After Elaine and her mother finished their private discussion, Kathy spent the next hour playing with Amelia in the kitchen. Nick, Tony and Luna seemed greatly relieved that mother and daughter had apparently patched things up, at least enough to behave in a halfway civil manner, although Elaine was guarded in every interaction with the woman.
Both the kids seemed relaxed around Kathy, even a little too relaxed, as if some invisible DNA link connected them together. Ryan completely accepted Kathy’s presence and did not ask about who she was—his attitude seemed to be that anyone who freely handed out gifts as cool as build-your-own-dinosaur kits need not be questioned any further.
There was no chance for Elaine to discuss anything privately with Nick, which she considered a good thing, because she had such mixed feelings and kept flip-flopping between them. At times she just felt like sending her mother on her way and telling her family that she could never forgive her mother and she was not welcome there, period. Ever.
But then that seemed too harsh.
As it neared dinner time, Elaine forced herself to ask Kathy if she wanted to eat with them and spend the night. Her mother graciously accepted, as if she hadn’t expected this.
Tony flew into overdrive, rushing around the kitchen to whip up a feast that, in his words, was “gonna knock-a your socks off.”
The meal took such a long time to prepare that they didn’t actually sit down to eat until nine o’clock. Tony outdid himself. He prepared Nonna Betta, or Roman artichokes, which a friend had just sent him from Rome, and Cicio e Pepe pasta, and for dessert, tiramisu. The food was indeed sublime, the tiramisu was so light and fluffy it almost seemed to float on their forks.
Luna groaned as she finished off her second glass of red wine, and motioned with the glass to Elaine. “Fifteen kilometer run first thing tomorrow morning, baby-doll, and no stopping to rest, either.”
“Yeah, and that goes for you, too,” Elaine said.
“It was absolutely heavenly, Tony,” Kathy said with unmistakable sincerity. “I’ve never eaten such a delicious meal in my life!”
Tony looked pleased. As he began collecting the dessert plates, all of which had been scraped clean, Kathy sipped her wine, and she glanced around the huge kitchen, and then looked admiringly at Elaine, her eyes seeming to say You’ve done quite well for yourself, haven’t you, honey?
Elaine found this distasteful.
“I don’t trust her,” Elaine said, when she and Nick were getting ready for bed that night.
It was the first time they’d been able to talk privately since Kathy had arrived. She had already told Nick about Kathy’s desire to be a grandmother to the kids, and he seemed to welcome the idea.
Now, she was washing her face, talking to him through the open bathroom door. He was lying on the bed, propped up on pillows, his muscular arms crossed over his bare chest.
“I don’t see why you’re so suspicious of her. She seems okay to me.” He shrugged casually. “She made mistakes, people change. Nobody’s perfect.”
Elaine wiped her face with a towel and peered out at her husband through the bathroom door. “Why are you defending her, Nick?”
“I’m not defending her. I just think it would be nice if the kids had at least one grandparent. If you could stand her being around enough to play that role, that is. But if you’re not comfortable with that, I completely understand. She’s your mother. I’ll totally support any decision you make, honey.”
Elaine stared at her own tired-looking face in the mirror. Having her mother show up out of the blue had exhausted her. Could she really accept having Kathy back in her life, after all these years?
“She is very pleasant, and very well-mannered,” Nick went on reflectively. “And warm. Ryan and Amelia seem comfortable enough around her, and you know how kids are—they’re sensitive to negative vibes.”
Elaine emerged from the bathroom, taking off her robe and hanging it on the hook on the bathroom door. She was still wearing her bra and panties.
Nick glanced up at her toned, slender body as she approached the bed, and he chuckled.
“It’s amazing—your mother has a body exactly like yours. I mean, except at the top.” He was referring to the obvious boob job. “How old would she be, forty-eight or so?”
“That’s about right.”
“That’s impressive. She’s in incredible shape, you have to admit.”
“Watch it, Nick. This is my mother we’re talking about.”
“I didn’t mean anything, I’m just saying she’s just very...well-preserved.”
“You mean well-constructed. You do realize she’s had a lot of work done, don’t you? Or can’t you see past the fake tits and botox...”
Nick looked a little miffed by this. “Elaine...”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she muttered, and she sat down on the bed with her back to him. She could hardly believe that her mother was actually sleeping in the guest bedroom. It felt so strange. Luna had insisted that Kathy take that room and was sleeping downstairs on the fold-out couch in the living room, which had to be uncomfortable, considering Luna’s size.
Nick started massaging Elaine’s shoulders.
“Oh, that feels wonderful,” she purred. Nick’s strong hands were magical.
“You’re just stressed out, babe, that’s all. It has to be a shock to have her suddenly show up like this without warning.”
Elaine thought it over, and tried to imagine having Kathy around now and then for the sake of the kids. “But if she gets close to Ryan and Amelia, what if she just decides to disappear again?”
“She promised she wouldn’t,” Nick said. “Anyway, either one of us could disappear, too, with the kind of work we do. There are no guarantees in life, Elaine.”
She turned and glanced at his face. He had a point—he was talking about his CIA contract extraction work, of course, and the dangerous missions she’d been on herself. “Still, we have no idea what she’s been doing for the last twenty years. We don’t even know where she lives for sure, or anything about this Greek husband that she’s supposedly divorcing.”
“Boy, you are suspicious.”
“You bet I am!” Elaine slipped out from under her husband’s hands and turned to face him, anger welling up inside her. “Tomorrow I’m going to ask Luna to check her out, find out which flight she came here on, and from where. And to do a complete criminal background check on her.”
Nick’s mouth dropped open. “Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m not.”
“You don’t think that’s a little...”
“A little what?”
“Extreme? Running a criminal background check on your own mother?”
Elaine pointed angrily at the wall. “That woman walked out of my life when I was ten years old, Nick, and completely dropped off the radar. This is practically a stranger we’re considering letting get close to our children.”
“Shhh, she might hear you.”
“I don’t care if she hears me or not!” Elaine started pacing the floor.
Nick said, “You don’t even know her last name—if she’s married to a Greek guy, she probably changed it, and that’s the name her passport and other documents will be issued under. What are you going to do, sneak into her purse and...” Nick’s voice trailed off—it seemed something had just occurred to him.
“What?” Elaine said.
“Well, I did happen to notice one detail when I brought in her suitcases—she’d taken the airport luggage tags off. Very few people do that until they get home from the airport or get ready to go on their next trip. About eight percent, to be exact.”
Elaine started to ask him how he knew that, but remembered it was one of the bottomless pit of facts that Nick picked up in his CIA training. “Then you see why I’m suspicious.”
“I don’t think that’s anything to be so suspicious about. Maybe she’s just super neat and organized, like you, and took the tags off at the airport. After all, you are her daughter.”
“She was a total slob when I was growing up, Nick, a chain smoker and a drunk.”
“Shhh,” Nick said. “Do you have to talk so loud?”
“That’s another thing, Nick—you didn’t know her before. She’s totally changed! Not only in her looks, in every way. The way she speaks, the way she moves, her attitude towards life—everything. All those fancy clothes, and her poise, her demeanor. If I didn’t know better I would think she went to a finishing school.”
Nick shrugged. “Maybe she did.”
“Why do you keep defending her?”
“I’m not defending her—Jesus, how is that defending her?”
“Didn’t you notice how she jumped when Luna rang the front gate bell? She nearly dropped her bruschetta! It was like she was afraid of something, maybe that someone had followed her here.”
Nick looked surprised by this. “No, I didn’t notice that. She did seem a little jumpy in general, but that’s understandable, considering.”
Elaine pointed at him. “You know what I think?”
“She’s in some kind of trouble. She came here because she knows I’m in law enforcement and thinks I can protect her.”
“Oh, come on...”
“Oh come on yourself! She already admitted that’s how she found me, seeing my name in that tabloid article. Do you really want our kids to have a grandparent so badly that you’ll risk having a criminal grandmother? Grandma Barker. The next present she brings Ryan will probably be a machine gun.”
Nick laughed. “Honey, you’re really getting carried away.”
“I am not!”
Nick nodded. He looked past her, shaking his head.
“What?” Elaine demanded.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
“What, Nick? Spit it out.”
He sighed. “Let’s face it, honey, you have...issues with her. Which is perfectly normal, but I do believe it’s affecting your judgment.”
“Issues? Of course I have issues! What do you expect?”
“What I meant was, her walking out on you and your dad when you were just a kid is a terrible thing to have done. But it’s not a crime. There’s no reason to assume that since then she’s gotten involved in some kind of criminal activity. You’re jumping to conclusions.”
Elaine pointed at Nick. “Tomorrow I’m thoroughly checking that woman out, and every damn detail she told us today better match what I find!”
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