Startled, I looked up from the minutes of a deadly dull meeting I was typing into a word processing document.
“We need your help in the reading room,” said my boss Frank. “Linda went home sick.”
“Good,” I said, hastily saving and closing my document. “I mean–”
Frank smiled. He really was a great boss. “I know what you mean. Now, go.” He made shooing motions with his hands, “It’s a zoo up there.”
I work as an administrative assistant in the special collections department of a university library. I love my job, but I am a people person and really prefer to work in the reading room, helping researchers. Frank agrees that I do a good job and has promised to give me an opportunity when there is an opening for reference help, but my colleagues were holding tight to their jobs. I certainly didn’t wish anyone ill, but why couldn’t someone find a better-paying job, or have a baby, or win the lottery?
My heels clattered on the old stone steps leading to the reading room. As always, the reading room cast its magic on me as soon as I walked through the arched double wooden doors. I loved everything about it—the leaded glass windows, the threadbare area rugs covering the worn hardwood floors, the smell of old books, but most of all, the bespectacled researchers paging through ancient documents and rare books.
I couldn’t stop myself from scanning the room to see if he was there, and my heart hiccuped when I saw him sitting at his customary table, tapping on his laptop keys with a file of documents open on his right.
His name was Zachary, and he was a graduate student working on his dissertation. He’d started coming in to the reading room over the summer, and had immediately charmed everyone, but most of all, me. Handsome, polite, and intelligent, but very reserved. He didn’t wear a wedding ring, but nobody—and believe me, all the female staff members had tried—had been able to find out if he was available.
I wished I’d taken a moment to brush my hair, reapply lip-gloss, or at least make sure I didn’t have any spinach between my teeth. I didn’t obsess over my appearance for too long, though. Frank hadn’t been exaggerating; it was a zoo in the reading room, and the next few hours flew by as I retrieved books and archival collections, answered the phones, and responded to researchers’ questions.
Before I knew it, it was 4:30, and only a few researchers remained, including Zachary.
“Whew,” said Hayes, flopping into the desk chair next to mine. “What a day. Thanks for helping out.”
“What happened to Linda?” I asked, just to make conversation.
He shrugged. “Who knows? Nooner?”
Suppressing a giggle, I started sorting researcher application forms. “No, seriously.”
“Don’t know. Don’t care,” he said in a sing-song voice. “Did you see Mr. Hottie Researcher is here?” “Shh,” I said, glancing over at Zachary, but he was engrossed in his 26 research. “Of course I did.”
“First thing you looked for when you walked into the room.”
“Nuh-uh,” I lied, swatting at him.
“Uh-huh,” he fired back. “But, sweetie, what you didn’t notice is that Mr. Hottie Researcher actually took his eyes off his work a few times to check out your butt as you walked by.”
“No, he didn’t,” I said, my heart beating just a little bit faster, nonetheless.
Leaning back in his chair, Hayes folded his arms across his chest. “Maybe our little Claudia has made a conquest. But shh, here he comes.”
Adopting an expression that I hoped was simultaneously neutral and friendly, I looked up to see Zachary approaching, his laptop tucked under his arm. He had the sexy-intellectual look down pat. Slender without being scrawny, his broad shoulders tapered down to a narrow waist. But it was his eyes that I found most arresting—deep, chocolate brown with an intensity of focus. He held your gaze even for the most mundane of conversations, which often made me tongue-tied in his presence.
“How’d it go today?” I asked, once he was in hearing range.
“Great. I wish you stayed open later. That collection has some great information, and I hate having to wait until Monday to continue.”
Hayes snorted. “Well, I’m sorry you have to interrupt your research, but I’m not sorry we’re not open late on Friday evenings. Hey, a bunch of us are going out for a drink in a bit. Would you like to come along?”
I held my breath as I waited for Zachary’s response. Although I had plans to meet a girlfriend for dinner, I might have to do the unthinkable and cancel if Zachary agreed to go out with my colleagues.
Was it my imagination, or did Zachary glance over at me before he responded?
“I’d love to, but I have to go to dinner at one of my professor’s. Maybe next time?”
“Yeah, sure, we’d love to have you.” Hayes winked at me, and I felt the heat rise to my face.
The telephone started to ring, and because he was closer to it, Hayes answered.
“I was wondering what your hours are for next week. Are you open the day after Thanksgiving?” Zachary asked.
I suppressed a groan. Unfortunately we would be open on Friday, and because I wasn’t traveling for the holiday, I’d been enlisted to work. Just once, I’d like to be able to hit the Black Friday sales.
“Yes, we’re open our normal hours,” I answered. “Aren’t you going away for the holiday?”
Zachary shook his head. “Afraid not. I just can’t afford it, either from a financial or a research standpoint.” “That’s too bad.” I took a deep breath, summoning every ounce of bravery I possessed. “Listen, if you’re not busy on Thanksgiving Day, I’m having a potluck at my place. Very casual. It would be great if you could come.”
As soon as I finished what constituted a speech for me talking to Zachary, my heart started beating double time, especially when I noticed how his face seemed to light up.
“I’d love to. My advisor invited me to his house, but I really don’t feel like spending the holiday fielding questions about my dissertation.”
“Oh, good. You’ll be in early next week?” He nodded and I continued, “I’ll give you directions and stuff then.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
I know I had a ridiculously happy expression on my face as I watched him leave the reading room. Hayes noticed it, too, and as soon as he got off the phone, he demanded, “Omigod, he asked you out, didn’t he? And I missed it!”
“Not exactly, but he did accept my invitation to the Thanksgiving potluck I’m having.”
Hayes thrust out his lower lip. “Hey, I didn’t know you were having something for Thanksgiving. Why didn’t you invite me?”
I studied my new boots, admiring how elegant they looked, even with a low heel. Unfortunately, Hayes correctly interpreted my studied indifference.
“Omigod, you just made it up, didn’t you? You weren’t even planning to host anything until five minutes ago, were you?”
I raised my chin. “Of course I was. And you’re welcome to come.”
“Who else is going to be there?” Hayes demanded.
“Well, me. And whomever else I invite.”
Thank goodness the reading room was nearly empty, because Hayes’ chuckles soon developed into loud guffaws.
“I can’t believe you did that. I never dreamed our little Claudia had such chutzpah.”
Wrinkling my nose at him, I repeated, “So, can you come?”
“Oh, how I wish I could, but we’re going to Sam’s parents’ house. Omigod, I hate to miss this.”
If Hayes viewed my self-created predicament as an amusing little situation, then my friend Ellen saw it as a crisis of gargantuan proportions.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said, her eyes round and her hand gripping the stem of her wineglass so tightly that I was afraid it might snap in her hands. “What are you going to do?”
I shrugged with a nonchalance I no longer felt. “Invite some people. See who shows up.”
“Claudia, Thanksgiving is less than a week away. What sort of pathetic person doesn’t have plans yet?” Then she gave me a meaningful look. “Oh, sorry.”
I tilted my head, not understanding for a second. Then I got it. “I have plans. I had plans. Now I have two sets of plans.” I groaned. “I’m going to have to call my mom and tell her I won’t be there for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Wait—I know!” Ellen clapped her hands together frantically. “You could invite people from a homeless shelter.”
“Um, that’s a very kind and thoughtful idea, but don’t you think Zachary might find it odd if all my friends, other than him, are homeless? I told him it was a potluck with friends, not random people I picked up at the shelter.”
Her shoulders slumped, “Well, I think it’s a good idea. You’d be helping other people while getting yourself out of a bad situation.”
By Sunday evening, Ellen’s suggestion seemed entirely reasonable. If not that, I might start handing out flyers at the grocery store, advertising free food at my apartment on Thanksgiving. Maybe that way somebody would show up. I’d called or e-mailed practically everyone I knew, with the net result of seven additional guests: my parents, sister, and her family. When I’d called to explain the situation to my mother about how I couldn’t go to her house, she’d argued that there was no sense in both of us cooking, and announced they’d come to my place instead.
Great. If I’d wanted Zachary to come to my family’s Thanksgiving, I would have just invited him to my parents’ house. It’s much bigger than my one bedroom apartment.
My alternative seemed to be having the potluck before 9 a.m. or after 8 p.m. Several of my friends were willing to come before or after their previous obligations. What were the chances I could convince Zachary that eating turkey before the parades started was a tradition he’d just never heard of?
On Monday morning I flopped down in my desk chair, wondering if it would destroy any chances of a future relationship with Zachary if I simply pretended I’d never issued and he’d never accepted the invitation.
I took a big gulp of my mocha latte, knowing that the sugary, chocolatey goodness would only briefly distract me from my dilemma. And, just to remind me, I heard Hayes’ voice coming down the hallway toward my office.
“And how is my favorite Thanksgiving turkey queen?” Hayes asked as he swung around the doorjamb into my office area.
“A real turkey,” I said.
“What’s wrong, Queen Turkey Claudia?” Hayes asked, pulling up my spare chair and sitting next to me.
“Everybody has plans for Thanksgiving. So far, my only guests are Zachary and my family.” Hayes raised his eyebrows, so I continued. “When I called my mom to explain why I wouldn’t be coming to her house, she insisted on moving the family celebration to my apartment.”
To my surprise, Hayes didn’t laugh, just shook his head. “Let me go buy you a donut.”
“Lard and sugar cure all ills.”
Frank chose that moment to come into my office, a sheaf of papers in his hand. “Amen to that, but what’s ailing you, Claudia?”
I dropped my head to my folded arms on my desk, not even wanting to explain it again, but after a moment, lifted my head again and told the sad tale.
“Am I invited?” Frank asked.
“You? But I thought you were going to Michigan to spend the holiday with Paula’s family.”
Frank’s lips twisted into a-smile. “Her parents found a last-minute deal on a cruise, so they canceled on us. How bad is it when your in-laws bag you for a better offer? We were actually thinking of going out to eat.”
“You’d really do this for me?”
“Skip a restaurant meal for some of your legendary cooking? What’s to think about?”
I scraped my fingers through my hair. “But think of how awkward this could be. . .me, Zachary, my family, and you and Paula.”
Adopting a stern look, Frank handed me the papers he was holding, but his wink belied his serious tone.
“These need to be sent out to the board, if we can interrupt discussing our social plans long enough to get some work done. And don’t worry, I’ll bring enough wine on Thursday to smooth over any rough spots.”
I snapped my fingers. “Darn, I was hoping for one of Paula’s apple pies.”
“We’ll bring some of those, too.”
“Well, shoot,” Hayes drawled. “This is starting to sound better than Thanksgiving with Sam.”
Drawing his brows together, Frank glared at Hayes. “Don’t you have a donut run to make?”
The donuts made me feel better for about thirty seconds, and then I just felt bloated and headache-y. I stared bleakly at my computer screen, then got to work, hoping that being busy would distract me. Why couldn’t I have just invited him for a drink or coffee, like a normal person? I wondered as I answered e-mails. Why had that outrageous invitation leapt to my tongue? I sighed, opened a new document, and began to type a to-do list. Number one on my list was “find more friends.”
My ringing phone interrupted me when I reached number ten on my list. It was Hayes, in his most business-like tone, “Zachary Williams has a few questions for you in the reading room.”
“Research or Thanksgiving-related?” I asked, knowing that Zachary was probably standing right there.
“I believe this pertains to your discussion on Friday.”
My legs shook slightly as I walked up the stone steps, but as soon as I entered the reading room and saw Zachary, all the stress I’d created for myself seemed worthwhile. His close-fitting sweater and snug jeans emphasized his fit physique, but more than that, his face held such an open, friendly expression as my eyes met his that I nearly melted into a puddle right there on the gorgeous oak floors.
“Thanks again for inviting me for Thanksgiving. I was wondering, what time should I be there?”
Good Lord, a man with manners. My mind went completely blank, and I could not, for the life of me, think of an appropriate response. Panicked, I looked over Zachary’s shoulder to Hayes, who held up three fingers.
“Three,” I said, proudly, thinking that my apparent ability to count would be useful as I set the table for my all-too-few guests on Thursday.
“Great. And you said it was a potluck, right? What would you like me to bring?”
Once again, I was stunned into silence. Then I thought— Male, graduate student. “What can you make?”
He crinkled his nose for just a moment. “Ramen noodles.”
I laughed, trying to think of something he could buy, but then thinking of how tight my finances sometimes were, and I had a full-time job, not an assistantship, I answered, “Just bring yourself.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely.” I handed him my business card, with my home number scrawled on the back, then quickly drew a map showing how to get to my apartment. As I handed him the map, another thought occurred to me. “Um, do you need a ride?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hayes making suggestive body motions and I colored. Thank goodness there were no other researchers in the reading room yet.
Zachary flushed slightly, too. “No, I can get there.”
What did that mean? I wondered. Did he have a car, or not? Not my worry.
Relieved that my weird Thanksgiving potluck was starting to come together, I got to work with all the cleaning, shopping, and defrosting that needed to be done. True, my guest list was rather small, but I could explain that away. Perhaps all my friends had contracted food poisoning at a different party earlier in the week?
On Tuesday afternoon, I was typing a letter when my pop-up notification told me I had an e-mail from Zachary Williams. My heart hammered as I opened the e-mail, worried that he was cancelling.
Would it be all right if I invited a German graduate student to join us on Thanksgiving? Her name is Heike and she’s in the Gender Studies department, so I doubt you’ve met her. She’d love to experience a real American Thanksgiving.
Let me know.
My first, incongruous thought was to respond that I’d told him he didn’t need to bring anything, and that included a date. After staring at my computer screen for several minutes, and vowing in the future to always to wait ten seconds before I spoke to avoid getting myself into such situations, I typed a carefully worded, polite, but completely fictitious response saying how delighted I would be to have Heike join us.
When Hayes took a coffee break a little while later, we deconstructed the situation once more. After reading Zachary’s e-mail, he said, “Nowhere in this message does he say she’s a girlfriend.”
I rolled my eyes. “But they’re spending Thanksgiving together.”
“You’re spending Thanksgiving with Frank and his wife. Do you all have a threesome going on that I should know about? Do I need to point out that men and women can be friends? Have you never seen When Harry Met Sally?”
I threw my pen at him. “And have you forgotten they got married at the end?”
“You and I aren’t lovers.”
“Yes, but you’re—you’re—”
“I’m a fag, dahling,” he drawled. “And what are you saying? If I were straight, would I be getting a little cootchy-coo?”
Frank poked his head into my office just in time to catch Hayes tickling my sides. “What the heck is going on in here? Hayes, stop that. The last thing we need in this department is a sexual harassment suit.”
Giggling, I said, “I promise not to bring up charges.”
“Great. So relieved to hear that. And Hayes, aren’t you supposed to be—”
“Gay and proud of it.” Hayes stood and swished dramatically out of my office.
“I don’t even remember why I came in here,” Frank said, rubbing his eyes.
I pulled a sheet of paper off my printer. “Here’s the draft of the donor letter you asked for.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s it. I’ve lost complete control of this place,” he muttered as he walked out.
I knew I was smiling like a lunatic. So what if I was hosting the strangest Thanksgiving get-together in history and I was crushing on someone who was bringing a date to dinner at my house in a few days? I loved my job and my co-workers made me laugh. How could I complain?
The next pseudo-crisis came Wednesday afternoon. I’d spent Tuesday evening cleaning my apartment and felt confident that I had preparations well under control. I answered my ringing telephone, only to hear my sister’s hysterical voice on the other end.
“Oh, my goodness, Rachel, what’s wrong?” I asked, immediately worried about our parents or her family.
“The boys were sent home from school today with head lice.”
“Ewww, gross,” I said.
“Um, that’s too bad?” I said, hoping that was a better response.
“It’s disgusting! What kind of housekeeper am I?”
“Oh, kids always get lice. It has nothing to do with your housecleaning abilities.” I thought I’d read that someplace, but at that point, I would have told Rachel anything to calm her down.
“The lice shampoo takes twenty-four hours to be effective. Mom says we can’t come to your place for Thanksgiving, for fear of infecting your guests.”
There was a long silence, and I suspected I was supposed to break it by assuring Rachel that her nit-infested children were still welcome. But did I really want to have to explain to my other guests that they may leave my place with full tummies and a need for de-lousing?
“Well, we’ll miss you,” I said, preparing for an onslaught of renewed hysteria, but I only heard a soft sniffle from Rachel. “I have enough food to feed an army. I’ll bring dinner to you.”
Silence, with the occasional snuffly breath, came from the other end.
“And I’ll send over movies for the boys. And one for you and Barry.”
“Okay,” Rachel agreed with a final sniff. “I guess I’ll go back to doing laundry and combing the kids’ hair with the lice comb.”
Better you than me, I thought, but said, “I love you.”
After I hung up, I made a list of the expected attendees: Zachary, Heike, Frank, Paula, Mom, Dad, and me. Three couples and solo me, all ironically stemming from my pathetic attempts to get a date.
That evening I was listening to classical music, chopping vegetables, baking pies, and boiling cranberries, when I heard my telephone ringing. Seeing “Zachary Williams” on the caller identification, I took a deep breath before answering, hoping to sound calm. A cacophony of noise greeted me. I never would have known who it was if not for the wonders of modern technology.
“Hello, Claudia?” I dimly heard Zachary’s voice over the noise in the background. “Oh, hang on. Wait a minute.”
The noise gradually decreased, only to be replaced by street noise. “Sorry about that, I couldn’t hear you. A bunch of us from the department are at the River Café. I was wondering if you’d like to come and have a drink with us?”
I nearly sliced the tip of my pinkie off with the knife I was wielding, so I put it down. I definitely didn’t want blood in any of the food I served my guests.
“Wow, I really wish I could, but I am literally up to my elbows in chopped vegetables.”
“Oh.” Silence, interrupted by a few honking horns and snippets of conversation as people walked by, drifted down the line for what seemed like a long time while I tried to think of something to say, but Zachary spoke first. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. I should have realized that. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“It’s no problem. I appreciate the invitation,” I said honestly, feeling the slightest glimmer of resentment that others were out having a good time while I worked. But to be honest, I enjoyed cooking and baking, so it really wasn’t such a hardship.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then. Good night,” Zachary said, disconnecting.
That was curious, I thought, wondering if Zachary’s invitation had just been a polite gesture. Where was Heike? Tempted as I was to call Hayes to get his interpretation of the phone call, I resisted the urge. I needed to man up if I wanted to get a man. I chuckled at the very Hayes-like wording of my own thought.
A few hours later, I settled on my couch with a glass of wine, the food either put away or cooling, and the kitchen for the most part cleaned up. I flipped through the channels, hoping to find a mindless movie. Tired as I was, I was too keyed up to go to sleep just yet. At first, I thought I imagined the sound of footsteps on my front porch, but after muting the television, I was certain I heard something out there. Although I listened intently, I still started at the sound of my doorbell ringing.
Disconcerted and a little frightened, I sidestepped to the door, avoiding the window, so whoever was out there wouldn’t see my silhouette through the curtains. I looked through the peephole and whooshed a sigh of relief when I saw Zachary on the other side of the door.
“Hey,” I said, opening the door. “This is a surprise. Come in.”
He raked his hand through his already mussed hair. “I guess I should have called first. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. Come in, t’s chilly out there.”
Zachary took off his jacket, revealing a well-fitting long-sleeved T-shirt. I’d never seen him dressed so casually. He wore it just as well as he did his intellectual researcher look.
“Can I get you a glass of wine, or cup of coffee?” Mindful of the fact that he’d called me from a bar hours ago, I tacked on the last bit.
He glanced at my glass of Wine on the coffee table and after a moment, said, “I should have a glass of water.”
To my surprise, he followed me into the kitchen. “Wow, it smells great in here. What have you been cooking?”
I ticked the list off on my fingers. “Cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and nut rolls. Oh, and Jell-o salad for the kids.”
He got a slightly panicked look in his eyes, as he looked around the kitchen suspiciously. “You have kids?”
I laughed as I filled a glass with water from the pitcher I kept in the refrigerator. “No, I promised my nephews I’d make them Jell-o salad.”
I’d been watching Zachary carefully and had decided he wasn’t drunk, although he clearly wasn’t one hundred percent sober. He followed me back to my living room and stood at one end of the couch, waiting, I noticed, to sit until I had. My mom would love his manners.
I sat and took a sip of my wine, waiting to see how he would explain his presence. Not that I minded his being there, but it seemed the reserved researcher I knew from work really loosened up after a few drinks.
Zachary took a sip of his water, straightened the throw pillow behind him, then jumped to his feet, holding his hair off his face with both hands. “Sorry, this is a mistake. I shouldn’t have just shown up without calling. You probably think this is a booty call.”
At the last sentence, I spewed the drink of wine I’d just taken all over my coffee table. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a tea towel, then dabbed up wine from magazines, books, and the coffee table’s surface.
“Oh, God, sorry,” Zachary muttered as he ineffectually moved things around.
“Sit down and stop apologizing,” I said, and he obeyed. Wow, my nephews never listen to me like that. Glancing over at him and seeing his contrite expression, I started laughing.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re just so different after you’ve had a few drinks.”
“I don’t usually drink very much.”
“You don’t say.” I laughed. “So, did you have fun tonight?”
He shrugged, “It was okay. The bar was really crowded and loud. I prefer to be able to talk, not shout in people’s ears.”
“Was Heike there?”
He gave me a strange look. “If she was, I didn’t see her. How many people are you expecting tomorrow?”
I flushed slightly. “It’s going to be a small group. Several people had to cancel at the last minute.” At his inquisitive look, I said, “My sister’s kids have head lice.”
This time he choked on the sip of water he’d just taken. I laughed as he absentmindedly scratched his head. I’d been doing the same thing every time I thought about my nephews.
“Don’t worry; I haven’t seen them for weeks.”
“Oh,” he grimaced as he realized what he’d been doing and lowered his hand. “Sor —”
“Don’t even say it! Are you sure you don’t want a glass of wine?”
“No, thanks,” he paused for a long time before saying, “I have a confession to make.”
I braced myself. Engaged to Heike? Gay? Suffering from erectile dysfunction?
“My parents are archeologists,” he began. Okay, hardly earth-shattering, scandalous stuff so far. “They decided I’d have a more normal childhood if I lived with my grandparents rather than traveling with them. But what they didn’t consider was that being brought up by two sixty-year-old academics wasn’t the most normal childhood in the world either.”
Seeing my puzzled look, he explained, “Growing up with my grandparents and their university friends prepared me really well for grad school, but not so much for interacting with people my own age.”
Even as I said, “You seem to get along fine to me,” I couldn’t help thinking of his reserve and his very proper ways. “You used the term `booty call.’ Did your grandparents teach you that?”
His grin was rueful. “No, my friends just taught it to me tonight when I told them I was walking over to see you.”
I couldn’t help laughing as I took his hand in mine. “None of that matters. I like you just the way you are.”
Just as I consciously realized both that I was holding his hand and had just admitted I liked him, he leaned forward and kissed me. Gently at first, but then he deepened the kiss. When he pulled away, I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “And you do that extremely well.”
A faint blush reddened his cheeks. “Yeah, well, some things you can’t help learning.”
I didn’t ask him to elaborate on that comment. I’d little doubt that with his looks, women had been chasing him since he was a teenager.
Still holding onto my hand, he continued, “I watch the way you joke around with your colleagues. You seem so self-confident. I never thought you’d be interested in a geek like me.”
A hundred protests rushed through my head—mainly based on my underemployment and his seemingly effortless sophistication—but I dismissed them all and merely leaned forward, saying, “Well, you thought wrong. I am very interested in a guy like you.”
My chiming mantel clock interrupted our next kiss. Zachary pulled away first. “I didn’t realize it was so late. I’d better get going.”
I didn’t really want him to leave, but I also knew that I had to be up to get the turkey into the oven pretty early in the morning, and I definitely didn’t want to be tired all the next day.
Although I offered to drive Zachary home, he insisted on walking. Surprisingly, I went right to sleep.
The next day though, I woke up at five a.m., eager to see him again. I jumped out of bed instead of trying to go back to sleep as I normally would have done.
My mom arrived before the coffee was done brewing.
“What are you doing here so early?” I demanded.
“Love you, too,” she said, kissing my cheek. “I wanted to make sure you got the bird in the oven on time.”
I hid my smile. I was a very competent cook—thanks primarily to her, though she apparently still didn’t trust me.
“So, what’s on the menu?” Mom asked, washing her hands.
We talked and laughed as we stuffed the turkey and boiled the giblets.
I told her of my worries about the odd guest list and she dismissed them with a wave of her hand. “Everyone will be busy eating and drinking wine. Just don’t bring up politics.”
I gave her a quizzical look. “Actually, I think politics is one subject this group will agree on.”
After we set up plates and silverware on my table buffet-style—I couldn’t possibly seat seven people in my tiny dining room—Mom went home to shower and change, and I did the same.
The doorbell was ringing when I emerged from the shower. I hurried to look through the peephole, shocked to see Hayes standing there.
“Come in and avert your eyes,” I said. “I need to go dress.”
I returned wearing more than a towel and said, “I’m always happy to see you, but what are you doing here?”
Hayes pouted. “Sam and I had a big fight this morning, so I decided to come here instead of going to his parents’.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you telling the truth? Or were you just so eager to witness this disaster of a Thanksgiving dinner that you deliberately picked a fight?”
In a remarkable display of acting ability or genuine emotion, Hayes quivered his lower lip. “Do you really think I’d fight with Sam just to meet the mysterious Heike?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, truthfully. “But you do realize you’re hours early. I need to finish dressing. What do you want to do?”
“Drink coffee, eat pastries, and watch the parades,” Hayes replied, picking up the remote.
“I can make some more coffee, but you’re out of luck in the pastry department.”
“Ah, not to worry,” Hayes said. “I brought some coffee cake, along with the fixings for my grandma’s famous green bean casserole. I’ll run out to the car, while you—” he peered closely at my face—”put on some makeup.”
“Geez, Hayes,” I muttered. “You are so good for my ego.”
“After you put on your face,” I made a face at Hayes’s expression — “we’ll decide what you’re going to wear.”
“Odd that I manage to dress myself on a daily basis without your assistance.”
“Not always well,” Hayes said, ducking to avoid my half-hearted punch.
At Hayes’ insistence, I changed out of the jeans and sweater I’d chosen, putting on a leather miniskirt that he unearthed from the depths of my closet.
“No,” I protested, looking in the mirror. “This is too much.”
“It’s perfect.” Hayes insisted, “And I did give in on the stupid turtleneck.”
“Hayes, that low-cut shirt you picked out, with this miniskirt, would make me look like a streetwalker. Not that I don’t look a little like one as it is.”
“You look great. And guaranteed Mr. Hottie Researcher will notice you.”
“He’s going to be in my apartment. He can’t avoid noticing me.”
The doorbell rang, ending our bickering. “Perfect timing. Shall I play butler?” Hayes asked.
“I think not.”
Nonetheless, I had to race him to the door, and we were both laughing when I opened it. Standing outside were a huge bouquet of mums and a blonde giant. The blonde, who slightly resembled Gwen Stefani on steroids—many, many steroids—stuck out a hand and said, “I am Heike.”
I took an involuntary step backward, intimidated. Hoping my hand hadn’t instantly produced sweat, I shook hers. “I’m Claudia.”
“Thanks for having me for Thanksgiving.”
“My pleasure.” My terror was more like it.
Zachary peered around the gargantuan cluster of autumnal flowers and said, “These are for you.”
I took the flowers, staggering slightly under the weight. “They’re beautiful. Thank you. Come in, both of you.”
I introduced Hayes and Heike before taking the flowers into the dining room. They didn’t look so overwhelmingly large on my table.
“Thank you again. They’re perfect,” I said, standing on my tiptoes to kiss Zachary on the cheek. Hayes’ eyes widened, then he winked exaggeratedly at my gesture before linking his arm through Heike’s and saying, “Let’s leave these two lovebirds alone. You need to learn the wonders of American green bean casserole.”
Zachary had just folded me into his arms and leaned down to kiss me when the doorbell rang. “Damn that bell,” I said, slipping out of his embrace to let my parents in.
All my fears proved to be unfounded. True, we were all well-lubricated by the excellent wine that Frank and Paula had brought, but the potluck would have gone well without it. We were all easygoing people with good senses of humor, and his concerns about his social skills notwithstanding, Zachary got along great with everyone. True, my parents were close to the age group he felt most comfortable with. All of the food was delicious, if I do say so myself, even Hayes’ green bean casserole, which Heike took particular pride in helping to prepare.
My mother is an astute woman, and it didn’t take her long to suss out my interest in Zachary, but she took me aside to give her approval. With some hilarity, we elected my father, as the most bald and least likely to contract head lice, to deliver the food to Rachel and her family.
I’d assumed that Zachary would be taking Heike home, but Hayes announced that he was going to take her to a gay bar she’d never visited. She claimed it was dissertation research, which seemed a bit of a stretch, but I wasn’t about to argue, because their departure left Zach and me alone.
I knew, as we snuggled together on the sofa, that my spur-of-the-moment invitation had been worth it. I wasn’t quite ready to tell him that I’d fabricated the entire potluck to spend some time with him, but I had a feeling I’d have lots of time in the future to make my confession.