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Brooke Nichols had grown up in a family where random announcements and dramatic proclamations were a way of life.
Girls, your mother has kicked me out of the house… again.
How would you two like to blow off school today and drive to SeaWorld?
Mom, Dad, Brooke, check it out! I decided to shave my head.
In contrast to her parents' and older sister, Meg's, more colorful news, Brooke had always announced academic success, such as the journalism scholarship to the University of Texas, or updates about her job, which was currently writing for the Community Lifestyles section of the Katy Chronicle. None of her declarations had ever caught anyone off guard. But tonight Brooke had something to share that was both life changing and unexpected.
At least, I didn't see it coming, Brooke mused as she approached the front door of her parents' most recent rental home. She'd barely set foot on the porch when her mom emerged from the house, the screen door clattering behind her.
"There's the birthday girl!" Didi Nichols enthused. The slim woman with her long, wheat-blond hair was barefoot beneath a baby-doll dress, her only makeup a bright pink smear of lip gloss. When people saw Didi out with Meg, they assumed mother and daughter were sisters. When they saw Didi with curvier, dark-haired Brooke, they didn't suspect any relation at all. "Come in, come in. Get out of this heat."
Although it was only mid-May, with months of summer still ahead, temperatures in south Texas had been climbing all week. Inside the house, the air conditioner hummed through the ceiling vents, causing a lavender-and-yellow Happy Birthday banner to flutter overhead. Brooke half chuckled at the whimsical acknowledgment of her thirtieth year.
Following her daughter's gaze upward, Didi grinned. "You know me, I never throw anything away. That old thing probably dates back to one of Meg's preteen surprise parties."
While Brooke used to make her parents swear they wouldn't ambush her with a party—she'd found adolescent social occasions awkward enough when she was prepared—Meg loved the unexpected and dropped heavy hints every year that she would welcome another surprise party. Which, ironically, led to them never being much of a surprise.
"Your sister was so sorry she couldn't make it," Didi said. "With that course she's taking during the day, she's back to waitressing nights, and Saturdays are big business."
After trying and rejecting cosmetology classes and an apprenticeship to a dessert chef, Meg was now training to be a private investigator.
Brooke nodded. "Giff wishes he could be here, too, but he flew to San Francisco first thing this morning." She caught herself absently fidgeting with the flawless diamond-solitaire ring. Even though she and Gifford Baker had never discussed engagement before last night, much less window-shopped for jewelry, he'd managed to find a ring that fit perfectly—which was so like him.
Didi pursed her lips. "Maybe it would have been better if we'd scheduled this for another time instead of on your actual birthday. Not much of a celebration with just me and Dad, is it? Do you remember that blowout we had for my fiftieth?"
"Yeah, that was…pretty unforgettable." Brooke managed not to wince at the memory of crowded chaos. When the police had shown up with a noise complaint, one of Didi's "free-spirited" friends had flashed him in an attempt to earn his goodwill. "Trust me, I'm fine with just the three of us. I have something I want to tell you and Dad anyway."
Didi's dark eyes widened with concern. She obviously hadn't noticed the engagement ring. "That sounds serious, dear."
Ver y. Rest-of-her-life serious.
Brooke had spent years carefully laying out what she wanted her future to be like, what kind of family she would build. Her own children would enjoy a comforting, stable life. Giff—intelligent, reliable and, as a bonus, movie star handsome—could give her everything she'd ever wanted.
She felt a smile tug at her lips as she envisioned her long-cherished dreams coming true. "Don't worry, Mom, it's—"
But her mother was moving toward the kitchen. "Everett? Come in here, honey! Brooke has something she needs to discuss with us."
A moment later Everett Nichols loped into the room, his long-legged stride unhampered by the apron he wore. He passed by his wife to squash his daughter in a bear hug. "Hope you're hungry, baby. I'm trying something new in honor of your birthday."
Brooke's parents had met in Vegas, where Didi had dealt blackjack and Everett had been trying to work his way up in a resort kitchen despite his lack of formal training. A potentially brilliant chef plagued by moments of outrageous failure, he refused to play it safe with flavors. When his criticism of the head chef's "predictable palate" cost him his job, Everett had gone to a nearby casino to drown his sorrows. According to family legend, his gaze had locked with Didi's and they were married within seventy-two hours.
In high school and college, Brooke's friends had giggled over the "passion" of it, how romantic it was that her parents had shared such a whirlwind courtship. Of course, none of her friends had lived through her parents' subsequent marriage, marked as it was with its passionate arguments. And reconciliations. And spontaneous decisions like sinking all the money into a family restaurant that hadn't lasted three months, or abruptly moving the family to Colorado while Brooke was in elementary school and then to Texas in the middle of her eighth-grade year.
Brooke's shoulders straightened as if a burden had been lifted. When Giff had asked her last night to be his wife, she'd experienced a twinge—a whisper, really—of doubt. They'd been dating exclusively since the night, not that long ago, they'd been introduced at a charity St. Patrick's Day gala. And while she appreciated his brilliance as a technologies consultant, his work ethic and his devotion to his mother, who was recovering from breast cancer, Brooke had occasionally taken stock of her feelings and wondered if there should be…more. Now, looking at her two impetuous parents and thinking about how different her own marriage with Giff would be, Brooke knew without a doubt she'd been right to accept his proposal.
In our case, maybe less really is more.
Prompted by the way his wife was nervously twisting her hands, Everett asked, "Brooke, is everything all right?"
"Couldn't be better." She beamed at them and held out her left hand. "Mom, Dad, I'm getting married!"
From the passenger seat came a sudden chirp. Someone must have left a voice mail earlier. Steering one-handed, Jake McBride kept his eyes on the freeway while digging through maps, CD cases and the balled-up paper bag that had held his lunch a few hours ago. His stomach rumbled. All right, more than a few.
Finally he retrieved the phone. He'd spent a good part of the day driving through the boonies, where reception was questionable, so it was unsurprising that he'd missed a call. Without glancing at the small glowing screen—how many accidents had he seen on the job caused by people looking at their phones or scrolling through iPod menus?—he held the cell to his ear and fumbled with buttons until a computerized female voice told him he had two new messages.
"Hoskins here," began the first recording. The most recent addition at the fire station, Ben Hoskins didn't have much experience yet, but he was a quick learner and an affable guy. "Don't know how late you'll roll in, but we're looking at an urgent Bravo Echo Echo Romeo down at Buck's tonight. Could use your expertise."
Jake shook his head, chuckling under his breath at the rookie's invitation to join the guys for a beer. More enticing than the prospect of a drink was the fact that Buck's had the best jalapeño burger in the state. Still, after four days out of town, Jake needed to shower, unpack and catch a night's sleep in his own bed, so maybe he'd pass on Buck's.
After years in the army, the concept of having his own bed and a permanent address to go with it was still rather new. Following his return to the States and honorable discharge, Jake had bought a place on the rural outskirts of Katy, about half an hour from where he'd grown up in Houston. His small, unassuming house was comfortable enough, but coming back from these trips and walking through the front door never gave him that emotional "aha!" moment. There was no soothing rush of home other guys in his Company had often reminisced about.
One could argue that Jake's stint in the military, the string of temporary assignments and lodgings, had contributed to his footloose tendency, but the truth was, he'd always been restless. He had endless childhood memories of his mother imploring him to "settle down," "sit down" or "quiet down." Especially if Jake's father had been sleeping off his latest overindulgence.
Pushing aside the recollection of his parents, Jake pressed a button and listened to the second phone message.
"Hey." Giff's voice, as familiar as a brother's, provoked a stab of guilt. How long had it been since they'd met for a game of racquetball or a platter of burritos at Jake's favorite Mexican restaurant, Comida Buena? "I know you were away on one of your walkabouts this weekend."
Jake grinned at his friend's phrasing.
"I'm actually on the West Coast myself, lending a hand with a product rollout, but I get back on Wednesday. You free for dinner that night? I have news that I want to give in person. Nothing bad," Giff added hastily. With a self-conscious laugh, he said, "Just the opposite. I've got to run, but give me a call tomorrow if you get a chance."
Intrigued, Jake tossed the cell phone back onto the passenger seat. He appreciated the assurance that everything was okay since Jake's first thought had been of Grace Baker. Giff's mom had fought a rocky battle with breast cancer during Jake's last tour. If his friend had something to celebrate, it could help restore Jake's faith in the universe. He'd seen tragic things happen to decent people, young people.
As a kid, the son of a disabled and bitter former policeman who increasingly prioritized booze over his wife and child, Jake had fatalistically accepted that his life sucked, but he'd believed in some sort of cosmic balance. Surely people born into better neighborhoods and sober families had no worries. Then one spring day in fourth grade, he'd encountered Gifford Baker—the only child of wealthy, loving parents—who was about to get his ass kicked in the field behind the school. By the time they were sophomores, Giff was six feet and spent every morning in the weight room. But such was not the case in fourth grade when three bullies had cornered him. He'd already taken one blow to the face when Jake crested the hill.
Jake hadn't known Giff, only known of him. Every class had been required to write a thank-you note to Mr. Baker's corporation for the money donated to air-condition the gymnasium. It wasn't affection that propelled Jake to the other boy's defense, but an overwhelming sense of wrongness. If even people like Gifford Baker had crappy stuff happen to them, what hope was there for anyone else?
In the weeks following Jake's impromptu rescue, the boys became best friends. On their high school football team, Jake played fullback to Giff's running back, blocking and protecting as necessary. They'd roomed together for a year at Texas A&M until Giff took a semester off when his father died. Jake had never been brave enough to ask, but he couldn't help wondering if Giff ever resented that it had been his father—a philanthropist who'd adored his family—instead of, say, an embittered alcoholic whose wife cried nightly and whose son spent as little time home as possible.
Nothing bad, Giff had promised this time. Just the opposite.
Something good, then. Even without knowing what it was, Jake was happy for his friend already. He looked forward to getting the details in a couple of days. Who deserved "good" more than Gifford Baker?
"Okay, now that she's gone…" Megan Nichols began conspiratorially.
Brooke blinked. "Who? Kresley?" Her friend and editor, Kresley Flynn, had just excused herself to the ladies' room—which she'd been doing more frequently as her pregnancy progressed.
"Yeah." Meg scooted closer, temporarily taking Kres-ley's chair so that Brooke could better hear her over the rockabilly band playing in the next room. Buck's Bar and Grill was foremost a restaurant, but a side room off of the main dining area offered darts, pool and a dance floor not much bigger than a cracker. "I didn't want to say anything in front of her that sounded unsupportive—I mean, family solidarity here—but I have to ask, are you sure about this? The engagement?"
"Am I sure?" Brooke echoed, nonplussed. Her big sister's motto was to leap first and look…eventually. If she got around to feeling like it. Meg was the last person Brooke would have expected to question her decision. Maybe getting engaged after just two months of dating would seem quick to some, but two months was practically a decade in Nichols years. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well." Meg smiled hesitantly, the expression in her big brown eyes pitying. "I admit Giff is a great-looking guy. That's undeniable. But his being easy on the eyes aside, don't you sometimes find him a bit dull?"
An undignified bark of laughter escaped Brooke. So that was Megan's big concern? "Meg, the last guy you went out with for more than a week swallowed swords and juggled fire at the Texas Renaissance Festival. Compared to that, anyone's bound to seem dull. Giff isn't boring, he's dependable."