Fun. He couldn’t think of the last time he’d focused on having fun. Hot sex with a stranger. The thrill of driving one of his cousin Zach’s race cars. The pleasure of tasting one of his other cousin Marcus’s new vintages from his Napa Valley vineyard.
Rafe wasn’t even sure what that was anymore...
"Sure," he said as he knelt back down in front of the door lock, "that sounds good."
And the truth was, just knowing he’d get to spend the day with Brooke, even if they’d likely end up spending all of it cleaning and clearing out his house next door, sounded better than it should have.
Almost like fun.
They were a good team, Brooke thought several hours later, as she looked around Rafe’s now spotless kitchen with satisfaction. He still needed to buy new appliances, fix the flooring, and put up new cabinets and countertops, but at least you didn’t need a face mask to enter the room now.
Immediately after he’d finished putting on her new lock, he’d joined her to dig into the mess the renters had made. She’d mopped and swept and scrubbed everything in her path, while Rafe cleared the way for her, taking out old chairs and broken tables and linens that had holes burned into them.
She’d left his house only long enough to make them a plate of sandwiches and had literally had to hold them beneath his nose to get him to stop working long enough to eat. Before she was even halfway through her own sandwich, he’d finished both of his and was digging into one of the dusty, beat-up cardboard boxes he’d brought down from the attic.
"I didn’t think my family had left anything behind when we moved out," he told her, "but look what I just found."
It was a frame with a faded picture in it. "Oh, Rafe, this is great!"
His whole family was in the picture, and all of them were smiling, clearly happy to be at the lake for another summer. Of course, she immediately zoomed in on Rafe. There was that easy smile she remembered, the carefree way he held his tall, lanky frame…compared to the way his big, strong muscles fairly vibrated with tension now.
"And there you are, just like you always were."
The warmth in his voice had Brooke turning her gaze to his face instead of back to the picture. "I’m in the picture, too?" She quickly looked down again and realized what she’d missed the first time. All the Sullivans were there, but so was she, tucked in between Rafe and Mia, smaller than everyone else, but beaming up at the camera because she’d been with her favorite people.
"I don’t remember sneaking into your family photo."
"You didn’t sneak into the photo, Brooke, you belonged there."
It was the nicest thing he could have said to her, even nicer than his earlier compliment about her truffles. All she’d wanted her whole life, it seemed, was to belong. Her grandparents—and the Sullivans next door—had made it easy for her in all the ways her own parents hadn’t known how to.
Feeling like he was holding her heart in his hand, she said, "How about I take this next door and clean up the frame?"
"That would be great." A moment later, he was heading up into the attic again.
She looked down at the photo and realized her grandfather must have taken the picture. Did he know back then what a big crush she had on Rafe? Or that it would only grow bigger, stronger over the years?
As she walked outside and across the grass to her house, the reflection of the sun off the glass in the frame momentarily blinded her so that she had to look away from it and out at the blue water and green mountains. For the thousandth time since she’d moved back to the lake, she was stunned by the beauty all around her. She hoped she never took it for granted, that she took the time to appreciate it more every single day.
It wasn’t right that Rafe had been at the lake nearly twenty-four hours, and he hadn’t yet been in the water. But if she suggested a swim right now, she knew he’d never go for it. He was totally focused on the job at hand, between carrying out heavy furniture by himself and crawling under the house to see how far the damage extended. Clearly, he was planning on working until he dropped.
From the moment she’d seen him get off his motorcycle, he’d been too serious, too intense. Now that he’d talked to her about his job, she knew more of the reasons for that, but that didn’t change the fact that instead of fishing or hiking or relaxing on the beach, he was killing himself to try to clean up his disaster of a house. She wanted to see him smile more, laugh more, like he used to when they were kids.
A little work was fine and dandy; Brooke knew the worth of focus and determination firsthand as a small-business owner. But as she worked to wipe the frame clean, then propped it up on the kitchen counter, she figured there was nothing to lose in trying to convince him to see the wisdom of her suggestion that they have some fun together while he was here.
Knowing she’d have to be a little sneaky about it, she went back outside to the patch of grass between their properties and called, "Rafe, there’s something you’ve got to see outside."
She expected to see his head poke out from the open—and still dirty—attic window. Instead, she heard footsteps on the roof and realized he was standing, rather precariously, she thought, on top of his house.
See, that was just it. He immediately assumed the worst about things. Was it all down to his job? Or had something else happened that had given him this darker view of life?