Authors: Sherryl Woods
“I was never mad at either of you,” she told them. “I knew you were just the messengers.”
“And Elliott?” Dana Sue prodded.
“I still have plenty to discuss with my husband,” Karen said. “But at least now I think I can do it without throwing pots and pans or those nifty little dumbbells at the spa at him.”
“Word has it that Dana Sue was pretty good at turning pots and pans into weapons back in the day,” Erik commented, giving Dana Sue a taunting look.
“Only because Ronnie deserved it,” Dana Sue retorted, her tone unapologetic. “The man cheated on me. Fortunately he learned his lesson and I haven’t needed a cast-iron skillet for anything other than cooking since then.”
After a very tense afternoon, Karen suddenly chuckled. Impulsively, she crossed the room and hugged her boss. “Thank you for giving me my perspective back.”
“Glad to be of service,” Dana Sue said. “Now, if no one has any objections, let’s get these dinner preparations underway before our special of the night is grilled-cheese sandwiches.”
“On it,” Erik said at once. “Thoroughly decadent chocolate mud pie coming up.”
“And I’ll get started frying chicken,” Karen said, thankful that her relief would be here soon. “When Tina gets here, she can take over and I’ll finish up salads before I head home.”
At least here, she thought as she settled happily into her routine, peace and harmony once again reigned. Something told her, though, that it was just the calm before the storm.
lliott had spotted his wife outside of The Corner Spa talking with Frances. When she hadn’t come inside, he’d been surprised, but he’d been so busy with his packed schedule of private clients who were booked well into the evening that he hadn’t had time to consider why Karen might have come by, then left without speaking to him.
It was near closing time when Cal Maddox came in to pick up Maddie, who’d stayed late to deal with dreaded end-of-the-month paperwork. On his way to his wife’s office, Cal stopped to visit with Elliott.
“How’d things go with Karen earlier?” Cal asked.
Struck by Cal’s oddly sympathetic expression and his dire tone, Elliott frowned. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
Cal immediately looked chagrined. “Oh, man, first Erik sticks his foot in it, and now I’m doing the same thing,” Cal said. “Sorry. Forget I said anything.”
“Don’t stop now,” Elliott said. “Something tells me I’d better hear this.”
Cal didn’t look one bit happy about being the bearer of bad news. “Apparently Erik mentioned the gym to Karen today. She didn’t take it well. He called me to ask if I thought he should give you a heads-up. We agreed he probably should stay out of it, that the damage had been done.”
He gave Elliott a concerned look. “I gather you hadn’t told her.”
“Not a word,” Elliott admitted with growing regret. “Just how furious was she?”
“It was bad enough,” Cal admitted. “But it got worse. When she found out that Dana Sue knew as well, she stormed out of Sullivan’s to head over here. Obviously she wasn’t thrilled about being left out of the loop.”
Elliott sighed. “So that explains it,” he said. “I saw her outside talking to Frances and wondered what she was doing here, but then they left. She never came inside.”
Cal grinned. “If I were you, I’d send flowers to Frances. Obviously she managed to do what Erik and Dana Sue couldn’t. She calmed Karen down.”
“I don’t think I’ll count on that,” Elliott replied. He knew all too well that Karen’s sweet nature was deceptive. When her temper stirred, it tended to simmer, then reach a boil when he least expected it. “I suspect Frances only delayed the inevitable.”
Cal gave him a curious look. “I still can’t believe you hadn’t mentioned the gym venture to Karen. Is there some reason for that?”
“I haven’t had time to get into it with her,” Elliott said in frustration. “Apart from the fact that Karen and I barely see each other lately, there were a lot of issues the group of us had to consider. I wanted to be sure it was a go before I broached the subject with her. You know her history, Cal. Money’s a big deal to her, and risk scares her to death. I didn’t want her to panic for no reason.”
“So, you kept quiet to protect her?”
Elliott nodded ruefully. “It made sense to me at the time.”
Cal gave him an understanding look. “I get it, but a piece of advice? In this town, it never pays to keep secrets, because if even one other human being knows, sooner or later everyone will know. Remember how it went over with Dana Sue when she discovered Ronnie’s plans for the hardware store? Or how well Sarah took it when she figured out that Travis had big plans for a radio station and wanted her to be a part of that? These Sweet Magnolia women like to be in on things from the get-go. They don’t like to be blindsided.”
“Karen’s never really hung out with the Sweet Magnolias,” Elliott said, but he understood Cal’s point.
“She spends all day with Dana Sue and with Helen’s husband,” Cal reminded him. “She works out here and sees my wife all the time. Maybe she doesn’t go to margarita nights, but trust me, she’s a Sweet Magnolia. With women this tight, it’s an all-inclusive we’re-sticking-together mind-set.”
Elliott nodded. “I hear you. I guess I’d better get home and face the music. Something tells me this is going to cause one of those uncomfortable conversations about me following in my father’s macho footsteps. I’m afraid my sisters have been a little too chatty about my father’s my-way-or-the-highway approach to marriage. Ironically, every one of them married men just like him. I pride myself on not being a thing like my father, but after this little episode, something tells me I’m going to have a tough time selling Karen on that.”
Cal laughed. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Elliott said. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to double that order of flowers.”
* * *
When Elliott walked in with a huge bouquet of brightly colored, fragrant lilies, Karen knew someone had filled him in on what had happened earlier at Sullivan’s. And they said women were terrible gossips, she thought, with a rueful shake of her head. The men in this town—at least those married to Sweet Magnolias—were thick as thieves, and they all had big mouths. She and Elliott might be on the periphery of that group, but the effect spilled over.
“Who told you?” she inquired, even as she drew in the sweet scent of the flowers, then found an old florist’s vase for them. She had quite a few, thanks to Elliott’s frequent and thoughtful gifts. She was pretty sure he had the local florist on speed dial. Most of the time, though, flowers weren’t meant to get him out of a jam. He was just a considerate guy who excelled at the impulsive, romantic gesture.
He gave her an innocent look. “Told me what?”
“That I flipped out earlier? Did Erik call to warn you before I even got over to the spa?”
“Erik didn’t call.” He chuckled. “At least he didn’t call me. He called Cal to see if he
warn me. They agreed he should stay out of it.”
“But then Cal came by to pick up Maddie and filled you in himself,” she guessed. “It figures.”
“The Serenity grapevine is a miracle,” he agreed. “It functions quite nicely even without resorting to modern technology. This may be the only town in the country not addicted to text messaging.” He crossed the kitchen to stand close, his hands on her waist, his breath warm against her cheek. “So, exactly how much hot water am I in?” he whispered in her ear.
She wasn’t crazy about the amusement threading through his voice, even as he asked what should have been a very serious question.
“Enough,” she told him.
Sadly, she wasn’t entirely oblivious to his tactic. Elliott could seduce her in less time than it took to call for pizza, which she’d done just before his arrival. He now seemed intent on nuzzling her neck, which was usually just a prelude to more fascinating foreplay. She frowned at him before he succeeded. “You are not going to distract me, so stop that this minute.”
“Stop what?” he inquired, his chocolate espresso eyes once more filled with an attempt at innocence she wasn’t buying. “I’m just saying hello to my beautiful wife after a long day.”
“No, you’re not,” she chided. “You’re hoping to coax me out of being mad at you because you know perfectly well if you can manage to get me into bed, I’ll completely forget what I’m mad about.” She regarded him intently. “Not this time, Elliott. I mean it.”
He sighed and backed up a step, obviously disappointed but accepting her decision that seduction was off the table for the moment. “Where are the kids?”
“They’re not here to save your hide, either. Your mom is keeping them at her house for enchiladas.”
His expression immediately brightened. “Mom made enchiladas? We should go over there.”
“Not on your life. She’ll save any leftovers for you,” Karen said. “You and I are having pizza and salad and a very long talk. Depending on how that goes, we’ll decide if you’re picking the kids up tonight or staying over there with them.”
For the first time, he seemed to really get just how upset she was. An expression of alarm crossed his face.
“Just because I forgot to mention the whole gym thing to you?”
She frowned at his characterization. “You didn’t ‘forget’ to mention anything, Elliott,” she said quietly, annoyed by the tears that immediately sprang to her eyes. She turned away, hoping he wouldn’t see just how emotional she was. She wanted so badly to remain calm and cool so they could discuss this rationally without her dragging all her baggage into the discussion.
Pretending to focus on the salad dressing she’d been making when he’d arrived, she said, “You deliberately chose not to discuss it with me because you didn’t think my opinion mattered or you were afraid I’d try to veto the idea.”
“That’s not how it was,” he protested.
“It’s exactly how it was.” She turned and faced him. She gave up on fighting the tears and allowed them to flow unchecked. “How are we supposed to make our marriage work, Elliott, if we don’t talk about something that’s going to change our lives? From what little I know, even I can see that this gym is a big deal. You’re obviously right at the center of it. Do you have any idea how much it hurt that so many other people already knew about it and I knew nothing?”
“I’m sorry,” he said at once. “I really am. It’s an incredible opportunity, Karen. I’d never be able to do something like this totally on my own. I was trying to work it through in my head, figure out if we could really make it happen.”
“And you didn’t consider that poor brainless me might have any thoughts about that?”
He looked genuinely shocked by her bitter words. “Don’t be crazy,
You know how much your opinion matters. You’re everything to me.”
His use of the endearment touched her heart as always. “I thought I was,” she said softly, brushing impatiently at the tears she couldn’t seem to stop.
“Ah, don’t cry,” he pleaded, pulling her into his arms. “Please, don’t cry. You know it tears me up inside, especially when I’m the one at fault.”
After holding herself stiff for a moment, Karen sighed and allowed herself to relax. This caring, adoring side of Elliott was the one she’d fallen in love with. That’s why it was all the more shattering when he did something thoughtless like leaving her totally out of the loop on this decision.
“Can I tell you about it now?” he pleaded. “Will you listen and keep an open mind?”
She nodded slowly, not letting go of him. “I can do that.” Then she lifted her head and held his gaze. “But this kind of thing can’t keep happening, Elliott. When it comes to the big things—or even the littlest ones that affect our family—we decide together. That’s what we agreed. Otherwise we’re doomed.”
“I know you’re right. I promise to be more considerate,” he assured her. “I thought I was saving you from worrying unnecessarily about something that might not even be feasible. I guess I thought I had more time to work out the details.”
She gave him a wry look. “In Serenity?”
He laughed. “Yeah, that’s what Cal said. The truth is, though, that we’ve only been talking about this for a few weeks now. At first it was nothing more than an idea that a couple of the guys tossed out over beers one night after we played basketball. I wasn’t even sure it would go anywhere. There was no reason to mention it.”
“But it’s gone way beyond the talking stages now, hasn’t it? And still you said nothing,” she said, seeing the excitement in his eyes die and hating that she was putting a damper on his enthusiasm. What else could she do, though? There were serious questions that needed answers.
“True. Tom McDonald’s run some numbers. Ronnie Sullivan’s looked at a few pieces of property.”