“I’ve always loved stuffing.”
“Oh, me, too, but I’m not sure this turned out that well. I was thinking I wouldn’t serve it.”
“Let me taste.” Before she could protest, he took her spoon and helped himself to a sample. After blowing on it, he popped it into his mouth. He smiled widely in approval. “This is fabulous! The best I’ve ever tasted.”
“You’re just being kind.”
“Not at all. Here, I’ll take it out for you.”
“No,” she cried and made an effort to stop him, but to no avail. Bob carried the bowl into the dining area.
When she followed with the salads, she saw that he’d taken a forkful to Mrs. Mullinex. “Cassie says the stuffing didn’t turn out to her liking. I disagree. What do you think?”
Mrs. Mullinex gave it a dainty taste. “Perfection,” she said. “You’re being modest, Cassie.”
Mr. Oliver stood. “What’s a turkey dinner without stuffing?”
“I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s diet,” Cassie said, searching for an excuse, any excuse, to get the stuffing off the table.
Mr. Oliver raised his hand. “I’m on a low-carb diet myself.”
“Then you won’t want any of the stuffing,” Cassie said thankfully.
“I thought I’d make an exception, this being Christmas and all.”
“Let’s all help,” Mrs. Mullinex suggested cheerfully. “We can bring out the rest of the serving dishes. We shouldn’t leave all the work to Cassie.”
Cassie sent a pleading glance in Simon’s direction. He, however, was looking elsewhere.
Simon says: A good matchmaker stays in the background, just like Santa’s little helper, then swoops in at the opportune moment. C assie couldn’t swallow a single bite as she carefully studied her guests enjoying their turkey with all the trimmings. Every time she saw a forkful of stuffing heading toward someone’s mouth she had to restrain herself from leaping to her feet and yanking it away.
Simon revealed no such concern. Mrs. Mullinex had him engaged in a lengthy conversation. Judging by the attention he paid her, anyone would think she was the wittiest, prettiest woman on the face of the earth. Every once in a while, the older woman released a girlish trill that sounded, to Cassie’s somewhat jaundiced ear, like a songbird strangling on too much seed.
“Mighty fine dinner,” Bob told Cassie, eyeing her with far more appreciation than his meal.
“Thank you.” She quickly looked away and offered Mr. Oliver more beans. More salad. More anything.
“Do you always cook like this?” Mr. Oliver asked. Before she could answer, he continued. “You probably have plenty of leftovers. No need to let ’em go to waste.”
“That’d be a shame,” Bob threw in. “I’d be happy to come over and help you finish them a few times a week.”
Cassie felt it was important to set him straight right away. “Since I work and there’s only me to cook for, I generally don’t go to this much trouble.” Generally—like never!
Bob glanced at Mr. Oliver, whose plate was heaped high with large portions of mashed potatoes and gravy. “I thought you said you were watching your weight?”
“Low-carb’s the only way to go.” He reached across the table for the butter, which he slathered on a roll.
“Cassie, dear,” Mrs. Mullinex said in the same high-pitched bird voice she’d used since meeting Simon. “It’s been such a long time since I made gravy. Does yours always have these lumps in it?”
Cassie stiffened her shoulders at the frightening thought that the ring might have slipped into the gravy. Then she realized her neighbor was denigrating her gravy-making skills, although she wasn’t sure why. Her gravy was flawless, and if there were any lumps, which there weren’t, it was a fluke. “No, I added them for your benefit,” she answered in an equally saccharine voice.
Simon’s gaze narrowed.
“Oh.” Mrs. Mullinex blinked as if gauging whether or not to be offended.
“I’m joking, Mrs. Mullinex,” Cassie said, feeling slightly guilty. “I apologize if there are lumps in the gravy.”
“You can put lumps in my gravy anytime you want,” Bob told her. He winked at her, then jiggled his eyebrows. Disgusting! The man was old enough to be her father.
“I believe I’ll have some more of that stuffing,” Simon said.
Cassie sprang from her chair and grabbed hold of the bowl. “I was going to take it back to the kitchen.”
“Gimme that when you’re finished,” Mr. Oliver said, grinning broadly.
“Ah…” Cassie looked helplessly at Simon, who gently pried the bowl from her hands. “I’m not sure there’s enough.”
“There’s plenty for everyone,” Simon said and took a huge spoonful before passing it across the table to Mr. Oliver. “Let me hand it around.”
“Doesn’t anyone want to save room for pie?” Cassie asked brightly. She described each one, highlighting the fine qualities of the apple, pumpkin and pecan fillings.
“I don’t know if I dare,” Mrs. Mullinex trilled. “One must watch one’s waistline.” She paused, gazing around as if waiting for someone to tell her she needn’t worry about such things.
Cassie volunteered in the hope that if her neighbor accepted the pie, she’d skip the extra stuffing, which, to her horror, was being passed around the table. “Why, Mrs. Mullinex, you have a very good figure.”
“Pleasingly plump,” Bob seconded.
The smile faded from the other woman’s face. “Plump?”
“Pleasingly plump,” Cassie said. “That’s another way of saying—”
“I’m fat,” Mrs. Mullinex cut in, frowning now.
“I like to be direct,” Mr. Oliver said, glaring at the older woman. “Plump is plump, no matter how you try to fancy it up.”
“Leave it to you to insult me, Harry,” she snapped.
“You always were quick to take offense,” Mr. Oliver snapped back. “A man makes a simple comment and you jump all over him and ruin a perfectly fine friendship.”
“Ah…” Cassie raised her index finger, trying to get a comment in before the confrontation broke into a full-fledged argument.
“I don’t know how anyone could even imply that you’re overweight,” Simon said, pouring everyone a little more wine.
Cassie managed a smile at his smooth handling of what was rapidly becoming an awkward situation. It also gave her an opportunity to make off with the stuffing unobserved.
“I’ll put on a pot of coffee,” Cassie said, jumping up from the table. She grabbed the stuffing bowl and practically ran into the kitchen, convinced she was about to have a nervous breakdown. Once inside, she leaned against the wall and breathed deeply, wanting nothing more than this dinner to be over.
When she returned, Simon had collected the dinner plates. Cassie reached for the gravy boat and stared down at it. Lumps, indeed! She couldn’t find a single one!
Thankfully, after coffee and dessert, Cassie started to relax. Again Mrs. Mullinex damned her with faint praise regarding the pie, but by then Cassie didn’t care. Besides, she had to agree—the apples were unevenly sliced.
“Don’t you have anything good to say?” Mr. Oliver muttered. “I thought the pies were great. All of ’em.”
“Excellent meal,” Bob told her and tried to take her hand.
Cassie snatched it away before he had the chance. As far as she was concerned, the man should be arrested.
“I’ll have you know, Mr. Oliver, I’ve paid Cassie several compliments,” Mrs. Mullinex said righteously.
If that was the case, they’d flown right over Cassie’s head.
By the time she saw her last neighbor to the door, Cassie was exhausted. As soon as Bob left—with obvious reluctance—she collapsed into a chair.
“You look a bit out of sorts,” Simon commented.
“You think?” The man had mastered the art of understatement.
He grinned and sat on the sofa across from her. “Actually, the meal went well.”
“You have got to be kidding. It was a disaster!”
“You’re being too hard on yourself. You did an admirable job, and while it might not seem that your neighbors fully appreciated what you did, I believe they had an enjoyable afternoon.”
She gave him a weak smile. “I don’t know if I should be glad the ring didn’t show up or not.”
“Is it valuable?”
“Not really. I bought it in Hawaii a few years back. I hate to lose it, though.” She raised her shoulders in a shrug. “But if it hasn’t turned up by now, I doubt it ever will. For all I know, it might be in Mr. Oliver’s digestive system.”
“I’m sure it’s not.”
“What makes you say that?”
Reaching inside his suit pocket, Simon pulled out the ring, displaying it proudly between index finger and thumb. “Is this the ring you misplaced?”
Speechless, all Cassie could do was stare at him. Once the shock wore off, she lunged forward and grabbed the ring. “You’re telling me you found it?”
“On the kitchen counter. You must’ve taken it off and forgotten. I tried to get your attention in the kitchen and then at dinner but you ignored me.”
“I didn’t take it off.” Cassie would’ve remembered that.
“Then it must have fallen off before you stuffed the turkey.”
Cassie held the ring in one cupped hand, her relief overwhelming. Then, slowly, her suspicions started to rise. “Exactly when did you find this?”
“Just before Phyllis came into the kitchen. As I said, I tried to tell you but you were too flustered to notice.”
“Phyllis?” she echoed. “Mrs. Mullinex is now Phyllis to you?”
“She’s a delightful mature woman.”
“Hmm. Then again, she isn’t stealing your newspapers.”
“I suggest you purchase her a subscription for Christmas.”
“I’ll think about it,” Cassie muttered. Then, remembering the ring, she glared at him. “That was cruel and unusual punishment, letting me worry that someone was going to swallow this ring.”
“I tried to tell you I’d found it,” Simon said in his own defense. “Why else do you think I was passing the stuffing around?”
Well, there was that. “I’m too tired to argue with you.” She stretched her legs out and let her hands dangle at her sides. Unable to prevent it, she yawned.
Taking that as his cue to leave, Simon stood. “I’d better go.”
Cassie realized with a start that she wanted him to stay. “Don’t go yet,” she urged.
“Do you want help with the cleanup?”
“A drink or more coffee?”
She shook her head. “There’s a football game on,” she said.