“I know it’s best that I don’t see him anymore, but it still hurts.” Brooke found herself rubbing her upper arms as if they were cold. “And then I start thinking I must have been a total idiot to date him in the first place.”
“But you didn’t see any red flags early on, right?” Pat said.
“And you broke up with the freak the moment you realized he was bad news. Give yourself some credit.”
Brooke shrugged. “I’ve never had a guy shove me before. The whole thing really rattled me—the only thing that could get me to calm down was pounding out Broadway show tunes and pretending I’m some big stage star.” She laughed at herself.
“You were a pretty darn good Anna,” Pat said, referring to The King and I.
“I wasn’t too bad, was I?” Brooke said with a half smile. “I’ve always wanted to do another play—but Anna was nearly half my life ago. It’s not like I could even get cast at the local theater if I tried.”
Pat raised her sunglasses and her eyebrows. “Is there a local theater you’re referring to?”
Oops. Hey, at least it’s a change of topic from Christopher.
Against her better judgment, Brooke mentioned the audition notice. “I cut it out of the paper on a whim. It’s not like I’d actually try out or anything. Please.”
“So . . . when are the try-outs?” Pat asked casually, popping a cracker into her mouth from the box the kids foraged from.
“Monday evening.” The word slipped out before Brooke could take it back. “But I’m not—”
“That’s crazy,” Brooke said, snatching the box of crackers and grabbing a fistful. “I haven’t sung in public since, well, forever. And I don’t have anything prepared for an audition. That’s crazy talk.”
Pat swatted Brooke’s arm. “Oh, come on. You said yourself it’s just a small community thing. I’ll come with you. It’ll be a fun excuse to give Grandma time with my kids while I come with you.”
“Fun?” Brooke leveled a look on her sister. “That’s the last adjective I’d use for an audition. Try terrifying or humiliating . . .”
“You’re going.” Pat said it as if it were a known fact. She took the cracker box back and plopped another cracker into her mouth defiantly.
Brooke laughed. “Oh, really?”
“Yep,” Pat said with a business-like tone. “I’ll pick you up for it, and Mom will watch the kids.” She paused, leaned closer, and added in a sing-songy tone, “We’ll go out for ice cream afterward.”
“Ice cream?” She reached into the cracker box, again in Pat’s hands, and put some into her mouth, one at a time, as she glared at her sister, but the look had laughter behind it. She sighed dramatically. “I suppose I could go if I get ice cream afterward,” she said with the tone of a martyr.
Pat looked at her watch, which broke the spell. “Yikes. It’s later than I thought. Amy’s way past her naptime, and Krissy and Tammy are probably close to meltdown too.” She went into the wood-chipped area. “Kids, it’s time to get back to Gamma’s. One more time down a slide, and then you come with me.”
With a bit of coaxing and compromise, all three girls were finally gathered. But just as they got to the van, Krissy began to bounce up and down.
“I gotta go. Bad!”
Pat groaned. “Can’t you wait until we get to Gramma’s? Her house is just a few minutes away.”
More like ten, but Brooke wasn’t going to argue the point.
Krissy’s eyes were desperate, and she bounced harder. “No. I gotta go now.”
“Fine. Come on,” Pat said in surrender. “The last thing I need is a return-trip to Arizona where the car smells of a potty accident. Let’s go.”
“The bathrooms are on that end,” Brooke said, pointing. “I’ll get the other girls buckled up and bring the van around if you want.” Pat tossed the keys to her and headed off in search of the facilities.
The van had grown hot in the unusually warm May heat, practically stifling everyone’s breathing. Brooke buckled the other girls into their seats quickly. Then Tammy found a bag of peanut M&Ms left in the van.
“Put those away,” Brooke said. “They’re probably all melted, and they’ll make a big mess.” From inside the van, Brooke slid the sliding door shut and squeezed her way forward to the driver’s seat, where she collapsed and pushed her fingers through her hair.
“It’s hot,” Tammy declared. “I don’t like being hot. Turn on the air.”
“That’s exactly what I’m about to do.” Brooke glanced into the rearview mirror and caught Tammy popping M&Ms into her mouth. “Hey . . .”
She turned the key, but instead of starting, the van let out a loud, drawn-out wail. The vehicle seemed frozen, except for the high-pitched siren, which attracted stares from passers-by. Brooke’s face flushed red as she fumbled with the dashboard controls, frantically trying to figure out what she’d done wrong. No matter what dial she turned, no matter how hard she twisted the key, nothing worked. She punched the red alarm button on the key fob, but that didn’t work either. Aside from the screeching alarm, the van was dead. But what had set the alarm off? And more importantly, how in the world could she get the thing to stop?
Amy, who’d been about to dose off in her car seat, awoke with a start and began crying at least as loud as the alarm.
Tammy joined her in a chorus of cries. “Turn it off,” she cried, holding her ears. “It’s loud. I’m scared.”
Brooke reached for the owner’s manual in the glove compartment. “I’m trying. I’ll turn it off as soon as I can figure out how.”
With each wail of the van, Brooke’s nerves wound a little tighter. Pedestrians gave her odd looks, and the cries of the children continued to escalate. By this time Amy was nearly hysterical—her entire body was such a dark red, it was nearly purple. Breathe! Brooke commanded her mentally, and every ten seconds or so, Amy would pause her shriek long enough to take in a lungful of air. Tammy thought it great fun to imitate the alarm to see if she could yell even louder.
Brooke flipped the pages of the manual blindly, willing the right page to show itself. She couldn’t think clearly; she wanted nothing more than for the alarm to turn off.
A tall man with short, brown hair appeared a few yards away and walked with a determined step in their direction. He looked vaguely familiar, but then, how many men in Utah Valley had short brown hair—a few thousand, give or take?
When he reached the minivan, he mouthed, “Do you need help?” Brooke nodded in humiliation, wishing she could become invisible, but at the same time grateful for the help. She got out of the van so she could hear him over the noise. With her nerves on edge, she had to focus to understand his simple instructions.
“Just lock the door, close it, and open it with the key instead of the key fob.”
It was worth a try. Brooke pushed the power lock button on the driver’s side door and closed it. As the door left her fingers and shut tight, she gasped. “Wait!”
The man took a step forward, looking for what was wrong. “What?”
“If this doesn’t work, I just locked two little girls inside a hot car.” She swallowed nervously. “I should have gotten them out first.”
“It’ll work. Trust me.” His voice was calm and reassuring. Brooke tried to believe him and be comforted when he added, “And if it doesn’t, I know how to open a locked car door.”
An eyebrow went up at that. Who knew how to break into cars? Brooke did her best to brush off thoughts of heat and the van’s continued wailing and tried to steady her hand enough to get the key into the lock. Tammy pounded frantically on the driver’s window.
“What’s wrong?” Brooke yelled through the window.
Tammy, who’d apparently unbuckled herself from her booster, held up the pack of M&Ms and pointed to her throat.
Brooke’s eyes went wide. “Are you choking?”
Her niece nodded, tears welling up in her eyes. Brooke said a silent prayer that the door would unlock; turning off the alarm didn’t seem so urgent anymore. But with her hand shaking, she couldn’t get the key in. Who used keys to get into cars anymore? She glanced up at the driver’s window, where Tammy watched, tears streaking her face, her hands at the throat.
The man reached for the keychain. With one quick motion, he slipped the key in. Brooke held her breath. A second later, the wailing stopped as abruptly as it had begun. More importantly, the door opened. Before Brooke could do anything, he had opened the sliding door, reached inside the van, and pulled Tammy out. He turned her around, wrapped his arms around her, and after two quick thrusts, the offending candy flew out of the girl’s mouth. She took a large gasp of breath and collapsed in Brooke’s arms with shaky sobs. Brooke let out a harsh breath of her own.
“Are you all right, sweetie?” she held Tammy close as she nodded and then buried her head in Brooke’s shoulder for another hug. Brooke looked skyward. “What a relief.”
The man smiled at her. “I can imagine. I know how powerful those parental instincts are. If it had been my child, I’d be a bit shaky too.”
Tammy took a deep breath and pulled away, wiping at her eyes. “I’m better now. When’s my mom going to be back?”
“Soon,” Brooke promised. Tammy climbed into the van, and Brooke straightened. She gestured toward the girls. “They’re my nieces,” she admitted. “My sister’s girls. But I can’t imagine my being any more pathetic even if I had been their mother.”
“Not pathetic. Worried.” He chuckled with a shake of his head. “Those little ones can have quite a hold on you.”
Tammy sat in her booster and gave Brooke a look she had undoubtedly gotten from her mother. “Hey, we’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“I think this is an exception,” Brooke said, pointing at the man. “He just saved your life.”
He stepped forward and held out a hand. “If you’re not allowed to talk to strangers, I suppose I’d better introduce myself. My name is Greg Stevens.”
That’s why he seemed familiar. This was the police officer at the accident. She didn’t recognize him without the uniform and name tag.
No wonder he knew how to open locked cars.
He held his hand out to Tammy. “And you are . . . ?”
She giggled and shyly extended her hand. “I’m Tammy.”
“That’s a very pretty name. How old are you?”
“Seven. I’m almost done with first grade.”
“Wow, almost a lady. You’re tall for first grade.”
Tammy bit her lip with pleasure.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand. He turned to Brooke and shook hers, too. “It’s nice to meet you, too. . . .” His forehead creased. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” He thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Last night. Accident on University, right?”
“I think so.” Brooke could feel heat climbing up her face and tried to change the subject; anything that hinted at Christopher was to be avoided today. “First you help with the alarm, and then Tammy . . . Anyway, thank you. When it went off, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. I don’t even know how it happened.”
“Oh, you probably closed the doors, then accidentally locked them with the fob. If you do that and then try to start the car, the alarm will go off. Alarms are programmed that way—if the fob locks the car and then someone tries to start it, the alarm assumes the car’s been broken into.”
Brooke nodded, figuring that she probably hit the lock button on the key chain somewhere between buckling up the children and squeezing into the driver’s seat. Greg went on. “It’s not that uncommon, especially when a person’s not familiar with how car alarms work.”
Brooke flushed with humiliation, convinced that this handsome stranger saw her as an idiot blonde who couldn’t take care of herself. No matter that her hair was chestnut brown and that she’d been taking care of herself for over a decade. “Oh, this isn’t my minivan,” she said more quickly than intended. She didn’t know this man, but somehow she wanted to be sure he didn’t leave with the wrong impression. “I mean, if it were, I would probably know how it worked.”
Greg shrugged. “Could have happened to anyone. It was nice meeting you again.”
She watched him head down the sidewalk, hating the fact that the dimple in his left cheek refused to leave her mind. She suddenly called out to his retreating figure, “Thank you . . . again, I mean.”
He turned around. “No problem,” he said with a final wave. She got back into the minivan and almost started it when Pat returned with Krissy.
“We made it, but barely,” Pat said, helping Krissy into the van. She looked down the street and pointed. “Who was that?”
“Here’s the keys,” Brooke said, ignoring the question. “Sorry I didn’t pull the van closer. We had a bit of an incident involving peanuts, chocolate, and car alarms.”
With Krissy buckled, Pat took the keys, but looked down the street again. “Do you know that guy?”
“But you just waved at him.”
Tammy jumped into the conversation with her seven-year-old explanation. “The van started making this loud noise, and Brooke didn’t know how to stop it, and that guy did, and he told her how, but he turned it off and got the door open, but I had a peanut M&M stuck in my throat, and he got me out and lifted me hard and got it out—”
“Are you all right?” Pat interrupted, her maternal worry replacing curiosity.
“I’m okay. I won’t eat any more of these candies, though. But he was really nice.” As she went on, Brooke was amazed that a girl her age could rattle on like that. “He shook my hand so I could talk to him and we wouldn’t be strangers anymore, and then we introduced ourselves. And his name is Craig.”
“Greg,” Brooke corrected, then blushed and looked away.
Pat eyed Brooke. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” Tammy said. “And Mommy, he called me a lady.”
Brooke ducked around the van to climb into the passenger seat. On her mother’s orders, Tammy buckled back up and had her interest hijacked by her Nintendo DS. Pat put on her seatbelt without saying anything, but as she turned the key, she eyed Brooke. “So is he cute? Did he get your number?”
“No.” The word kind of coughed itself out. “I mean, yes, I suppose he is pretty good-looking, but no, we didn’t exchange any personal information.”
Pat turned her head to get a good look at Brooke, laughed, and put the minivan into gear. “Your ears are red.”
Brooke looked away and stifled a smile. “Hush, Pat.”