“You were giving Mom gray hairs before you were five. This catch is rusted. I’ll get my toolbox from the truck.”
She gave him a wry look. “Fred, Sally will be wondering what’s taking you so long.”
“This won’t take more than a minute.” His voice trailed into the hallway. She heard the front door open and Fred’s startled laugh. “Well, hey, look who’s here!”
“Hello, Frederick,” Janet Winslow said. “What little task has my daughter delegated to you this time?”
At the sound of her mothers’ voice, Polly set down the watering can. Shaking her head in resignation, she walked slowly into the hallway. Her mother stood at the entrance, holding a crockpot. Fred stood behind her, giving Polly a sympathetic smirk before continuing outside.
“Hello, dear,” her mother said, moving forward to kiss Polly’s cheek. The pleasantly familiar whiff of her gardenia scent filled Polly’s nostrils. “I didn’t realize how much vegetable stew I made this morning. Much too much for your father and me. So, I brought some for you.”
“Mom...” It was a halfhearted protest.
It was futile to try and reject her mother’s weekly offerings of food. They both knew that Janet Winslow thought her daughter didn’t eat well enough. The entire family considered Polly to be a poor cook, though the fault for her culinary shortcomings didn’t lie at Janet’s door, which Janet was quick to point out any time the topic was discussed. Her attempts to teach her whimsical daughter even the very basics of home economics had inevitably resulted in disaster. Polly’s thoughts would soar into flights of fancy, and casseroles would burn, white clothes would turn pink, and dishes would break. While Janet had pulled her hair in frustration, her husband and sons had found Polly amusing. She was their precious, precocious darling, ever entertaining them with her imaginative stories. They’d watched over her like papa bears and still did, often to the frustration of both mother and daughter.
Polly trailed her mother into the kitchen.
“You haven’t already made plans for dinner, have you?” Her mother asked as she set the crockpot on the counter.
Polly thought about the frozen pizza she’d picked up at the supermarket the day before. “No.”
“Oh? You have a date then?” There was a hopeful note in her mother’s voice.
“Yes. With Mr. Butler at seven o’clock.”
Her mother clucked her tongue against her teeth in exasperation. “Oh, Polly.”
“Don’t start, Mom.”
Janet Winslow raised her hands in defense. “All right, all right. The stew is still warm, so if you want it for dinner just heat it for fifteen or twenty minutes.” She opened the pantry door and poked her head inside, surveying its contents with a mother’s critical eye. “By the way, I bumped into Jim Bolton yesterday.”
“Since he lives right next door to you, I imagine that wasn’t too difficult.”
Her mother pulled her head out of the pantry. “What was that, dear?”
“You’re getting low on flour.” She closed the pantry door. “Jim is doing wonderful. He just got a promotion at work. Assistant Manager of New Accounts. And it came with a very generous salary increase.”
“Great. Maybe he can finally move out of his parents’ house.”
Either her mother didn’t hear the sarcasm in Polly’s voice, or she simply chose to ignore it. “He asked about you. He hasn’t seen you since we all went to the ballet last month.”
Polly folded her arms across her chest and propped one hip against the counter. “Ah, yes. The ballet. I wonder if Jimmy even remembers what it was about. He spent half the performance racking up the courage to put his arm across the back of my seat and the other half fondling my elbow.”
Fred poked his head in the kitchen. “Sounds like our Jimmy. He probably thought he was touching some other part of your anatomy. He must’ve been in hog heaven.”
“Frederick!” their mother gently scolded.
Fred laughed. “Come on, Mom. Jimmy Bolton is the last guy I’d consider allowing my little sister to marry.”
“Hold on there, mister,” Polly said sternly. “I don’t need your permission—”
“I just want her to be happy,” her mother pleaded, interrupting an age-old argument.
Fred raised his hands in surrender. “I need to fix that window latch. Sally will be wondering what’s keeping me.”
“Oh, now you worry. Thanks a lot, Fred.” Polly glowered at his back as he escaped to the living room. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for yet another round with her mother. “Mom, when will you understand that I’m not ready to get married? You seem to think that my life won’t really begin until I have a husband, and that’s just not fair. I’m not putting my life on pause while waiting for Mr. Right to come along. I’m trying really hard to fulfill my dream of being a published author, and nothing else can take precedence over that. I’m happy. Okay?”
“I just don’t think—”
The doorbell rang.
“Now what?” Polly seethed. She wanted to resolve this constant battle with her mother once and for all, and now here was one more distraction. She strode to the front door, barely managing not to scowl as she flung it open. Her voice was sharp with irritation. “Yes? Oh!”
Joe Matthews stood on her doorstep.
“Joe.” For some peculiar reason that she wouldn’t even try to analyze, she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. She merely stared at him, gape-mouthed. Ridiculously, one of the first thoughts that popped into her head was that this was the first time she’d seen him without a suit and tie. He was dressed in khakis and a crisply ironed pale green chambray shirt under a brown leather jacket. He wore tan loafers. A gold-rimmed watch gleamed at his wrist. Even without the suit, he remained as neat and as polished as if he’d just stepped from the pages of a preppy clothing catalogue. She dug her fingernails into the doorjamb to prevent herself from reaching out and mussing up his immaculately groomed hair.
“Who’s at the door, dear?” Her mother came up behind her, hovering.
Joe’s cheeks turned slightly ruddy. “I hope I’m not intruding,” he said with crisp politeness. “I happened to be in the area, and I thought I’d drop this off.”
Polly noticed the manila envelope in his hand. “Oh, my manuscript.” Her voice rose with excitement. “I didn’t think you’d finish it so soon!”
Her mother sidled up next to Polly. “Hello. I’m Janet Winslow, Polly’s mother. Why, you must be Ellie’s new teacher. I recognize you from her class photo.”
Joe looked from Janet to Polly with evident surprise. No need to wonder why, Polly mused. It was like comparing caviar to deviled eggs. Her mother dressed as though she were having tea with the queen every day of the week. From the top of her elegantly coiffed silver-blond hair, to the tip of her polished leather pumps, she was every inch the lady. Beside her Polly felt like a scruffy rag doll.
She watched as Joe’s eyes moved from her mother back to her, his gaze brushing her from head to toe. One corner of his mouth curved upwards in a helpless smile when he noticed her bare feet. She looked down at her feet too. Her left big toe stood out, the only nail with hot pink polish on it. The others were clear. She curled her toes.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Winslow,” Joe was saying, bringing Polly’s eyes back to his face. His tone was gentle and solicitous as he took her mother’s outstretched hand in his.
“Please, call me Janet. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Joe.” Butter could’ve melted in her mother’s mouth. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Not from me!” Polly blurted unwittingly. For goodness sake. She didn’t want Joe to think she’d talked about him with her mother, as if she were enamored with him or something. The last thing she wanted was her mother to latch onto Joe like he was some kind of knight in shining armor come to rescue her only daughter from the drudgery of solitary life.
“You must have read the article your daughter wrote.” His words contradicted Polly’s disclaimer, though she was sure she was the only one who heard the hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“I certainly did,” her mother said proudly. “I’m on the King’s Valley Welcome Wagon committee, so I’m always interested in newcomers to our town. Has a member of our group contacted you yet? So many people have moved here since those fancy subdivisions went up, that we haven’t been able to greet everyone as quickly as we’d like. Where do you live?”
Joe hesitated for a second. “In Greystone Park.”
Polly could tell he’d been disinclined to reveal where he lived, as if embarrassed to admit he lived in the poshest neighborhood in King’s Valley.
Her mother’s eyebrows shot to the sky. “Oh, my! Those are beautiful homes. My husband and I considered buying a townhouse there when it was still in the planning stage. That was just after Polly moved out, and we were finding our home too big for just the two of us. But we’re finding it difficult to leave the home where our children were born and raised.”
“Yes, I can understand that would be hard.” There was an overt gentleness in his behavior towards her mother that Polly found odd.
“Where are my manners?” her mother said. “Won’t you come in, Joe?”
Polly threw her eyes to the ceiling at her mother’s audacity. Joe didn’t have the option to refuse as he was literally dragged over the threshold while Polly stood aside in helpless resignation. She closed the door and pressed her back against it, leery of whatever words might pop out of her mother’s mouth next.
“Am I to understand that Polly gave you one of her stories to read?” her mother asked, sounding astounded. “That’s certainly very unusual. I don’t think she’s ever allowed a man to read her work before.”
Joe glanced over his shoulder at Polly. She gave a slight, warning shake of her head. He returned his attention to her mother. “Which is exactly why she asked me,” he replied kindly. “Who better than a man in the teaching profession to give an educated male perspective?”
“Who, indeed?” Her mother looked him up and down, clearly impressed with his appearance. She seemed to be on the verge of drooling.
Enough was enough.
“Right,” Polly said briskly. “I’ll take that, Joe.” She nodded at the envelope, grabbing it from his hand. “Did you write down comments like I asked?”
“Yes. I want to discuss them with you when you have time.”
“Great. I’ll read this over and give you a call.”
“Polly just made some coffee, Joe. Would you like a cup?”
Looking at Polly, Joe started to shake his head. “I—”
“Hey, Joe. I thought I heard your voice. How’s it going?”
Fred strolled into the hallway. The men shook hands. Polly scowled at her mother from behind Joe’s back, while Fred, in his typical easygoing manner, launched into an avid discussion of the college football game broadcast earlier that day. Her mother winked back at her and beckoned her towards the kitchen.
Tamping down an aggravated sigh, she followed her mother into the kitchen. “Don’t just stand there!” her mother whispered once they’d rounded the corner. “Get the coffee brewing!”
“You lied to him, Mom,” Polly hissed. “I can’t believe you’d stoop to this desperate level.”
“There’s a gorgeous, single man standing in your hallway. This isn’t the time to argue.”
“He just stopped by to return my manuscript.”
“On a Saturday afternoon? Late in the day?” Janet Winslow gave an exasperated shake of her head. “And you call yourself a romance writer. Get some cups out. I’ll make the coffee.”
“No. I’ll do it. If there’s one thing I can do right, it’s make coffee.”
What else could she do? Argue with her mother until her face turned blue? The sooner she brewed the dang coffee, the sooner everyone would leave, and sanity would be restored.
“Joe is busy all week,” she grumbled to her mother. “I’m sure this was the only free time he had to see me. He knows how anxious I am to get his feedback on my story. Furthermore, he’s just a friend, and I don’t think he’s that particularly gorgeous.”
Her mother was rifling through Polly’s dish cupboard. “Don’t you have any cups that match? This one has a big chip in it. You should toss it out. How can you say he isn’t gorgeous, Polly? I haven’t met such a handsome man since your father.”
Polly poured water into the coffee maker and switched it on, gritting her teeth all the while. Her mother was so desperate to see Polly married, she’d say anything. Joe Matthews gorgeous? Hardly. Other than a magnificent pair of blue eyes framed by dark, thick lashes, a tall, lean build and broad shoulders, the rest of him was kind of nondescript. Her thoughts turned to Lance and Colt and Brock and all her other heroes who only existed on paper. Now, if Joe looked like any one of them, maybe she’d be sharing her mother’s rapture. If Joe had black hair instead of brown, a dimpled chin instead of a square one, thick, wavy hair instead of that neatly clipped cut, and if he dressed himself in blue jeans and a snug-fitting black tee-shirt and black cowboy boots... Not that he was plain. She supposed he was attractive in an All-American kind of way. An All-American Joe. Ha! That was funny. She’d have to write that down. But, still, he was just plain ordinary.
“It’s just too bad,” she murmured.
“What’s too bad?” her mother wanted to know, setting coffee cups and spoons on the table.
“Pull your head out of the clouds. The coffee’s done.”
As if on cue, Fred and Joe ambled into the kitchen, still discussing sports, acting like they’d been best friends since grammar school. From what Polly could glean from their conversation while her mother poured the coffee, Joe held season tickets to several of the Bay Area’s major sports teams. But he wasn’t boasting. He looked amazingly relaxed, standing near the table with Fred and her mother, coffee mug braced in one hand while he moved the other in a visual play-by-play of a particularly exciting game.
Still, his starched appearance was so at odds with Polly’s cluttered kitchen that she couldn’t control the sudden urge to pick up a dish cloth and wipe down the counters. Then she caught her mother’s glowing look of approval and just as quickly abandoned the chore. Who cared what her house looked like? She wasn’t trying to impress anyone. She settled against the sink counter in a casual pose, one arm tucked across her middle as she sipped her coffee.
Her mother was asking Joe about his job and how he liked it so far.
“Very much, thanks for asking. I was only at Wilson for fifth grade, you know. I remember it being one of my happiest school years, though.”
“All of my children went there. It’s a wonderful school. It must have been an adjustment for you, entering a formal school after your, er, alternative education.”
“I enjoyed the structure and discipline,” Joe replied, his tone mild.
“I had no idea those commune places still existed!”
Polly groaned inwardly, realizing the road her mother was heading down. She knew full well that his childhood years were the last thing Joe wanted to talk about. “Mom,” she butted in. “Weren’t you and Dad having dinner with the Ferguson’s tonight? It’s past six o’clock.”
Her mother glanced at her watch. “So it is.” With a familiar gleam in her eye that made Polly cringe, she strolled over to the crockpot sitting on the counter. “How’s that stew coming along, dear?” She lifted the lid and made a production of sniffing the tantalizing aroma that had now permeated throughout the kitchen. “You should make some biscuits to go with it.” She smiled at Joe. “My daughter makes the best biscuits in town, Joe. She loves to bake.”
She was about as subtle as a bowling ball rolling towards the pins.
Fred choked on his coffee. He gave Polly a commiserating look but made no effort to intercede on her behalf as her mother barreled on.
“You know, this stew will spoil if it’s not eaten tonight.” Then she looked as though she’d just had a revelation of biblical proportions. “I know! Why don’t you ask Joe to stay for dinner, Polly? I’m sure you’ll want to discuss your book right away.”
“Mom!” Polly’s voice was a low hiss.
But her mother was already setting out the biscuit ingredients, beaming a billion-kilowatt smile in Joe’s direction. “I’m guessing you haven’t had much of a chance to make new acquaintances in King’s Valley yet, Joe. Aside from your work colleagues, that is. I would be shirking my duties as a founding member of the Welcome Wagon if I didn’t encourage you to get to know my family better. You won’t think me rude if I ask if you already have plans for dinner this evening? Polly doesn’t.”
Polly looked at Joe, her eyes telegraphing an apology for her mother’s blatant scheming. What must he think? That she was so desperate for a date that she allowed her mother to fix them up for her? Yes, she was eager to discuss her book with him, but not this way, not with her mother’s pretense of a romantic dinner for two. Please say no, she silently implored, hoping he’d get the message.
Joe smiled at her mother, that odd gentleness in his demeanor again. “Actually, I don’t have any plans, Janet. I’d be delighted to share your daughter’s dinner with her. If she won’t mind?”
What could Polly say? How could she say it anyway with her mother precluding any sign of rebellion as she turned the knob to simmer on the crockpot and quickly kissed her daughter goodbye? Janet Winslow’s duty was done, and she hightailed out of the house, a guffawing Fred in tow, before Polly could raise so much as a squeal of protest. She stared at Joe across the stretch of checkered linoleum, a flush of utter mortification creeping up her neck and across her face.
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