Ann turned her attention to Ritchie and Colleen’s upcoming visit. This meal would be special. Mark deserved nice home cooked food, especially now that she knew he was a bachelor and probably ate out a lot. He had been generous to offer to help her settle Gene’s estate. But how would she explain his presence today? Ritchie would not be happy to know that she planned to go to court again over his father’s case. But Ritchie was an adult now. He might see things in a different light. Even so, she would not discuss the subject.
The farmer’s market had squash and late tomatoes and herbs. Back at home, she consulted the shadowy shelf above the built-in desk and grabbed a copy of “Entertaining Made Easy.” She blew dust from the top before opening it.
Mark arrived early on the appointed Saturday, as she secretly hoped he would.
“Mmm, smells good. Just like I remember.” He handed over a gallon of fresh cherry cider.
Ann placed the cider in the refrigerator. “You don’t even know what I’m making.”
“Doesn’t matter. I never had a meal here I didn’t like. How about we wait for Ritchie and Colleen outside? It’s nice for October.”
Ann adored the way balmy late afternoon sun washed the lawn and trees outside her front door in clear white gold. Most of the late maple leaves had fallen, while the oaks curled brown and hung on. Mark sat on the top step of the wide veranda and leaned against a painted pillar. Ann parked herself on the second step and basked, leaning against the rail. “I love fall.”
She closed her eyes and inhaled, his spiky scent overriding the musk of the season. She opened them to find Mark watching her.
“You remember that story you used to tell the kids? About why the oak leaves fall last?”
Ann shook her head. “I don’t even remember that you were here when I told stories.”
“Just once. Trey liked it. Anyway, this was about the daughter of a chief who fell in love with an enemy brave, just like Romeo and Juliet. Seems like every culture has its ill-fated love story.”
He recited the tale while Ann let her mind wander. Mark had dressed for the occasion in crisp jeans, a tan turtleneck and leather jacket with a new-leather scent. He had his hair trimmed, though it still curled along his temple. She would have liked to brush it back from his forehead.
“And so the brave asked the chief to wait to give his daughter in marriage to another until all the leaves had fallen from the trees….”
Ann relaxed, lulled by the cadence of his voice. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ritchie and Colleen pull up the drive. Ann blinked with the realization that she and Mark had been staring at each other. She had not noticed when his words stopped flowing. She wished, much too late, that she had not invited the kids.
Ann felt the heat on her face and, unfortunately, her son leaped to the top step in time to catch it. Narrow-eyed, he helped her up and hugged her. Ritchie turned to Mark next. “Well, if this isn’t a blast from the past! Mark, it’s good to see you, man. What’s been going on?”
Ash blond Colleen, about five months along, had let her coat part around a slightly protruding belly. Ann took her hand and kissed her cheek. “I hope you weren’t too uncomfortable on the ride.”
“No, of course not. Thank you for having us.”
Always polite with round-eyed sincerity, Colleen managed to simultaneously let Ann feel necessary and tolerated, like the worn teddy bear missing an eye and trailing its stuffing. Despite their arm’s length relationship, Colleen was sweet and even-tempered, and Ann delighted that Ritchie found her. Especially since she convinced Ritchie that his mother was not the wicked witch of any particular direction.
Ann pulled the door open. “Come in, everyone. Sit for a minute and have something to drink. Dinner’s almost ready.”
Mark hung coats in the front closet and then offered to help set out food. Colleen echoed, and Ritchie followed. Conversation began with the biggest news.
“Congratulations on the baby,” Mark told Ritchie and Colleen as he carved Ann’s tenderloin. Colleen flushed a pretty pink and Ritchie became animated with talk of fixing the baby’s room.
“And of course, Grandma, here—” Ritchie flashed a sly grin at Ann, “—has already offered to babysit.”
“When the baby’s older,” Colleen put in firmly.
Ann passed the plate of buttery squash. “Of course.” She smiled at her daughter-in-law, then caught her breath at the gleam in Mark’s eyes.
Once Mark finished carving, he sat. “Mind if I say grace?”
Ritchie set his fork back on his plate. Ann caught the look of pleasure on her daughter-in-law’s face and knew she had missed the custom in their home. Church should be important when they had kids. Hadn’t she always taken Ritchie when he was little? Maybe Mark’s actions could still influence her son, despite the loss of Trey and the time lapse since they had been friendly. She closed her eyes and listened to Mark’s voice asking a blessing on this family and food.
Ritchie took squash and passed the dish to Mark. “So, are you back for good, now, or what?”
“Yes. I’m renting until I decide on a house.”
“Still a lawyer?”
“That’s right.” Mark passed the squash to Colleen.
Colleen helped herself, then filled in the lull. “This is so good, Ann. Thank you. What kind of lawyer are you, Mark?”
“That’s right. Mostly business succession, some estate planning right now,” Mark said. “Not all that exciting. Todd Royce, one of the senior partners, is setting up a legal aid clinic where we’ll do some work pro bono—that means for the public good, like for people who can’t afford to pay—once in a while. How about you? What do you do?”
Ritchie answered. “She’s going to stay home, take care of us after the baby’s born.”
Ann hid a grin at Colleen’s acid look in her husband’s direction, accompanying the bread basket. “I work in the fourth grade room with learning disabled students. I feel really good being able to help them. Some of the students come from broken homes and many of them have multiple medical issues to deal with.”
Ritchie passed the basket to Mark. “So, run into anyone from the old crowd yet? Have to bail anyone out of the clink?”
Mark chewed and wiped his mouth with one of Ann’s linen napkins before answering. “I’m not a criminal defense attorney.”
Ritchie tossed his napkin on the table, sat back and launched into a series of memories from the years he and Mark’s brother were close friends, until that last year of high school, after Mark’s time and before Colleen entered the picture. Neither Mark nor Colleen appeared to pay rapt attention, Ann thought. Colleen had cleared the plates during what must have been the fifteenth time Ritchie said, “Hey, remember when…” to no one in particular.
Colleen went to stand behind his chair, rubbing her tiny belly bulge. “Ritchie, I’m tired. Remember, Mother’s coming tomorrow.”
Ann got to her feet. Mark tossed his napkin beside his plate and pushed back his chair.
“Sure, sweetheart.” Ritchie reached back to pat the hand Colleen placed on his shoulder. “We were just having fun reminiscing, that’s all. I didn’t realize how long we’ve been sitting here.”
Ritchie hesitated at the door, after Mark handed him and Colleen their coats. “Mom, thanks for supper.” He offered a hearty handshake to Mark who hung back, out of the family circle. Ritchie lingered. Finally he asked Mark, “Coming, man?”
Ann looked quickly from one to the other, not able to read Mark’s expression. Why was he hanging around, anyway?
“In a couple of minutes.” Mark did not explain and Colleen eventually got her husband out the door and into their car. When Ann closed the door, Mark offered to help her clean up.
So, Mark must not have wanted to embarrass Ritchie or Colleen by making them feel guilty about not sticking around to wash dishes. “Thank you, but you don’t have to stay. I’m sure there are more fun places you could go. It’s not that late.”
Mark followed her back to the kitchen without comment. Ann did not want to push him out the door yet, anyway, so did not renew her protest. If he was lonely and wanted to talk, she would listen.
They worked together in silence, Ann putting leftovers away while Mark loaded her dishwasher. He started the machine whooshing before speaking up. “That’s nice that you have family close by. I suppose you visit them, too.”
Ann dried a pot that wouldn’t fit in the full dishwasher. “Once in a while. Ritchie likes coming back to his old house, I think, even though they’re not that far away.”
“Portage, you said?”
“Right.” He started to dry the crystal water glasses she handed him. When he said nothing else, Ann said. “So, how’s work going?”
If she thought he would open up and chat freely about everything and anything, she was mistaken. He didn’t answer in monosyllables, but neither did he bend her ear.
“I’m settling in. They’ve given me a good caseload. I’m nearly up to speed on procedure. Going well.”
“Are you glad you made the change?”
Mark hung his towel and rolled down his sleeves. “I had peace about it before I even got here.”
Ann wondered why used the word “peace,” but could not come up with a reasonable question to ask him what he meant. Once he made friends his own age, he wouldn’t be lonely anymore. When the kitchen sparkled and there was no more reason for Mark to stay, Ann accompanied him to the door.
“Thank you for inviting me.” Mark stood on the veranda with her. Moonlight illuminated the pillars where they had sat companionably while waiting for Ann’s son.
“I’m glad you could come. You were always good to the boys when they were growing up.”
Mark touched a chipped spot on the pillar. “Not good enough to Trey, apparently.”
“Trey was old enough to know better.”
“Maybe. I still wish I’d been there for him. I’d better go.”
“Mark? Could we make an appointment to talk about Gene? I’ll treat you to lunch.”
He smiled. “I have to look at my calendar. I’ll call you, okay?”
“Sure. And thank you.” Ann locked the door behind him, but stood by the side window long after his taillights faded.