ora finished serving the lemon cake and then sat back to watch everyone eat. The dining room glowed with candlelight just as it had for big dinners when her mother was alive, long golden beeswax tapers burning in silver candlesticks atop the mantelpiece, votives in their glass holders arrayed along the windowsills, the big candelabra polished and shimmering with light in the center of the long wooden table.
Outside, the wind howled, the temperature plummeting again so that it seemed as if the world had changed its mind and retreated back to winter. But in here, all was snug, birch logs crackling in the fireplace, the only other sounds the scraping of her mother’s silver forks against the delicate flowered dessert plates.
“Well, I never thought I’d say this,” pronounced Jimmie Sue, setting down her fork with a clatter, “but I do believe you’re a better cook than your mother, Cora.”
“Oh,” said Cora, feeling her cheeks warm and color. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe not when it comes to the basic stuff, the fried chicken and the mashed potatoes and like, Eleanor had no equal in that department. But this cake: I’ve never tasted anything like this. Would you consider this a Parisian dish?”
“Not really. It’s more like plain old lemon meringue pie, except it’s cake.”
“Are we having cake?” asked Senior, although he’d just finished his second piece.
“You already did, you old fool,” shouted Jimmie Sue, in Senior’s ear.
“Everything was delicious,” said George. His daughter sat dozing on his lap. “I really appreciate you including us.”
“I’m happy to do it,” said Cora.
George hadn’t said much as they drove through the dusky evening, bright spring green hills and trees against gray sky and mist, back toward town. Cora could think of a million things to ask him, but in the end they were all just chatter, and the central thing needed no elaboration. He had untied his houseboat and let it drift away; he was letting go of something old in his life and starting fresh, just as Cora had walked away from Paris that morning and got on a plane for Arkansas. How could you adequately explain that to someone on the outside? What more did anyone need to know?
He’d asked her to drop him and his daughter off at the Barstow, when she on impulse had asked them over to dinner. The lamb was already in the oven, the cake’s meringue layers already cooling on the kitchen counter, the lemons freshly squeezed.
The evening had been relaxed, even happy, the best time Cora had had since arriving, the kind of big hometown dinner she’d imagined they’d be enjoying every night. Even George, despite his overlay of sadness, seemed to have a good time, joking with Senior, carving the lamb.
Juliette’s phone buzzed and she jumped up and started to leave the dining room.
“You have to help clean up,” Cora said, wishing that instead of invoking duty she could say: Stay with us, honey. Just sit and be part of the family for a while.
“I’ll help in a few minutes,” said Juliette. “I have a call.”
“Is it that boy, LaTonya’s son, what’s his name?”
“Darrell,” said George.
“It’s Hugo, if you must know,” said Juliette, answering the phone in French and rushing from the room.
Cora sighed. She wished her daughter wouldn’t keep this relationship going with the boy in France, who’d never treated her that well to begin with, though Cora wasn’t thrilled with what Juliette was doing in the U.S. either.
“I’d keep a close eye on that girl, if I were you,” said Jimmie Sue, standing up with a clatter of bracelets and then helping Senior to his feet. “I’ve got to get this old geezer up to bed.”
As meddlesome as Jimmie Sue was, she at least helped deal with Senior while Cora was trying to pull the restaurant into shape.
“We should go now, too,” said George.
Cora looked at him. His sadness made him, if anything, more attractive. But this was not the moment, she knew. The moment, if it ever came, would not arrive for a very long time.
“You could stay here,” Cora said. “Juliette could move into my room, and you could stay in Jamie’s room with Beth. Just until, you know, you figure out what you want to do next.”
“I appreciate that,” said George, “but I think it’s better all around if we stay at the Barstow.”
“I understand,” said Cora, standing up. She did understand, and it would undoubtedly be easier for her too if George Forrest were not sleeping right across the hall from her. “I’ll go over there with you and get Beth settled in the room while you fetch the bags from the car.”
He was about to protest, she could see. He was the kind of person who liked to take care of everything and everyone, who imagined he didn’t need help himself. They were alike in that way, as in so many others. But neither of them, she knew, could afford to be like that anymore.