While Ella had eaten dinner with Clay last night, she’d tried to conjure a reason to leave before he had a chance to ask her out or to assume that sharing a meal together had meant more than either of them had expected it to.
She couldn’t risk another disappointment, especially when Fred’s lies and broken promises had just about crushed her.
Then a phone call from Aunt Aggie had provided her with the perfect excuse.
Aggie’s nephew Fred, the oldest and most selfish of the two, had dropped her off at the house without waiting to see if she got inside safely. But when the older woman had reached the door and dug through her purse, she hadn’t been able to find her key.
Instead of calling Fred and asking him to come back, she’d called Ella. “There’s no need for you to rush home to let me in, dear. I have a sweater. I’ll just wait on the porch until you get here.”
“I’m just paying the bill now, Aunt Aggie. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
After ending the call, Ella had left the money to cover the check and a tip on the table, as well as a note for Clay, explaining that she had to leave unexpectedly. Then she’d dashed out the door and climbed into her car before he could return from the men’s room.
There was something cowardly—and probably even tacky—about ducking out while he was away from the table, but if he’d gazed at her one more time as if she was the only woman in the world, she might have completely lost her head and started putting more stock in him as a… Well, as a romantic interest. And she had no business getting involved with anyone until she landed a new job and found another place to live.
After all, she’d promised herself that she would become self-sufficient and never be reliant on anyone else ever again for her future security. And that was a vow she meant to keep.
She’d only driven a couple of blocks from the restaurant when Aunt Aggie had called again, saying she’d found her key after all. But Ella had continued home.
When she’d entered the old Victorian, she found her auntie sitting in the rocker and watching the evening news.
“How was dinner?” Ella asked.
“It was okay. Fred doesn’t ever have much to say, but he took me to the Peking Palace, my favorite restaurant.”
“I like that place, too.”
“Then you’ll be happy to know that I brought home the leftovers. If you’re hungry, they’re in the refrigerator.”
“Thanks, but I had a taco salad at Red this evening.” Ella placed her purse on the bottom step of the stairway.
“I really wish you would have come to dinner with us,” Aggie added. “You could have kept the conversation going.”
Ella would have rather had a root canal than sit across the table from the man who wanted to move his aunt into assisted living, especially since his reasons for doing so were selfish. The old Victorians on Bluebonnet Lane had increased exponentially in value over the past two years, so it was no mystery why he’d put Aggie’s house up for sale.
But the cost of assisted living would be more expensive than keeping Aggie at home, even with the expense of repairs, so Ella suspected something other than Fred’s greedy side was behind his plans: he was tired of caring for his aunt. He denied it, of course, but he’d lied to Ella in the past, and she wouldn’t put it past him now.
Ella had asked him to reconsider his decision to sell, but he’d told her it wasn’t any of her business. He was the trustee of Aggie’s family trust, and he’d do as he saw fit.
Sadly, the fact that the elderly woman had practically raised Ella’s mother and been like a grandmother to Ella meant nothing in the legal scheme of things.
“I really wasn’t in the mood for Chinese food,” Ella told Aggie. “And you don’t get many chances to spend time alone with Fred.”
Aggie let out a little “humph” and gave a half shrug, which left Ella to wonder if Aggie might have preferred a dental appointment this evening, too.
But she couldn’t blame Aggie for that. Fred was asking her to leave the only home she’d known for nearly sixty years, even though she was still spry, fairly healthy and as sweet as ever.
Ella loved looking out for Aggie and would have done so out of love and loyalty, even if Aggie’s nephews hadn’t paid her a small stipend. And while the room and board increased the value of her earnings, she could make a lot more money working elsewhere.
But Ella never had put that much stock in money, although she wished that weren’t the case now. If she had the funds, she’d purchase the house herself and let Aggie live here as long as she wanted.
She turned to her aunt and smiled. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thanks. I had more than enough with dinner.” Aunt Aggie cocked her silver-haired head to the side. “You’re not wearing the bracelet I gave you. Did you put it away?”
Ella lifted her arm, noticed her bare wrist, gasped and uttered, “Oh, no!”
Had it fallen off in the car? Or maybe at the restaurant?
Her stomach lurched. What if she’d dropped it while dashing through the parking lot to her car? What if someone had run over it or found it and claimed it as their own?
She hated to admit that she’d lost something so valuable, so special. But it was obvious that she had, and there was no way she’d deceive her aunt. “I had it an hour ago, Aggie. I’m going back to Red. I’m sure I’ll find it.”
After searching the car first and coming up empty-handed, she drove to the restaurant and spoke to the acting manager, who told her no one had turned it in.
“You should call back tomorrow,” he said. “We have a janitorial service that comes in after we close. I’ll tell them to keep an eye out for it.”
She nodded, then went out into the parking lot and searched the ground to no avail. With her heart heavy, she drove home. Fortunately, by the time she arrived, Aggie had already gone to bed, so the confession could wait.
The next day, Ella waited until late morning to call Red and ask if her bracelet had been found, but it hadn’t.
And now, as she hung up the telephone, she tried to find the words to tell Aggie that it was lost forever. It would be so much easier to lie, to say Ella had put it in the safe deposit box at the bank, but lying went against her grain, no matter how difficult the truth might be.
Before she could head for the kitchen, where Aggie was preparing lunch for the two of them, the doorbell rang, giving her a momentary reprieve.
She crossed the room and swung open the door, then gasped. There, standing on the stoop, was the man she’d had dinner with last night—shaved, fresh from the shower and wearing a crooked grin that nearly dropped her to her knees.
She wanted to ask what he was doing here and how he’d found her, but in the myriad emotions, the least of which was surprise, she was speechless.