23 • Matchmaker
“I’m pretty sure that timeliness is not the top quality women are looking for in a good man. But let’s be clear about this: I am coming to dinner with you because you are the best cook in the county. Not because you invited you invited whatshername.”
“Cameron Julian, Mr. Phillips. Girls also like men who can remember their names.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll write her name on my hand so I don’t embarrass you. And I have an idea, ” he said, with the slightest hint of mischief. “You don’t mind if I bring along a friend, do you?”
“A friend? Whom do you have in mind, Mr. Phillips? It’s a bit forward to ask the host if you can bring someone else, don’t you think? Tacking someone onto a dinner invitation?”
“You know my manners, Mrs. Jenkins. Sometimes I make you think I was raised by savages. You’ve said that. Look, you’ll want to play cards after dinner, and threesomes are impossible. Last time you played with a dummy hand I’m sure you were cheating.”
“I just don’t want someone getting between you and Ms. Julian. Erm, I mean, I don’t want someone she doesn’t know, that she’d be uncomfortable with.”
“Promise you. My friend will make everyone comfortable. And besides. Cameron is a big girl. She can handle meeting new people. Let me bring a friend, please? I promise it will do nothing but fan the flame of your little Yenta dinner. Okay?”
“Well. Why do you always get your way with me?”
“Because you think I’m cute, Mrs. Jenkins. I’ll see you at 6:30. Or before, if your vegetables need cutting.”
Will disconnected and pulled up Joe Murphy’s number in his phone. Joe also answered on the second ring.
Two peas, Will thought. Match made.
“Hey Joe. Do you have plans tonight?”
Pearl had not told Will to come down the back stairs, but he did anyway, knowing she’d be in the kitchen frantically bustling around with her final dinner preparations. While he was in the shower, he decided what he had done to Pearl bordered on cruelty, if cruelty could be a little sweet. She would be frazzled enough wanting everything to be just right so she could later say her dinner was his and Cameron’s first date. But introducing a mystery character into her carefully crafted plot line would be nearly too much for his tightly wound landlady-turned-matchmaker.
He should tell her Joe was coming, he thought as he slid the offset triangle of his four-in-hand knot on his narrow plaid tie under the points of a blue Oxford shirt. Pearl also hadn’t told him to wear a tie, but he’d made the mistake of showing up for dinner once before with an open-collared shirt. There are some things a guy only has to learn once.
It would at least be a small relief to her to know he wasn’t bringing himself a date, which would be humiliating for Cameron and in turn for Pearl, and ultimately for his date who would be smart enough to see what had just happened.
He buckled his belt over the button of his brown corduroys and slipped on his shoes. No, he must not tell her about Joe. That small sense of relief would make just enough space for her to stop worrying about Cameron and start worrying about herself, and it would be like a cold front meeting a warm front and a tornadic funnel cloud the likes of which had never been seen on the Dakota plains would tear through Pearl’s kitchen. No, he would say nothing. Joe would have to be a surprise. He would simply continue to assure her that it was a good thing, that when dinner was over she’d be glad he’d invited his friend.
Will would, however, tell Cameron. He needed her help in case things backfired to ensure Pearl did not direct her straight-line winds of fury against Joe. Cameron would need to be prepared to shove Will out in front of the bus while she grabbed Joe out of the street. Joe, of course, was good natured enough to be able to handle anything Pearl dished out. But Pearl would hate herself in the morning.
He made his usual exaggerated stomps down the back stairs to alert Pearl of his arrival.
“My heavens, Mr. Phillips. Must you sound like an entire pack of horses got loose and are galloping around on my servants’ stairs?”
“Wolves travel in packs, Mrs. Jenkins. Not horses.” He gave her a light kiss on the cheek. “And they are very quiet.”
“Except for the snarling right before they devour you, ” she said. Pearl slammed the knife hard through the carrot lying innocently on her wooden cutting board and a slice shot off the edge and into the sink. Will picked it up popped it into his mouth.
“Oh, Mrs. Jenkins, ” he said as he moved beside her. “You are very anxious about what I’ve done.” He put his hand over hers on the knife handle. “Please don’t worry. I wouldn’t do anything to ruin your evening. Promise.” Her hand loosened under Will’s. “Let’s cut the rest of the carrots, shall we?”
Pearl sighed. “Well, yes. But only because they need to be cut. Not because I’m not still upset with you. You’re on very thin ice with me, Mr. Phillips. If you make a fool of me or that nice Miss Julian, you can count on your rent going up.”
Will took his hand off Pearl’s. She kept chopping calmly away, seemingly content at her newfound tactic to keep Will in tow.
“You’re going to fine me?”
“Yes, ” she said. “Twenty-five dollars a month for each time you slip up. Now stop flirting with me and go put on an apron.”
“My, but you seem the poor listener tonight. Must I repeat everything? Yes, an apron. In the pantry. I want you to mix up the gravy and I’d hate for you to splatter it all over your fancy pants.”
“An apron. I don’t need an apron.”
Pearl turned from the counter and looked at Will, one eyebrow raised and the other pressed into a scowl. She pointed the long chef’s knife toward the pantry. “Apron, Mr. Phillips, or get out of my kitchen.”
Will put his hands up in front of his chest and made his way to the pantry with his back to the wall. “Of course, Mrs. Jenkins. An apron.” He ducked inside the pantry door.
Pearl happily chopped her way through another carrot. Will called out, “Are these the only ones you have? Perhaps there’s an apron Mr. Jenkins used to wear?”
“Mr. Jenkins didn’t come into my kitchen very often. They’re one size fits all. Just pick one.”
Will looked at the three aprons hanging on hooks inside the pantry. Flowered. Ruffled. Each one. “Sure you don’t have one that’s less…festive?” He wondered how much he could talk his rent down if Mrs. Jenkins made him look foolish.
“It’s a festive occasion, young man. Come on now, gravy is waiting.”
Will pulled an apron off the hook, bright red begonias trimmed with white eyelet lace. He came around the corner and put the top loop over his head. Pearl turned and wiped her hands on her own bright flowery apron and said, “You look dashingly domestic, Mr. Phillips. Turn around and I’ll tie you.”
“Domestic wasn’t quite the look I was going for. How about I just strap on my tool belt? It’d catch the splatters and keep my fancy pants nice and neat without making me look like the florist shop blew up on me.”
“I like you in begonias. Oh, that reminds me. Did you bring flowers tonight?”
“Umm, no. Was I supposed to?”
“Oh, Mr. Phillips. You are incorrigible. There’s a bouquet in the refrigerator. I thought you might forget. We’ll act like you brought them. Now take the beef roast from the oven and get to work on the gravy.”
Will opened a drawer and pulled out two green oven mitts, then took the roaster from the oven. He turned and closed the oven door with his foot. He transferred the roast to a large cutting board Pearl had set out and was picking up the roaster to drain the drippings when the doorbell rang.
“Oh, dear, ” Pearl said, looking at the clock. “One of them is early.”
“You just keep working. I’ll get it. It’s probably Cameron.”
Will needed to get to Cameron first. And if it were Joe, well, he needed to get to him first too. He bolted for the pantry and into the dining room, too fast to hear Pearl call out after him.
“Mr. Phillips, you might want to take off that pretty apron!”
Will saw Cameron, split into a dozen tiny images through the beveled glass of the entry. He reached for the doorknob, not taking his eyes off the intelligent, sassy young woman standing on Pearl’s wide porch. It took longer than it should have to realize he still had the oven mitt—and the begonia covered apron—on. He yanked off the mitt and pulled open the door, greeting Cameron with a sheepish grin.
“Come in, come in.” He motioned with the mitt toward his apron. “I’m sorry, Pearl has me helping in the kitchen. I’m hoping she’ll take it off my rent.”
“Anyway, come in. Come in.” He motioned with the oven mitt to the parlor and giant staircase, evening sun streaming through the vast stained glass on the landing in a colorful array. “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Pearl Jenkins’ home.”
Cameron stepped in and looked around. “What lovely woodwork.”
“Yes, it is. As local legend has it, Pearl’s granddaddy was a lumber man and built the house to showcase his wares. The birds eye maple in the dining room is stunning. We should go there before Pearl decides you and I ran off together before we even enjoyed her wonderful cooking.”
Cameron tipped her head. “So you’re okay with her matchmaking, even though you know nothing will come of it?”
Will swallowed at her certainty. “Well, yes. It’s not the first time Pearl has had me down to dinner, you know. I’ve learned to moderate my expectations. She, on the other hand, keeps turning them up.” He put the oven mitt under his arm and slid his hands into his pockets, rocking forward and back on the balls of his feet.
“I didn’t, ” Cameron started. “I didn’t mean–“
“I know, ” Will said, and smiled. “Look, before we go in there, I need to tell you I invited a friend.”
“Oh?” Will thought he saw Cameron’s eyes darken, her pupils widening impossibly across the deep pools. She shifted her weight and brushed a hand across her bangs in what seemed an effort to appear nonchalant.
“Yes, and Pearl is incensed. I didn’t tell her who it was, and if it goes badly, I’m looking at a spike in my cost of living that even Congress couldn’t achieve.”
There was a tap at the glass behind them. Will rushed past Cameron to the door. “Joe! Come in, ” Will said, shaking Joe’s hand and clapping him on the back with the oven mitt.
“Why, you’re looking quite lovely tonight, Will. Is the apron new?” Joe laughed. “Now I feel underdressed.”
“Consider me the baseline control, Joe. Pearl Jenkins thinks I was born underdressed, so everyone looks dashing next to me.” He put a finger under his collar to adjust it. “The bow tie is a nice touch. You look downright professorial.”
Cameron cleared her throat. Joe pressed Will out of the way with a sweep of his arm. Cameron stood facing the two men, arms crossed over her chest, a smirk planted on her face.
Joe stepped forward and extended his hand. “You must be the fair Ms. Julian I’ve been hearing about.”
“Hearing about?” Will said. “I mentioned her once, today, when I invited you to dinner.”
“Ah, Will likes to be coy.”
“Call me Cameron, please.”
“If you will call me Joe.” He lifted Cameron’s hand and dipped his head to lightly kiss the back of her hand.
“Oh, good grief, ” Will said.
Joe pointed his index finger back and forth between them. “So this is the match your landlady is working up?” He let out a soft whistle. “She’s no slouch, I guess, your Mrs. Jenkins.”
Will scowled. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, she’s got her work cut out for her, is all. You were right, Will. You’re terrifically outclassed here. Not going to be an easy sell.” He smirked at Cameron, who laughed and bit her lip.
Will rubbed the back of his neck. “Thank you for the vote of confidence, Murphy. Listen, that’s why you’re here. Cameron and I already know, I mean, we’ll humor Pearl for tonight. But if you play your cards right—and I mean literally, there’ll be a game after dinner—-and you can redirect her efforts…elsewhere.”