Posted on Monday, 6 October 2003
Elisabeth did not go to work the next morning in a particularly good humor. Although her mother's visit had only taken an hour, the romantic mood that Darcy had been building was gone and Elisabeth found herself more drained from her difficult day than she'd realized. She'd eaten the meal Darcy had finished fixing and went straight to bed only to wake up to an empty apartment, an apple fritter, and a note from Darcy saying he'd taken Grace to the bookstore and would see her later.
She arrived at the store to find Jack's car sitting in the parking lot next to Caroline's. Jack's presence at work surprised her less than Caroline's as she'd figured her opening waitress would've used the broken nose as an excuse not to come in to work. Elisabeth threw open the back door and was immediately bombarded with the sound of Britney Spears belting out "Baby One More Time." She grimaced and made a beeline for the volume control, which she turned down to zero at the same time she saw Caroline dancing around the dining room, putting down place mats and rolls of silverware.
"Thank you!" she heard Jack yell from the back.
"Hey, why'd you turn the music off?" Caroline set the unwieldy container of silverware on a table and turned to glare at the front counter. "Oh, hi, El. I didn't know you were here."
"A herd of elephants could've come through and you wouldn't have known," Elisabeth replied as she got her first good look at Caroline's nose. "Wow. You really did a number on that thing, didn't you?"
"Go to hell," Caroline grumbled as she picked up the silverware container and continued setting out silverware. "It's all your sister's fault, you know."
"Lydia can hardly be blamed for breaking your nose since she had no idea you were standing outside the door, trying to hear our conversation."
"Then whose fault is it?"
"I think it might be yours. We went to the freezer to have a little privacy, which you didn't want to give us. If you hadn't followed us out there, you wouldn't have been standing outside the door when Lydia opened it and you wouldn't have been hit in the face."
"What makes you think I gave a damn what you and your sister were saying to each other?"
"What were you doing out there?"
Caroline didn't look guilty, but she didn't answer the question, either. Elisabeth retreated to the office, where she found Jack sitting at the computer. "Don't tell me that we've got computer troubles already," she said. "These are brand new."
"No, I was just admiring them and contemplating sending a thank-you card to the head of the Knightley Corporation for giving them to us." Jack came close to smiling as he stood up. "Don't tell anyone I said this, but I kind of miss the old computers. They had more character. These things, you ask them to do something and they do it right away. No waiting, no crankiness, nothing."
"I'll save the information for a rainy day when I want to get you good." Elisabeth took the seat he'd vacated as he found another chair to sit in. She waited until he was settled before asking, "How are you doing?"
He sighed and shrugged. "I'm here."
"Yeah, and I wasn't expecting you to be. Louisa agreed to work for you this weekend so you could have a little time to yourself."
"No. I don't need the time."
Jack looked directly at her. "Elisabeth, I appreciate the thought. I really do. But the best thing for me right now is to get back to my normal routine. So here I am. I already called Louisa and told her she didn't have to come in. She growled out something that sounded like 'thank you,' although I might not be right about that, and hung up on me."
"Well, if you're sure."
Elisabeth wanted to keep arguing, but she knew when it was hopeless. "All right," she said. "But if you need a few minutes here and there or if you think you can't handle something, let me know."
Jack looked as though he wanted to say something, but he just nodded. He stared at the computer screen.
Elisabeth debated with herself as to whether or not she should ask him about the wedding. Finally, she decided she might as well, since the longer she put off asking the question, the more trouble she'd have finding a replacement, if that was how Darcy wanted to do things.
"What?" He turned to look at her.
"I know this might not be an appropriate time to ask, but then I don't know when there would be a good time, not to mention the fact that time is something I don't have a lot of right now..."
"...what with the plans and my mother and now Lydia driving me crazy."
"Yeah, Caroline was telling me you and Lydia had..." The volume on the jukebox had been turned back up as another Britney Spears song started. "I'm going to kill her. She's played that entire CD. I thought Erin was supposed to work this morning."
"Erin called in sick yesterday afternoon. Caroline agreed to open this morning because she wanted tonight off, so Kit's going to close for her."
"Who's working for Kit today?"
"Charlie agreed to work since Sean's been giving her Fridays off of late." Elisabeth yawned. "So you were saying that Caroline was telling you about me and Lydia."
"She said you had a fight about George coming to the wedding." Jack snickered. "Is it mean of me to say she got what she deserved with the broken nose?"
"I'm conducting an informal poll, and so far all the answers are for no, it's not mean to say or think. No, I lie. Caroline didn't agree, but her vote doesn't count." Elisabeth sighed. "I had to tell my mother some things I didn't want to tell her about George, but she finally backed off of having him at the wedding. It remains to be seen whether or not Lydia will still be a bridesmaid. I'd just as soon not have her at the wedding now, but I have a feeling she's going to insist because she knows I don't want her."
The phone rang. Since Jack was closer to it, he picked up. "Thank you for calling Effingham Planet Earth Pizza, this is Jack. How may I help you?" He listened to the person on the other end. "Caroline? Yeah, she's here. Hang on." He put the person on hold and then headed to the front to tell Caroline about her call. When he returned, he asked, "Does this have anything to do with what you wanted to ask me?"
"No, not really. I need to know if you still want to be in our wedding. Darcy was planning on asking you later, but since you're here I decided I'd go ahead and do it. We would completely understand if you didn't think you were up to it. I know what it was like to go through Christmas without Granny Bess, and the circumstances of her death weren't nearly as traumatic as your mother's."
Jack's gaze flickered back to the computer screen before returning back to Elisabeth. "I'm not letting you guys down," he said. "I told Darcy I'd be a groomsman, and I'll be there."
"It's not necessary. If Lydia backs out of being a bridesmaid, your not being there won't be as noticeable."
"It will be to me. I'm not going to miss your wedding, El. Count me in."
Elisabeth almost asked him if he was sure, but she'd asked him if he was sure about coming back to work and he'd said yes then. She didn't figure he'd change his mind about the wedding. "Okay. I'll let Darcy know so he won't ask you a second time."
"Cool. Now, would you please unplug the jukebox and put me out of my misery?"
"Gladly," Elisabeth said, heading up to the front to turn the volume back down.
Darcy Williamson was a frustrated man. He'd tried three times in the past week to have some private, romantic time with his fiancée only to have something come along to mess everything up, and he was getting damned tired of it. Rather than take his frustration out on Elisabeth, who was hardly to blame for it, he'd opted to leave before she got up and only returned once he knew she was gone.
"Okay, Gracie, you've got to give your old man some advice here," he said to the baby who napping in her car seat, which was on the coffee table. "He's arranged to have you looked after. He's locked the door. He's even tried taking the phone off the hook, and yet none of it has worked. Daddy has to have a little alone time with your mommy before next Saturday or he's going to go crazy. Any ideas on how to do that?"
He grinned as Grace continued to sleep. "I get the message, kid. Daddy's on his own."
It took Darcy about ten minutes to decide that the best thing to do was to kidnap Elisabeth as soon as she got home from work, drag her off to a hotel, check in under an assumed name, and take the phone off the hook. He'd settle for an hour or two alone with her at this point, although he hoped he'd have the whole evening.
Darcy was about to call Charlie to see if she could look after Grace for the night when someone knocked on the door. With a small groan, he contemplated not answering it. Then he remembered that his car was out front, announcing to anyone who was wanting to see him that he was home.
"I should've gone to the store to figure this one out, kiddo," Darcy said to Grace as he walked to the door and opened it.
He'd been expecting to see Chazz or Jack, needing to talk to him about the bachelor party. Instead, he found his cousin James standing outside his door, dressed in a casual but expensive shirt and trousers.
"Hey!" Darcy smiled and extended his hand for James to shake. James took the hand and drew Darcy in for a hug, which Darcy returned. After a few seconds, they parted and Darcy stepped aside to let the other man inside his apartment.
Darcy shut the door and took a seat on the couch. James sat in one of the chairs. "If you're here for the wedding, you're a week early. Elisabeth and I aren't getting married until next Saturday."
James chuckled. "I know when you're getting married. I'm only here until tomorrow afternoon and then I'm heading to Florida for a few days. Spring training, you know."
"Yeah," Darcy said. "That's all I've been hearing lately, that spring training doesn't mean anything and the season starts at the end of the month. Elisabeth's cousin Charlie is a big baseball fan, and she's been arguing with one of my groomsmen about it. I'm guessing that's not a good sign when someone says that."
"No, it isn't." James smiled at Grace, who was somehow still asleep. "She is really beautiful, Dare," he said. "She looks just like Elisabeth."
"Thank you. Uh...did you say that you were in town until tomorrow?"
"Yes, I did. I had a couple of days off before I'm supposed to be there, so I thought I'd drop in and see you and Elisabeth and finally get my first look at the baby."
"We missed you when we got together for Christmas," Darcy said. "Your brother, on the other hand..."
"You wished hadn't been able to come?"
"It's not so much Nick himself. It's those God-awful children of his."
James laughed. "I've been telling Nick and Helena they were spoiling the kids too much, but they wouldn't believe me. They said I wouldn't understand since I didn't have any children of my own. Now they believe me."
Darcy's mustered a half-hearted smile and mentally let out a string of curses. Was he never to get a little time alone with Elisabeth before the wedding? Trying not to sound rude, Darcy asked, "So, what are you doing here? If you don't have to be in Florida until tomorrow, you could've taken a couple days and enjoyed yourself on the beach or something. It's a bit cold for anything fun here."
James sighed and leaned back in the chair. "I wish I knew what the hell I was doing here." After a long pause, he continued. "That's a lie. I know why I'm here. I'm here because...well, have you ever met a woman that you couldn't get out of your head?"
"Yes, I did. I'm getting married next Saturday, remember?" Darcy grinned. "But I remember what it was like when you first feel that way. You think you're the only one and nobody would understand if you told them."
"So who's the woman you can't get out of your..." Darcy paused as the memory of James's only other visit to Effingham returned. "No."
James nodded before hanging his head. Darcy burst into laughter.
"Go ahead and laugh. I tried to do the same thing myself until I realized that laughing about the absurdity of it all was just another excuse to think about her."
"Of all the women in the world, why would you get stuck on Caroline Benson?" Darcy asked.
"Damned if I know. It was obvious that she would flirt with any reasonably good-looking guy who walked into the store and I was no exception. From what Elisabeth told me when I mentioned meeting her, she doesn't seem to be a particularly nice person. She's not my usual type at all, but I can't seem to get her off of my mind."
Darcy almost started laughing again until he realized that James could've been describing his own situation with Elisabeth. Hadn't he been told that she was a witch? Hadn't he thought she wasn't his type when he'd first known her? Hadn't it driven him crazy that he hadn't been able to stop thinking about her until he'd finally caved in and asked her out?
"I definitely know what you're going through," Darcy said, nodding slowly. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know. I made a hell of a mess when we first met, and I doubt she'll have forgiven me for it. I doubt she's even thought about me at all. Has she been seeing someone lately?"
"Caroline doesn't have a boyfriend that I know of. She's been out with a few guys since I've been here, but no one important." Darcy chose not to mention that the main reason she hadn't dated much was because she'd been trying to get him to go out with her.
"Really?" James looked hopeful.
"Yeah. I don't think she's going to fall into your arms right away, but Caroline..." Darcy paused. "She likes compliments. Give her enough of those and I'm sure she'll forgive you eventually."
Business had been good during the buffet, busy enough that Charlie didn't get the chance to say anything about Caroline's nose outside of asking her how she was feeling. The two had been working well together, doing their best to take turns so they had an even number of tables. Elisabeth had seen them laughing at the beverage bar at one point. And with Jack as her cook for the day, the buffet had stayed well-stocked in spite of a rush of delivery and carry-out orders. Elisabeth's mood improved in spite of the nagging worries she had about the unusually quiet Jack.
By one-thirty, business had slowed enough that Charlie and Caroline were able to clean up the dining room quickly. Elisabeth shut down the buffet and was waiting for the last two tables eating off of it to finish lunch. Jack was busy cleaning up the mess from lunch and restocking the make table for the evening.
Elisabeth had just told Caroline to go off tables and had given her permission to take a short break when Charlie said, "Darcy's here."
Caroline paused on her way to the break room. "Did he bring the baby?" she asked.
"Of course he did," Elisabeth said as Darcy walked to the front counter with Grace in tow.
"Make sure he stays here for a little bit. I need to have a cigarette first, but then I want to see the baby." Caroline continued on her way to the back room.
Darcy set the car seat on the front counter. "Hello," he said. "Hey, Charlie!"
"Hi, Darcy! Mind if I take my namesake for a little stroll around the dining room?" Charlie asked, walking up to the counter. She smiled when she saw Grace, who gurgled cheerfully at her.
"Not at all."
"Thanks." Charlie fumbled a bit to get Grace out of the car seat. "Okay, Gracie, let's take a look around at where Mommy works. Would you like that?"
Elisabeth was tempted to kiss Darcy in spite of the customers still around. She reined in the urge and noticed that someone had come in with Darcy. "Hey, stranger!" she called out as she walked around to the other side of the counter and gave James a hug. "How's the sports world these days?"
"Oh, the usual----will the Lakers overcome their lousy start to win it all, who's gotten arrested for drug possession today, will the Yankees' payroll go over two hundred million dollars this year, that sort of thing. How's the pizza world?"
"Soon to be short an assistant manager," Elisabeth said. "I'm leaving in August to go to college."
"Really?" James smiled. "What are you planning to study?"
"I don't have the slightest idea. I'm just going back to see what might interest me."
"I'm sure you'll find something you like."
"You're a little early for the wedding," Elisabeth said. "It's next week, unless you were planning to hang around to keep Darcy sane."
"I'm just in town overnight," James said. "I'm headed to spring training."
"Don't tell Charlie anything about that. She'll try to stow away in your suitcase. Opening day can't get here fast enough for her. She and Jack are going to St. Louis for the first game, which has her all excited since she's never been to an opening day game. I personally don't see what the big deal is, but when I said that she started talking about ambiance and convertibles. I thought it better not to ask."
Darcy frowned. "I thought the Cardinals' first baseball game was on the thirty-first."
"I think it is," James told him.
"But..." Darcy looked disappointed. "That's the first day my store will be open. I thought Charlie and Jack would be around to see it, but if they've got tickets to the game, they'll be gone all day."
"They'll be there when you first open up and leave for the game from the store. Don't worry, Charlie knows what this means to you. She'll be sure to put in an appearance. You weren't expecting her to hang around all day, were you? If she wasn't at the game, she would've had to go to work anyway."
"I guess you're right. I wasn't thinking."
"So you're cool with Charlie and Jack going to the ball game?"
"My fiancée, the comedienne," Darcy said to James. Turning to Elisabeth, he added, "James is here for another reason, and you're gonna love hearing it."
"And what is it?" Elisabeth asked.
Darcy grinned and looked at his cousin. James glared at him and said, "I'm here to see Caroline."
Elisabeth wasn't too surprised to hear that. James had asked her about Caroline when he'd come to meet Darcy back in December. Elisabeth had tried to keep her opinion neutral, but it had been impossible to do. He'd spoken to her a couple of times since and had casually asked about Caroline, but it was clear he'd been wanting to know more than Elisabeth had told him.
"She's here," Elisabeth said.
"I know. I called earlier this morning and asked to talk to her. When she answered, I hung up."
"She's got another hour before she's scheduled off, but I was thinking of letting her go early since we've died out here and she's got her work done. Planning to ask her out on a date?"
"She'd probably spit in my face if I did. We didn't exactly get along the one time we met."
"And you're still thinking about her?" When James nodded, Elisabeth smiled. "I'm not sure if this makes you a masochist or incredibly brave. Right now, I'm leaning toward masochist tendencies."
"I would, too. So where is she if she's still around?"
"Smoking a cigarette in the back. I'll get her for you." Elisabeth walked to the back, where Caroline was indeed smoking, and said, "You've got someone at the front door, Caroline."
Caroline frowned. "I thought you were gonna send me home because we were dead. Can't Charlie take the table?"
"Special request from a customer. He wants you to wait on him and won't be served by anyone else." Elisabeth smiled. "He's kind of cute, and from the way he insisted on having you as his waitress, I think he likes you."
Caroline's eyes lit up. "Really? Did he say anything else?"
"Uh-huh. He said that since your first meeting, he hasn't been able to get you out of his head." Elisabeth wondered if she was laying it on too thick, but when Caroline grabbed her purse and fumbled through it for a compact, she knew she hadn't.
"God, of all days for a great guy to show up! My nose! And my hair's a mess, I didn't apply any mascara and I look like a rabbit without it..."
"You look like you do any other day, except for the nose, and he obviously liked what he saw the first time around."
"Yeah," Caroline said, snapping the compact shut and tossing it back into her purse. "Okay. I'm going out there. Wish me luck."
Elisabeth was having too much trouble trying to keep from laughing that she couldn't say anything to Caroline, not that the younger woman noticed. Elisabeth kept two steps behind her as they walked to the front of the store. When she got there, she saw that Darcy was at the jukebox and James had his back turned to the kitchen.
"Hello, sir," Caroline said in a low, seductive voice. "How can I help you today?"
James turned around quickly and smiled innocently. "Hello, Caroline. What on earth did you do to yourself?"
When she saw the horrified look on Caroline's face, Elisabeth gave in to the urge to laugh.
"You!" Caroline hissed. She gave Elisabeth a furious look before turning back to James. "What are you doing here? Did you get your dates mixed up and forget that Darcy and Elisabeth aren't getting married until next weekend?"
"Since I'm in the wedding, not likely," James replied. "I came here to visit them on my way to Florida."
"Really? And what are you going to do in Florida? Watch as they shoot 'Girls Gone Wild' videos?" Caroline looked at Elisabeth again. "I was only trying to be a concerned friend who cared about what was happening with you and your sister. If this was your idea of payback, I don't appreciate it."
"What did you tell her?" James asked.
"I told her there was a guy out front who insisted on seeing her. I might've mentioned that you haven't been able to stop thinking about her since you met, which I'm guessing is true because you're here." Elisabeth shrugged. "I don't see that I stretched the truth."
"Do you have any idea of what he said to me the last time he was here?" Caroline said shrilly. "He said I was flirting when all I was doing was..."
"Flirting," James said. "I believe you took exception to my calling you on it."
"So what if I was? I flirt with a lot of guys, and none of them have insulted me because I did!"
"Caroline, keep your voice down. There are customers in here," Elisabeth said.
"All I said was that you needed to be a bit more subtle. Talking in a babyish voice and practically throwing yourself into my lap aren't what I would call subtle."
"I didn't throw myself in your lap," Caroline hissed. "I was doing my job. Which I happen to be very good at." She thrust her left hand into one of her apron pockets and pulled out a wad of bills. "See? This is how much I made today, and this is just the first pocket! So I don't need your help in telling me how to do my job, or in how I should flirt. I have plenty of guys who like my technique just fine."
"I'm glad you're doing well," James said.
"How nice of you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have other things to do. Like going home. I can go home, can't I, El? Charlie can take this one."
"I'm sorry. James asked that you be the one to wait on him. Unless you want him complaining to Sean, you'll have to do it."
Caroline yanked two menus out of the menu holder and snapped, "Two today?"
"Yes, please, for non-smoking."
"Right this way, sir." Caroline stuck James and Darcy in one of the back tables, slamming the menus onto the table and saying, "I'll be right with you."
"I don't think that went well," James said. His eyes never left Caroline as she stalked back to the kitchen. "Maybe if I keep it up, I'll be able to get her to behave badly enough and I'll be able to forget about her."
"Or, more likely, you'll only think about her more." Darcy didn't bother picking up his menu since he knew what he wanted. He checked to see where Charlie was, since she still had Grace, and found that they were at the front counter. Elisabeth was making faces at Grace until some customers came to the register to pay. "You've never been attracted to a woman who wanted nothing to do with you, have you?"
"No. I usually do find myself attracted to women who like me. You said you knew what I'm going through. I presume you were talking about Elisabeth." When Darcy nodded, James continued. "How did you work things out with her?"
"It's a long story," Darcy said.
"I have time."
Something of which I'm well aware, Darcy thought with one last moment of longing for the plans he'd wanted to make to spend that time with Elisabeth. Before he could start talking, James's eyes looked up and Darcy could smell perfume.
"What do you want?" he heard Caroline ask as he turned to look at her.
"I'll have spaghetti and an order of garlic bread with cheese to go with it. I'll also have a glass of Coke."
"We only serve Pepsi here," Caroline said through clenched teeth.
"Then I'll have Pepsi."
"Great." Caroline looked as though she planned to spit in his food, but she turned to Darcy with her sunniest smile. "And for you, Darcy? What would you like today?"
"A small pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms, easy sauce, and a Dr. Pepper."
"I'll be right back with your drinks," she said, still smiling at Darcy.
"You probably should've stuck to water," Darcy said as he turned back to look at his cousin. "She looks like she'd be more than happy to pour your soda over your head."
"I don't think she'll do it."
"You mean you hope she doesn't."
"Hope, think, same thing. You were going to tell me about you and Elisabeth."
Darcy launched into the story, pausing long enough for Caroline to bring their drinks. She almost, but not quite, spilled James's Pepsi everywhere by slamming the glass on the table before leaving. He paused a second time when Elisabeth brought Grace and her car seat to the table. When he was finished, James sighed and turned his place mat over.
"What are you going to do?" Darcy asked.
"What I do best," James replied. "Do you have a pen?"
"No." Just then, Charlie walked by with a ticket in her hand for the customers getting ready to leave, and Darcy called, "Hey, Charlie?"
Charlie turned her head. "Yeah?"
"Do you have a pen I can borrow?"
"Sure." Charlie reached into one of her apron pockets and pulled out an ink pen, accidentally pulling a napkin with writing on it in the process. Darcy handed it back to Charlie. He knew better than to read what was on it. She stuffed the napkin in her pocket and smiled at James. "Hi. I'm Charlie Lucas. I'm guessing you're the reason Caroline's back there muttering about putting rat poison in the spaghetti."
"James Hampton. It's nice to meet you, and yes, I would be the rat." He waved the pen at her. "Thanks for the loan. I'll give it back to you as soon as I'm finished."
"There's no rush. I've got a million of them." Charlie hurried over to her departing table, handing them their ticket and making sure there was nothing else she could get for them.
"James..." Darcy started to say.
"Shh. I'm concentrating on what I want to say," James said as he started to write.
Elisabeth managed to keep Caroline's actions around James in check, but it was a close call. What had been most effective was threatening to write her up if she did anything. Caroline was one write-up away from being terminated, and with Sean vowing that he would never hire her again if she did something to lose her job, she couldn't afford to risk it.
Elisabeth went out to check on James and Darcy a couple of times, making sure Caroline was keeping to her promise not to do anything drastic. The third and final time she went out to check on them, James was no longer writing.
"How is everything?" she asked.
"We're fine," James said. "Could you do me a favor and give this to Caroline? If I try to give it to her, she'll tear it up."
"What makes you think she won't tear it up if I give it to her?" Elisabeth asked, taking the note and glancing at it.
"I have confidence in you." James smiled. "Would it be all right for me to get my own refill? I've asked Caroline twice and she's ignored me both times."
Elisabeth frowned. "I'll send her out here in a second. There's no reason why you should get your own refill." She walked back to the kitchen, where Caroline was filling a clean container with shredded cheddar cheese for the salad bar. "Caroline, your table would like a refill on their drinks."
"Darcy went and got his own refill. Surely he can get his own."
Caroline huffed but went out to the table to get James more to drink. Elisabeth looked around for Charlie but saw her nowhere. She realized seconds later that Jack was also nowhere to be found. Her first inclination was to look in the walk-in, but as she headed in that direction, she heard quiet talking in the break room.
"I don't know if that's a good thing," Jack was saying.
"What's most important is for you to feel comfortable with what you're doing," Charlie said. "If you're not comfortable with coming back to work, or with going to the wedding, then don't do it. If you're okay with it, then keep doing it."
Elisabeth took three steps back, then called, "Charlie! I need you up front for a minute!" She then walked to the register, where she could see that Caroline had added the new cheese container to the salad bar and was contemplating what to do next.
"What did you want?"
Elisabeth crooked her finger and beckoned Charlie to come closer. "I've got a note for Caroline. It's from James, but I have to insure that she reads it instead of throwing it away or ripping it up. I need you to help me out."
Elisabeth opened the letter. "We'll pretend to read it and let her know it's for her. She won't be able to stand the fact that we know something she doesn't, especially since it concerns her."
Caroline picked up the lettuce bowl. As she started walking toward them, Charlie took the note and giggled. "My darling Caroline?" she whispered loud enough for anyone close by to hear. "He actually calls her his darling?"
"What is that?" Caroline asked, setting the lettuce bowl down.
"Oh, nothing," Elisabeth said quickly. "Just a note from James, that's all."
Caroline snatched the note out of Charlie's hands and tossed it into the trash can in the wait station before going to the walk-in for more lettuce. Charlie gave Elisabeth a look as if to ask if she should take the note out of the garbage and give it to Caroline again. Elisabeth shook her head. If Caroline didn't want the note, there was nothing more either of them could do. She'd made it more than clear that she was furious with James and a mere note wasn't going to change anything.
Caroline came back with a full container of lettuce to add to the salad bar, giving the trash can a moment's glance before going out into the dining room. On her next pass through, she looked for a few seconds more, and by the time she went through with the French dressing, she set it on the front counter and picked the note out of the garbage.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," she mumbled, not realizing she had an audience. She opened the letter and read it quickly. Her brow furrowed and she turned to look out at the table where Darcy and James were sitting. She turned her attention back to the letter. She read through it a second time before wadding it into a ball, tossing it into the garbage, and getting back to work.
"I can't stand this anymore. I have to read it," Charlie said, hurrying over to the garbage and plucking the letter out. Elisabeth took it from her so the two of them could read it together.
I am a fool. Always have been, always will be. I sometimes speak before I think, and it isn't until I look back on a situation that I realize I've said the wrong thing. This is why I prefer writing to speaking in general, because when I say the wrong thing on paper, I have a chance to go back and correct it before anyone has a chance to notice. But spoken words can't be taken back, which is why I'm a fool.
I hurt your feelings when we met, and I didn't mean to do so. If I had been writing a column about you, I would've listed the things about you that I found attractive. I liked that you grumbled about having to take another table when I arrived. I liked the smile you had on your face when you saw me. I liked the looks you sent my way when you didn't think I'd notice. I liked the surprise in your eyes when I kissed your hand. I would've asked why you had to change all of that when you brought my meal to me. The real you was just fine, so why change at all?
But I'm a fool. I had to make wisecracks about channeling Marilyn Monroe and tease you until you dumped a glass of ice water on my head. I didn't deserve that, but I understood why and accepted it. In a way, I admired you for doing it. You left quite an impression on me, Caroline. Unfortunately, I messed things up and from the way you greeted me just a bit ago, I won't have the chance to make it up to you. But I couldn't leave town tomorrow without telling you this. Please accept my apology, even if you won't accept my offer of dinner to go with it.
"Nice," Elisabeth said.
"I might have to include this in my screenplay," Charlie said, taking the letter and smoothing it out with the intention of sticking it into her apron pocket.
Out of nowhere, Caroline returned and snatched the note out of Charlie's hands. "He just wrote that to make me feel bad," Caroline muttered, sticking it into her own apron. "And it's not going to work." She walked back to the salad bar with her fresh container of tomatoes.
"I'd say he's made some progress," Elisabeth said.
"Why would you say that?" Charlie asked.
"She didn't throw it away that time." And as Elisabeth watched Caroline work, she saw a smile creep onto the other woman's face.
Posted on Friday, 17 October 2003
After finishing lunch, Darcy and James returned to the apartment. Darcy had no idea of what he was going to do to entertain his cousin, since Effingham was devoid of much to do during the day outside of going to the bowling alley. Darcy spent half an hour getting Grace to fall asleep before he joined James in the living room. James was on the couch watching Jeopardy, which had just started. Darcy took one of the chairs and sat down heavily.
Neither man spoke as the game show progressed except to call out questions to the answers. Darcy did better than James in business and historical categories while James bested Darcy in sports and pop culture. Neither of them got the final question correct. Once the show was over, however, Darcy's mind naturally drifted back to the plans he'd started making when James had arrived.
The more he thought about it, the crankier he got. He'd known that this would be his last chance to have an evening alone with Elisabeth because his grandparents were arriving tomorrow. He would spend most of his time with them, and she would spend her time either working at the store of putting the finishing touches on the wedding with her mother. The rest of the family would invade, there would be the bachelor party and her bridal shower, and then they would be seeing each other at the altar.
Darcy supposed he should be satisfied with the knowledge that they would be spending a week together without distractions, but next Saturday was a long way off and it seemed like it had been forever since they'd last had a chance to be together. If only James hadn't decided he needed to see Caroline...Caroline, for God's sake, of all people!
Trust Caroline to find a way to interfere with my life yet again.
Darcy was so wrapped up in his sour mood that he didn't notice when James turned off the TV. In fact, he'd forgotten the other man was there until James smacked his arm with a rolled-up newspaper.
"Hey!" Darcy rubbed his arm. "What was that for?"
"That was because yelling at you didn't work. You've been staring at the television like it was still on," James said. "What's with the I'm-on-another-planet look? Getting nervous about the wedding?"
Darcy shrugged. "No more than any other man would be at this point. It's not a problem."
"Then why'd you space out on me? I suggested that we do something tonight and you just stared at the TV like I wasn't here."
"I'm sorry," Darcy said dully. "I didn't mean to ignore you. I was just thinking about things. Not the wedding, but...things."
"Want to talk about them?" James asked. "I'm good at listening."
Darcy almost smiled. "Listening isn't going to solve my main problem, but thanks anyway. What did you want to do? I have to warn you that Effingham doesn't have many options when it comes to entertainment."
"I didn't figure it did. I thought I'd take you guys out to dinner, then maybe go bowling. I haven't been bowling for years, but I think I'll do fine. What time does Elisabeth get off of work?"
"Five, but she rarely gets to leave when she's scheduled off. Something comes up and she has to stick around a little longer." Which meant that his plans probably would've had to have been scrapped, anyway. Might as well face the facts. It just wasn't meant to be.
"What wasn't meant to be?"
Darcy jumped because he hadn't intended to say that aloud. "Uh, what?"
"You said that she gets off at five but sometimes has to stay late, and it just wasn't meant to be. So I asked what wasn't meant to be."
"It's nothing. Just a thought I was having." Darcy smiled nervously.
"Are you sure nothing's wrong? Because you're sure acting like something is."
"It's nothing wrong, exactly. I'm not having second thoughts about the wedding. I love Elisabeth and I want to marry her. It's just..." Darcy waved a hand. "Nothing. And that's the problem."
"'Nothing' is the problem?"
"No, it's..." Darcy struggled to come up with the words. He didn't want to come off sounding like a lecher with only one thing on his mind. "It's difficult to explain, that's all. Things have been crazy around here since Elisabeth and I decided to get married. We probably should've waited a few more months, but we couldn't. Next weekend, you're going to meet Elisabeth's mother and you'll see why we couldn't wait."
"I've heard stories."
"They're all true, but it's not just Ruth. It's the wedding and opening the bookstore and Elisabeth going to college and Grace. A friend of ours just went through a major family crisis. Her older sister just got engaged and her younger sister got married. It's been a mess."
"You're feeling overwhelmed by everything," James concluded.
Darcy shook his head. "No. Well, yes, sometimes. But that's not my problem. With everything that's been going on, Elisabeth and I haven't...there never seems to be any time for...we haven't been alone since Grace was born." Darcy felt his face blushing.
"I think I'm beginning to see the problem."
"We've tried," Darcy said. "I've waited up for her and she's tried to get up early for me. We've sent Grace to just about every relative in town so we could have time alone. We've taken the phone off the hook and locked the doors. No matter what we do, however, something else crops up and ruins the evening."
"Like me," James said.
"No," Darcy said quickly. "You didn't ruin anything. I didn't have anything definite planned for tonight. I was in the preliminary planning stage when you knocked on the door."
"But you were definitely thinking of doing something tonight."
"Well, yes. This next week is going to be impossible, so tonight was hopefully to be the night. But probably not. If it wasn't you, something else would've come up. I wouldn't have been able to find a babysitter for Grace, or she would've gotten sick. Someone would've called for Elisabeth. Her sister would come storming in, looking for a fight. That's the kind of luck I've been having lately, so don't feel bad. Like I said, you didn't ruin anything."
James became pensive. "And I still don't have to," he said after a minute. "You don't have to change your plans because I'm here. In fact, my being here will make things easier for you. I'll watch Grace, who looked perfectly healthy to me. If someone calls for Elisabeth or someone shows up, you won't be here. Take her somewhere for the night. Don't tell anyone, not even me. Take the phone off the hook when you get where you're staying for the night and you're all set."
"I couldn't ask you to do that," Darcy said. "You're only in town for the night, and..."
"I know how the rest of it goes. You feel like you should spend as much time with me as you can because we didn't see each other for twenty years."
"Don't worry about it. We've talked plenty over the last few weeks, and now that I know where you are, we'll do plenty of talking in the future. You need this night with Elisabeth, and I'm not about to stand in your way."
"Are you sure? Watching after Grace..."
"After Nick and Helena's kids, I'm sure she'll be a breeze. You two enjoy yourselves. It certainly sounds like you deserve a night alone."
Darcy pulled into the parking lot just after five o'clock with James and Grace in tow. As he'd expected, Elisabeth's car was in the employee section of the parking lot, next to Bubba's. He breathed a small sigh of relief. Bubba was Elisabeth's replacement, and of late had taken to showing up at least fifteen minutes after his shift was supposed to start. The only problem he saw was that the parking lot was full in spite of the early hour.
He took a parking spot on the other side of Elisabeth even though he was no longer an employee and got out of the car, leaving the engine on so the car would stay warm. The smell of pizza reached him immediately, as it always had. He checked his watch in case his car clock was wrong. It wasn't.
"Would you get in there already?" James rolled down the window and asked. "The longer you take to get Elisabeth, the more SportsCenter I miss."
"I thought you said SportsCenter was the root of all evil in sports."
"I did, but for some reason I still watch it. Now get her out of there so you can have your romantic evening. You wait too much longer and something will come up to stop you." James rolled up his window.
Darcy nodded and walked toward the store. He had his hand on the handle of the back door before he remembered that he no longer worked there. With a chuckle, he continued walking until he reached the front door. He walked into the store. The dining room was full of women, most of them wearing bright red hats and purple shirts. Their ages varied, as Darcy saw a couple of women who looked to barely be out of college talking with a woman who was probably close to ninety.
Darcy spotted Charlie darting through the crowd, a genuine smile on her face as she brought one of the tables by the door a pizza. "Here you go, ladies," she said. "One medium vegetarian pizza, easy on the sauce. Is there anything else I can get for you right now? More to drink, more napkins, anything?"
"Oh, no," one of the younger women in the store said. "Thanks."
"Well, okay. If you need anything, holler. I'll find my way back over." Charlie turned to look around the room, making sure nobody needed anything. When she was satisfied that everything was going well, she turned back to Darcy. "Back to bug us again?"
"Actually, I was hoping to steal away your assistant manager."
Charlie walked behind the front counter and started flipping through tickets. "She should be able to leave soon. That was the last table waiting on food, so all that's really left to do is to make sure they have plenty to drink and a heap of doggie boxes."
"What's going on here?" Darcy asked. "Is it one of those Fanny Mae conventions?"
Charlie chuckled. "You mean Mary Kay, and no, that's not what this is. You see those five women at the middle table?"
Darcy turned to look at the table she meant. "Yeah."
"They've been friends all of their lives, and all of the women here are related to at least one of them. I'm not sure why they're all wearing red hats and purple shirts, but I didn't think it would be polite to ask."
"I bet you were ready to scream when they walked in."
Charlie shrugged. "They've been very polite. No trouble at all to wait on, and very patient. My only complaint was that they all wanted separate tickets, but they were even patient about that. Elisabeth got their drinks and Kit's going to help me clear tables when they're gone."
"Think you'll get a good tip?" Darcy asked.
"That's what I'm hoping for," Charlie said before she set down the tickets and headed back to the beverage bar to get drink refills.
Darcy grinned as Kit Longbourne appeared, her blonde hair in its' usual frizzy mullet. "Hey, Kit," he said. "How's life?"
"I'm still here, so that should answer your question. How about you?"
"Things are crazy but okay. In other words, the usual. Is the love of my life getting ready to leave, by any chance?"
"I think she might be. Bubba wants to keep her here, but outside of all these ladies, there's nothing going on. But Bubba..."
"He's still upset about not getting the Newton store. I've heard all about it. How much longer before Sean gets fed up and fires him?" Darcy asked.
"We're taking bets. Two weeks is available if you want in. Only five bucks."
Darcy chuckled. "I'd better not. The last thing I want to do is make him any more upset than he already is." Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Elisabeth walking up to the front counter.
"You again?" Elisabeth asked with a smile. "I hope you didn't bring James with you. Caroline may be gone, but Louisa took her place and got to hear the whole story before Caroline left. In spite of the nice letter he wrote, she's still ticked at him."
"He didn't expect her to be anything else. She read the note, though, right?"
"She even kept it."
"I'll be sure to let him know. He's out in the car, and we're waiting for you to get off of work. James is offering to take us to dinner."
"That's nice of him. Where's Grace?"
"She's with James. I couldn't find anyone to take her, so she'll have to come along. Are you off?" When Elisabeth nodded, he grasped her hand and said, "Great. Let's go before you get sucked back into working."
"That's not likely. Bubba's so mad at me right now he'd rather not have me here. I'll tell you about it later."
"Gee, thanks a lot, El. You get to leave and we get to put up with him and his bad mood for the rest of the night," Kit grumbled as she went to help Charlie.
Elisabeth looked at him, slightly panicked. "We need to leave now," she said. "Bye, Charlie! See you tomorrow!"
Charlie waved in their general direction, too busy talking with a table to really pay much attention to the fact that they were leaving. Darcy hustled Elisabeth out the door, worried that in spite of what she'd said, Bubba would try to get her to stay.
"Darcy, what's going on?" Elisabeth asked with a laugh in her voice. "What's the rush? It's not like James is going to die if we don't have dinner right away."
"I want to make sure we get to dinner," Darcy muttered. "Give me your car keys."
"What?" Elisabeth dug in her heels and forced him to stop.
"Come on. Give me your keys." Darcy turned to look at her. "Please?"
Elisabeth looked at him, then looked over at the cars. She shrugged and opened her purse. She took out her car keys and handed them to Darcy. "I don't see what the big deal is," she said. "It's just dinner."
"Of course." Darcy took the keys as James got out of his car and opened the door to the back seat. When James reached in to get Grace, Darcy turned to Elisabeth and said, "But we're not having dinner with James. He's taking Grace and we're going away for the night."
"What?" Elisabeth frowned. "We can't do that. I've got to clean the apartment before your grandparents get here tomorrow so they don't think we're slobs. My mother probably has half a dozen things she wants me to do before next Saturday, and I still haven't heard from Lydia about whether or not she's going to be in the wedding."
"The apartment looks fine, your mother can manage without you for one evening, and I don't give a damn about your sister. What I do care about is the fact that we haven't had any time alone together since Grace was born. I know that having a baby seriously curtails free time, but surely we deserve one night. James is being kind enough to take care of Grace, so we're going away."
"No arguments." Darcy hustled her over to his car and opened the passenger side door. Elisabeth didn't have a chance to protest before she found herself in the car with the door shut.
Once James had Grace secured in the back of Elisabeth's car, Darcy gave him the keys. "I'll call you when we get to where we're going," Darcy told him.
"I don't want to know," James said. "If I know, I might accidentally tell someone."
"No, you won't. I have confidence that you'll keep our location a secret, but you have to know where we are in case something goes wrong with Grace. All of the emergency numbers are on the refrigerator----Elisabeth's cell phone, her mom, Charlie, the police, ambulance, hospital...I think everything's on there."
"We'll be fine," James said.
"Okay, then. Thanks for everything, James."
"You're welcome. Now get out of here before it's too late." James rapped on the roof of the white Chevy Monte Carlo Darcy had gotten after Grace had been born. "Have fun, you crazy kids!"
Darcy put the car in reverse and nearly squealed the tires in his haste to get away from Planet Earth Pizza before Elisabeth could be called back in to work. In minutes, they were on Interstate 57-70.
"Where are we going?" Elisabeth asked.
"Can't tell you. Right now, you're on a need-to-know basis because if I tell you anything, someone will hear about it and track us down. As long as I'm the only person who knows, no one can keep us from having some time alone together."
Elisabeth laughed. "You're crazy. Did anyone ever tell you that?"
"My aunt on a number of occasions in the last year." Darcy kept driving on I-70 when he came to the 57-70 split. "She thinks you're to blame for it, and she's right. Unlike her, however, I think being crazy about you is a good thing."
"Thank God for that, but aren't you taking this secrecy thing a little too far?"
"Nope," he said, causing her to laugh as they made their way to Terre Haute.
Elisabeth wasn't surprised to find herself in the nicest hotel Terre Haute had to offer, because Darcy wouldn't have had it any other way. She felt frumpy in her stained, wrinkled Planet Earth Pizza uniform standing next to him as they'd checked in. She decided that the first thing she was going to do was have a bath, and maybe something to eat because she was starving.
Once they had the key to their room, Darcy took Elisabeth's hand and hurried her over to the elevator. Elisabeth laughed. "You're going to have people talking if you don't stop."
"I don't care. Let them talk." It was all he said before they got to their room. He opened the door, but before she could walk in, he picked her up.
Elisabeth gasped. "Hey, we're not married yet!" she exclaimed as he carried her into the hotel room. "Put me down or you'll give yourself a hernia."
"I'm practicing for the big day," Darcy said. "It would be embarrassing if I were to do this on our wedding night and accidentally drop you. And I'm not going to get a hernia by picking you up."
"Don't try to tell me that I'm as light as a feather. I weighed myself this morning and I know that's not the case," Elisabeth said as Darcy kicked the door shut.
"Okay, I won't, but honestly, you're not as heavy as you think." Darcy took her a few more steps into the room before setting her down.
Elisabeth tossed her purse and jacket aside and checked out the room while he called James to let him know where they were. When he was finished, he asked, "What do you think of the room? I made James step out of the room while I made the reservation, but then I remembered that someone needed to know where we were in case..."
Any thoughts of food or a bath fled as she looked at him. They could wait. Elisabeth quieted him by walking over to him and reaching for his shirt. She nearly tore it in her haste to get it off of him.
"Hey, we've got things to do first," Darcy protested. "We've got dinner and a soak in the Jacuzzi and..."
"Dinner and the hot tub can wait. Right now, all I want is you," Elisabeth said before kissing him. She pulled away for a second. "Unless the idea of making love to a woman who smells like pizza is a turn-off."
"You know that's my favorite smell in the world," Darcy said as he kissed her again. Elisabeth reached for his belt. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you've been reading my mind."
"We've been on the same wavelength for a while now," Elisabeth said as she got the belt unbuckled.
"You're not too tired tonight, are you?" Darcy asked as he fumbled with the buttons on her work shirt. When Elisabeth shook her head, he added, "Thank God."
He'd just gotten Elisabeth's shirt off when they heard the familiar tune that Elisabeth's cell phone played when someone was calling. Both of them groaned at the same time.
"I should probably get it," Elisabeth said.
"Why? You're sixty minutes away from being able to do anything about it. I'm not driving back after making all these arrangements," Darcy said.
"It might be James."
"He would call the hotel room, not your cell phone." Darcy couldn't believe it. He could've sworn he'd thought of everything, but not once had he thought of tossing Elisabeth's cell phone out a window.
Elisabeth walked over to the corner where she'd tossed her purse. She bent down and picked it up. Slowly.
So slowly, in fact, that by the time she had the purse in her hands, the phone had stopped ringing.
"They must not have wanted to talk to me if they couldn't wait long enough for me to get the phone," Elisabeth said cheerfully as she tossed the phone back down. "And you were right. James would call the room."
"Your voice mail picks up after four rings," Darcy said. "You didn't get to it in time, that's all. I'm sure whoever it is will call back."
Sure enough, Elisabeth hadn't taken two steps toward him when the phone rang again. She picked up the phone much faster, checked to see who was calling, and waited as the phone continued to ring.
"What are you doing?" Darcy asked.
"Not taking Bubba's call." Elisabeth waited until the phone stopped ringing again, then pushed a button. "Gee, what a shame. I hate it when my cell phone accidentally gets turned off. I wish I knew what to do to keep it from doing that, because it does it all by itself."
Darcy smiled. "You might have to take it in and get it fixed."
"You're right. Make sure that's the first thing I do when we get back from our honeymoon." Elisabeth shoved the phone back into her purse and tossed the purse back onto the floor. With a wicked gleam in her eye, she walked back to Darcy and led him to the bed.
Much later, the two of them had a chance to get dinner, followed by a hot bath and champagne. Elisabeth rested her head against the edge of the Jacuzzi and sighed. "God, we needed this. When was the last time we..."
"Not since before Grace was born," Darcy told her. "Not that I was counting or anything."
Elisabeth gave him a dirty look. "So if I were to ask you how long it had been in days, hours, minutes, and seconds, you'd have no idea how long it had been, right?"
"Men. You're nothing but sex-crazed horny toads." Elisabeth grinned. "Thank God for you. How did you set this up? Was James upset that you weren't going to stick around and entertain him? How did you explain this to him? Is he watching Grace for the entire night?"
"I didn't have any definite plans, and the plans I did have I figured were screwed when he showed up at my door," Darcy said. "But we got to talking and I mentioned that we hadn't had any quality time together since Grace was born, so he volunteered to watch her."
"Well, remind me to get him a nice bottle of wine or some coupons for a free pizza or something. He's a life saver, because these last months have been crazy." Elisabeth reached for her glass of champagne and took a sip.
"Would you have it any other way, though?" Darcy asked.
"Of course not. I don't think we could've even if we'd wanted to, anyway. You'd have the store to worry about and I'd be in school. We'd still have Grace. And we'd still have my mother. It's better to just get it over with and collapse after it's all over."
"That's a great way to describe our honeymoon. We'll be sitting on a beach in Hawaii, passed out not from alcohol but from sheer exhaustion." Darcy grinned and took a drink of champagne. "Remind me not to go exploring any volcanoes while we're there. I might accidentally fall into one."
"I will. The last thing I want to do is to lose you." Elisabeth set her glass down.
"The same goes for me. You know, we should make this a habit. Maybe once a month or so, we should get away from everything and just be together. What do you think?"
Elisabeth shifted around in the tub until she was next to Darcy. "I think you're a genius, but I might be biased. We absolutely must get away once in a while. I've missed you."
"We see each other every day," Darcy said.
"I know we do, but you were right when you told James that we don't spend a lot of quality time together. I've missed spending time like this, just sitting around with nothing to do. I've missed being in your arms." Elisabeth put her arms around him and started whispering some of the other things she'd been missing, and after that, talk was unnecessary.