His cold words hit her like a sheet of ice.
“Yeah. I don’t think it’s going to work out between us.”
“But you said—”
“I said I love you, Brooke. And I mean it.”
She stepped back, suddenly chilled. She put her hands up to her shoulders to hold the dress in place.
“How can it not work out between us, if you really love me?”
“I don’t fit into your world.”
“My world? What are you talking about?” She felt the anger rise in her and couldn’t keep it out of her voice.
“You, here, the wedding, Detroit.” He reached out and touched the diamonds that sparkled at her throat. “This.”
She reached up and felt his hand, and realized he was talking about the necklace.
The necklace that Carl bought her when he made partner. She never should’ve told Chase that. Is that what this was all about? Carl and the life she had with him?
“That isn’t my life anymore. My life is back home, with the kids, with you—”
He ignored her words. “I saw how you used to live, with Carl. The expensive tailored suits, the elegant setting. It all speaks of money.”
“It’s all a show, Chase. Some of these people are in debt up to their eyeballs. Carl and I weren’t rich. We worked hard and saved our money, so we could—”
“I know. Buy a house in the nice neighborhood, put your kids in private schools.” He recited what he’d heard at the reception.
“That was my life before—before I came back home.”
“Would you have left Detroit if Carl had life insurance? If you could’ve paid off the house and afforded to keep your kids in their school for a few more years?”
That made her angry. “I didn’t have that option. But I chose to move my kids back home, to raise them where and how I wanted to.”
“I can’t believe that you don’t miss all of this.”
Tears filled her eyes. “I don’t know what to say to make you believe me.”
He shook his head. “There isn’t anything you can say.”
After he left, Brooke burst into tears.
Chase went downstairs to the room that he’d rented for the night. He’d been sweating all day in the suit, so he took a shower and put on a pair of jeans and T-shirt.
He sat in the chair by the window for a few minutes, feeling like a jerk. He’d handled his fears badly. He didn’t think he fit into Brooke’s life. He’d been honest about it. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, but he had. And he was hurting himself.
He took out his cell phone and called Dustin.
“What the heck are you calling me for, man?” Dustin asked as soon as he said hello. “You should be spending time with the girl you said you were going to marry. What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m an idiot.”
“What did you do?”
“I broke up with her.”
Chase hit his forehead with the heel of his hand. “I don’t fit in here. You should’ve seen it, so elegant, so snobby. Expensive suits. It’s not my kind of world.”
“Do you really think it’s Brooke’s world?”
“She and her husband had a life here that I can’t even begin to afford. One of his partners said she’d moved back home for financial reasons. I asked her what she’d have done if Carl would’ve left life insurance and she could’ve paid off her home and kept the kids in their school.”
“That wasn’t fair.”
“I know. But I still can’t believe she chose the small-town life because that was what she really wanted. That I’m what she really wants.”
“Anyone can see how happy she is when you’re around. Of course you’re what she wants.”
“I told her I loved her. She said she loved me, too.” He remembered how full his heart had felt when she said those words.
“And then you broke up with her? You’re an idiot.”
When Dustin said the words, it seemed pretty clear to Chase. He’d made a mistake. He’d just walked away from the one woman who’d made him take a chance on love again, because of how some jerk had made him feel.
Brooke did what she’d have done if this had happened at home.
She put on a pot of coffee.
While it brewed, she tried to figure out how things had gone so bad so quickly. He’d commented earlier in the evening that the necklace looked so elegant on her, and he hadn’t seemed to mind when she told him why Carl gave it to her. And they’d danced so many dances, content in each other’s arms. He’d been so loving.
Something changed, and she couldn’t understand how.
Then she remembered the look on his face when she came back in the hall after helping Julie get changed. He was standing near the bar, with two of Carl’s partners. With one of them, she had an unpleasant history.
Aaron and Carl had been in competition to make partner, and Aaron had done some cutthroat things to make it there first. Carl caught up, and his work was so well sought after that Aaron was jealous. His marriage had fallen apart by the time Carl passed away.
Aaron had been the first one to offer consolation at the funeral. She’d forgiven the past enough to thank him for coming to the funeral. In the weeks following, Aaron started calling now and then. She hadn’t minded, because it was nice to have someone to talk to and care about how she was coping.
Then last February he’d invited her out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. It was an obvious indication that he was interested in romance, and she was not. She refused his offer.
A couple of months after she turned down his invitation, he called to invite her to the annual charity ball that the law firm sponsored. She again declined.
Her mother-in-law was almost insistent that she go with him. Friction had developed between Carl’s mom and her, more so than in the past.
That was when she decided to move out from under her mother-in-law’s roof, and return to the small town where she had a happy childhood. She wanted the same thing for her kids, not the stress of the time during which she and Carl worked so hard to climb the fast track. And not the misery of living with Carl’s mom and hearing over and over again how unfair the accident was. A childhood where she could walk them to school and become involved in their classrooms. Like her mom had done with her and her sister.
Aaron had found out that she was moving away. He stopped by to try and talk her out of it, offering to marry her and support her, so the kids could continue their education and she could’ve an elegant house again. She figured her mother-in-law had put him up to it.
She’d told Aaron simply that she was moving on with her life, and that her plans didn’t include marrying him. She hadn’t given Aaron any thought since that day. In her mind, it was over.
She recalled the glare on his face when she walked in with Chase. He hadn’t come over to say hello or ask her to dance. She’d spent her time with Chase, not only ignoring Aaron but forgetting about him.
She’d left Chase with Lance, and somehow, he’d ended up standing next to Aaron. She wondered what Aaron had said to Chase that’d made him upset. That was the only conclusion she could make that something had gone wrong.
She poured a cup of coffee and stood by the window. It was a mediocre flavor, but it hit the hurting spot inside her and she started to unwind.
Her cell phone beeped.
It was Chase.
I’m a jerk.
No, you’re not. Aaron is the jerk.
Chase re-read the text from Brooke.
So she had guessed that Aaron had said some things to make him feel like he didn’t belong with her. And it’d been stupid on Chase’s part to believe Aaron.
What was it Brooke had said when he told her he didn’t fit into her world? That her life was back home, with the kids, and with him. She’d told him she loved him. He didn’t doubt that, but he worried that he wasn’t enough for her. Then he realized that she had never given him a reason to think that.
He’d thought she looked amazing at the reunion, and she’d caught his eye. She’d turned out to be funny, down to earth, and a great person, as he got to know her better. She fit into his life there, the small-town family man that he was. She even worked at his family’s business.
He hadn’t realized until today just how spectacular the life was that she’d lived with Carl. But she’d been proud to show him off to her friends, and he never thought for one second that she didn’t love him.
Nope, that thought had come after talking with this Aaron, this former partner of Carl’s.
Who is this Aaron? Someone from your past?
Come up and have a cup of coffee with me. I’ll tell you about him.
She was inviting him up for coffee. Just like the night he’d taken her home from the reunion, she was offering him a chance for conversation. He suddenly knew that he was ready to face whatever she had to say.
I’ll be right up.
He grabbed his room key and wallet and went out, locking the door. He pushed the up button for the elevator and waited impatiently for it to elevator to open. Then it seemed to be awfully slow going up to the third floor. He was alone, but if it’d been crowded, he’d have probably pushed his way past everyone to get going faster.
He knocked, and she opened the door right away. He grasped her waist and swung her up in his arms.
“I’m so sorry.”
“So am I. I’m sorry I left you alone and you had to talk to Aaron. He’s a jerk.”
“So I learned.”
Chase kissed her and set her back on her feet. “You promised me coffee.”
She led the way into the suite. “It’s not great, but there are some sugar packets.”
She sat down at one end of the couch and tucked her feet under her. He poured his coffee, stirred in some sugar, and sat at the other end, turned to face her.
“So who is this Aaron?”
She leaned back and sighed. As she told him about the competition between her husband and Aaron and Aaron’s jealousy when Carl excelled, he could see that she really didn’t like the guy.
“He called me a few times after the funeral, always to ask how I was doing. You might know what it’s like, to have someone really interested in how you’re doing when you’re grieving. He was nice, and I forgot what he was really like. Then he invited me to have dinner with him on Valentine’s Day—”
“And you turned him down. I get why he said those things. Jealousy.”
She shrugged. She went on to tell him about her mother-in-law’s interference, and Aaron’s awkward wedding proposal.
“He thought that he could give me what I’d lost, and I’d be happy to marry him. My mother-in-law really wanted me to say yes. It’d mean I’d stay in Detroit, stay close to her, and the kids would be able to stay in the school that Carl grew up in.”
“But you didn’t want that.”
“No, that’s what I tried to tell you earlier. I wanted to move back to the small town where I grew up, to have more time to spend with my kids and with my parents. We’d lived the life that Carl had dreamed of. After he passed away, I continued that life because I thought that was what he would’ve wanted. But then I decided to make my life about what I wanted. What I thought was best for me and the kids. His mom couldn’t handle that, and she got Aaron involved.”
“I’m sorry I misjudged you.”
She scooted down the length of the couch until she was sitting next to him. “Do you know how much I love you?” she asked. “Don’t ever think you’re not good enough for me. You’re everything I want.”
. He moved away and took out his phone.
“Are you calling home to check on the kids?” she asked. “Isn’t it kind of late?”
“I’m texting Dustin. I called earlier when I left here and told him I broke up with you. After you said you loved me. He agreed that I’m an idiot.”
“Why don’t we just say we were ‘on a break’, like Ross and Rachel?””
That made him laugh. “You’ve watched Friends reruns too?”
“I think I know most of them by heart. What are you telling Dustin?”
“That you invited me up for coffee.”
His phone beeped, and he laughed as he read the message.
“What did he say? Or can’t you tell me?”
“Just so you know, he is joking. He said, tell her I think she is pretty forward.”
It was a throwback to the weekend that she’d invited him to her house for a John Wayne movie. Dustin had thought she was a forward type of girl. Since then his opinion of her was different.
It beeped again, and Chase grinned as he met her eyes, “Now he says, just tell her I think she is pretty.”
“He’s pretty too, pretty funny,” she said.
Chase turned the phone off and put it on the table.
As much as he was enjoying their casual conversation, he could have casual conversation with her any time he wanted, even when the kids were around. He had something different in mind for tonight, and he’d almost blown it with her. He took her hands in his.
“Brooke, you are everything I want in my life, too. Not just right now,” he brushed the curls back off her cheek. “But for the rest of my life.”
His words sank in, and her eyes became luminous.
He leaned forward and kissed her. “I love you. I want to marry you, live with you, be with you every day, every night.”
The enormity of what he was saying filled her with awe. Marriage to him, living together, blending their families—it all sounded so wonderful.
“How do you think the kids will feel?”
“We will give them a few weeks to get used to the idea.”
She sighed, and rested her palms against his strong, sturdy chest. The rhythm of his heartbeat was steady. He was serious. And she loved him so much.
“You are all I want, all I will ever need. Will you marry me, Brooke?”
“Yes. I love you so much.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest. A wedding proposal wasn’t what she had expected tonight. Yet it was so much more than she’d hoped for. He was everything she wanted in life, right now and always.
And to think, it all started with a dance.