If you haven’t had a chance to catch up on the Prologue, you can now.
Thirteen years later
Bryce let himself into his parents’ front door. He’d seen both of his parents’ cars in the garage that they’d left open for him to enter. Glancing at his watch, he realized he was late as always. He was sure his mother would have something to say about that.
He couldn’t help it though. He got held up at work. Between lesson plans, grading papers, helping kids and then working on his thesis, he tended to get lost in time. In space. Hmm, maybe that should have been the topic for his thesis…is it possible to lose yourself in space?
He laughed at that thought. Not many thought he was funny, so he kept those bits of information to himself when they popped into his head.
“Bryce,” his mother said when he walked into the kitchen. “You’re twenty minutes late.”
“I know. Sorry. Got held up.”
“I know how it is,” she said. “It’s hard to walk away from the kids when they want help.”
He could let his mother believe that. She was a fourth grade teacher and she’d stay until midnight if she had to help anyone that asked or needed it. “Yeah. Hope dinner isn’t cold.”
“Don’t worry about it. We are just having chili and I let it sit in the crockpot until you show up. I’ve learned my lesson over the years.”
Meaning he’d ruined one too many of the family dinners because he was late.
Now as an adult, he and his brothers came to dinner once a month or so individually. It seemed he came the most though.
His older brother, Sam, a surgical oncologist, worked a ton of hours and when he wasn’t working, he used to have female company or go out to eat. Of course now he was recently engaged to Dani Rhodes and spending more time with her than coming for family dinners.
Then there was his younger brother, Ryder, who was an architect and worked at his father’s firm. Ryder came once or twice a month for the company of his mother rather than for the food.
Ryder was the baby of the group and had the most in common with their mother, the two of them always putting their heads together with recipes. When Ryder came to dinner, it wasn’t for a free meal but to experiment with her.
Bryce…he just wanted food. He’d never really learned how to cook, which was funny considering he was the smartest of the family and knew he could read a recipe just fine and execute it. It’s just he had no interest in it at all.
Why should he when his mother kept him supplied with meals once a week? If he didn’t come for dinner, she dropped him off something that he could heat up as leftovers.
When he wasn’t eating his mother’s food, he was making eggs or sandwiches or getting takeout. Campus food, he was fine with it when many weren’t.
“Chili sounds great,” he said, walking to the fridge and grabbing a beer.
Before he had a chance to take a sip out of the glass he’d just poured, his father came down the stairs and snatched it off the counter. “Thanks, just the thing to go with your mom’s fire hot chili.”
He laughed at the move he’d seen one too many times in his life that he should have known to expect it, then grabbed another bottle out of the fridge for himself. “Do we get bread with chili tonight?” he asked his mother.
She opened the oven and pulled a loaf out that had been warming in there. Hot damn, his lucky night. “I know one of your favorite meals, don’t I?”
The three of them had been sitting there eating quietly, surprising Bryce since his mother was very rarely quiet. “Are you and Dad going on vacation when school is out?” he asked since the silence was starting to make him squirm like they were planning something on him and he had no idea what it could be.
His parents made a habit of taking a week off after school finished for his mother. He thought it was nice they had that routine and didn’t break it in all the years he and his brothers had been out of high school.
“I was just talking to your father about it last night. Not even two months away and I can’t get him to commit to where he wants to go.”
“It’s getting late to get a place, don’t you think, Dad?”
“Don’t be siding with your mother,” his father said, drinking his beer. His father topped Bryce’s six-foot-two-inch frame by two inches easily. The Fierce men were a big lot. “I could have told her I wanted tuna noodle casserole tonight and she would have made it.”
Bryce shivered and fought back the gag. He hated tuna noodle casserole and wondered what sadist came up with that dish that his father loved so much but three kids of the house refused to eat.
“Don’t listen to your father,” his mother said. “I’d never make that for anyone but him. Even I struggle to eat it, but the things you do for love…”
His father smirked and went back to his chili, wiping up the sauce with his bread, then reaching for another helping. Bryce knew he was going in for seconds in a minute too.
“I’m sure wherever you go you’ll have a great time.”
He should be happy his mother wasn’t talking about his personal life anymore. Ever since Sam started dating Dani, and then got engaged, his mother had backed off of setting him and his brother Ryder up.
What was it about his parents that they wanted to get everyone married off?
His Aunt Jolene and Uncle Gavin had set up their five kids and they were all married or engaged in less than a two-year period of time. It was as if the rest of the family took that as an open invitation to start matchmaking.
Thankfully nothing came about from it and Bryce, his brothers, and cousins were all on the lookout and knew they wouldn’t be caught in the web of manipulations their other cousins had been.
“Speaking of a good time,” his mother said, “how is your thesis coming?”
“It’s coming,” he said. These things took time; she knew that, yet she always asked as if it was a paper he had due at the end of the week.
He’d already gotten his doctorate in chemistry and now he wanted it in physics. Why? Because he’d never grow tired of learning.
“Oh,” his mother said, jumping up fast. “I forgot I picked something up for you.”
His father and he both lifted their heads from where they were gobbling up their dinner when she dashed out of the room. He looked over, caught the eye raise and shoulder shrug from his dad and went back to eating.
When his mother came back to the room, she dropped an envelope on the table next to him.
He picked it up and looked inside to see a gift card for a place called Millie’s. “What’s this?”
“I tried out this little place the other day. One of the teachers at work, her daughter just took it over. You know how it is, they want you to try it out and I couldn’t say no. It’s right on your way to work. The food was good and I figured I’d give her a little business and get a gift card for you since you eat out all the time.”
“Sweet,” he said, setting it back down. “What do they have there?”
“It’s not that big,” his mother said. “They are open from six thirty in the morning until six at night. They’ve got seating for about twenty, but it’s more a takeout place. Breakfast is donuts, muffins, egg sandwiches and the like. Lunch and dinner are subs, sandwiches, salads, some burgers. Quick things. Like I said, takeout, which is right up your alley.”
“Sounds perfect,” he said, knowing he’d stop in soon enough. He loved how thoughtful his mother always was.
Speaking of thoughtfulness, over an hour later, he was walking out the door with enough leftovers for a few meals while he sat in his one-bedroom apartment reading and doing research.
“What the hell was that, Diane?”
Diane Fierce looked over at her husband, Grant, to see him narrowing his eyes at her the minute Bryce, her middle son, pulled out of the driveway. “What was what?”
“I’ve got a gift card for you. You know how we support the girls at work, yadda, yadda, yadda.”
She put her hands on her hips. “You know we do. How many times have I come home and caught your eye roll that I had frozen pies and cookie dough I had to find room for in the freezer? Or wrapping paper that fills the spare closet in the hall.”
“This isn’t the same thing and you know it. You’re up to something. You’re setting Bryce up, aren’t you?”
She smiled. “Maybe.”
“I thought we decided we’d talk about it before you did it. Just because you had luck with Dani and Sam doesn’t mean you can take Bryce on by yourself.”
“It’s not by myself,” she argued.
He snorted. “So fill me in then.”
“Fine,” she said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “You know Rachelle Davies, right?”
“The phys ed teacher at your school?”
“Yes. Her daughter, Payton, owns the place now.”
“Okay. Tell me, because right now I’m trying to figure out how you think someone who owns a cafe is going to have anything in common with our brainy son Bryce. And isn’t Rachelle a widower? Didn’t her husband die years ago or something like that?”
“Yes, he did. When Payton was just a teen. Rachelle never really dated again. Not to be mean or anything, but she’s never been very feminine and well, maybe that stopped her from trying again.” Diane waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter. But Payton was always shy, or so Rachelle said. She wasn’t very good in school and never went to college.”
“This is getting worse and worse.”
“Don’t be snobby,” she said, pointing her finger at her husband.
“I’m not snobby in the least. I’m just saying that Bryce is the brainchild of the entire Fierce clan. Everything he does, says, or enjoys is over our heads half the time.”
“Except food,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll give you that. But that still doesn’t mean anything. You know how he is. He likes women he can talk to and have intelligent conversations with. You just said she wasn’t very good in school and never went to college.”
“She has a learning disability. She is plenty smart, but it was years before Rachelle realized that Payton was dyslexic. She struggles to read and write, but she can. It doesn’t mean she isn’t smart and I’m embarrassed that you are even thinking that.”
Grant frowned at her and she held back the laugh, knowing she put him in his place. “I think you are way off base.”
“You said the same thing with Dani and Sam and look at how well that is working out.”
Her husband’s shoulders dropped. “Fine. We’ll see how it goes, but this one could really be stretching it.”
“If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. I promise. But I don’t think I will be.”
“You’ve never admitted you were wrong a day in your life,” he said, getting up and walking over to give her a kiss on the cheek.
“Because I never am and I won’t be this time either.”