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“Bits, did you have anything special planned for today?”

Jack sat at the island, the remains of his peanut butter toast and protein shake pushed to the side while he tapped at his laptop keyboard.

“Special? No,” Bitty said, staring at the coffee maker like he was willing it to brew faster. “I wanted to go to the market, and there’s a couple of new recipes I want to try out for my vlog. But nothing important. Why?”

Bitty arched an eyebrow at Jack.

“Now that you’re all sweaty from your run, did you want to go back to bed?”

“Tempting,” Jack said, “but --”

“But if you want to do that, you’re in charge of changing the sheets later,” Bitty said.

“Fine,” Jack said. “But that wasn’t what I was talking about.”

“Okay?”

“You know my birthday’s next week,” Jack said.

“Of course,” Bitty said. “We’re having a party, remember? You’re going to grill, I’m doing desserts and sides, your parents are coming down … ”

“I know,” Jack said. “Remember when you were asking what I wanted for a gift?”

“DId you come up with something?” Bitty said. “Because I have been thinking on it, and I’m drawing a blank. When you want something, you usually buy it, and that makes gift-giving a little difficult.”

“I want a house.”

“What?”

“I want a house. We’ve had this condo for four years, and it’s nice, but I have four more years on my contract,” Jack said. “We’ll be here a while. And I think this is going to be home for us. Providence, I mean. So, yeah, I want a house.”

“Jack,” Bitty said, finally turning completely away from the coffee maker, “I can’t buy you a house. I mean, things are going pretty well for me, and the new book is out in a couple of months, but …”

“Of course you can,” Jack said. “We can afford a house.”

“You can afford a house,” Bitty said.

“We can,” Jack said. “Community property, remember? We share a bank account.”

“But that’s just the checking account,” Bitty said. “For like, groceries and utility bills. And sure, maybe I spend a little too much on clothes and baking supplies. And I know you can afford a house, but how is that a present from me to you?”

“Because I want you to do it with me?” Jack said. ”I want to pick a place out together, and to decorate it -- well, mostly for you to decorate it -- and I want it to be our home. I want there to be space for us to have guests, and for us maybe to have kids one day. I’m going to be thirty years old, Bits. I want to live like a grownup.”

Bitty looked pointedly around the condo, from the kitchen with its matching dish towels and oven mitts to the painting over the sofa and the plants in the corner.

“This … is not living like a grown-up?” Bitty said. “Going to bed at eleven and up by seven for a run, even on Sunday?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Jack said. “I just thought that, maybe it’s time for some more space? We can get you a bigger kitchen.”

“Fine,” Bitty said. “But because it’s something you want. You are not buying me a house for your birthday. What did you want to do about it today? Because don’t we need to, like, find an agent and everything?”

“I guess,” Jack said. “Maybe once we know what we want? I found a few open houses we can check out. Look.”

Bitty pulled a stool closer and turned the laptop towards him. Jack watched his eyes as he read, looked at pictures, scrolled down and read and looked again.

“Jack, those houses are all over a million dollars,” Bitty finally said, looking a little pale.

“I know,” Jack said. “But they’re nice. And did you see the kitchen in the one on the water in Cranston?”

“The one that’s over $2 million?” Bitty said. “We could build a big house that’s half kitchen for half that much.”

Jack shrugged.

“Probably not in that location. It’s a quick commute to the arena and the training facility. But if you want to buy property to build something, we might have to go further out,” Jack said. “Would you rather do that?”

“Build a house?” Bitty said. “Jack, I don’t know the first thing about building a house, and neither do you.”

“Well, I wasn’t thinking we’d build it ourselves,” Jack said. “We’d hire someone. Unless you want to bake a house.”

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann, we are not living in a gingerbread house.”

“But do you want to go to these open houses?” Jack said. “Get an idea of what we want and what’s available? For my birthday?”

Jack tried to do that thing Bitty did to him, where he looked up with huge, pleading eyes, but he was pretty sure he just looked like a demented seal instead of a cute puppy.

Bitty probably thought so too, but he laughed and said, “Fine. The farmer’s market opens in fifteen minutes. Let me go before all the good stuff is gone and then we can go look at houses.”

There must have been a lot of good stuff, because it was nearly noon by the time Bitty was back and had the shopping stowed. Then he had to shower and change. (“I need to look like a potential homebuyer, Jack, not a grocery shopper!” “What’s the difference?” Apparently, in Bitty’s mind, homebuyers dressed like they were going to casual office jobs. Except with khaki shorts instead of trousers because it was nearly 34 degrees outside.)

“Come on, Bits, I don’t want to be late!” Jack said.

“What, you’re afraid all the good houses will be gone?” Bitty asked. “I mean, is there seriously one house you have your heart set on? Because otherwise, I don’t think we have to worry. We’re just going to get an idea of what’s out there today, right?”

“Right,” Jack said.

As soon as they were in the car, he headed for Cranston. There were several places in that area that had open houses, including the place on the river. Two and a quarter million -- more than that even -- was a lot, more than Jack had ever spent on anything in his life, but he had the money. They had the money.

All it would take would be a call to his people. Well, to his lawyer, the one he counted on for everything except contract negotiations. Shelby would call his financial people and take care of everything.

The house was … a lot. Bitty did like the kitchen, especially the double oven and what looked like acres of counter space. There was an island with a breakfast bar where they could eat and where Jack could sit to watch Bitty bake, and look out the windows and over the deck to the water.

“My husband does video segments about baking and writes cookbooks,” Jack told Aila, the listing agent. “So the kitchen is really important.”

The master bedroom wasn’t huge, but neither he nor Bitty were the type to loll in bed all day. And there was a guest house where the parents could stay when they visited.

“The property can be sold without the guesthouse,” Aila said as she not-so-helpfully followed them from room to room. There were no other lookers at the moment, so it made sense, but Jack would have preferred a bit more privacy. That would have helped him sell Bitty on the place himself.

“No, if we bought it we’d want the guesthouse,” Jack assured her.

“Don’t you think it’s a little too … I dunno, grand? For us,” Bitty said, looking down from the second floor landing.

“My parents’ place is bigger,” Jack said. “You seem comfortable enough there.”

“Now we’re competing with a movie star and a hockey legend?” Bitty said. “We’ve never owned a house before.”

“Can we walk around outside?” Jack said, steering Bitty toward the French doors that led off the dining room.

“Of course,” Aila said. “You’ll notice the sophisticated multi-level outdoor living space!”

“What does that even mean?” Bitty muttered, before trudging across the deck and into the grass to look back at the house.

He came back to Jack and said, “Let’s go. This isn’t the place for us.”

“What?”

“Unless you were sure you wanted this house specifically?”

“No. But --”

“Then let’s keep looking,” Bitty said.

“It’s like you saw a ghost,” Jack said. “Is it haunted?”

“Might as well be,” Bitty said.

“What?”

“We can’t move here,” Bitty said. “It’s not big enough.”

“A four-bedroom five-bathroom house with an in-ground pool and separate coach house isn’t big enough?”

Jack knew he sounded incredulous. He was incredulous. The house Bitty’s parents lived in -- the house Bitty had lived in as a high school student -- had four bedrooms, sure, but it was about half the size of this place. Without the coach house. And it only had two bathrooms.

Besides, Bitty usually opted for practicality over ostentation. The only really expensive things he seemed to covet were kitchen appliances.

“All that building?” Bitty said. “On a lot that’s just over a half-acre? Where would we put the rink?”

“What rink?”

“The outdoor rink that you want to build in the backyard for little Johnny or Sally to learn to skate on,” Bitty said. “So they can skate and come in for lunch and go right back outside.”

“We don’t have to have a rink,” Jack said.

“No, we don’t have to,” Bitty said. “But when you talk about when you were little, you talk about skating with your dad all the time. And you get this little smile, like just thinking about it makes you happy.”

“Maybe our kids won’t even like skating,” Jack said.

“But you still will,” Bitty said. “So if you don’t absolutely love this place already, let’s move on.”

“But the kitchen is so great,” Jack said. “Did you see the breakfast bar?”

“We can remodel the kitchen in another house if we want to,” Bitty said. “But we can’t magically make more property here. Do you have other places to visit?”

“There’s a list,” Jack said.

From Cranston they headed south to Barrington, where Jack had seen a few open houses advertised. One house was too small (despite four bedrooms and three bathrooms) and one Bitty ruled out immediately (“I know it’s on the water and it’s beautiful, but $1.35 million for a place with no air conditioning?”). Bitty made the same complaint about an 1894 six-bedroom house on the market for just under a million, but turned down a house a hundred years newer (with central air) because it was part of a suburban development and didn’t have a big enough yard oir mature trees.

When they got home, Bitty started pulling out ingredients for a strawberry rhubarb pie.

“I thought you had some new recipes to try,” Jack said.

“I do,” Bitty said. “But right now seems like a good time for comfort food.”

“Can we make a list of what we want in a house?” Jack said. “What’s important and what’s negotiable?”

“We need space,” Bitty said. “A big yard for a rink. Even a smallish rink will take a lot of space.”

Jack wrote that down.

“It might be better to look further out, then,” he said.

“I’d also like to be close to the city,” Bitty said. “But maybe that’s not as important. I don’t want to build new, though. Not for a first house. My Aunt Judy and Uncle Bob built themselves a brand new home on a lake in Georgia, put in a home theater sound system to watch movies in the great room, and it turned out you could hear it better in the bedrooms upstairs than sitting in front of the TV. I don’t want to make mistakes like that.”

They could probably find and hire a better architect -- and a sound engineer, if it came to designing a home theater -- than Bitty’s Aunt Judy, but Jack kept that thought to himself. If Bitty didn’t want to supervise the construction of a house, Jack wasn’t about to make him, and there was no way Jack could do it during the season.

“It needs to have a good kitchen,” Jack said instead. “I mean, we can get new appliances and do some remodeling, but there has to be enough space for you to work and for us to eat.”

“For you to distract me, you mean,” Bitty said, but he looked fond, and didn’t object, so Jack added it to the list.

“Good schools,” Jack said. “A patio or deck, or at least room for one, and space for a decent gym. And mature trees.”

Bitty nodded at all of that, then said, “I think maybe we should set a budget, then you can talk to Shelby about how we pay for it? And who to work with as a buyer’s agent?”

“You thought two and a half million was too much,” Jack said.

“Unless the house cleans itself and shovels its own snow in the winter,” Bitty said.

“A million and a half?” Jack said. “As a target?”

Bitty shook his head like he was exasperated, but then he grinned.

“It’s your money,” he said.

“No, it’s our money,” Jack said.

The next day, while Bitty was on calls about the next cookbook, Jack called Shelby.

“Bitty and I want to buy a house,” he said. “But we need help.”

“Okay,” Shelby said. “Help how?”

“Help with finding an agent, knowing what questions to ask, how to do the money part of it,” Jack said. “I mean, I think we can afford most places, but I don’t know the mechanics of it.”

“We can help with that,” Shelby said. “Let me make some calls and set you up with a buyer’s agent. They can help with the search, and getting a home inspection and all that. And I’ll get the financial team together to run some numbers. It might make more sense, tax-wise, to get a mortgage, or you might find a seller who will give you a discount for cash. Do you have an idea about the budget you’re looking at?”

“Well, Bits and I went out to a few open houses yesterday,” Jack said.

“You did?” Shelby said. “Oh, my gosh. The agents must have been falling all over themselves. If they recognized you.”

“Yeah, well,” Jack shrugged. Maybe that was why the agents followed them around so much.

“The most expensive place was listed at $2.35 mil,” Jack said. “I thought it was pretty nice, but Bitty thought it was too much.”

“Too much money? Too much house?” Shelby asked. “Do you remember the address?”

“Yeah,” Jack said, and read the address off his phone. “Too much money, yes, and he said it was a bit too grand. But he also thought the property was too small. He seems to think we need room to put in an outdoor rink in the winter.”

“He wants a rink?”

“He thinks I want a rink.”

“Do you?” Shelby asked.

“It would be nice,” Jack said. “I guess. Especially if we ever have kids. But it’s not a deal-breaker for me.”

“What is it that you want?”

“I want Bits to have a great kitchen,” Jack said. “But Bitty pointed out that we can remodel the kitchen, as long as there’s room.”

“Sounds like you two spent some time talking about this,” Shelby said.

“Yeah,” Jack said.

“Okay, let me look for a buyer’s agent,” she said. “I can have some names to you tomorrow. And Jack, congratulations. I know this is a big step.”

Things moved quickly after that. Shelby provided a list of possible agents, along with her recommendation, whom Bitty and Jack agreed to hire. By the Thursday of that week, they had a meeting with the agent, Melissa Field.

“It was so nice of you to come to us,” Bitty said, seating Melissa in the dining room. “Can I get you coffee? Tea? Pie?”

“Shelby said your pie is not to be missed,” Melissa said. “So yes, please. Coffee, too, if it’s not any trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” Bitty said. “I have a traditional cherry pie and a ginger peach.”

“Ooh, ginger peach,” Melissa said.

“Good choice.”

Jack took a seat as Bitty disappeared into the kitchen.

“Did I pick right?” Melissa asked.

“They’re both great,” Jack said. “Though I think I prefer the cherry, so yeah, perfect choice. More cherry for me.”

“Can you tell me about why you decided now was the time to buy a house?” Melissa asked.

“It’s not just my decision,” Jack said. “It’s Bitty’s too. But I am turning 30 next week, and my contract will keep us here for at least the next few years, and it seemed like time to put down some roots.”

Melissa nodded.

“Do you want to wait for Eric to talk about what you’re looking for?” she asked.

“That would be best,” Jack said.

Bitty bustled in and out, first bringing coffee with cream and sugar, then tea for Jack, then three slices of pie: two ginger peach and a sliver of cherry for Jack.

Melissa took them through a very long checklist of what they wanted, what they didn’t want and what they just didn’t care about. Baseboard heat? Built in shelves? Gas fireplaces?

“But air conditioning is important,” Bitty said.

“Okay,” she said. “It’s a buyer’s market, especially just now with school about to start, and there are several properties for sale that might fit the bill. Let me send you information tomorrow and we can make maybe two or three appointments for the weekend. If we have to, we can do the same thing next week, and the week after, until you’re comfortable making a choice.”

“Sounds good,” Jack said.

On Saturday, Melissa had three appointments set up. The first was an 1890 Victorian in Warwick, with five bedrooms and three and half bathrooms and more than two acres of property.

It had been updated inside, Melissa said as she led the way inside, with central air and new plumbing and electrical systems.

Bitty let out a bark of laughter as soon as they entered the living room.

“Dog people, I guess?” he said, nodding at the oil portrait of the German shepherd over the fireplace.

But he wasn’t laughing at the open kitchen, or the laundry room/mud room/butler’s pantry, which had an extra fridge and stove. It was also well within the budget at $1.2 million.

Next was a house in North Smithfield with four bedrooms and six bathrooms, which seemed disproportionate to Jack. But the kitchen was spacious, as was the yard, and it already had a play set, which made Jack imagine what it would be like with kids. Listed at just over a million dollars, the price was no obstacle,but it didn’t have as much character as the first one.

“I’ve saved the best for last,” Melissa said, driving them toward Lincoln. “This is the biggest of the three, with two separate in-law units, an adjoining workshop or studio that you can use for a gym, an in-ground pool, six-car garage and more than four acres.”

The main house, whose oldest parts dated to 1812, was gorgeous, with a stone exterior and clean lines. But the adjoining garage and workshop didn’t seem to match the aesthetic. Then again, what did Jack know about aesthetics?

Bitty was taken with the open land, Jack could see.

The inside of the house was also good, until Jack saw the kitchen. How could a six-bedroom house have a galley-style kitchen?

Jack knew Bitty was disappointed in the kitchen as well, but he didn’t say so in front of Melissa.

“Any thoughts?” Melissa asked.

“Let us talk for a while,” Jack said. “Can I call you this evening? Or tomorrow. I know it’s Sunday.”

“Either is fine,” Melissa said, dropping them at the condo building.

“Come on, bud,” Jack said, heading for Bitty’s favorite diner instead of going upstairs. “Let’s talk about it over food.”

They settled into the booth, ordered and waited for their meals before getting down to business.

“It has to be the last one,” Bitty said, after inhaling half of his grilled cheese. “It’s the biggest, and has the most property, and it has plenty of room for people to stay, and for a gym, too. And it wasn’t any more expensive. Less than the one in Warwick.”

“But the kitchen is small,” Jack said, pulling the toothpick out of his turkey club.

“Maybe we could add on?” Bitty said. “Or not. The appliances are good. I liked the double oven.”

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “It’s in the old part of the house, so I’m not sure an addition would work. What about the one in Smithfield?”

“It ticked all the boxes” Bitty acknowledged. “But didn’t love it. I can’t really say why. Too boxy, maybe?

Jack nodded in acknowledgement, chewed and swallowed. “That leaves the one in Warwick.”

“With Rin Tin Tin?” Bitty said.

“We don’t have to keep the portrait,” Jack said.

“It only had a one-car, detached garage,” Bitty said.

“That would probably be easier to expand than the kitchen,” Jack said.

“Or not,” Bitty said. “You don’t know that.”

“I didn’t really like that whole six-car garage thing in Lincoln,” Jack said. “It’s basically attached to the house, but it’s like a big shed. We could do so much better expanding the garage on the one in Warwick. And it has a view of the water.”

“From the third floor,” Bitty said. “How’re those knees holding up, Mr. NHL Player?”

“Fine,” Jack said, a little stiffly. “What do you have against the house in Warwick? You liked it when we saw it, especially the butler’s pantry and laundry room.”

“Nothing,” Bitty said. “Well, besides the dog picture. Could you imagine that room with Lardo’s painting? But we would need a bigger garage, at the very least.”

“I really don’t think that would be a problem,” Jack said. “It’s old, but it’s not landmarked or anything and there’s plenty of room. And it’s not far from Marty and his family. Why are you so set on the one in Lincoln?”

“It seems like a better deal,” Bitty said. “More space -- bigger lot, bigger house, more bedrooms -- for less money. You shouldn’t turn that down just so I have a bigger kitchen to mess up.”

Jack dragged the last of Bitty’s fries through a dollop of mayonnaise.

“I still don’t understand how you like that,” Bitty said.

“It reminds me of home,” Jack said. “And that’s what it is about the kitchen. For me, home is the place where I sit and watch you bake, and eat what you cook, and listen to you go on about butter and shortening and a thousand other things. If I can’t do that, the house won’t be home, no matter how many cars will fit in the garage.

“I want that, and if we do end up with kids, I want there to be room for them to sit in the kitchen and have a snack after school, and do their homework, and talk to us. Remember the way everyone gravitated to the kitchen in the Haus? It wasn’t like that before you got there, but I want it to be like that.”

“So you like the million-dollar house in Warwick because it has the potential to be more like the falling-down frat house we lived in in college?”

“Yes,” Jack said.

“Then let’s buy that one,” Bitty said.

“You’re sure you don’t want to see more?” Jack said.

“Do you?” Bitty said. “I do like that house, and I loved the view from the kitchen. As long as it passes the inspection and all that.”

“Then let’s do it,” Jack said. “I’ll call Melissa when we get home.”

On Monday, Jack woke up to a bouncy Bitty who was already tying his running shoes.

“Coming with, bud?”

“Yep,” Bitty said. “It’s your birthday. And I intend to follow you into the shower when we get back. Fair warning.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

Bitty laughed, then said, “You have to pick up your parents after lunch, so we have to take advantage of our opportunities.”

The run was fine, the shower was better, and the post-shower romp in the bed was best of all.

“Is it weird that I’m thinking about how this is the last birthday we’ll celebrate here?” Bitty said, snuggling up to Jack afterwards. “We’ve had some good ones.”

“This is already a good one,” Jack said. “At least from my point of view.”

“Hush. I have to get up to start getting things ready. Your parents land in two hours, so you don’t have that much time either, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack had groaned and stood up, ready for another shower, when his phone rang.

“Jack? This is Melissa. I have good news,” she said. “The owners accepted your offer, at least verbally. Well, of course they did. You offered what they were asking. But I’m going to work with Shelby to draw up a contract and we should be looking at closing before your season starts.”

“Wow,” Jack said. “That’s great.”

He looked around the bedroom with a sudden rush of nostalgia. The new bedroom in the new house would be good too, he told himself.

“What is it?” Bitty said, rubbing at his hair with a towel as he came out of the bathroom. “Everything okay?”

“They accepted our offer,” Jack said. “They’ll draw up the contract and we can close in a few weeks.”

“That is great,” Bitty said. “Even if the change is … a little disconcerting?”

“It’ll be fine,” Jack said. “We’ll do it together.”

That evening, after steaks and portobello mushrooms were grilled, and the guests stuffed themselves with salads and homemade bread and three kinds of pie, Jack stood and tapped his wine glass.

“Everyone, I have an announcement,” he said.

“But he already married Bitty,” Tater whispered to Shitty. “You think they have a baby coming?”

Shitty shrugged. “I dunno,” he said.

Jack could hear every word because Tater’s whisper … wasn’t.

“Not a baby,” he said. “But we are putting down roots. Bits and I are buying a house. Our offer was accepted today.”

His parents hugged him, and Bitty pulled out his phone to show off pictures.

“Look at that portrait of the dog, Lardo,” Bitty said. “Can we commission something else to go there?”