Authors: Sherryl Woods
Elliott frowned. “Tentative, how?”
“I’m not sure I can explain it. Even though she’s been to the house before, she seemed a little uncertain about where things were. Didn’t you notice that? And just having you pick her up was a change. Usually she drives herself everywhere.”
“She told me she doesn’t like driving after dark anymore. A lot of people her age have vision problems at night. The streetlights and headlights bother them. And let’s face it, our neighborhood isn’t the easiest to navigate.”
“I suppose that’s all it is,” Karen said, then regarded him with a grin. “Enough doom and gloom and trying to anticipate something that’s in God’s hands. You and I are actually having a date night. How amazing is that?”
He gave her a slow once-over that had her blood stirring. “A date night, huh? Does that mean we get to park and make out before I take you home?”
She grinned at him. “Depends on how good this date is,” she said. “Do you still remember how to woo me?”
He winked. “I’ll definitely give it my best shot, especially with that payoff you hinted could be mine.” He reached for her hand, brought it to his lips even as he kept his eyes squarely on the road. After the kiss, he rested her hand on his thigh, covered by his hand. She felt the involuntary bunching of his muscle, the heat of his skin. It made her feel not only very feminine but powerful, knowing the effect she had on him.
After Elliott pulled into a parking space and cut the engine, he turned to her. His expression stern, he said, “Remember, no trying to figure out the secret ingredients or trying to sneak a peek into the kitchen. This is a date, not an undercover op to check out the competition.”
Karen chuckled. “I figured out all of Rosalina’s secret ingredients years ago. I don’t do any culinary spying here. I can just relax and enjoy my meal.”
“Ah, so it’s only in the restaurants in Charleston and Columbia I have to worry about what you’re up to when you claim to be going to the restroom,” he teased. “And whether you’re more interested in the food than in me.”
“I will always be more interested in you than anything,” she assured him, then added thoughtfully, “Unless somebody happens to have the perfect chocolate soufflé on the menu. I’d love to get a handle on that one.”
“Don’t let Erik ever hear you suggest that his isn’t perfect,” Elliott warned. “The man’s pastry skills are supposedly legendary, at least around South Carolina.”
“Pies, cakes, cobblers, I’ll give him all of those,” Karen said. “But making a soufflé is an art. And if you’ll think about it, Sullivan’s doesn’t have it on the menu, not ever. It’s because Erik knows his isn’t perfection. I’d love to surpass his skill at just one thing someday.”
“Google it,” Elliott suggested. “Find the finest chocolate soufflé maker in the state, and I’ll take you there.”
She regarded him with amazement. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“If it would make you happy, anything,” he said. “Don’t you know that by now?”
She smiled. Mostly she did, but it didn’t hurt being reminded of it every now and then.
* * *
Date night was a huge success all around. Karen felt revived after an entire evening with her husband with no crises. The kids pleaded with Frances to spend the night, so Karen found her a nightgown and settled her into the guest room. Frances promised to make them all French toast for breakfast, before sending everyone off on their busy days.
When Karen crawled out of bed in the morning, she found Frances in the kitchen, already dressed. She’d gathered the ingredients for French toast, something she’d made as a regular treat for the kids when they’d lived next door. Now, though, she was just standing there regarding everything with a vaguely perplexed expression.
“Frances?” Karen said softly, trying not to startle her. “Is everything okay?”
Frances jumped slightly, her expression filled with dismay. “Oh, my goodness, dear, you scared me. I didn’t hear you come in.”
Karen gave her a hug. “You looked a little distracted.”
“I suppose my mind wandered there for a minute. I’m perfectly fine.”
Though her words were reassuring, something still felt wrong to Karen. Trying to act casual, she slipped past her and started the coffee, then asked, “How about some help? I could whisk the eggs, cinnamon and milk together for you.”
Her offer seemed to trigger something for Frances. “Absolutely not,” she said briskly. “I’ve been making French toast for years. I can handle it.”
But despite her confident words, she seemed to hesitate as she went to work, her movements deliberate as if she was giving extra thought to what she was doing.
In the end, the French toast was perfect, and the kids gobbled it up with noisy exuberance. Elliott, who normally stuck to healthy egg whites or a high-fiber cereal in the morning, ate his share of the breakfast treat, as well.
As soon as the dishes were in the dishwasher, he offered to drop the kids at school. “Frances, why don’t I drop you off, too?”
“I’ll take her,” Karen said, wanting a little more time to see if she could pin down why things seemed so off with Frances on this visit. “I need my fair share of Frances’s attention before we let her get back to her normal routine.” She looked at her friend. “Is that okay? Are you in a rush? I’ll be ready in a half hour.”
“Actually I think I’d better go with Elliott,” Frances said, avoiding Karen’s gaze. “I have things to do this morning.”
Karen saw the lie for exactly what it was, an excuse to evade Karen’s questions.
“Sure, if that works better for you,” she told the older woman. “Next time maybe you can stay with us for the weekend. We’d all love that, wouldn’t we, Daisy and Mack?”
The enthusiastic chorus of responses from the kids brought a smile to Frances’s lips. “Then that’s exactly what we’ll do,” she said readily. “Mack, you can teach me how to play that video game you were telling me about. And, Daisy, I’m going to want to hear all about the father-daughter dance you’re going to with Elliott.”
Elliott urged them all to the door, then cast a last curious look back at Karen. “Everything okay?” he murmured.
“I’m honestly not sure,” she said, not even trying to hide her frustration. “You’d better go, though. We’ll talk about it later.”
He kissed her, his lips lingering against hers. “Great date,” he murmured against her mouth, a wicked sparkle in his eyes.
“Coming home was even better,” she replied, thinking of how tenderly he’d made love to her before they’d fallen asleep wrapped in each other’s arms.
He grinned. “Yeah, it was.” He cupped her chin in his hand, held her gaze until heat stirred. “I’ll call Adelia today about the dresses, or would you rather do it?”
She gave him a wry look. “Asking your sister for a favor? We’re not quite there yet. She still hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you,” he protested. “She’s just overly protective of me. I’ll call.”
Just then, someone in the car hit the horn to urge him to hurry. Elliott chuckled.
“I’d better go before one of the kids decides they’re old enough to take the car for a spin.”
“Not to worry. Frances would never allow them to get away with that,” Karen said, but even as she spoke the words, she wondered if they were true. She’d seen signs that Frances was changing, and, though she had no idea just what those signs might mean, she suspected it couldn’t be anything good.
* * *
Elliott called his older sister at midmorning during a break between his spinning class and his jazzercise class. She answered the phone with the same harried, impatient tone she’d had at his mother’s a few days earlier.
“Things sound less than cheerful at the Hernandez
this morning,” he said lightly. “What’s going on, Adelia?”
“Nothing,” she said, her tone clipped. “Why are you calling?”
“Actually I need a favor,” he said, “for Daisy.”
“Of course,” she said at once. Though she might not have totally welcomed Karen into the family, she had opened her arms and her heart to Daisy and Mack. “What does she need?”
“You know about the father-daughter dance at the school?”
“It’s all Selena’s talked about,” she said. “She says it’s lame, but she’s still begged her father to take her. Ernesto’s not thrilled, but he’s agreed. Now it’s up to me to keep him from backing out at the last minute and disappointing her. Are you taking Daisy?”
“She asked me to,” he said.
“I’m so glad. I was afraid she was going to feel left out.”
“The thing is, she needs a fancy dress. Our budget’s pretty tight these days.”
“And Selena has a whole closetful of dresses,” Adelia said, immediately understanding. “Why don’t I pick out a few and bring them by the spa? She can try them on at home tonight.”
“You could just take them over to Mama’s if that would be easier,” he suggested.
“And have Selena notice and make some thoughtless comment about Daisy getting her hand-me-downs? Bad idea.”
“Of course,” Elliott said, wishing he’d thought of the potential for hurt feelings. “I’ll be here the rest of the day. Drop them by, anytime. You can use the spa while you’re here, maybe have a workout.”
Silence greeted the offer. “What’s that supposed to mean? Are you suggesting I’ve put on a few pounds?”
Elliott had the sense he’d just inadvertently wandered into another of those minefields the females in his life were known for. “I would never suggest such a thing,” he said quickly. “Has Ernesto said something to you?” If so, he’d have a little chat with his brother-in-law about showing some respect to his wife. So what if she was carrying a little extra weight from those close-together pregnancies? Those were Ernesto’s babies she’d been carrying.
“Ernesto seems to have a lot of opinions lately,” Adelia said with rare bitterness. “I’ve stopped listening.”
he was smack in the middle of the minefield. No matter where he stepped, there was danger. “Want to talk about it?” he asked carefully.
“I do not,” she said tersely. “I’ll be by later with some dresses.”
Taking his cue from her, he let the matter drop. “Thanks.”
She hesitated, then said in a quieter tone, “It’s sweet, what you’re doing for Daisy.”
“It’s not sweet. I just don’t ever want her to miss out on things because her dad’s not around,” he said.
“And that’s sweet,” Adelia insisted again. “When are you and Karen going to have a child of your own?”
It was a question she, their sisters and their mother had been asking regularly practically since he and Karen had said, “I do.”
“When the time is right for us,” he said as he always did. Telling her simply to mind her own business was useless.
At least this answer seemed to silence her, though not for long, he realized, when she asked, “And when will that be?”