Authors: Dallas Schulze
"Not even that much."
"No doubt you were lost in admiration of my chicken casserole," Philip Blackthorne said.
"It's delicious," Kate said sincerely. The Mexican-style casserole, with its layers of cheese, tortillas and chicken, was sharply flavored with jalapenos and the more subtle tang of cilantro.
"I think I did a particularly fine job with it," he said expansively.
"Nobody can reheat a casserole the way you can, dear," Sara told him, her tone dry. "Did Annie write down the microwave instructions or did you manage to remember them this time?"
"I remembered them," Philip said with obvious pride.
Neither of the elder Blackthornes were known for their skill in the kitchen—or household tasks in general. Sara's medical practice kept her busy and Philip's duties with the church were equally demanding. Virtually all of the cooking and a good portion of the housework were done by Mrs. Annie Pickle, a tiny woman with a personality as tart as her name, who seemed to view the care and feeding of the Blackthorne family as an assignment handed down from above. Kate had met her soon after she began dating Gareth and had been thoroughly intimidated by the older woman's sharp, assessing look that seemed to weigh her and find her sorely lacking in qualifications to marry a Blackthorne.
"You let Dad in the kitchen?" Gareth asked, his eyes widening in shock. "After the last time?"
"One small fire, two years ago, and you still haven't let me live it down." Philip looked aggrieved.
"Small fire?" Gareth's brows went up. "The kitchen was gutted."
"It needed to be refurbished anyway," Sara said comfortably.
Gareth looked at Kate, his eyes gleaming with laughter. ''Some people hire a contractor to remodel the old kitchen. In my family, we just turn Dad loose and let him bum the old fixtures out."
"I forgot I had something on the stove. Everyone does that from time to time."
''But not everyone manages to set the house on fire while reheating a pan of soup."
"I didn't set the whole house on fire. Merely the kitchen. What's the world coming to when a man can't get any respect in his own household?" Philip demanded.
"I have lots of respect for you. Dad. Particularly when you're armed with a match."
Philip's stem expression was at odds with the laughter in his eyes. "Sara, I'm afraid we've nurtured a viper in the very bosom of our family."
"Probably," she agreed, spreading butter on a roll with no real sign of concem.
Kate listened to the exchange with a mixture of delight and envy. This kind of foolish, teasing conversation was new to her. There had been laughter in her childhood, but it had usually come from outside sources—television and movies. She couldn't imagine either of her parents indulging in the kind of lighthearted teasing that Philip and Sara took for granted. She thought it was a wonderful gift to give your children.
The conversation shifted to a discussion of the women's shelter that was being built in town. Sara was spearheading the fund-raising efforts. Kate made an occasional contribution to the discussion but, for the most part, she was content to listen. This was another thing that was new—dinner table conversations about issues that went beyond the family.
The conversations she remembered her parents having when she was a child had generally consisted of her mother talking about the small details of her job or household matters. Her father would speculate on where the next building boom was likely to take place and make plans for their next move. If they'd thought about anything beyond the limited reach of their own lives, she'd never seen any evidence of it.
You're not, are you — marrying Gareth because of his family, I mean? Brenda's question drifted through Kate's mind as she looked across the table at her fiance. As if sensing her gaze, he turned his head and their eyes met. He smiled and Kate felt warm affection well up inside her, banishing the brief moment of question. She was marrying him because he was a kind and wonderfully gentle man, but becoming a member of the Blackthorne family was certainly a lovely bonus.
The roar of a motorcycle cut through the quiet conversation, the sound sharp and intrusive. Philip broke off in the middle of a sentence, his dark brows drawing together in a slight frown as the sound grew louder until it was obvious the bike was not simply passing by on the lightly traveled main road but was coming up the long driveway.
"Who on earth could that be?" he asked, speaking as much to himself as to anyone else.
Kate saw the sweep of a headlight cut across the sheer curtains and the roar grew louder, until the room nearly vibrated. When the engine was cut off, the abrupt cessation of sound was almost as startling as the noise had been.
"I'll go see who it is," Philip said. He set his napkin next to his plate and pushed back from the table.
"Philip, you don't think..." Sara's voice trailed off, the thought unfinished. Kate was startled by the sudden vulnerability in her voice.
Her husband's expression gentled. His hand settled on her shoulder for an instant as he walked past her chair. "Don't get your hopes up, my dear."
Bewildered, Kate glanced at Gareth, her brows raised in question, but he was looking after his father, his expression uncharacteristically stem. As Philip left the room, he shifted his attention to his mother.
"What did he say when he called?" he asked.
"Not much." Sara frowned. "He just said he'd be home soon."
"Is he coming home for good?"
"He didn't say. Just that he was going to be helping Harry fix up the house." Her frown deepened.
"Nick said Harry was going to sell the old place. I can't imagine that."
Gareth and Sara seemed to have momentarily forgotten her presence, so Kate dabbled her fork in the last few bites of her casserole and tried to look invisible. But her thoughts were tumbling over each other. Nick was the mysterious missing brother. Obviously, Sara thought the motorcycle might be his.
Kate shivered a little. It was eerie that she'd been thinking about him just minutes ago and now, here he was, popping up in the conversation—maybe even standing on the doorstep. The coincidence sent a chill down her spine. It seemed odd that Gareth hadn't said anything to her about his younger brother coming home, but the past couple of weeks had been exceptionally busy. Maybe he just hadn't had the chance to tell her.
"He said he'd be home as soon as he could put things in order in New York." Sara shifted her wineglass from one side of her plate to the other and then back again.
The agitated movement surprised Kate. It was the first time she'd seen the other woman less than serene. She looked at Gareth again, her brows raised in question. This time, his eyes met hers and she thought he was about to say something, offer some explanation perhaps, but the sound of the front door opening cut off whatever he might have said.
"Anybody home?" The voice was masculine, low and a little raspy, as if from too many nights spent in smoke-filled bars.
Kate was looking at Gareth and she saw something flare in his eyes, a quick flash of emotion that was there and gone too quickly for her to read it Relief? Anger? Happiness? Some impossible combination of the three?
"Nick." Sara spoke quietly but her voice held so much suppressed emotion that the name seemed to echo.
"Nick?" Kate repeated as Sara pushed her chair back and stood up. "Isn't that—"
"My brother," Gareth said, his tone as flat and emotionless as his expression. She might have thought he was indifferent to his brother's sudden arrival if it hadn't been for the tension in his shoulders as he rose stiffly, careless of the scrape of the chair's legs on the polished wooden floor. She'd never seen Gareth anything but calm and in control. It was one of the things she liked most about him, one of the things that made her feel as if she could depend on him not to change, not to go off chasing rainbows. But, just now, there had been that flash of emotion in his eyes, and the hand he rested on the back of his chair was white-knuckled with tension.
Interest vied with uneasiness inside Kate. She wondered what it was about Nick Blackthorne that his arrival should send such powerful ripples through his family. Why hadn't she asked Gareth about him long before this?
"Nick. It's been a long time. Too long." Philip's beautifully modulated voice wavered a little on the last word.
There was a pause, and Kate tried to imagine what was going through his son's mind. Guilt? Affection? Was he moved by his father's welcome? Indifferent to it? She couldn't even hazard a guess.
"I'm home now," was all he said and, try as she might, Kate couldn't read anything from his tone. "Where's Mom?"
"In the dining room. We didn't expect you to make it home so soon."
"Neither did I, but when I looked around, I realized my life wasn't nearly as full of terribly important things to take care of as I'd thought at first." There was a rich note of self-directed amusement in the husky voice. "It was quite a shock to find out how completely dispensable I was."
Philip was chuckling as the two of them entered the dining room.
"Nick." Sara's voice cracked a little on the name. When she stretched out her arms, her slim, elegant hands were not quite steady. "It's so good to see you."
"You make it sound like it's been decades. Or have you already forgotten that I met you in Chicago last year when you went to that conference?" The question was affectionately mocking.
Kate twisted in her chair, anxious for a glimpse of the mysterious missing brother, but his back was to her as he bent to gather his mother into his arms. All she could see was wide shoulders and thick, nearly black hair worn long enough to brush the collar of his leather jacket. The faded denim of his jeans molded his narrow hips and long legs. Involuntarily, she noted that he had a very nice rear view but she immediately brushed the thought aside. A motorcycle and a black leather jacket. Her upper lip quivered in a faint sneer. It was such a pathetically obvious costume for the returning rebel.
She dragged her eyes away from the tender meeting between mother and son and looked at Gareth. How did he feel about his brother's sudden appearance? Whatever he was feeling, he was keeping it to himself, his expression as still and unreadable as a blank wall. Of course, she could read all kinds of things into the controlled way he pushed his chair back into place before moving around the table to greet his brother.
Feeling as if she was watching a movie—something obscure and Swedish with subtitles in Japanese—Kate turned her head to watch this first meeting between the two brothers.
It suddenly struck her as incredible that she hadn't ever asked about the situation between Nick and his family. She'd simply assumed that there had been a break and had just as easily assigned the blame to Nick. But if there had once been some family schism, there was no sign of it now. Philip and Sara were obviously thrilled to see their younger son.
Nick released Sara and his shoulders seemed to tense when he saw his brother. Kate wished she could see his face. Was his expression as closed and un-revealing as Gareth's? The undercurrents that swirled through the room were completely baffling. Without knowing the history, she couldn't even begin to guess at what was happening now. The brothers faced each other in silence for a moment before Nick spoke.
"Gareth. It's been awhile."
There was another brief silence. If Kate had thought she was imagining the tension in the room, one glance at Philip and Sara's anxious faces told her it was real. Then Nick moved forward, his hand outstretched.
"You're looking good, big brother."
Kate couldn't see his face, but his voice was warm. The change in the atmosphere was immediate. It was as if everyone in the room had been holding their breath and they now released it in one soft sigh of relief.
"I wish I could say the same about you," Gareth said, smiling as he took his brother's hand. "You look like hell."
"That's just what every recovering flu victim wants to hear. Nice to see you're just as tactful as ever."
"Good habits are hard to break," Gareth said with a grin.
Nick's laugh was hoarse. Kate realized that the husky quality she'd assumed was evidence of hard living could just as easily be the result of a plain old head cold.
"Did it occur to you that riding all the way across the country on a motorcycle might not have been the smartest thing to do when you were recovering from a flu?" Sara asked tartly. She reached up to lay her hand across her son's forehead.
Though she was a doctor, the gesture was purely maternal, and Kate felt her throat tighten. She could remember her own mother doing the same thing, could remember the love that had flowed from that simple touch. Her mother had been dead for fourteen years but, for an instant, the loss was as fresh as if it had just happened. She looked away, busying herself with folding her napkin neatly before laying it next to her plate.
"I'm fine," Nick was saying. "I had the flu, not pneumonia. Besides, I figured riding the motorcycle was easier than carrying it."
"You're still a smart ass," Gareth said.
"Like you said, good habits are hard to break," Nick said, and Kate didn't have to see his expression to know he was smiling.