Sam followed her across the garden, through a tall gate on the south side of the house and into the backyard. Like the front, it was all flowers and colors and sweet smells. The sun stretched long shadows over the beds and the path, a lone mimosa tree in the middle making a dappled pattern. A string of lights illuminated the porch, a gauzy island of white, thanks to the thin…
“Mosquito netting?” he asked.
“Ugh, the little buggers go crazy for me.” Jessica climbed the steps, then shouldered aside an opening in the net so he could enter. “The only way I can be outside after dark without becoming a meal for them is if I’m going a hundred miles an hour in my little car.” Then she grimaced. “Oh. Cop. Forget I said that.”
Laughing, he set the basket on a worn wood cabinet against the wall. Jessica deposited hers there, as well, then gestured toward the dining table and the chair pushed into the outside corner. “Have a seat there, if you will. When Mila and I have a dinner party, we like to wait on our guest instead of climbing over him every time we need something.”
It was a tight fit back in that corner, but it would give him the prettiest view: the two women. No Douglas ever turned down the chance to look at pretty women, his uncle Hank preached, and Sam agreed.
As he settled in, the back door opened and Poppy shot out. Sam wondered if she would upend the table to get to him, or rip the yards of mosquito netting right down from their hooks, but she skidded to a stop at the top of the steps, waiting politely until Mila parted the overlapping fabric. Trotting into the yard, Poppy lowered her nose to the ground and disappeared down the path.
Every day was an adventure for Poppy. Hell, every hour was.
“Sit, Mila,” Jessica commanded. “My food—I get to serve.”
Mila took the chair to Sam’s right, crossing her legs, smelling of jasmine and vanilla. While he’d helped Jessica, she’d put her hair up off her neck in a style that was messy and careless and touchable and tempting. She wasn’t wearing makeup—apparently didn’t need it, because her skin tone was smooth and even, her lashes were dark and curly, and her lips were tinged a natural pinkish shade.
She was prettier than he’d noticed yesterday. Of course, yesterday she’d looked one scare away from collapsing into a heap. She was back in control of herself today. Not her circumstances, necessarily—he knew well that if left to her own choices, she wouldn’t have invited him to dinner this evening—but her eyes weren’t haunted now, and she didn’t seem so weary and worn.
“Your garden is beautiful,” he said as he spread his napkin over his lap. “If you ever get tired of working for Lawrence—” a tiny wrinkle appeared between her eyes “—you could go into business as a landscaper. I really like your bluebonnets and the coneflowers. The golden esperanzas are gorgeous, too.”
Her gaze shifted to his. “You know flowers?”
“Depends on who’s asking. If my mom says, ‘Go get me ten flats of apricot zinnias,’ I forget what color apricot is and what zinnias look like. If you ask, ‘Do you like the apricots better than the thumbelinas right next to them?’ my answer would be yes, though thumbelinas are awfully pretty, too.”
The faint hint of a smile stirred across her face. Okay, so if all else failed, he could talk flowers with her until his store of knowledge ran out. Should’ve paid more attention all those times he’d helped out his parents.
Jessica handed a dinner plate across the table to him, heaped with smoky ribs and thick slabs of bologna bearing grill marks and a glaze of barbecue sauce. Around the sides she’d tucked in fresh cherry tomatoes sprinkled with herbs and a light dressing, potato salad and a mound of vegetable salad. After handing a smaller serving to Mila and setting a third one at her own place, she passed around tall glasses of iced tea and added a loaf of Rainbo white sandwich bread and a roll of paper towels for napkins. Flashbacks to meals on the farm.
“You don’t happen to run a restaurant,” Sam said tentatively. He gestured to the food and considered the relatively quick manner she’d pulled it all together.