“The boys and I will load the dishwasher,” Dave announced as he stood up half an hour later.
Matthew wore a horrified look. “Dad!” he burst out. “Don’t volunteer.”
“Dad!” Even Mark seemed appalled. “There must be a hundred thousand dishes.”
“Then I suggest we get started.”
Both boys groaned.
“Your mother and grandmother spent all day cooking this wonderful meal. It wouldn’t be right to expect them to wash the dishes, too.”
“What about Grandpa?” Mark asked.
“I’ll help,” her father said with a chuckle.
“No, you won’t, Al,” Dave insisted. “You sit back and relax. The boys and I can manage.”
“Dad, you can’t turn down help,” Mark told his father urgently.
“All right, Al, if you’re game, then by all means join us in the kitchen.”
Emily and her mother put away the leftovers, then relaxed in the living room, drinking tea while the men handled the cleaning up.
“Well,” Emily said, looking at her mother. “What do you think?” She didn’t need to elaborate.
Barbara frowned thoughtfully. After a moment she bit her lower lip. “He’s doing a good job of it.”
“Pretending,” her mother said. “I don’t know what’s going on with Dave, but I feel he’s definitely hiding something.”
The joy Emily had struggled so hard to maintain all that day immediately evaporated. “So you think—”
“No,” her mother said, cutting her off. “I can’t believe it’s another woman. Nevertheless, I’m fairly certain Dave’s keeping some kind of secret from you.”
Christie Levitt sat by herself at the bar in The Pink Poodle, her regular watering hole, and took a sip of her beer. She wasn’t good company tonight. The Friday after Thanksgiving was the biggest shopping day of the year. The retailers called it Black Friday; she did, too, but for different reasons.
Christie had been at her job at the Cedar Cove Wal-Mart before six that morning. It was now 7:00 p.m. She’d spent a long day standing at that cash register and she was tired, not to mention cranky. Larry, the bartender and owner, plus everyone around her, correctly gauged her mood and gave her a wide berth. Fine, she’d rather avoid everyone, including her sister, who was probably mad at her. Christie was a no-show at the big Thanksgiving feast Teri had made yesterday.
Generally Christie was the life of any party. Tonight, however, she had other things on her mind. Although it wasn’t a thing so much as a person.
Christie wasn’t sure why this man, with his refined and formal ways, intrigued her. But he did. Her heart seemed to speed up whenever she thought of him, which was far more often than she should.
The two of them had nothing in common. Nothing. James drove the limo for Christie’s sister and brother-in-law. Teri had sent James to pick her up any number of times, and they’d often chatted during the drive. Initially, their conversations had been stilted and, on her part, even hostile. That had begun to change. Then, one night, she’d found a red rose on the seat. Only later did she discover the rose was from James and not her sister.
Men didn’t give her flowers. She wasn’t that kind of woman and she hardly knew how to react when a man did something nice for her. James’s interest terrified her; Teri said it was because Christie didn’t know how to respond to a decent, hardworking man. She was more accustomed to losers, men who stole from her and smacked her around.
Even now she had no idea what had caused this brain malfunction when it came to men. Her genetic makeup must’ve gotten all messed up; it was the only reason Christie could figure. Either that, or a lifetime of bad examples—although Teri had broken the pattern when she met Bobby Polgar. In any event, Christie would meet a man, generally unemployed and down on his luck, which was all too frequently a permanent condition. Substance abuse, whether drugs, alcohol or both, always seemed to be involved as well. These guys would tell her their tales of woe: The world was against them, they’d been cheated by bosses and partners, cheated on by wives and girlfriends—an endless series of sad complaints that, somehow, all sounded the same.
Nonetheless, her heart would ache for them and before she knew how or why, Christie would end up taking responsibility and trying to make everything better. In no time, she’d be head over heels in love.
Talk about stupid, and yet she did it again and again. She wished she could meet someone like Bobby, someone who’d love and respect her the way Bobby loved and respected Teri.
Now Bobby’s driver was interested in Christie. In contrast to all the previous men in her life, James Wilbur was the perfect gentleman. In fact, his politeness was downright excessive. And calling her Miss Christie, as if she was—oh, she didn’t know what. Special? Hardly. It was just one of his affectations, she told herself grumpily. He irritated her so much that she’d insisted she didn’t want him driving her anymore. She had her own means of transportation, such as it was, but despite the bald tires and faulty transmission, she did not require a chauffeur.
Teri might be used to such exalted treatment, but Christie didn’t like it. Besides, James showing up at her apartment complex in that fancy car caused too much speculation among her neighbors. It embarrassed her.
James made her feel self-conscious, opening the door for her, helping her in and out of the limousine. She didn’t need assistance to get into a car or out of one, either. That was so ridiculous it was laughable.
And yet, she had to admit his intentions were good. There was a kindness about him…. Christie closed her eyes. She couldn’t bear to think of him in pain. He’d been hurt recently, beaten by a couple of thugs who’d attempted to kidnap her sister, only they got her friend Rachel Pendergast instead. And they got James.
It all had to do with a chess tournament and a rival player who’d wanted Bobby to throw the match. He hadn’t; he’d won through some complicated maneuver and in the end the other player had been arrested.
Christie hadn’t expected to like Bobby Polgar. And she hadn’t gotten along with her sister for years. They’d simply avoided each other. It was just better that way.
Then all of a sudden they were back to being friends…being sisters. Christie wasn’t sure who’d done the maturing—probably both of them. And she suspected Bobby’s influence had made Teri more confident, more tolerant and forgiving. Bobby had been a good friend to James, too—not that she knew much about their history.
She reached for her beer and sipped it, wishing she could stop thinking about James. He lingered in her mind and she couldn’t make him disappear, which flustered her. She’d demanded he leave her alone, and he had, which flustered her even more. No one had ever done what she’d asked before.
When she learned he was hurt, she’d hurried to him, but James no longer wanted anything to do with her. He’d made it plain that he didn’t want her company. Christie got the message. She left him a rose, the way he’d left her one, and slipped out of his living quarters, feeling lower than dirt.
“You need another beer?” Larry asked, filling a couple of glasses from the tap.
Christie shook her head. “No, thanks.” She quickly changed her mind. “On second thought, maybe I will.”
Larry nodded approvingly, then leaned against the bar and whispered, “You feeling down about something?”
She shrugged. “You could say that.”
Larry set a glass of cold beer on the counter. “If you want to talk about it, just say the word.”
Christie shook her head again. Her feelings for James confused her; she wouldn’t know what to tell Larry or anyone else. The person she needed to talk to was her sister. Maybe Teri would help her understand what was happening.
“Hey, look!” Kyle, a plumber and a regular at The Pink Poodle, called out. “That limousine’s parked here again.”
Christie instantly felt heat invade her face. James was parked outside, waiting for her.
A couple of men walked over to stare out the window.
“What’s a limousine doing here?” Bill asked. He worked at the shipyard and was another regular. Both men were divorced and preferred spending time at the Poodle to sitting alone in front of the TV. Christie understood that desire for a social outlet; it was one of the reasons she was a regular herself.
“I saw that car before,” Kyle commented.
“Who in here would ever need a fancy vehicle like that?” Bill asked, turning to look at Larry.
“We never found out.” Larry headed to the beer taps with two clean glasses. “The car just seems to show up now and then. No big deal.”
“Are you going to let him use your parking lot like that?” Christie asked, fearing the other regulars might connect her with the limousine. She’d never hear the end of it if they did.
“Sure, why not?” Kyle was the one who responded. “It brings a bit of class to the place, don’t you think?” He directed the question to the bartender.
Larry was too busy filling glasses to respond.
Christie finished her second beer. She usually drank three, but after two she’d begun to feel light-headed. A third, which normally didn’t faze her, might be too much. Time to call it quits. Besides, she was tired.
“You goin’ home?” Larry asked when she paid her bill.
“You need me to call you a cab?”
“No. I’m fine, thanks.”
“See ya,” he said.
Christie waved goodbye, pulled on her short wool jacket, then wrapped the scarf around her neck and set out to brave the elements. The wind had begun to rise, picking up the last few scattered leaves and sending them hither and yon. Christie noticed that the smell of snow hung in the air and while the schoolkids would love a snowfall, she could do without it.
Outside The Pink Poodle, she heaved a sigh of relief that James had apparently given up and left. He’d come here to talk to her. When she didn’t immediately appear, he’d gotten the message that she wasn’t interested, and that was okay with her. Moreover, she didn’t want anyone seeing the two of them together.
In spite of all that, she felt disappointed. She was still worried about him and hoped his condition had improved. But ever since the kidnapping he’d acted as if he didn’t want her around. Fine. She, too, could take a hint.
A hundred thoughts swirled frantically, like the autumn leaves at her feet, as she struggled against the wind and around to the side of the building, where she’d parked her car.
She’d recognize his voice anywhere. Peering into the darkness, she saw him. The limousine stood beside her dilapidated Ford and James was waiting for her there, out of sight of those inside the tavern.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded in a none-too-friendly voice. Her lack of welcome was part shock, part feigned anger.
“I came to check on you.”