He arrived a full hour before her guests were due, carrying a huge, perfect poinsettia for the centerpiece.
He handed it to her almost as if he was grateful to be rid of it.
“How lovely,” she said delightedly. “Thank you.”
She put the poinsettia on the table and stepped back to examine it.
“I love it, Simon.” Rising onto the tips of her toes, she kissed his cheek.
He was frowning when she stepped back. “That was inappropriate,” he said disapprovingly.
She didn’t point out that he’d kissed her a few weeks ago. But to prove how wrong he was, she kissed his cheek a second time.
However, when she started to move away, Simon clasped her by the shoulders and pulled her into his embrace. Then he lowered his mouth to hers. Before she could account for her response, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
They both seemed to realize at precisely the same moment what they’d done. They leaped apart; Simon shoved his hands in his pockets, while Cassie turned around in an effort to regain her composure.
As they faced each other again, Cassie made a sweeping gesture toward the table, hoping to bring some levity to the situation. “Well, what do you think?” she asked.
He nodded. “You’ve done a wonderful job.”
“Would you like to see the turkey?” she asked.
“If you wish.”
“I do. You’re the one who told me I had to do this…and in retrospect I’m glad you did.” She led him into the kitchen, grabbed one of her oven mitts and opened the door. She basted the turkey and noted with pride how crisp and brown it looked. According to her calculations, it would be finished in forty minutes. Simon could remove it from the oven and it would sit for an additional fifteen minutes before being carved.
“Very nice,” he said, when she closed the oven door. “Smells delicious, too.”
“Have I surprised you?” she asked and knew she had, which was what she’d hoped.
He smiled. “I admit that you’re one surprise after another.” Which was exactly the thought she’d so recently had about him….
She managed to restrain herself from dancing a small, gleeful jig.
She poured Simon a glass of eggnog while they waited for the rest of her company. “Store-bought,” she confessed as she joined him in the living room. They sat on opposite ends of the sofa.
That wasn’t the only similarity to the way Shawn and Angie had behaved the previous day. Like her brother and her friend, Simon and Cassie hardly looked at each other. Neither seemed inclined toward conversation, either.
“I was thinking…” Cassie began.
“It seems to me…” Simon said.
They both stopped, then Simon gestured toward her to speak.
“No, you first,” she insisted.
“Please,” he said.
Cassie didn’t get a chance because the doorbell rang just then. Eager to break the unexplained tension between them, she hurried to answer. As she might have guessed, Mrs. Mullinex arrived first. She stood in the hallway dressed in her finest. For the first time in Cassie’s memory, her hair wasn’t in curlers. In fact, this was the first time she’d seen her neighbor’s hair, period. It was…curly.
“This is so nice of you,” the older woman chirped. Her eyes flew instantly to Simon and widened with womanly appreciation.
“This is…” Cassie wasn’t sure how to introduce him. “Simon. My friend. Simon Dodson, Mrs. Mullinex.”
“How do you do?” her neighbor cooed sweetly. “Please call me Phyllis.”
“Phyllis,” Cassie repeated. She’d lived in the building for three years and hadn’t been aware of Mrs. Mullinex’s first name, which didn’t appear on the mailbox, not even as an initial. Her neighbor had never seen fit to share it with Cassie.
“I didn’t realize Cassie had a male friend,” Mrs. Mullinex said ever so coyly. “She is a sly one.”
Cassie excused herself and disappeared inside the kitchen while she prepared the hors d’oeuvres. She’d leave Simon to fend for himself. When she heard the two of them chatting amicably, Cassie sighed. Simon possessed a few social graces, after all—but none that he was willing to display for her benefit.
Mr. Oliver showed up next. “The Seahawks game starts at four. This isn’t going to take longer than that, is it?” he asked as he barreled past her and into the condo. He looked around and when he saw Phyllis Mullinex, a frown darkened his face.
“Mr. Oliver,” Mrs. Mullinex greeted him stiffly.
They glared at each other like alley cats with hackles raised, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
“So…you two know each other,” Cassie commented, watching them carefully.
“No,” said Mrs. Mullinex.
“Oh, yes, we know each other very well,” Mr. Oliver countered. “Would you mind if I turned the TV on?” he asked as he claimed the most comfortable chair. Not waiting for a response, he reached for the remote, leaned forward and pressed the on button. The television screen lit up and he immediately found the station he wanted. It featured another football game—not the Seahawks.
“I’d like to introduce my friend Dr. Simon Dodson,” Cassie said, speaking loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the sports announcer.
Mr. Oliver acknowledged Simon with a disinterested nod of his head.
Her doorbell rang again. Grateful for an excuse to escape, Cassie rushed forward to answer. Bob, the rap aficionado from next door, stood on the other side. He’d apparently gone to some effort with his appearance; he’d greased his graying hair back from his forehead and donned a fresh pair of jeans and a sweater. He grinned when he saw her and handed her a lone rose.
“Welcome,” Cassie said and brought him into the room.
When he saw the others, Bob’s face fell. “You didn’t say there’d be anyone else here,” he said.
“Oh…sorry. I assumed you knew.”
“So, dinner isn’t just for the two of us?”
“Ah…no. I’m sure you’ve met Mrs. Mullinex and Mr. Oliver,” Cassie said, motioning toward her guests.
“No, and I don’t particularly care to,” he grumbled.
“This is my friend Dr. Simon Dodson.”
Bob’s frown deepened. “You have a…friend?”
“Well, yes, sort of.” The last thing she needed was for Bob to think she was interested in his attentions. If avoiding that trap meant stretching the truth, then so be it.
The oven timer went off, and Cassie took the opportunity to leave and close the kitchen door behind her. After all her hard work, this meal was going to be a disaster. None of these people liked one another.
Simon followed her into the kitchen. “Should the turkey come out yet?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said distractedly as he slipped his hands into her Santa-face oven mitts.
“Simon,” she pleaded. “What are we going to do?”
“Can’t you see?” she cried. “Mrs. Mullinex and Mr. Oliver can barely stand to look at each other, and Bob thought this dinner was going to be a private affair between him and me.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said soothingly.
Cassie sincerely doubted that.
Simon lifted the turkey out of the oven and set it on top of the stove.
Cassie thanked him. “According to my cookbook, the turkey should sit for no less than fifteen minutes before being carved.”
“Do you need help with anything else?”
“No.” She’d seen to everything before the guests were due. “I just have to get the food into the serving dishes.”
Bowls lined the counter. Cassie was pleased with her organizational abilities. The potatoes were cooked and ready to be mashed. Green beans simmered on the stovetop. She drained off the liquid, added the melted butter and almonds and placed them in the bowl she’d chosen.
Simon returned to the living room with the others.
Then, picking up the bowl in which she planned to put the stuffing, she noticed something wrong. For a moment, all Cassie could do was stare at her hand.
No! Oh, dear. Now what?
Putting down the bowl, she opened the door slightly and peered out of the kitchen. “Simon,” she called in a deceptively casual voice. “Would you come in here for a minute?”
He gave her an odd look but did as she requested.
The instant he set foot in the kitchen, she took his arms and pulled him all the way in. “Houston, we have a problem,” she said in an urgent whisper.
“What kind of problem?”
“A very big one.” Splaying her fingers, she held out her hand. “My ring is missing.”
“Yes, my ring.”
He seemed unconcerned. “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. Can’t you look for it later?”
“And why not?” he asked.
“Because the last time I saw it, I was stuffing the turkey.”
“In other words…”
“Yes. In other words it’s inside the bird.”
“No, but where else would it be?”
Simon rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
“What am I going to do?” A dozen scenarios played in her mind, none of them the least bit amusing. If someone bit into it and broke a tooth…“I’ll be sued!” she said hoarsely, covering her eyes. “Someone might choke on it. My neighbors don’t deserve to die, even if my newspapers do turn up missing now and then.”
“Dish the stuffing into the bowl. You might find it.”
“And don’t panic.”
“Easy for you to say,” she muttered as she transferred stuffing into the bowl, inspecting each spoonful closely.
“Mrs. Mullinex is a sweet lady,” he was saying. “I don’t know why you think she’d want to cause you any trouble.”
“And Mr. Oliver?”
“He probably wouldn’t even notice if he bit into the ring, especially if you left the football game on.”
“He’d assume you were proposing marriage.”
“Oh, Cassie, I just—”
Mrs. Mullinex stuck her head into the kitchen. “Anything I can do, dear?”
“Ah, no, thanks. Everything’s fine,” Cassie assured her.
“Simon, come back and sit with me,” the older woman wheedled.
Simon turned away from the counter and offered Mrs. Mullinex his arm, then threw Cassie a look that told her she was on her own.
A lot of help he’d been.
No sooner had Simon left than the door opened again. This time it was Bob.
“So,” he said, leaning against the kitchen counter. “It’s just the two of us now.”
“Yes, well…” Cassie inserted the spoon inside the turkey to finish taking out the stuffing, but with Bob watching every move, she couldn’t make a huge production of plowing through it, searching for her ring.