In which meeting old acquaintences brings joy… and guilt. Also, the beginning of shenanigans.
“Gl—umph.” It was all Claire managed to get out before she was enfolded in Gloria’s big warm arms and pulled into a hug that took her breath. And her ribs.
But who cared? Gloria gave the best freaking hugs, and Claire snuggled in unashamedly. One more for the hug bank back in England.
Pulling back, Noah’s mother held her at arm’s length and looked her over.
“Well, at least you don’t look like you’ve been starving. You’ve even put on a little weight!”
That surprised a laugh out of her. How could she have forgotten that Noah inherited the foot in his mouth from his mother?
So rather than get offended, Claire said, “You do remember that I went there for a food program, right? That implies that they do have food in England.”
The look on Gloria’s face suggested that she’d believe it when she saw it.
“Not my food, they don’t. Hasn’t been the same around here without having you to taste my cooking before every event.” Gloria cast a glare in the direction of Noah. “This one won’t touch half the stuff I make.”
Surprised, Claire looked questioningly at Noah. He’d never been picky about the things he ate. She’d gotten him to try pretty much everything she’d ever made, minus the pickled squid.
When Noah met her eyes, he just shrugged and Claire’s attention was swiftly brought back to Gloria.
“Now, please tell me you’re going to be in town for the wedding. Please, oh please. I’ve been praying for it.” The other woman looked unaccustomedly serious.
“Of course I am,” Claire confirmed bemusedly. “I’m a bridesmaid.”
Clasping her hands together, Gloria looked up at the heavens. “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for bringing Claire back to help me prevent a murder.”
“What? Who’s getting murdered?”
“Mom…” Noah said warningly.
Gloria had a face built for laughing, and normally the ground-in smile lines of sixty years doing just that made even her darkest frown a little impish. Not now, though. Now, her face was like a storm cloud.
“You wanna know who’s going to be murdered? That little loon Amy, that’s who. By me!”
“Ah,” Claire said with sudden understanding. That’s right, Gloria was catering the buffet, wasn’t she?
One of Gloria’s hands ran through her stiff gray hair. “Claire, she is driving me crazy and no mistake. Before I heard you were coming, I had it all planned out. I was gonna put strcynine in the bride’s cake.”
“A bride’s cake? What the heck is… oh no.”
Gloria nodded grimly. “That’s right. There’s a wedding cake, a groom’s cake, and a bride’s cake. Just for little ol’ her. And guess when she decided that?”
“Several months ago?” Claire said hopefully.
Both Gloria and Noah laughed at that. “Try last week,” Noah put in from where he was leaning against the chair.
“And she’s changed the design three times!”
“Yeesh.” Claire knew she should probably be defending her future sister-in-law on the one, but… adding a cake a week before wedding?
Yeah, she’d seen too much of that in London. Customers would come in thinking that a custom-ordered steak and a made-to-order dessert should take the same amount time as a hamburger and fries.
So instead she said, “Okay, you’re not thinking clearly, Gloria.”
“Thank you, Claire,” Noah said, nodding.
She ignored him, focusing on Gloria as she reached and held the other woman by the shoulders. “If you kill her before the wedding, you won’t even have to bake it. And I won’t have to wear that godawful dress.”
Gloria’s face brightened at exactly the same time a dispirited groan came from Noah.
“Now see, isn’t that the right way to handle things? Claire, honey, I’ve been lost without you. Come on into the house and have some tea while we plan this out.”
Hooking her arm through Gloria’s, Claire followed her up the porch steps. “And even if we get caught,” she said a little louder than she needed to. “Noah can always defend us.”
“I’m not that kind of lawyer,” Noah ground out from behind them as he followed them up the steps and into the house. “In fact, considering you’re talking about this in front of me, I’d be one of the witnesses for the prosecution.”
Spinning around, Claire glared at him to hide the lump in her throat that had come the second she’d walked into the house. “You’d testify against your own mother? For shame.”
“Tsk. Tsk.” Gloria shook her head. “I taught you better, Noah.”
Standing there in the front doorway, Noah looking between the two of them speechlessly and then just threw up his hands and pushed past them into the house.
All it took was for Claire to catch Gloria’s eye and then they were both giggling, leaning on each other for support as they chortled.
“Oh, I have missed you, Claire,” Gloria finally said, wiping at her eyes. “Get your boots off and come on in – you know where the kitchen is.”
And then she was gone, leaving Claire to slowly toe off her boots. She moved as slowly as she could manage, needing a few seconds to just breathe.
It was funny how coming in here had hit her so much harder than returning to her own house. Maybe it was because she’d seen her house over the last few years on Skype, the same familiar background to a hundred calls. Maybe it was because her house was currently the center of Wedding Prep Bootcamp.
But Gloria’s house was just like she’d remembered it. Same brown carpet on the floor. Same sofa in the front room that nobody ever, ever sat on. It was all exactly the same.
And she hadn’t seen it for three years.
Swallowing hard, Claire turned towards the kitchen.
But she didn’t even make it two steps before Gloria was in front of her, hands on her hips and Noah standing just behind her.
“Can’t believe I forgot!” she was saying to Noah. “You keep her up there, y’hear?”
Nodding, Noah came forward. “Come on, Claire. Let’s go up to my room. Mom’s making you something as a welcome-back present.”
There was a dizzy clench of something in her stomach as Claire looked up at him. She’d heard him say those words a thousand times.
“Couldn’t we wait outside?” she tried, her throat dry. “It’s nice weather.”
From the kitchen, Gloria’s voice called. “Oh no. Get!”
“You heard her.” Noah gestured at the stairs. “After you.”