On Thursday, Lucas’s brother, Toby, kept the kids, but Lucas had promised to buy them new Halloween costumes. He hadn’t thought that through. They needed them to take to school in the morning. If he was going to grab Jordy and Beth to buy costumes, he might as well take them to his place afterward.
He finished work in the kitchen of a three-story Queen Anne the owners were refinishing. When the contractor removed the drywall, he’d called Lucas.
“The wiring’s a mess, so is the plumbing. I’m calling your brother next.”
“Dylan’s finishing up a project today or tomorrow,” Lucas told him. “He should be able to help you.”
A mess didn’t even begin to explain the bad wiring Lucas found. It was pure luck the place hadn’t burned down. Previous owners had added new outlets in a hodgepodge, illegal fashion. He hoped the rest of the house was in better shape.
When the contractor and his crew stopped for a lunch break, so did Lucas. He drove to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant and called Toby while he had the chance. He explained about grabbing the kids to buy them costumes.
“If you’re coming to get them, you might as well bring supper, too,” his brother informed him.
“Come again? It’s your night and I’m already giving you a break. You should offer up supper.”
Toby’s deep laugh sounded over the phone. “Okay then, I have enough cold cuts for all of us.”
Was Toby joking? “You’re feeding the kids cold cuts?”
“They like them. Mom made us plenty of bologna sandwiches.”
“For lunch. She doesn’t like to cook.” Once he thought about it, Dad could have stopped and brought home take-out. It’s not like they pinched pennies, but Dad never did. He wouldn’t do anything to make life easier for Mom, and Mom complained about it constantly.
Toby said, “I tried taking them out to eat. They wouldn’t shut up. Talked every minute we were there.”
“You like to talk.” His brother didn’t know a stranger, could make a conversation out of almost anything. When the three of them got together, Lucas and Dylan had to work to get a word in. Not that that bothered them. Dylan was the quiet one in the family.
Toby chuckled. “Talking to kids is a whole different ballgame. Have you spent half an hour talking about Beth’s doll house?”
Lucas cringed. “Okay, you win. Supper’s on me. I’ll come by your place at five-thirty.”
“See you then, sucker. New costumes, huh? They’ve got your number.”
Toby was probably right, but it had to be hard on the kids to be without their mom this long. If new costumes made them feel better, why not?
After lunch break, Lucas returned to the old house he was wiring. It was in a small pocket of stately houses in a transitional neighborhood. A four-block square of houses had mostly been restored to their former glory. People were buying the grand, old homes and making them grand again. The rooms in the Queen Anne were huge with beautiful woodwork, lots of built-ins, and pocket doors. When the owners finished, they’d own a stunning home.
When he left at five, he’d finished wiring the downstairs. The bedrooms and third-floor playroom should go faster. He stopped on his to Toby’s to buy a family-size bucket of chicken with all the sides. Toby lived on the south side of Willow Creek in a small town that had been swallowed by the city. Lucas lived even farther south than he did. There’d be leftovers, but he had no doubt his brother could dispense with those.
He pulled into Toby’s drive at five-thirty sharp. His brother’s brick, one-and-a-half story house could be in a picture book. It was a two-bedroom home with a finished basement. The kids ran out and waited for him to get out of his pickup.
“Don’t rush my supper,” he warned them, “or we aren’t going anywhere.”
He knew his niece and nephew. They’d inhale their meal, then dance around the table while he tried to eat. “I told you that I’d buy you costumes, and I will. But I get to eat first.”
They knew his tone of voice. He meant business. They both nodded. He carried the chicken and fixin’s into Toby’s house, and his brother grinned at him.
“I like this. You bring me food and take the kids.”
Lucas scowled. “Don’t get used to it. I messed up. I won’t next time.”
They sat at the round table between Toby’s living room and the kitchen at the back of the house.
“The kids told me they needed candy to take to school tomorrow. I bought that. It’s in their book bags.” Toby handed Lucas a paper plate. The kids had already nabbed the chicken legs in the bucket, balancing them on napkins, so he let them go.
Lucas looked at his brother. “How’s life?”
“Not bad. I met a new girl I’ve been seeing for a few weeks. She’s pretty fun.”
The word his brother always used—fun. And usually, that’s all it amounted to.
“A keeper?” Lucas asked. Probably not, but that’s what his brother was searching for—someone special—he just wouldn’t admit it.
“Doubt it. We don’t have much in common.” Toby reached for another thigh. Lucas dug for a breast.
“What’s wrong with this one?” Because there was always something wrong. Always.
Toby shrugged. “She has two kids, about the same age as Jordy and Beth. A lot to take on.”
Lucas quirked a dark brow. “So? You like both of them.”
“It’s one thing being an uncle. It’s a responsibility being a father.”
Lucas couldn’t argue with that. “You’ll make a great dad.”
“So will you and Dylan. You two go first, and I’ll see how that goes.”
Lucas grinned. “I’m not seeing someone every third week like you are. You should be ahead of me on this curve.”
“But you have experience,” Toby argued. “You were always there to have our backs since Mom and Dad were duds.”
“Not the same.” Lucas added more mashed potatoes and gravy to his plate. “The ultimate responsibility didn’t rest on my shoulders.”
Toby plopped the rest of the potatoes on his plate before a kid could claim them. “You carried enough of it.”
“Yeah, yeah. I hear you. You’re not really into this girl.”
“She’s too flaky for my taste. Fun, but empty between the ears.”
Toby might have a penchant to enjoy life, but underneath his party veneer beat a man’s heart who took doing things right seriously. He showed up for work on time every day and did the best he could do—which was about the best there was. He had an artistic flair, and he had more interests than Lucas could count. Lucas crossed the new girl off the list of potential possibles. “You need to aim higher.”
Toby smiled. “Next time.”
They finished their supper, and the kids fidgeted, restless.
Lucas went to get his hoodie. “Have you got everything you need to take to my place?”
They ran for their backpacks and jackets.
As Lucas led them out the door, Toby called, “Have fun, guys!”
Lucas raised his middle finger and left. His brother’s chuckle followed him. Once in the truck, Lucas asked, “Where to?”
“There’s a Halloween store next to the pet store,” Jordy told him. “It has costumes and all kinds of stuff.”
Lucas knew the spot. The strip mall was on Jefferson, not that far away. The drive took fifteen minutes, and the parking lot was full. Lots of parents must have put off buying costumes. They made their way inside and fought their way to the costume area.
After half an hour of looking at one costume, then another, then changing their minds again, Lucas understood how Toby must have felt taking the kids out for supper. He kept reminding himself to be patient. He wasn’t much of a shopper. When he needed a new shirt or his boots wore out, he walked into a store, picked something, and left. The kids felt compelled to look at every item on display.
Finally, he’d had it. “Pick something in five minutes or we’re leaving, empty-handed.”
They each chose what they wanted. On the way to the check-out counters, Jordy stopped so abruptly at an aisle for party items, Lucas almost tripped over him. Jordy looked down at his feet, shy, and said, “Hi, Miss Doore.”
A woman with long, wavy, copper hair and blue eyes, who had curves in all the right places, turned to look at him. They didn’t make first-grade teachers like that when Lucas was a boy. Pretty enough, but not his type. He had a thing for tall, classy blondes. Like Mariah. Her smile lit up her face. “Did you find the perfect costume, Jordy?”
“Spiderman, my favorite.” He motioned to the outfit Lucas held. “My uncle bought it for me.”
Miss Doore frowned. “Another uncle? I’ve already seen two of them come to get you after school.”
Jordy looked at Lucas. The kid was tongue-tied. Lucas guessed he had a crush on his teacher. He tried to explain. “When Dulcey had to fly to Arizona, my two brothers and I swore we’d take turns watching the kids.”
She narrowed her eyes, studying him. “Your family must be close.”
“The four of us are.” No reason to explain that his parents would duck for cover if they could. He glanced down at the outfits. “Is there anything else besides candy Jordy should bring to school tomorrow?”
She shook her head. “I think we’re ready. I’m just buying decorations for my grandma’s house. She always hosts a Halloween dinner the day after the holiday.”
Lucas liked it that she was helping her grandma. Family was a big deal for him. He thought about Mariah. She attended family gatherings, but always grumbled about it. She enjoyed company parties more than family get-togethers.
Beth wrapped her arms around his leg and he bent to ruffle her hair. “Getting tired?” He offered a polite smile to Miss Doore and said, “We’d better go. It was nice meeting you.”
Once back in the truck, Jordy let out a long sigh. “She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
“Very.” Lucas started the engine and worked his way to the exit light.
“She’s really nice, too.”
“Sure seems like it.” They turned onto Jefferson and started for home.
“I bet you’d like her.”
Uh-oh. Warning bells. Lucas chose his words carefully. “I’m not up for dating yet. It didn’t go very well last time.”
Jordy looked at him. “Miss Doore isn’t Mariah. Mom didn’t like her. She likes Miss Doore.”
“Your mom’s a great judge of character, but I’ve sworn off women for a long time.”
Jordy sighed. “Maybe Toby would like her.”
“Maybe he would.” His brother needed to meet someone who’d be his equal. Miss Doore was no push-over. Toby’s charm and flirting wouldn’t sway her. “Dylan might, too.”
Jordy’s eyes lit up. “I could make them meet her, then she could choose.”
“There you go.” Problem solved. Jordy would bug Toby and Dylan and leave him out of it.
It was almost bedtime when they walked into the house. Hercules ran in circles, he was so happy to see them. Lucas had installed a dog door that led to the fenced yard, but the chihuahua only went outside to potty. He didn’t like being outdoors by himself.
All three of them bent to pet and scratch him, and then they headed upstairs for baths and story time. Hercules stayed with the kids until they fell asleep, and then he followed Lucas downstairs and snuggled against his thigh on the couch as Lucas watched a little mindless TV to relax.
When Lucas finally went to bed, the dog settled on the comforter to sleep with him.
Lucas felt like this had been a successful day. All he had to do now was live through tomorrow. Halloween. Trick or treating and a school fest. Piece of cake. He could do this.