Have mercy, a smell like this in the house could cost Ben his new fiancée. And he and Christina were likely to pull up any minute.
It had been hard enough for Ruth Dearing to keep the place straightened with three daughters—two of them with husbands and kids—already home for the family summer reunion. Noise and purses and sunglasses and toys everywhere. Ruth lived for her family to come home. But today things had to look just so. Wasn’t every time that Ben, their youngest, brought home a young woman he said he was going to marry. A “quiet” gal, he’d told Ruth and Sy. “Kinda reserved.” In other words, everything the Dearing family was not. To put it mildly.
Christina could easily be overwhelmed at this gathering, but no one else in the family seemed the least bit worried. Least of all Ben. But Ruth had been young once, and yes—shy. Even though she and Syton had been in love since high school, Ruth remembered all too well that nerve-wracking first meeting with his parents. Sy’s family had a lot more money than her own, and his parents seemed so intimidating. Still, she’d only had to meet the two of them. Imagine being shoved into
family. Ruth had already warned her daughters to be mindful of Christina’s shyness. And she’d flown about the house today, trying to make everything look perfect.
Now this horrible stench.
Nose wrinkled, Ruth strode to the doorway leading to the house’s west wing, which contained the grandkids’ play room. “Pogey, get in here and put these shoes on! They’re stinkin’ the kitchen to high heaven!”
At Ruth’s feet, Lady Penelope, her and Sy’s finicky Yorkie, whined. Poor Penny lay on the floor with her paws practically over her nose. Ruth picked her up.
y’all stand that smell?” Ruth turned and frowned at her three daughters playing an animated game of cards in the adjoining family room.
Sarah, Pogey’s mother, sighed. “I’m used to it. Kid’s got the smelliest feet this side of the Mississippi.”
“More like in the whole country.” Maddy placed a card on the table.
“Ah! Liverpool Rummy!” Sarah snatched up the card and laid down her hand, face alight.
“Girl, you are a cheat and a half.” Jess’s clear voice sliced across the room.
“I am not. You’re just lousy at this game.”
“I’m not lousy at anything, thank you very much.”
“Oh, yeah?” Sarah smirked at Maddy. “Remember when she tried to take up the hem of her own prom dress?”
Maddy let out her staccato laugh. “Yeah, she quit about the time it was up to her thighs.”
“Oh, can it, y’all.” Jess threw down her cards. “Besides, Sarah, you were long gone from home then, so how would you know?”
“I had Maddy to feed me information, that’s how.”
Ruth shook her head. Sarah was now thirty-nine, Maddy, thirty-four, and Jess, thirty-two. Loved each other like crazy. But they could still argue just like in the old days.
Ruth turned back toward the play room. She could hear her grandson’s video game still going. At age ten that kid had the fastest thumbs of anyone alive. The girls—Lacey, six, and Alex, five—were quiet as church mice. Probably still coloring. Most of the time those two young cousins got along famously—until they didn’t.
Sarah pushed back her chair and sashayed into the kitchen. “I beat know-it-all Jess again,” she sing-songed. “For the
Sarah picked up her son’s offending footwear and made a face. “Pogey, get in here!”
“Try makin’ it in this lifetime!”
The video game silenced. Pogey appeared in the hall, heaving a sigh. He was short for his age, round-cheeked and freckle-faced. Somewhat pudgy. Pogey wore every emotion on his sleeve. As he approached, barefoot, Ruth braced herself for further smells. Penny buried her little doggie snout in Ruth’s chest.
Sarah held the shoes out to her son. “How long since you washed those feet?”
“I took a shower last night.” Pogey’s voice rose in his best “Why me?” tone.
“You know you have to wash ’em twice a day in the summer. Go stick ’em in the tub.” Sarah shoved the shoes into his hands. “And take these outside to the hose.”
“Then they’ll be all wet.”
“Not for long. Just leave ’em in the sun.”
The July day in Justus, Mississippi was steaming hot.
Muttering to himself, Pogey took his shoes and trudged through the kitchen toward the bedroom wing of Ruth and Sy’s rambling house.
Stinky feet and hating to bathe were not a good mix.
Ruth looked to Maddy. “Can you girls put up that card table now? Ben and Christina are fixin’ to be here soon.” And where were Sy and his two sons-in-law, Jake and Don? They should’ve been home and cleaned up from their golf game by now. The whole family needed to be here to welcome the new fiancée.
Sarah patted her mother on the shoulder. “Relax. You don’t need to be so worried about this.”
Maddy stood and began gathering the cards on the table. “Yeah, Mama. This family’s hardly perfect. The sooner Christina figures that out, the sooner she’ll start to fit in. Right, Jess?”
“Speak for yourself about the perfect part.”
Ruth pursed her mouth. Why did her family always accuse her of worrying? It was just that Ben had sounded so ecstatic on the phone when he told her about Christina. “I know we haven’t been datin’ long, Mama,” he said, “but this woman is so incredible. I love her like crazy, and I want to be with her forever. I want her to meet the family and fit right in.”
Just a little pressure.
“Uh-huh.” Sarah gestured with her chin toward the Yorkie. “Then why’re you holding Penny so tight?”
squirming. Ruth put her down. Penny headed for her bed in the piano corner, nose in the air. She turned in circles on the plush yellow fabric, then flopped down, facing the wall. She’d had enough of humans for a while.
Ruth’s gaze cruised the clean kitchen, searching for anything amiss. She spotted a glass on the counter and walked over to put it in the dishwasher.
Maddy and Jess turned the card table on its side.
“I still say Ben’s too young to get married.” Jess folded in the first metal leg with a
. “Besides that he tends to fall too hard, too fast. He hardly knows this girl. And
Sarah leaned against the kitchen counter. “Oh, don’t get started on the too-young thing again.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Ben’s twenty-seven. And he makes very good money.”
“He has no idea how to take care of a wife.
the one who still needs takin’ care of.”
As the baby of the family and the only boy, Ben had certainly been catered to by his three older sisters. Especially Jess, who was five when he was born. From his birth she’d considered herself Ben’s second mother.
Maddy folded in another table leg. “All wives take care of their husbands. Don would never make it without me.”
“But he takes care of
too.” Ruth picked up a sponge to wipe the spotless counter. “That’s how a good marriage works—each puttin’ the other first.”
Jess threw Maddy a look. “That’s why I’m not married. I have no intention of takin’ care of some man.”
“Lord help the man who marries
.” Sarah wagged her head. “You’re as argumentative as a lawyer.”
“Not to mention as picky as Lady Penelope.”
Penny’s ears pricked, but she refused to turn around.
“Yeah?” Jess punched in the last table leg. “And the whole family kowtows to that dog just to keep her happy. Sounds good to me.”
Ruth stopped her sponging. “Don’t call Penny a dog—she might hear you.”
Maddy humphed. “Don’t expect
to do any kowtowing in your direction.”
“Me either,” Sarah said.
The front door opened. Ruth froze. “Is that Ben?”
Jess walked over to stick her head out the family room doorway. “It’s Pogey, carryin’ his shoes outside.” The door slammed shut. Jess waved a hand in front of her nose. “Whew. You can tell he’s been through here.”
“You casting aspersions on my son?” Sarah said.
“With those feet, he manages that all on his own.”
“Careful, little sister. You’ll have kids, too, someday.”
Jess rolled her eyes. “In the next millennium, maybe.”
Maddy picked up the card table. “Listen, Jess, don’t you dare be hard on Christina.”
“So now we’re talking about Christina? And why should I be hard on her anyway?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe ’cause the last time Ben brought a girl home you sent her packin’ in less than twenty-four hours.”
“I did not. They had a fight.”
Ruth went back to wiping the counter—harder. She was staying out of this one.
Jess snorted. “And just what did I do?”
Sarah put a finger to her cheek. “What do you think, Maddy? Was it tellin’ the girl her roots needed done within two minutes of meetin’ her? Or maybe fillin’ her ears with not-so-flattering stories of ‘Baby Ben.’”
Maddy slid the card table behind the couch. “No, no, it was sneakin’ bacon into her omelet.”
Jess raised her arms. “Who doesn’t eat bacon?”
“She was vegetarian, Jess, and you knew it.”
“Well, there ya go.” Jess looked to her mother for support. Ruth kept wiping. “No vegetarian would ever last in this family. What would we do at reunions, grill tofu instead of ribs? That girl wasn’t right for Ben, and y’all know it.
was the only one willin’ to do somethin’ about it.”
“Maybe you should’ve let Ben decide that.” Sarah wagged her head.
The counter sparkled. Ruth moved to the stove.
.” Jess’s voice lightened. “Soon as he had his eyes opened.”
Ruth set down the sponge and faced her youngest daughter. She couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Jess, your sisters are right. You need to go easy on Christina. Like you said, she’s young. And she’s an only child, so she’s hardly used to all the goin’s in this house.”
“Oh, I’ll be sweet as pie, Mama. You act like I’m some hardhearted thing.”
“No, you’re far from that. But sometimes you talk first and think later.”
“Yeah, Jess.” Maddy plopped down on the couch. “Like puttin’ the cart before the egg.”
Jess squinted. “Huh?” She, Sarah, and Ruth stared at Maddy, trying to figure what she’d said. Then they burst into cackles.
Maddy wrinkled her brow. “What’d I say now?”
“You said …” Sarah held her sides. She stumbled over to the kitchen table and collapsed into a chair.
“C-cart before the …” Giggles bubbled out of Sarah. “Egg.”
“Oh, Maddy.” Jess folded over, hands on her knees. “That’s your best one yet.”
“Mom!” Maddy turned to Ruth, like she used to do as a kid. “They’re makin’ fun of me again.”
Ruth fell into a chair beside Sarah, laughing too hard to answer. For years Maddy had spouted mixed metaphors, never realizing what she’d said. She could come up with some doozies. But Jess was right—this one took the cake.
Oh, goodness, Ruth’s sides hurt.
Sarah wiped her eyes. “Maddy, darling, it’s cart before the horse. Or which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Maddy pulled in her mouth. “Well, mine’s much better.”
Ruth and Maddy’s two sisters started laughing all over again.
“Fine then, y’all just cackle away.” Maddy strode through the kitchen toward the play room. “I’m gonna go sit with the girls.”
Poor Maddy. Ruth worked her mouth, trying to get hold of herself. She almost made it—until she caught Sarah’s eye. They fell into chortles all over again.
Maddy called from down the hall. “I still hear you!”
A faint rumbling sounded in Ruth’s ears—the garage door rolling up. “Oh.” She hiccupped and straightened. It still took time to get herself under control. “The boys are home.” Finally.
A sudden wail exploded from the play room. “That’s
page!” Alex’s high voice.
“It’s not, I saw it first!” Lacey.
“Stop it, you two.” Maddy sounded extra firm, likely still irritated over being laughed at. “There’s plenty coloring books.”
“I had it
!” Alex insisted.
At the end of the long hall, the door leading into the garage opened. Male voices sounded in a friendly argument about the golf game.
Lacey shrieked. The men’s voices cut off.
Ruth hurried toward the play room, meeting her husband, Sy, in the hall. He was solidly built and stood at six-two, a good foot taller than she. Fortunately the girls had gotten his height. Sy was flushed and sweaty, his thick gray-white hair damp at the ends. But that face of his—the face she’d loved since high school—was just as handsome. Sy’s blue eyes met hers. “What’s goin’ on?”
Ruth lifted a shoulder.
He stuck his head into the play room. “Hey!” The word boomed. “Who’s yellin’ in here?”
Ruth came up behind him and peered into the room.
“It’s Lacey.” Alex folded her arms. “She stole my colorin’ page.”
Sy drew to his full height in the doorway, one hand on either side of the threshold. “I got an idea. I can take all your colorin’ books and send you to your rooms. That what you want?”
That was Ruth’s Sy. Loving and compassionate—and a strong disciplinarian.
Alex gave one of her famous pouts, her light eyebrows practically meeting. She swooshed a golden strand of hair off her face. “No.”
“No either.” Lacey glared at the table.
“All right then. Stop fightin’, or I’m back here faster ‘n’ a hot knife through butter.”