“Okay. We’ll see.” She paused, as if waiting for him to offer more, then nodded and glanced over her shoulder.
He watched her survey everyone sprawled out on beach chairs. She twisted her full lips into a pout as she turned from him and approached the group. What else might she do with those pursed lips? he wondered. He shook his head to banish the inappropriate thought.
“I think I’m done with the sun today,” she announced to everyone. “Why don’t I go pick up something to cook for dinner? I got inspired by my beachcombing. So I have a surprise in mind.”
She stood behind Jackson’s chair, leaning down close to his ear.
“May I please take your car?”
“Sure.” He remained reclined with his eyes closed. “Keys are on the kitchen counter.”
The chaste kiss she planted on his forehead elicited a playful grin and tug on her hair from him. A spark of envy roiled through David’s veins.
“Do you remember how to find the grocery store?” David interjected.
“I think so. And if I’m wrong, I can’t get too lost on Block Island.” She waved. “See you all later!”
In the past, she’d leaped at any opportunity to drag him off on an errand. Not today.
As she meandered toward the steps, David noticed Hank staring at her hips. A tiny knot formed in his gut.
“She’s charming.” Hank exhaled as he took a seat beside Jackson.
Cat’s expression grew cool. She leaned forward to fasten her warning gaze on Hank. “She’s important to our family, so you’d better treat her with respect.”
Hank started at Cat’s words and then looked at her as if amused.
“Catalina.” His inflection seemed to impart a private message to her, which David couldn’t decipher. “Nice to see you again, too.” Grinning to himself, Hank slouched back in his chair.
David glanced at the top of the steps and watched Vivi disappear behind the shrubs. Unspoken but well-known boundaries would always limit his relationship with her. He’d be the worst kind of hypocrite to begrudge her the attentions of another man, especially when he had Laney here.
Vivi’s change of heart was for the best, even if it hurt a little.
Two hours later, everyone climbed the stairs to the house to escape the sun. Inside, they encountered Vivi, standing in the middle of the cheerful blue kitchen, surrounded by bags of groceries. David noted her wet hair piled loosely on top of her head. She looked fresh and clean . . . and unexpectedly appealing.
“Oh! Scoot and go shower or relax for a while.” She waved her arms over the bags to prevent anyone from snooping around the counters. “This is supposed to be a surprise.”
“No problem-o,” Jackson promised. Everyone obeyed her command and hustled off to other parts of the house, eager to shed the salt and sweat from their bodies.
When David descended the steps ninety minutes later, he discovered Vivi humming amid a kitchen full of seafood, chicken, and chorizo. Blissfully absorbed in her task, she scurried around the small space while throwing saffron, chicken broth, and rice in a large pot.
Like his own mother, Vivi jumped headlong into every project, relationship, and activity. Her enthusiasm always charmed him. Watching the scene in the kitchen transported him back to the days when their comfortable friendship felt as natural as breathing. It wasn’t until the first fragrant whiff of the simmering ingredients reached his nose that he recoiled inside.
The aroma of his mother’s paella recipe penetrated his deeply buried anguish. He steadied himself against the counter.
“What are you doing?” he asked sharply.
“I-I’m making your mom’s paella.” Stilled and wide-eyed, she continued, “I thought of it when I caught the crabs in the ocean.”
Being here with everyone for the first time since his mother’s death unearthed repressed memories of laughter, love, and all the happiness he’d buried with his mother. The conflict between those memories and his current circumstances tore at him. His throat constricted as the spicy scents drew forth an image of his mother smiling at him from that very stove. Never again.
The crippling reality swept through him, hot and white, scoring him.
“Why? Why did you choose my mom’s favorite meal? You can’t take her place. You’re not even part of our family!”
“Hey, David. Shut it!” Jackson yanked him from the kitchen. “She’s been more a part of this family than you have recently.”
David whirled around, flustered. Jackson stepped between Vivi and him, standing cross-armed.
“What’s wrong?” Laney entered the room. David noticed her eyes dart from him to Jackson to Vivi.
Regaining his composure, he snatched Laney’s keys from the counter and took her by the hand, desperate to escape the visions of his mother and his memories of the “perfect family” he’d once believed in.
“We’re going out tonight.”
Without glancing back, he hauled her from the house and, seconds later, peeled out of the driveway.
Still brooding at the outdoor restaurant of the National Hotel, David poured himself another glass of Pinot Grigio from the second bottle he’d ordered. A cool breeze swept across the hotel porch, causing him to shiver.
“David,” Laney began, “what upset you at the house?”
“Let’s not discuss it.” He swigged more of his wine.
“Well, I’d like to know what we’re confronting when we return.”
God, he dreaded facing everyone. He slid his fingers through the condensation on the side of his glass, staring at the rivulets formed by the motion.
“Vivi cooked my mother’s favorite dish tonight. It reminded me of sitting at the counter and talking with my mom while she’d work in the kitchen. The idea of enjoying it without her felt like a betrayal, especially here,” he said, gesturing toward the island harbor. “I guess I’m still mourning her death. Nothing in Hong Kong reminded me of her, so it was easy to distract myself with the novelty of the region and demands of work. But her absence here, in our family’s home, is forcing me to face the loss. It’s suffocating. I miss her . . .” His throat tightened, choking his words. “I miss her so much.”
He avoided Laney’s penetrating gaze by staring at his wine glass. He’d spoken the truth, just not all of it. More had provoked him this evening. Vivi. He hadn’t been prepared to see her again or feel her indifference.