Presley O'Brien grinned and set the bowl of cake mix down on the counter. She had been home in North Carolina for two weeks now and couldn't get enough of her family. In the interest of letting her three older siblings have a night out together with their spouses, she had offered to babysit her nephews and niece for the night.
Tyler and Nolan, her brother Malachi's sons, pounded up the stairs of her beach house and wrapped their arms around her. Presley laughed and tousled their hair.
"You two act like you haven't seen me in forever. We were all just at Pops and Grandma's house yesterday."
"But your house is funner!" seven-year-old Nolan informed her.
"More fun," Tyler, who was ten years old, corrected his younger brother. "But your house is more fun, Aunt Elvis."
"Thanks, Tyler. Why don't you two go put your stuff in the guest room and I'll talk to your dad, okay?"
The boys shouldered their backpacks and scrambled back down the stairs. Malachi told them to be careful and then hugged his sister.
"Thanks for taking them. Tawny is really looking forward to going out," he assured her. "She's been shopping all day."
"Good," Presley said. "Tell her she can repay me by taking me shopping with her soon."
"Oh, I'll pass that message right along."
"What are you guys doing tonight?"
"Kennedy wants to go to the Oceanic in Wrightsville Beach, but it might be a little chilly sitting out on the pier like that. I think Julie wanted to go down to Wilmington, so we'll see how they duke it out. You sure you're going to be okay with all three kids?"
Presley rolled her eyes. "I'll be fine, Malachi. I'm going to make cupcakes with the boys and we might go down to the beach a little bit. Tyler said all they want to do is eat junk food and watch movies anyway, so I have a gore-fest waiting for them in the guest room."
"Please tell me you're not serious," Malachi groaned. "We'll have Nolan in our bed for the next two weeks!"
"I'm not serious. Just some classics they said they haven't seen yet – Coneheads, Black Sheep, Tommy Boy. That sort of thing."
"Still entirely inappropriate for their age, but not far out of bounds for the aunt who has always loved to spoil them."
"You and Matthew made me and Kennedy watch those when we were their age, so I don't want to hear about it."
"All right, all right. I've got to get to Snead's Ferry; we're all meeting at Cody and Kennedy's. Boys, I'm leaving!"
Presley went back to her cake mix and waited for her nephews to come up to the kitchen. They both hovered around until she got to the point where she was ready to drop spoonfuls of the batter into the cupcake pans.
"You guys want to do this part?"
"I do," Nolan immediately answered, grabbing a spoon from the drawer and hopping up on a barstool.
"No, thanks. I'll just watch Nolan."
"All right." Presley noted that he seemed quiet and, somehow, more mature than he had before she left for Oklahoma two and a half months before. Deciding it was better not to mention it just then, she went back to supervising Nolan who was making an efficient mess on the counter top.
Matthew and Julie came by with Jacey just as they were putting the pans in the oven. Afraid that Nolan would try to do it himself if she walked away, she asked Tyler to get the door. She was surprised when Tyler came up the stairs carrying Jacey himself and expertly set her diaper bag on the couch.
"Wow, Ty, I'm impressed. You want me to take her?"
"I'll hold her for a minute," he replied.
"All right," Presley answered. She wiped her hands on a dish rag and greeted Julie at the front door. "Tyler's really good with Jacey, it seems like."
"Yeah, he really loves being around her. He comes over on Saturday afternoons and helps at our house; either helps Matthew outside or helps me watch Jacey so I can get stuff done. He's saving up for a surfboard. I think Cody has had him cleaning at the fish house some, too."
"I guess I know who to call for housecleaning," Presley joked. "Everything is in her bag?"
"Yep, she's got diapers, clean clothes, formula, and the works. Matthew is bringing in the pack-and-play so you can just have her sleep in that."
"All right, great. Well, you guys have fun tonight."
"Thanks for doing this, Pres. When Chase is here, we'll have Dorrie and Craig watch the kids and all eight of us can go out."
"Sounds good," Presley smiled. She had Matthew set the playpen up in her room and then it was just her and the kids.
Chase Lennox threw himself face down on his bed, his sweaty hair fanning out around him. He was in desperate need of a shower and sleep, but calling his girlfriend would come before either of those things. He pulled his shirt off and dialed her number; she answered on the third ring.
"Hey there. How was the show?" Presley asked.
"Not bad considering we only had two days to prepare for it." Chase and his brothers had certainly been unprepared when the promotion manager came in and told them the previous Thursday that they had a show planned for a small New York City venue that Saturday night. It was immediately posted on the website as a members-only event; they gave fan club members twenty-four hours to vote on a set list and then got to work rehearsing.
"Did you at least have fun?"
"Yeah, I did. Oh my gosh, Pres, there were fans there from California!"
"Are you serious? They got a last minute ticket to fly all the way across the country to see you and your brothers play?"
Chase laughed. "Don't sound so surprised."
"I'm sorry," Presley giggled. "That's just got to be an expensive ticket."
"We have very devoted fans," Chase replied confidently. "What are you doing? Sounds quiet over there."
"Oh, yeah. Tyler and Nolan crashed out finally about thirty minutes ago watching movies and gorging themselves on junk food. Jacey was asleep but she woke up right before you called, so she is having a bottle and then we're going to bed, too."
He listened as Presley baby-talked to Jacey and wished he was there to witness the whole scene. Between Evan talking about his wedding and hearing about Jacey, Chase was beginning to convince himself that maybe they were ready for something more. He wasn't worried about her going anywhere, but for some reason the cancer had been on his mind with more intensity since Presley had gone to Carolina. It made him think more of making the most of the time they had.
"You still with me there, sparky?"
Chase shook himself from his reverie and nodded. "I'm sorry, darlin'. I just got a little lost in thought. I'm going to take a shower and pass out, I think. You want to call me in the morning?"
"I definitely will call you. Are you doing all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Get some rest and I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Okay. Hey …"
"I love you," Presley told him sweetly.
"I love you, too," Chase smiled. He disconnected the call and laid back on his bed for another minute before working up the motivation to get in the shower. As the hot water drifted over his tired muscles, his mind drifted back to thoughts of marriage and babies.
Presley set her phone back on the nightstand, then smoothed out the soft hair growing on top of Jacey's head. Her mouth turned upward with the hint of a smile; the sweet smelling child in her arms was enticing fantasies that Presley knew she had no business entertaining. Marriage and children were far off in the future for her and Chase, but she allowed herself to dream at least.
"Aunt Elvis?" Tyler said quietly. He had stuck his head in the door of Presley's room and looked hesitant to enter.
"Come on in, Tyler. Are you okay?" She was worried that perhaps he had eaten too much and made himself sick.
Tyler shrugged. "I'm okay. Just couldn't sleep."
Presley patted the space in the bed next to her. "You look like you've got something on your mind. Spill it, kiddo."
"Are you going to live in Tulsa forever now?" Tyler asked as he reclined next to his aunt.
"Not forever. I'll probably live there sometimes, but I'll live here in Carolina, too. I'm going to keep this house and have an apartment in Tulsa with Chase." As soon as the last phrase was out, she regretted it. She wasn't exactly sure how much she should explain to Tyler about adult relationships or the questions he would ask.
"When Kennedy and Cody started living together, she quit hanging out with me and Nolan."
Sighing, Presley got up to lay Jacey down in her pack-and-play and sat back down next to Tyler. She hugged him to her side and kissed his forehead. "You were the first baby after me. When you came along, every one quit treating me like I was five. I know you probably don't understand it, but that gives us a very special bond, Ty. No matter what happens – no matter how far away I live, or who I live with – I will always make time for you and Nolan. I never got to be anyone's big sister, and I guess I kind of feel that way about you guys. Jacey, too."
Tyler nodded. "I get it."
"Good." Presley let him go, but noticed that he still didn't seem satisfied. "Is that it?"
He slowly shook his head no. His eyelashes were wet with tears as he looked up to her and asked, "Aunt Elvis, are you going to die?"
His question was so innocent and Presley realized this was what had bothered him the entire night and why he'd been so quiet. Tears welled in her own eyes and she took a deep breath before she could answer.
"I'm not dying and I'm not going to die," she told him with certainty.
"But you had cancer! This kid in Nolan's class, his grandpa got cancer and he died. I don't want you to die!"
Presley pulled her to him again and tried not to cry. "Shh. It's okay. I know cancer is scary, Tyler. It's scary for me to go through it. But you know what? My doctor in Tulsa isn't going to let that happen. He is a very smart man and he made a whole new medicine that makes me feel better when I get sick instead of making me feel worse. Look at me – I'm not going to die. You're still stuck with me for a long time to come, okay?"
Tyler nodded; Presley let him finish crying. She wanted very badly to call Chase, but introducing thoughts of her death to him when he was already so tired she knew was a bad idea. Tyler calmed down enough to speak again and asked if he could stay in her room.
"Nolan is a bed hog anyway," he added.
"Of course you can. You get comfortable and I'm going to brush my teeth."
By the time Presley returned to bed, Tyler was fast asleep. She switched on her alarm so she could get up and make breakfast. The ceiling held her attention for a long time before she was able to fall asleep.
Chase could not get back to the apartment fast enough. Once there, he fumbled for his phone while he threw clothes into a bag. When Presley didn't answer, he disconnected and called again.
"Miss me that much?" she answered with an audible smile. "I'm sorry, I'm helping Mom with some shopping. We're doing Thanksgiving this Thursday here instead of next since I will be back in Tulsa by then. I couldn't get the phone out of my purse fast enough."
"Thanksgiving early, eh? Do you guys have an extra chair?"
Presley stopped in her tracks right in the grocery store. "Yes. Why?"
"Because I'm packing a bag right now and coming to Carolina. We were sitting at a meeting this morning and going over the calendar when we realized we have an unexpected few days off. I am going to the airport right now and I don't have to be back to New York until Friday."
"You're not kidding me, right? Because that would be very mean."
Chase chuckled. "I'm not kidding you, Pres. I am bringing all the shirts you like and the cologne that drives you wild. My bag is zipped and I'm heading down to hail a cab as we speak."
"I am in the grocery store right now which is the only reason why you do not have to listen to me shriek. What time are you coming in?"
He gave her all the details and then started to lose reception and had to go. He shoved the phone in his front pocket and drummed his fingers anxiously on the seat of the car. He was going to have to get over the anxiety he developed whenever he spent more than a few days away from Presley, especially once the tour came around. For right now though, he just needed the next two hours to pass by quickly so that he could be at the airport, get on the plane, and get to Presley.
"Mama, he's coming!" Presley squealed out, hugging her mother tightly.
"Who is?" Dorrie asked, reading the ingredients on a recipe card for stuffing.
"Chase. He's going to be here in a couple of hours – they just had these days off come up and he's coming here."
"Well then let's get this shopping done. We should have enough time to finish here and get everything put away at home before you need to leave to pick him up. And my goodness, Presley, quit jumping around like that. We are in public."
She laughed and kissed her mother on the cheek. "I'm sorry, I'm just really excited."
"I know you are. Now come on, let's get this done."
For the rest of their shopping trip, Presley did her best to keep her composure, but it was difficult knowing that she was going to be seeing Chase soon. She had the trunk of the car open and had started unloading groceries before her mother even had the car turned off.
"What are you thinking, getting out of that car before it was off? Be more careful, Pres," Craig scolded, coming out to help with the unloading.
Dorrie shook her head as she got out of the driver's seat. "Don't bother, honey. Apparently Chase is on his way down from New York, so there's no talking sense into her right now."
"At least we can finally meet the boy," Craig mumbled. "Don't think you are leaving this house without helping your mother put these groceries away."
Presley refrained both from groaning and from checking her watch – both actions she knew her father wouldn't approve of. "Yes, sir."
The baggage claim area was nearly empty, except for the other passengers that had been on the flight with Chase and the people those passengers were meeting. He scanned the room for Presley but didn't see her. He had found his bag and slung it across his chest when he heard a very familiar voice call his name. He turned just in time to see Presley fling herself into his arms. Before either of them could say anything, their lips met in a kiss so sweet, Presley didn't want it to end. It wasn't full of the desire that usually burned between them, but more a kiss of relief; they were in each other's presence and the world felt right again.
"I've got to wean myself from this addiction to you," Chase told her.
"I'm the best addiction there is," Presley shot back.
He just smiled and put her back down on her own two feet. Their fingers intertwined as they walked to her car in silence. Once there, Chase grabbed her for another kiss which she eagerly returned.
"Do you mind going to my parents' right away? I was shopping with my mother when you called and of course Daddy was home when we got there with the groceries. No one else is there right now, I don't think."
"As long as I'm with you, I don't care."
"All right. Beulaville first, then."
The initial introductions with her parents went well. She expected her mother to make some embarrassing comment and for her father to be overly protective, but instead they both greeted him warmly and with a smile. Presley breathed a sigh of relief and they all sat in the living room to visit for awhile. Her parents did ask Chase some questions, but it was no different than any boyfriend can expect to hear from his girlfriend's parents when he meets them for the first time.
"I need to get supper going. Are you two staying, Presley?"
Presley looked to Chase, who shrugged. "Sure, we can stay."
"Then get in this kitchen and help me, missy."
"Yes ma'am," Presley giggled. She kissed Chase and gave her father a warning look before going into the kitchen.
"Chase, what do you say about joining me on the front porch for a cup of coffee before we eat?" Craig asked.
"That would be great, thank you."
The men pulled on their jackets and made way for the front porch. Presley gave her mother a worried look as she started a pot of water to boil.
"Mama, what is Daddy doing? He's not going to embarrass me, is he?"
Dorrie rolled her eyes. "You act like your father has been the worst father to bring boyfriends home to. Just calm down."
"I know, but Chase isn't just any boyfriend."
"Seeing you together has definitely proved that." Dorrie put a hand on her daughter's arm and stopped her from what she was doing. "Did you know that Jonathan had come to ask your father for permission to marry you?"
She had to put her hands on the counter in front of her to keep her upright. "He did?"
"He did. It was just a couple of days after you left for Tulsa. He came here and told your father that he loved you and that he wanted to be there for you. He wanted to go to Tulsa and propose."
"Because he thought it would bring me back here," Presley surmised.
"Only Jonathan can know that for sure, but your father was under the same assumption. That was the one conversation in two years that your father ever had alone with Jonathan on the front porch."
Presley felt the ends of her mouth turn upward; now she understood the point her mother was trying to make. "And Daddy just met Chase."
"Yes. Now that we have that settled, do you think we could maybe get back to cooking?"
"Yes, I suppose we can. Thank you, Mama."
Dorrie squeezed Presley's arm and nodded. "You're welcome, baby girl."