(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-40 in earlier Blogs )
John was loitering on the patio outside the huge kitchen-family room. It was actually a terrace, which was connected by steps and stretches of patio to at least three sides of the Hawkins house. The potted plants and urns were arranged throughout the multileveled terrace, giving the feeling of a unified garden around the ivory exterior of the house. Mrs. Hawkins had proudly given him a tour of her “shrubbery” after lunch. She complained that it was already Memorial Day and her rhododendrons had not yet bloomed.
“Well, your azaleas certainly make up for it. This is a riot! All these colors. How did you get so many different varieties?” he asked.
“Honey, how nice of you to notice. It’s hard to find people who appreciate ornamental horticulture.” She patted him on the arm. “See, I got a lot of these varieties from this old couple in Garner, North Carolina. They have a garden that’s a real show.”
“Uh-hum. John, you’ll excuse me a few minutes, I have some calls to make.”
“Sure. Can I stay out here?”
When he’d called from the airport he hadn’t been sure if Maddie was coming down for the weekend or not. It hadn’t really mattered; he wanted to get to know her family better. But once he’d found out she was expected he’d felt as jumpy as a young colt. How would she react when she found him here? Would it backfire in some way?
As he leaned over the railing, partly concealed by some of the plants, a neat little red convertible pulled up in front of the garage doors. He recognized it as Craig Berry’s car. Maddie sprang out from the passenger side and reached in the back seat for her backpack. Craig also reached for the backpack at the same time. They enacted a playful tug of war, which struck John as somehow intimate, and he felt like a Peeping Tom. He couldn’t bring himself to stop watching, though.
“Don’t forget about tonight,” she yelled, as Craig was pulling away. John felt his stomach muscles contract, as if he’d been punched. And then she was running up the steps and towards the terrace in which he stood. There was no place he could hide.
Maddie was so happy to be home. Here was a refuge from all the stress and the mind games of Madison. Here was a place where she didn’t have to worry about who she was going to run into around the next corner, although, to be honest, her parents might be having a house-full of guests, one never knew. Perhaps the strange man on the terrace was one of them. She schooled herself to be courteous to whomever, because from a young age she and her siblings had been taught to share their home and hospitality with a variety of people. The word “Hello” was out of her mouth, however, before she realized who she was greeting.
“J…John!” she stumbled over his name as if seeing him in unfamiliar surroundings had caused her memory to go blank.
“Hey, Maddie!” he responded nonchalantly, “Stopped by to play some golf with your dad.”
“Oh!” The cat still had her tongue.
“Can I get that for you?” he reached for her backpack and she yielded to the chivalrous offer, vaguely remembering that she lifted much heavier burdens working in the field and greenhouse. Why should he carry her bag?
She led the way into her mother’s large, open kitchen-family room. God, how she loved this room. She was engulfed by her mother’s hugs, while Cora called to her dad to come out from the study.
Her father gave her a bear hug and then motioned in John’s direction. “Did you see who stopped by to visit us?”
“Yeah.” she was smiling this time.
George said, “Maddie, you’ll have to excuse me honey, I know he’s your friend and all, but I just had to woop his sorry behind this morning you know. He was asking for it.”
“George, George,” John intervened, willingly entering into the mode of discourse George seemed to enjoy. “I think you’re a little mistaken there. I don’t think that qualified as a wooping. You had to work pretty hard for your little victory.”
“Say what? John, obviously you didn’t notice what happened to you out there on the fifteenth hole, so let me explain it to you…”
“Oh, you two!” Maddie’s mom made a gesture of dismissal as the two men engaged in a heated debate. She whisked Maddie over to one of the counter stools to tell her of the evening dinner plans. Maddie, meanwhile, was mesmerized by the familiarity with which John and her father went at it. She could tell her father was enjoying himself, but she was a little worried about John. But as he let out a loud bout of laughter, she concluded he must have been holding his own. At one point his eyes caught hers and he winked at her. God! She always died when he did that. Her cheeks felt flushed and she turned her attention to her mother, who was telling her that her brother and his wife were coming over for dinner as well as Craig and his mother.
“I know,” she said, “Craig told me on the way down. I guess his mother called him. She’s real excited to be getting back with you guys again.”
Later on, as Maddie closed the door to her room she threw herself on her bed, face down. Rolling over and facing the ceiling she looked at the wallpaper border of tiny yellow English tea roses that had never failed to cheer her as a child. This room was her refuge within a refuge and in it she voiced her most private thoughts.
Dear Lord, she moaned, I’m in trouble. She reviewed the events of the past hour. She’d very nearly fainted when she had seen John Pitts on the terrace. Then, she’d been blown away by his status in the household. He seemed to be a favorite with her dad. But most disturbing was the way she herself felt. She was so keyed up. It was an uncomfortable mixture of euphoria and giddiness. And that curious self-awareness she’d had on a few previous occasions, when in his presence.
She had determined early on in their relationship not to give in to the physical attraction she felt for this man. Nothing could come of it. He would never fit into any ideal she had for a mate and his record with women actually frightened her. But it was getting harder to resist his appeal, not easier. Besides, he wasn’t such a bad person. After much reflection she decided to just focus on developing a real friendship with him. Maybe if she saw him as a friend she wouldn’t be so tempted by his other charms.
“Yeah, that’s a plan, Maddie.”
She felt better when she left the room to rejoin the family. She’d taken long enough to freshen up.
Downstairs, she found that her brother, Louis, and his wife, Julie, had arrived. Although they had been married for five years, they had no children as yet. Julie was in the last year of her residency in internal medicine. Louis was an investment broker and his personality could only be described as “laid back.” How he had managed to snag the vivacious, fast-talking girl that was his wife was a mystery.
“Maddie! Hugs, hugs!” she demanded. After hugs Maddie settled with the others around the table to help with the dinner preparations.
“Oh mom, you have John cutting onions?” she protested.
“Hey, I’m good at cutting onions,” John rebutted.
Louis jumped in. “Hey, look at what she’s got us doing, we have three pounds of shrimp to shell.”
Maddie looked at her brother, “Yeah, with Julie sitting on your lap I can see that’s going to take you forever.”
Mrs. Hawkins said, “Somehow, I never seem to hear you complaining when the food is on the table.”
“No, we never do. John, you’re in for a real treat. My mom’s a great cook,” Louis said.
“Unlike his wife, who can’t cook worth a lick,” Julie added.
“C’mon honey, your other qualities more than compensate for that flaw,” Louis said. “Besides, why do we need more than one cook in our family. You take care of the scraped knees, I’ll do the cooking.”
Julie leaned over and gave him a peck on the nose, “Honey, you’re so sweet, you’re the sweetest man on earth. What did I ever do to deserve you?”
Maddie caught John’s eyes for a nanosecond and she felt irritated with her brother. Why did he have to make such a display?
“Hey, you two, remember I want that shrimp peeled.” Mrs. Hawkins interrupted. “Maddie, you can chop the green peppers. Get another board, honey.”
“What are you making for desert, Mom?” Julie asked.
“That’s a surprise.” Everyone seemed to shudder in anticipation, fully confident of the eventual merit of the surprise.
“Now kids, I want everybody to dress for dinner.”
“Oh mom, do we have to?” Maddie complained.
“Yes, you do. You have to honor my dinner. Besides, it’s Craig’s mother, you know.”
John made note of this fact, that they were having Craig’s mother over for a dress-up dinner. Boy, it seemed he was just in time to make a fool of himself. He wished George had warned him that things were that hopeless.
The rest of the afternoon was passed in general banter, and what seemed to John a massive food production effort conducted with effortless swiftness and grace by Mrs. Hawkins. Everyone wanted to taste the final product. “Ooh, Mama! This is insanely delicious. Just a little more Louisiana hot sauce—“
“Louis! Cut—cut that out. Don’t you dare touch my food. Give me that!” She wrestled the bottle out of his hand.
They were dispatched to change for dinner and Louis and Julie were sent out to get some crusty baguettes.
GLOBAL BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION!
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DISCUSSION QUESTION 41: Can Maddie’s plan ever succeed?
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