Lizzie forced that smile as she cleared plates from the table. She was glad to see that Abby’s smile was genuine, at least. “Thank you,” her friend practically glowed. Surprisingly so did Jack Greywolf.
She nodded and turned to collect plates from the other side of the booth. The woman was nursing her baby as the little girl read some book. The three men were fully engaged in whatever conversation they were having. “The food was wonderful. Thank you,” smiled the woman.
If she remembered correctly, this was Jack’s cousin’s wife. And the older man was his grandfather’s brother? Jack looked nothing like his cousin, though.
Extended family had been a foreign concept to Lizzie until she came to Sebida. Growing up, it had been just her and her Mom, after her dad was killed in action. Even when Chris Monroe had first come into their lives, they had remained nuclear.
Of course, when they bought the restaurant and moved here, she had discovered that her step-father was related to half the town. Not that any of the Monroes other than Abby Jean claimed her. And now, it had been just her and Gareth for so long.
She knew that Abby felt like an outsider as well. While Miss Myrtle had been highly thought of in Sebida, even she was not close to her uncle’s side of the family. Bad blood was the rumor. Though no one seemed to know or be willing to say what exactly happened between the Judge and his brother to cause the rift. Heck, the Monroe family tree was more gnarled and twisted than the grand old oak outside the county courthouse. People said that tree was older than the Republic.
“Glad you enjoyed it.” Lizzie knew that she wasn’t acting herself. She tried extra hard to avoid looking at the squirming bundle of blankets in the woman’s arms. Just being this close to a baby usually sent her into another crying jig.
If this was Houston, if they didn’t rely on the income from the diner so much, she’d be tempted to take matters into her own hands. After all, in the twenty-first century, women had options. But the other new baby in this town was a reminder that the new millennia had passed Sebida by. Even now, the old blue-haired betties whispered about Laura Reynolds and that handsome new sheriff.
Things were only going to get more complicated. Mercy was already pregnant, and from the looks of things, Abby would be too very soon. If she weren’t already. Of course, it would fall to her to arrange baby showers. While the closest she would get to a baby was those kittens. She almost dropped the plates; her hands were shaking so badly.
She needed to get out of here. A break, out back, maybe check on her babies and give Momma some more chicken. “Will there be anything else ya’ll?” Even her voice did not sound as chipper as usual. She knew that she was in real trouble when her eyes met Abby’s. Damnation, she didn’t need or want their pity.
Her friend shook her head, but it was Jack that spoke, “Just the bill, please, Lizzie. Ryan needs to get on the road. It’s a long drive with a baby. And Lizzie and I need to get some painting done this weekend.”
That brought a half-smile to her face. She was almost sure she knew exactly what they were painting. The Pink Palace, as the vestal virgins had nicknamed her friend’s bedroom after one Friday night of wine and ice cream fueled rom-coms. “It’s on the house. Consider it the bridal breakfast of sorts.”
She shook her head at Abby’s plea. “No, I won’t hear of it.” She feared that this time her face genuinely might crack if she had to maintain that smile for one more minute.
Jack nodded, and everyone began to file out of the booth seats. Her heart almost stopped, and her vision clouded over when the little girl with that mane of gorgeous curls touched her arm gently. She felt a warmth spread up her shoulder and calm settle in her chest and mind as she looked into the warm brown eyes, “It’ll be okay.”
She smiled indulgently at the child’s nebulous statement. The girl couldn’t be more than seven or eight. What did she know of responsibilities and duties that weighed you down until you felt like you were drowning in your own life? Had she ever been that naïve? Probably not. By that age, she had already lost her father, and her mother was working two jobs to keep them afloat. She hoped this child never knew any of that pain.
“But without pain, how can we appreciate joy, my daughter?”
Lizzie shook her head at the old man’s words. Was she so out of it that she had spoken aloud? Or was that mask so severely broken that anyone could read her emotions now? That was the last thing she wanted in this town. Sometimes she thought her name was ‘poor little Lizzie Patterson.’
The man looked nothing like his dead brother, but that laughter reminded her they were related. “Not for much longer.”
“Grandfather!” She frowned in confusion when Jack called him that.
“An honorific, nothing more. Many people less related to me than that one call me by that name. I would be honored if you did as well.”
Lizzie was grateful that she would not need to reply or continue this unusual conversation when the bell over the door rang. Until she turned and realized who it was. “Adam? What are you….”
Before she could finish her question, the man was across the room. He wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her against him. His soft lips brushed hers, “Sorry, I couldn’t wait until Friday.”
She felt the tears she had been fighting escape but was grateful that perhaps Abby would misread them as joy or relief. She felt that warm touch and looked down into that smiling face, “I told you.”
No, things might not be alright. But this man would distract them and hopefully deflect a bit of that ‘poor Lizzie’ gossip. And for that, she was eternally grateful.
She just had to remind herself that it wasn’t real. None of it. It was just an act. For political reason on his part and to avoid that pity on hers. She had to remember that nothing had changed. She was still destined to become the ‘poor Lizzie Patterson’, ‘last of the vestal virgins,’ and ‘Sebida’s crazzy cat lady.’