“There you are.”
Tam had grown up knowing the importance of reading the pitch of voices, the hidden meanings beneath them. A school principal could smile while she insulted your balls off. A boss could cut you to shreds when he said, “You understand,” and handed over your last check. The sound of his father’s voice had made him hate his own name. His mother had turned “I love you” into a curse.
He knew Jo’s voice better than anyone’s, better than his own. And as he let himself into the kitchen of the main house, he knew his wife wasn’t so much glad to see him, as desperate.
He snapped a paper towel off the roll at the sink and made a go at wiping the black grit off his hands. He figured the stuff was on his face too. The basement was the one area that hadn’t been tackled during renovations and had been shelved under “getting around to it.”
Jo had a serving tray that she clapped down onto the counter and started unloading dishes into the dishwasher. “Where’ve you been?” she asked.
“Looking at the furnace. Like you asked me to,” he prompted gently.
“Oh. Right.” More dishes clattered into the rack. “What’d it look like?”
“Not like my car,” he said with a sigh. “I have no idea what’s wrong with it.”
“There’s probably nothing wrong with it.” She scowled as she rinsed out a teacup. “Her Majesty Mrs. Mallory said it was ‘a bit nippy’ in her room last night. Snotty old…” She cut herself off with a deep exhale through her nostrils. “Tea and toast. She can’t have breakfast with everyone else. She has to…Breakfast!” She dropped the teacup in the sink and darted for the stove. When the door opened, smoke came billowing out, and that was when Tam placed the smell that dominated the kitchen: something burning.
“Oh, shit,” Jo said miserably as she donned oven mitts and pulled a smoking casserole dish out. “Shit, shit, shit.” She set whatever it was on the cutting board and fanned the smoke with a mitt.
Tam bit back a grin as he stepped closer and peered over her shoulder. Inside the dish was a smoking charred lump of nothing recognizable. “Um…what’s it supposed to be?”
“Coffee cake,” his wife said miserably. “I was gonna dribble icing over it and…” She sighed. “Once. Just once, I’d like to make something besides charcoal!”
Tam kissed the top of her head; her hair was glossy and smelled like coconut. “I didn’t marry you for your cooking.”
“Not helping,” she said, shrugging away from him. She clenched the edge of the counter, shut her eyes, took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said on an exhale. “I think there’s a thing of biscuit dough in the fridge.” Her eyes opened, a pure, liquid turquoise in the incoming sunlight. “Why,” she said as she turned to him, “can’t I just be even a little bit domestic?”
“You are domestic. You just can’t cook.” He made a reach for her that she knocked aside.
“You’re not getting grease on me,” she said, moving past him toward the fridge.
“Fair enough.” He was covered in the stuff. “I gotta take a shower. Then what do you need me to do?”
She chewed her lip as she turned around with the roll of dough in her hands. “Honestly…” Her brows were nearly touching over her little snip of a nose. “I have no idea.”
“You want a fire in the great room?” he suggested, and she nodded.
“That’d be good.” There was a loud thump from down the hall, followed by a rush of whispered child voices. “And maybe check on the kids while you’re at it.” She peeled the edge away from the roll and it opened with a pop…and then kept spiraling open until the dough plopped down onto the floor. “Are you kidding…” She cursed beneath her breath. “Alright, I’m calling in reinforcements.”
Ellie sounded three cups of coffee into her morning when she answered her cell phone. She was at Rosewood in fifteen minutes, a whole basket of breakfast fixings in her arms. “Trust me, you aren’t wrecking my Saturday,” she assured as she set her basket down and shrugged out of her pea coat. She was in jeans and a sweater that hugged her hourglass shape, her hair in voluminous chocolate waves. “Jordan and the girls made me breakfast.” She made a face that was half-smile, half-grimace. “The mess they made…needless to say, he offered to clean it up, and I wasn’t going to argue.” She pushed up her sleeves and put her hands on her hips. “What do you need?”
Jo grinned. “He made you breakfast?”
Ellie’s smile was small, secretive, and a touch smug. “Your brother’s got a romantic streak a mile wide.” She lowered her voice a notch. “Just don’t tell him I said so.”
Jo mimed zipping her lips shut. “Okay, so, what I need…is a miracle.” She gestured helplessly at her ruined coffee cake. “And it’s a freaking miracle I don’t have guests breathing down my neck yet.”
Delicately, Ellie set the charcoal cake aside and reached into the basket she’d brought. She came out with a covered cake dish. “It’s not technically breakfast, but it should go over better than” – she pointed to Jo’s pan with a tasteful, grimacing smile – “that. One crumb cake a la Pop of Paige.” The lid came off with a flourish, and with it came the warm, sweet smell of one of Paige’s creations. Heavenly as always. “And it’d take forever to make enough bacon, so here, it’s almost protein.” She pulled out a Saran-wrapped bowl. “Greek yogurt with berries.”
“My hero,” Jo said with a sigh, going for plates from the upper cabinets. “I swear: one of these days, I’ll be able to cook.”
Ellie chuckled. “It’s not that hard.”
“For me it is. I can catch a football, but when it comes to this pots and pans shit, I’m all thumbs.”
“Can you at least put it on the plate?” she asked teasingly.
“Yes,” Jo sighed. She spread out the china she’d pulled and began slicing cake. Somehow, she just knew she was doing even that wrong, but Ellie looked on with an almost motherly sense of approval. “How’d you get so good at all this anyway?”
“Good at what?”
“Being everyone’s mom.”
Ellie snorted. “My mom has the emotional stability of a toddler. On meth. Someone had to come out of that house knowing how to take care of things.”
Jo shook her head, smiling wryly as she cut cake. Her own mother had been textbook mom, and somehow none of the domesticity had rubbed off. “You could have ten kids, and not one hair out of place.” When she glanced up, she saw that Ellie had gone very still, frozen in the act of folding berries into the yogurt with a wooden spoon. “What?”
“Oh.” Ellie gave herself a little shake and resumed. “It’s nothing.”
“No, no.” Now that she really took stock, Ellie’s face looked tired, shadowy under her eyes and tense around her mouth. “Something’s up.”
Her sister-in-law gave her an almost-smile. “I’m fine, Jo, I swear.”
“You know, that’s what’s wrong with this family,” Jo said cheerly. “Everyone’s always ‘fine.’ Jess is fine, Tam is fine, Walt is fine, Delta is fine…you see where I’m going with this?”
“On the flip side, though,” Ellie said, “you could be one of those families with lots of secrets.”
“Well that could never work.” She pointed to herself. “Pesky little sister equals no secrets.” She sobered. “And since when does Jordan make anyone breakfast?”
Ellie sighed and glanced away. “I had a miscarriage,” she said, and Jo felt the breath get knocked out of her.
“A few weeks ago. Before the baby shower.”
“God,” Jo said. “I’m…I’m so sorry.”
She’d practiced this, Jo could tell, because Ellie put on a convincing brave face. “We weren’t trying – not after the trouble I had with the twins – but it just happened…I think we were both prepared for things to go badly. It wasn’t much of a shock.”
“But still…” Jo gave her a sideways hug. “I’m so sorry, El,” she repeated. “Do you guys need anything? Can I help?”
Ellie sighed. She clasped Jo’s hand where it rested against her shoulder. “Don’t mention it to anyone else, okay? Your mom would be so upset. Jordie and I just want to keep it quiet.”
Jo nodded. “And here I was bitching about not being able to cook.”
“It deserves bitching about. You really can’t cook.”
They shared a look, and a smile.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Ellie said, sidling away. “I don’t want to get teary about it anymore.”