since Lisa’s death, he’d received more than his fair share of interested looks from women.
None of them had interested him, until Brooke walked into the reunion hall. And now there was no other woman whom he wanted looking at him like the way she was looking at him. As if suddenly aware that she was staring, she blushed and looked away.
“I think that is a good look for you,” the salesman said, having walked back over to them. Chase returned to the dressing room and changed, then brought the suit out.
“Let’s find a tie,” the salesman said.
Chase glanced at the price tag on the two pieces and winced.
“Do you have a tie at home?” Brooke said, suddenly looking concerned.
“No, not anything to go with a suit this nice,” he admitted. He put his arm around her shoulders. “Help me pick out something.”
They chose a tie. The salesman suggested a gray shirt with the suit. He had a white one at home, but he wanted to look good for Brooke, so he purchased the gray. By the time he walked out of the store, he’d spent close to a week’s salary on the clothes for this wedding he was going to with Brooke.
“I know it’s a lot of money,” she said hesitantly as they left the store.
“I don’t want to embarrass you by not wearing something appropriate,” he said.
She met his eyes with the look that she had when she saw him in the suit. “You won’t embarrass me, no matter what you’re wearing.”
He wished they were somewhere alone, so he could kiss her and see those eyes light up like stars.
“I will run this out to the car,” he said. “I think it will get too heavy to carry around, and I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
They walked to the entrance where he’d parked. “Good time for us girls to use the ladies’ room,” Brooke suggested.
Maddie hung back. “Go with Brooke and Brinley, Maddie. I’ll be back in no time.”
When Chase came back into the mall, Brinley announced that she was hungry.
“How about you, Maddie?” Chase asked.
“There’s a food court upstairs,” Brooke said.
“There’s a carousel, too,” Brinley said. “Can we ride it?”
“I seem to remember that being there. It’s been a few years since we came, Maddie was just a baby, I think. The carousel sounds like fun.”
Chase paid for the tokens for all of them to ride. Brinley found the horses, and led the way to them. Maddie didn’t argue. Chase helped both girls onto the horses and buckled them in. He and Brooke stood in between the horses. Brooke’s hand rested on Brinley’s horse. Chase stood facing her, his hand on the pole beside Maddie’s horse. Anyone looking at them would think they were a family, Brooke realized, and the thought didn’t scare her.
Brinley wanted to ride again, but Brooke told her no. “She always has to ask for one more ride,” Brooke said, when Chase started to say it was all right. “You just have to get used to it with Brinley and say no a lot.”
Brinley and Maddie wanted tacos. Brooke wanted something from the Chinese place, and Chase offered to get it, with his own sweet and sour chicken. Brooke went with the girls and ordered the tacos. They found a table in the center of the eating area. Brinley was excited and talking, and waved her hands. She tipped over her drink. Fortunately, it only splashed Chase’s pantleg instead of soaking it.
Brooke saw his shock, and sharp intake of breath. She wondered if he was going to get angry. He righted the cup, then mopped at the spill with his napkins.
“I’m sorry, Chase,” Brinley said in a contrite voice.
He reached out and patted her hand. “It’s okay. No harm done.”
He met Brooke’s eyes across the table. He was trying to hide a grin. “I think you’ve warned me about that before.”
“I did once, I think, But I wasn’t paying attention, I could’ve prevented it.”
“It’s an accident,” he said. “You can’t always prevent them.”
He got up and went and found some more napkins and mopped up the table and floor. “Can I get another pop?” Brinley asked.
Brooke slid hers over. “Here, you can finish mine.”
“Now what are we going to do?” Maddie asked eagerly when they left the dining court.
“I think that’s all,” Brooke said. “We got the suit, the build-a-bear and had lunch.”
“I’d like to stop at the bookstore,” Chase said.
Brooke looked at him in surprise. “Do you read?” He glared at her. “I’m sorry, that was rude. I’m just surprised, that you like to read.”
“Because I’m a jock?” he asked, grinning at her until she blushed.
“Daddy likes to read,” Maddie said. “Don’t you, Daddy?”
“Yes, I do,” he said, answering both hers and Brooke’s question. “It makes those long evenings –” He was about to say less lonely, but changed his mind.
“Mom likes to read, don’t you, Mom?” Brinley said. “She reads on her tablet.”
“I have a Kindle app,” Brooke explained to Chase. “It does make those long evenings—” she smiled. “Less long.”
“You probably read romances?” he asked as they walked to the bookstore.
It was her turn to glare at him. “Actually, I like spy thrillers.”
“Why? Because I’m a girl?” she asked, teasing him now.
“Something like that,” he mumbled, when both of their daughters looked at him waiting to hear his answer.
It turned out that they liked the same authors. The book that Chase chose by one of their favorite authors was actually released the year before. Brooke had that one, and the newest release from this summer, on her Kindle and had read them both.
“You’ve already read this one, haven’t you?” he asked, when he picked it up and skimmed through it.
“Do you want me to tell you how it ends?”
“All right, then.”
“Mom, can I get a new book?” Brinley asked. “I need to read chapter books for school.”
Chase noticed Maddie turned her big blue eyes on him to ask the same question silently.
He glanced at Brooke.
“I think the Build-a-Bear is enough of a treat for today,” Brooke said. Chase nodded his agreement.
The drive back through the city was less congested, and Chase relaxed at the wheel. Brinley and Maddie watched the movie, and after a short time, Maddie fell asleep, her head resting against the window.
“She sleeps a lot,” Brinley commented.
“She gets tired easily,” Chase said. “I bet you don’t, do you?”
When it looked like Brinley was going to talk all the way home, Brooke took a pair of ear buds out of her purse. “Here, Brin. Why don’t you listen to some music and rest?”
“Mo-om!” Brinley protested, for a moment, then took the earbuds.
There was a thankful silence after that.
“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a trip to the mall until today,” Chase said, reaching out and covering Brooke’s hand with his.
“I don’t think I have, either.”
“Really?” He looked surprised.
She nodded. “Really.”
“Huh. That’s amazing,” he said. “I’m sure you have had a lot of trips to the mall.”
“Enough to know that this is my favorite.”
He grinned and met her eyes for a moment, before turning back to the road.
“What time is the wedding?”
“The wedding starts at three o’clock. I thought you might want to come to the hotel around two, and you can change.”
“I don’t want to come into the room where the women are and change.”
“You could change in the room where Lance and the groomsmen will be.”
He made a face. “I don’t want to change in a room with strange men, either.”
She laughed. “You could change in the hallway.”
That made him laugh. “That’d be a sight.”
“Why don’t you just wear the suit pants on the drive over and then you can add the jacket when you arrive?”
“I’m thinking I should rent a room,” he said.
“You’ll be staying overnight?”
“I may not want to drive the three hours back home, depends on how late the reception goes.”
“I don’t know if there’re other rooms available, because of the wedding, but I will call tonight and find out.”
Later that evening, Chase called Brooke to give her his credit card information, so she could book a hotel room for him. “So what is this about me not being able to afford to buy my kids things?” he asked.
“I don’t think that was the intent of the conversation,” she said. “Devon mentioned something that Josh said. When Josh saw that Devon had the new Star Wars video game, he told Devon that you don’t buy them new things unless it’s for Christmas or for their birthdays. I guess I assumed it was a finance thing.”
“It’s not that I can’t afford it. I just choose to spend money on them on special occasions. And what Josh didn’t say is that when his birthday came around in July, he wanted two video games, and I told him I was only going to buy him one.”
“I see. That makes sense, then.”
“Like I said, you know how much I make. I could probably buy them whatever they want. I just choose not to.”
“Not like me, huh?”
“I’m not saying that to criticize you.”
“I didn’t think you were. I couldn’t afford to buy my kids new things when they were in the private school. Since we moved home this summer, and decided to put them in a free public school, I’ve had more expendable income.”
“Do you receive the Social Security benefits for your kids?” he asked.
They hadn’t really talked about finances before. But like he said, she knew what he made. “Yes.” She told him the amount.
“I guess you do pretty well financially, then,” he said, sounding surprised at the amount. “You don’t need to work.”
“For my own sake, I need to work,” she said. “I’ve had three years to sit home while the kids are in school, and I was ready to get a job and do something more interesting with my life. I’m able to put money away for the kids’ college, since my rent and utilities aren’t that much.”
“Yeah. There is a small check that my kids receive for the Social Security survivors’ benefit. I’ve been putting that away for them for college, also.”
Next week: The wedding.