Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 2 - Brandon

The miscarriage and cheating husband had been enough to spiral Robin into a permanent state of crazy, but news of his love child had pushed her over the edge. To make matters worse, her doctor had said she’d never be able to carry a child to term. Robin chose not to believe the doctor; she remained focused on having children someday — healthy children.

Before the divorce had been finalized, the partners in James’ law firm convinced James to pay Robin alimony. She’d never requested one cent from him, and he’d never offered it. But the partners convinced him that alimony would show goodwill towards Robin and respect to her father, the great and powerful John Jacob Porter, a well-connected litigator. Revered, and feared. With one phone call he could relieve James’ firm of a major corporate client. The partners anted up the money for James to offer Robin. 

Robin received a lump-sum settlement offer equal to five years’ salary and took it as a nice gesture until she read the confidentiality agreement attached to it. Her father read it, too, and advised her not to sign it. She returned the check and unsigned agreement to James with a note attached: “I’m not Ashley.”

Three days later she had a certified check in the amount of the initial offer, without an agreement. She bought a house with James’ guilt money. A nice mortgage-free, four-bedroom home with a big back yard, and in a good school district. A perfect place to raise a family. 

It had been almost a year since she’d lost the baby. She no longer cried in public at the sight of infants; instead, she cried at home in front of the TV when a baby appeared on screen, or when her sister Angel and her two children came for a visit. 

With the passage of time Robin felt ready to get out and be among people. The April 1996 Queen City Blues Festival was in full force, and she bought a same-day ticket to one of the indoor events. 

At the theater she thought back to the summer she’d spent with her grandparents, sitting on the front porch with them and the neighbors, listening to great old music. She loved the stories her grandparents told about how they danced in juke joints and hung out with local musicians who had just as much talent as the big names.

People around Robin’s age filled the crowded theater. She wondered why the older fans hadn’t come out for the show. This music belonged to them. Her attention shifted to a man who seemed familiar yet appeared to be no one she’d seen before. He sat three rows up to her left. His slightly unkempt beard intrigued her; he wore nice jeans paired with a white Oxford long-sleeved shirt, and glasses with a rugged, military look. On his ruggedly handsome face. 

It seemed to her that he could be a musician on stage with the band, or perhaps a professor of philosophy at a university. Could be a truck driver seeking respite from a cross country journey. She assumed he’d come alone since he didn’t talk with the person to his left, and with him in an end-of-row seat, no one sat to his right. Except her, three rows back, in a new blue dress.

As the house lights dimmed, she settled in her seat, one in from the aisle. The band’s opening number was a song about falling in then out of love, then in again, with the same person. She grunted at the idea. In the dark she thought of the bearded man, trying to figure out why he seemed familiar, wishing he were next to her holding her hand. Hard to tell if loneliness or curiosity prompted her to want to hold a total stranger’s hand. 

An upbeat song brought most of the crowd to its feet but she stayed seated, hoping to get a better look at him while he stood and swayed to the music. The pounding in her chest confused her mind. She moved to the empty seat to her left and dug around in her leather tote for her glasses. With 20/20 vision, she got a good look. During intermission she remained seated, palms sweating, heart racing as he walked past her. No wedding ring on his finger. On his way back to his seat she noticed the scar on his right hand, most likely from a burn. Brandon? 

When the concert ended, he headed her way. “Nice blue dress.”

She gave him her best nonchalant response. “Thanks.”

Is it Brandon? Robin made her way out of the theater toward the parking garage. She dreaded this part, walking to her car alone after dark. At least lots of other folk headed in the same direction, including him, on the same elevator.

The man who might be Brandon exited the elevator on her floor and headed down her aisle. Hand on Mace, just in case. He unlocked the door to the black Chevy pickup parked right next to her red Camry. 

He spoke first. “Weird, huh?”

“A little, yes.”

She felt bad when he lowered his scarred hand. “Sorry. My grandma taught me better than to stare. Looks like a bad burn.”

He held up his right hand and studied it with reverence, like a badge of honor.

“Third degree. Showing off for a girl.”

“She must have been something.”

His eyes danced. His voice warmed. “Robin, my first love. I wish we’d stayed in touch.”

“I’d say she wishes it, too.” She did her best not to trip over her words. 

“You think?”

“I’m pretty sure.” 

He extended his hand. “Hi. I’m Brandon Culpepper.”

“Not a good idea to hold a lit Roman candle while showing off for a girl.” Her hand in his began to shake. 

He abruptly pulled his hand away. “Robin?” 

She smiled, then ran her hand through her hair. “Hi, Brandon.”

He took a step back. Her eyes followed his as he studied her pronounced forehead; her oddly shaped nose. Her thick hair was in French braids, not the corn rowed braids she’d worn when she first met him. He embraced her, then kissed each of her cheeks. She easily returned his embrace, forgetting her hatred of James, of men in general. Taking in his sensual, outdoorsy scent. 

He pulled her closer.

Thirty minutes later they sat in a bar sipping beer, reliving the summer when she was twelve and he was fourteen; sharing memories of climbing trees, building forts, running back and forth to the neighborhood store for his mother; playing dodgeball.

“Why didn’t you ever throw the ball at me?”

“I was afraid I’d hurt you.” He leaned over and placed a quick peck on her cheek, as if he were sneaking a kiss. Like he had done years before. “I’m a civil engineer, a commercial builder. Culpepper Construction. What do you do for a living?”

“HR work. I push paper and attend meetings.” Her response made the work sound uninteresting, which it was anything but. Does he think I’m uninteresting? “I heard you have a wife and three kids. Do you have pictures?”

He stroked his beard, then looked past her. “No wife, one son—ten-year-old Brandon the third. We call him Trey.” He removed a photo from his wallet and handed it to her. 

“Good looking kid. Looks like his daddy.”

He grinned. “Anyone special in your life?”  

“No. You?”

“No.” 

“So, Brandon, what are you doing in Charlotte? I thought your family was in Georgia.”

His shoulders dropped. She regretted the question.

“I came for a visit, liked the area, and stuck around.” 

The conversation shifted to the locket he’d given her, years ago. “You still have it?” 

“I’m sad to say I lost it a couple of years after you gave it to me. I tore through my parents’ house looking for it and moped around for days when I didn’t find it.” 

He placed his hand over his heart, feigning agony. “I spent all my birthday money to buy the locket for you.”

She gave him her best sorry face. 

“I’m starting a new job next week. Let me get my crew going on it then we’ll get together Friday night.”

“Sounds great.”

They exchanged phone numbers, and hugs. A smile stayed on Robin’s face from the time Brandon walked her to her car until the time she arrived home, dressed for bed, and fell asleep.