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“There’s Elise, too.”

“She’s the retired librarian?” Carol asked.

“Yes.” I put aside the ChemoCap and cast on stitches for a new patch in an acrylic and wool blend, a sample one of the reps had given me. “I thought she was a bit of a prude when we first met, but I’ve changed my mind. I think she’s simply…self-contained. I got the impression she doesn’t have many friends.”

“Did you tell her about my Birthday Club?” Jacqueline asked. “She’s welcome to join.”

I should’ve guessed that my friend, the social butterfly, would be willing to draw Elise into her circle. “I don’t think she’s part of the country club set,” I protested.

“That doesn’t matter. It’s a good excuse to go out once a month and celebrate. And if nobody in the group has a birthday that month, we choose a celebrity or a famous writer. So in June, we toasted Judy Garland and Dorothy Sayers. We have a lot of fun.” She giggled like a schoolgirl, silly and joyous. Sometimes it was difficult to remember that this was the same stuffy socialite who’d walked in my door a year ago. I attributed the transformation to the fact that my friend had rediscovered her love for her husband and become close to her daughter-in-law.

“I’ll tell Elise,” I said, but I’d feel a little uncomfortable doing it. Elise was a difficult woman to read. She was guarded and didn’t share much about her life, as if she was afraid to let people know who she was. However, she brightened whenever she mentioned her daughter and grandchildren.

During the last class, she’d been even more withdrawn than usual. When I tried to get her to enter into the conversation, she’d smiled weakly and apologized for being out of sorts. She’d actually revealed something about herself that day. Her ex-husband was visiting, she told us, and had announced he was moving to the area. Elise didn’t appear pleased at the prospect of sharing her family with a man who’d been absent for most of his daughter’s life.

The bell chimed and because it was Friday, I half feared it might be Brad. I’d leave Margaret to deal with him; she’d been busy with customers all afternoon. She seemed to sense that I needed this break, this time surrounded by friends. I sighed with relief when I saw Elise. “I was just talking about you,” I said and greeted her warmly.

She looked shyly around the table. I introduced her, and Jacqueline was quick to move her knitting bag, clearing a space in the chair next to hers. “Lydia said you recently retired. I’d say it’s high time you joined the Birthday Club.” She paused. “When is your birthday?”

“January.” Elise seemed uncertain about Jacqueline’s invitation. “At my age, I don’t think it’s a good idea to make a fuss about getting older.”

Jacqueline smiled. “Are you kidding? Every new year is a reason to celebrate. You’ll love it, I promise. Our next meeting is Thursday lunch and I’ll come and get you. Life is meant to be lived, that’s what I say.”

“I—I won’t know anyone. And…what about the cost? How much is it?”

“You’ll know me,” Jacqueline insisted. “And your first lunch is my treat, since we missed your real birthday.” When Elise continued to object, Jacqueline spoke in a decisive tone the rest of us were familiar with. “You’re coming, understand? I won’t listen to a single argument.”

“I suppose that would be all right,” Elise said, but she didn’t sound confident that this would be a pleasant experience.

I was smiling, genuinely warmed by my friends. The bell chimed again and when I looked up there was Brad. Just as I’d feared…The happiness drained out of me but I need not have worried.

Margaret’s gaze went straight to me from across the room. “I’ll take care of this,” she muttered.

Alix frowned and leaned forward to whisper, “I can still have him hurt. I know people. You say the word, and it’s done.”

I still hadn’t decided whether or not she was joking, but I couldn’t keep my eyes away from Brad. I shook my head. He looked as miserable as I felt. “That won’t be necessary,” I assured Alix. He was hurting enough already. We both were.



Elise’s book club met at two o’clock on the second Monday of every month and she loved it. The group was sponsored by the Seattle Public Library, and Elise had promised herself she’d participate after she retired. She also planned to join Jacqueline’s Birthday Club at least once, and was determined to enjoy herself.

The July book discussion revolved around the book Girl In Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. It had been lively, and Elise left the meeting feeling invigorated. The group had brought a variety of perspectives to the novel, including some she hadn’t previously considered.

The bus dropped her off a half block from home. The house was quiet when she walked in and she tried to remember what Aurora had said about her plans.

The minute she walked in the door, Luke and John always demanded her attention. The silence this afternoon was disorienting.

“Aurora, I’m back, and it was the best meeting yet,” she called. “I—” She paused in midsentence when Maverick stepped out of the kitchen wearing an apron and wielding a tomato-smeared wooden spoon.

“Aurora and the boys are out for the afternoon,” he explained. “Last-minute plans.”

“Oh.” Her excitement evaporated quickly.

“I’m cooking,” he explained, although that was obvious. “Lasagna to be exact—it was always your favorite of my dishes.”

Elise imagined he’d dirtied every single pan and bowl. She remembered how he could wreak havoc in an orderly kitchen. “Does Aurora know about this?” she asked sternly. He expected her to comment on the fact that he was supposedly doing this for her benefit, but she wasn’t saying a word.

“Aurora suggested it.”

Elise wondered about that, but couldn’t very well argue with him.

“You will join me for dinner, won’t you?” he asked, smiling at her in a way that made refusing him difficult. “It’ll probably be just the two of us.”

Despite herself, she was tempted, but common sense overruled that brief thought. “Thank you, but no,” she returned stiffly. “I had a snack this afternoon at my book club.”

“What did you read?” he asked, delaying her in the hallway when he knew very well she wanted to escape.

“A book.”

He chuckled as though he found that amusing.

“I’d like to go to my room now, if you’d kindly move aside.”

“I’m just putting the lasagna in the oven. Dinner will be ready in an hour.”

“When will Aurora and the boys be back?” she asked, instead of arguing.

“She couldn’t say for sure. Eight o’clock, she figured. She’s meeting her friend—Susan?”

He made it a question, apparently unsure of the name.

“Susan Katz has been Aurora’s best friend nearly her entire life.” Her voice hummed with indignation. Had Maverick taken more than a casual interest in their daughter, he would’ve known that. “Susan has two little girls around the same age as Luke and John. Did they go to Lake Washington?” It was a favorite summertime activity for them.

“I think so.”

That told Elise her ex-husband was right—her daughter and grandsons wouldn’t be home until late. With busy schedules and complicated lives, it was difficult for Aurora and Susan to coordinate time together. They’d probably stop somewhere for dinner on the drive home.

“David’s out of town until Wednesday,” she murmured.

“I know,” he said. “It’s just you and me.”

“No,” she took delight in informing him. “It’s just you. I’m not hungry. I intend to spend the rest of the evening in my room. Apparently you weren’t listening.”

His smile faded. “No.” He sounded discouraged. “I guess I wasn’t.”

Elise almost felt sorry for him. She was relieved when he turned away and went back to the kitchen. Feeling guilty at having dampened his spirits—and feeling angry about feeling guilty—she continued down the long hallway to her sanctuary.

An hour later, Elise sat in front of her television, half watching the evening news. Her fingers moved nimbly as she worked on her charity knitting project. She’d knit fifteen patches for the Warm Up America blanket, plus a blanket for the Linus Project, and kept herself busy with that while she waited for the next sock-knitting class.

Binding off the patch, she was about to reach for the remote control when her stomach growled. Those snacks she’d mentioned—a few carrots and celery sticks from the veggie tray and a small piece of cheese—had long since disappeared. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was famished.

As if this message had somehow been telegraphed to Maverick, he chose that precise moment to knock at her bedroom door. Once she’d called out, he opened it.

“I was hoping I could get you to change your mind. It’s no fun eating alone.”

The scents emerging from the kitchen, fresh basil and oregano blended with the enticing aromas of garlic and tomatoes, were her undoing. “I suppose I could manage to eat a bit.” This was fair warning to keep food in her room for future emergencies, she told herself.

“You won’t be sorry,” Maverick promised gleefully. He led her into the dining room, and it was as if he’d planned this meal just for her. Fresh white daisies adorned the center of the table. There were two place settings, opposite each other, and he’d used Aurora’s loveliest china and crystal. He’d already poured the wine. A merlot, she suspected, remembering his preferences. Although it’d been years since they’d dined like this, she remembered his every like and dislike. Elise recalled, too, that Maverick had cooked for her the night he proposed. Not lasagna that time but linguine with a shrimp and crab cream sauce. Oh, this was ridiculous! Why was she still thinking about a meal she’d had decades ago?

Maverick pulled out the chair to seat her. “You were very confident, weren’t you?” she said stiffly, looking at her filled wineglass.

“I was more confident about the scent of my cooking.”

She didn’t want to be with him like this and yet she did—and it was more than the empty sensation in her stomach. Spending this kind of time with him was dangerous. Well, she knew that, but she was here now, and hungry, and she might as well have dinner.

Maverick brought a Caesar salad, redolent with garlic, into the dining room. When he was seated again, he lifted his wineglass. “I’d like to propose a toast,” he said.

“That isn’t necessary,” she said and heard the tremor in her voice. “This is thoughtful of you, but it’s dinner and nothing more. There’s no romance between us, and one meal isn’t going to resurrect long-dead feelings.”

Maverick arched his eyebrows. “Long-dead?”