“Yeah, it doesn’t seem fair that an asshole should have such a cute face, does it?” She opened the fridge door and took out the package of unsalted butter. “Family curse.”
Derrick chose that moment to slip into the kitchen. “I’m going to start setting the table since people are already starting to come.” He gave each woman a pointed look.
“Just play host and start passing out the liquor,” Dez said.
“By the time all the food is done they’ll all be so drunk that they won’t care anyway.”
“Why do all that? People know that you don’t come to a birthday dinner at two in the afternoon.”
“So what’s your girlfriend’s excuse?”
“Shut it, Dez.” He backed out of the kitchen with an armload of china.
“You two don’t like each other, do you?”
“How can you tell?”
Rémi finished up her food. “Compliments to the chef once again. Your mama can really throw down in the kitchen, Dez. I’m telling you, one day I’m going to have to marry that woman.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, Rémi? Stay away from my mother.”
Her friend made a dismissive noise as she hopped off the counter. “Nuria, Dez wants you to mash those potatoes for her.” She walked out of the kitchen.
Moments later they could hear her paying effusive compliments to Claudia. Nothing that would make Dez rush out there and lay her out on the floor, but just enough to make her grind her teeth in annoyance.
Nuria laughed. “She’s just doing that to get under your skin, baby. I hope you haven’t been gone so long that you forgot how much she loves to do that.”
“Just like the annoying sister I didn’t want.”
Nuria sucked her teeth. “Where are those potatoes that she was talking about?”
Dez hid in the kitchen for as long as she dared. A party was definitely going on in her mother’s living room. She could hear the low contralto of Derrick’s girlfriend mixing with her brother’s low baritone. Eden, her mother’s best friend and colleague from the university, came an hour ago and was circulating easily among the mostly younger crowd. She and Claudia laughed often, usually in response to something Rémi or Nuria said. She didn’t envy her mother that laughter, just the source of it. Dez basted the hens one last time and turned down the fire under the gravy. As she was straightening up from the oven, she felt another presence in the kitchen. She turned around.
“Hello.” A woman stood just inside the kitchen door. “Your friend Rémi sent me in here to tell you to come out and play.” She held up a glass of Irish cream in a frosted glass. “This is for you.”
Tall, teak, and lovely. A smile tickled the corner of Dez’s mouth.
Rémi, you troublemaker.
She slid off the oven mitts and dropped them on the cluttered counter.
“And you are?”
“Trish. Derrick invited me.”
Despite her teasing, Derrick always did have great taste in women. The absent Miss Jackson was ample proof of that. And Trish wasn’t bad either. Dez accepted the glass of liqueur and took a sip. “Thanks. I’d hate for you to come sweat in this hot kitchen for nothing.” She gestured ahead of her. “Shall we?” She didn’t bother to look away from the enticing glide of ass and hips under Trish’s copper and cream dress as she walked ahead of her.
When they came out of the kitchen, Rémi winked at Dez from across the room. Nuria shook her head, discreetly wagging her finger at them both.
“The other chef has emerged from the kitchen,” her mother announced. “Does that mean everything is ready?”
“Almost. Give it about another hour or two.”
Rémi, the bottomless pit, groaned the loudest about the delay. “Are you trying to starve us?”
“I’m sure you can find something to occupy your time until the food is ready.” Dez glanced at her brother. She bet that he could think of a couple of things to do with that hot little number he brought home. Too bad he didn’t believe in sharing.
“If anyone brought suits, there’s always laying out by the pool,” their freshly tanned mother suggested.
“I didn’t bring a suit, but I’m definitely for laying out.” Everyone looked at Nuria. “What? God didn’t give me anything that I’m ashamed of.”
“I have some bathing suits in the guest bathroom down the hall. There is enough of an assortment in size that everyone should be well provided for.”
“We’ll keep that in mind, Mother,” Derrick said. He didn’t seem wedded to the swimming idea at all.
“Ah, well. There are worse things to do besides what we’re doing now.” Nuria sipped her vodka on the rocks from the arm of the brown leather sofa and dimpled prettily at Derrick and Trish.
Eden intercepted Nuria’s suggestive glance and the younger woman blushed. Against her will, Dez felt herself starting to relax. The Irish cream mellowed her enough to be nice to her brother and his date, but not enough to invite the petite woman in the kitchen for a quickie. She could see Nuria already considering that route, only with Derrick invited along for the ride, too.
“How are you doing, love?” Claudia asked, sitting beside Dez on the overstuffed love seat. “You seem pensive.”
“More like maudlin, really.” She smiled at her mother to let her know that she was at least partly joking. “But I’m fine. Just thinking too much right now.”
“Thinking or drinking?” Her mother looked meaningfully at the glass of liqueur, her second that afternoon.
Dez chuckled. “Maybe a bit of both.”
“In that case, you and Derrick go in and finish up the food so people can eat. Breakfast wore off a long time ago and I’m starving.”
Within two hours, everything was ready. Derrick herded everyone into the dining room while Dez put a round of Jazz
CDs in the stereo and pressed PLAY. A mellow saxophone settled in the background. Rémi rubbed her hands together as she sat down at the table. “This is the best-looking spread I’ve seen in a long time. Did you two do all this?”
“Of course.” Derrick pulled out the chair for his mother.
“This day and this meal are for a very special lady, so we did our best.”
“Your brother is good, Dez. You could learn a thing or two from him. At least in the charm department.”
Dez didn’t even spare Nuria a glance. She handed the tongs to Claudia before taking her own seat. “Start whenever you’re ready, Mama.”
But the older woman seemed too in awe of the lavish meal in front of her to even touch it. The Cornish hens were a deep golden brown and still steaming. Ten of them sat in deep serving platters surrounded by bowls brimming with steamed broccoli, garlic mashed potatoes, herbed corn-bread stuffing with pine nuts and golden raisins, and cranberry sauce. Dez and Derrick had taken out the good china, and the translucent amber plates and goblets glowed in the softened light.
Claudia cleared her throat. “Before I desecrate this gorgeous arrangement of food at my daughter’s request, I just wanted to say a few words.” She glanced at everyone around the table. “It’s good to have both my children back with me. It’s been too long. And I’m thankful that they could put aside their”—she looked from Derrick to Dez—“endless quarrelling to make this meal together and share this day with me and with all of us. Thank you, darlings.”
Everyone raised their glasses of water in agreement. Dez quickly sipped hers so she could swallow past a suddenly dry throat. “Hear, hear.” She met her brother’s eyes across the table and nodded briefly at him.
He opened his mouth to say something but the sound of the doorbell cut him off. Dez waited a second, then two, to see what he would say. When nothing came out, she stood up.
“I’ll get the door,” she said.
“Am I too early?” Victoria Jackson asked, holding a brightly gift-wrapped present as she stood in the doorway.
“Who is it?” Derrick called out from the dining room.
“Your friend,” she yelled back, looking at Victoria.
“Tori,” the woman said with a slight smile.
“I haven’t forgotten,” Dez murmured.
“Quit stalling and bring her in.” Derrick’s voice rose, light and teasing from the dining room. “We’re all about to pass out from hunger in here.”
Dez gestured for her to come in. Was it her imagination or did the woman look even better than the last time, like a dressed-up version of last night’s wet dream come to life in her mother’s foyer? She walked ahead into the house and Dez could only blink in the after-image of her. Hair twisted up and back away from her face. Burgundy-painted lips. The slope and rise of her breasts under the white blouse. Reaction settled deep in Dez’s belly. She took a deep breath and followed after Victoria.
“You ass,” Victoria said to Derrick as everyone made room for her at the table. “You told me dinner was at five.” It was barely four-fifteen.
“I’m glad you made it, honey.” Claudia kissed her son’s best friend on the cheek and tugged her gently into the chair next to hers. “You’re right on time.”
Dez watched their exchange with interest. Was she the only one who hadn’t met Victoria? Even Eden chatted her up with some familiarity, teasing her about trusting Derrick, who ate when the food (and he) was ready, no matter what time of day it was.
“And now, let’s really get started.” Claudia brandished the tongs. “Who wants a Cornish hen?”
Victoria was a meat eater. She tasted some of the tofu with red and yellow roasted bell peppers that Dez had made for Sage and Nuria, but ended up eating a hen and a half, throwing compliments at Dez and Derrick between bites. Her lips glistened from the olive oil and from her tongue’s repeated journey over them.
“You never cook like this for me,” she chided her best friend around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“I think everybody at this table knows that you’re lying,” Derrick pointed his fork at her. “That was one of the first ways I tried to get you to fall for me when we first met.”
Victoria blushed and laughed, the subtle color moving like a wave under her butterscotch skin.
Dez caught her eye over the centerpiece of floating candles and flower petals. “You should taste what I can cook up in the kitchen.”
“I think she is, darling.” Eden shot her an amused glance.
Dez smiled back. As soon as Eden looked away her smile faded. She suddenly felt very tired.
The dinner was wonderful, almost like old times, even before their father left, with Claudia being the brilliant diamond in their midst, laughing and showering her light on everyone at the table. Dez took part in the festivities, may have even seemed like her old self, flirting shamelessly with all the women, talking the usual round of shit, and eating much more than she should. But inside she felt herself slowly shutting down. Sensations came and went, lightning fast, before she could access them. Even Victoria’s presence couldn’t engage her. After the first course, Trish asked if she was all right. Dez nodded a yes and found somewhere else to look. What else was she supposed to say?
Derrick went into the kitchen to get his dessert master-piece, an exquisite guava-and-cream-cheese flan with slices of the pink fruit fanned out on top. That was what Claudia said she wanted for her birthday, not cake. So her children obliged her. The women oohed and aahed over the gorgeous dessert, some eyeing Derrick like he was part of the meal. Dez excused herself to smoke on the deck. In that moment, she felt too heavy to be among all those bright and laughing people.
Dez lit her cigarette and took a long drag. Smoke hit her lungs in a deep, burning stroke. Yesterday she was fine. Even this morning. She had managed to all but forget that her mother could be dying and that Claudia had told Derrick about it and not her. But now the memory of the call from the doctor’s office rose up to suffocate her. Dying. Death. Dead.
“Dinner was marvelous.”
Dez put away her emotions before turning to face Victoria.
“I thank you and Derrick thanks you.” She looked beyond her to the party still going on inside. “Is it time to open presents?”
“Almost, but not yet.”
Dez ashed her cigarette over the railing and turned so the smoke wouldn’t blow toward Victoria. She took a deep breath. “So what brings you out here?”
She attempted a smile. “Really?”
It had rained while they ate so the air was cooler now. Victoria shivered in her thin white blouse and crossed her arms to warm herself. Dez deliberately kept her eyes on the other woman’s face.
“Your mother highly encouraged”—Victoria said the word with a wry grin—“me to tell you to get your ass back inside.”
“Ah, I see. No other motives, then?”
She smiled. “None whatsoever.” Her eyes caught a flash of something from Dez. “Are you all right?”
“Not really. But I’ll live.”
Victoria’s mouth began to shape a question, but Dez never found out what that question was.
“Desiree, stop brooding and come join the party.”