“Oh,” I said quietly. “She’s in heaven.”
“My fish went to heaven too. Mommy said she would be happy there.”
I smiled, charmed by the two beautiful little girls. “I bet she is.”
Clara emerged from her spot by Beth and grabbed my hand in her chubby one. “Come...play.”
I looked up to see the others smiling.
Beth quickly spoke. “Oh, let’s give Erica a chance to get settled before we make her play. She’s had a long trip.”
I laughed. “It’s okay. What are we playing?”
“We make sister cookies,” Clara explained, her bright eyes seeming to expect that I knew what that meant.
She tugged at my arm, and I followed her and Beth into the kitchen.
“Sorry this place is a mess. We started out wanting to make cookies, and then they had to be heart shaped, and then they had to be pink, so…” Beth threw her hands up as we surveyed the counter covered in sugar cookie debris. “This is what we have.”
Clara lifted to her tippy toes and grabbed a pink slightly misshapen heart cookie and pressed into my hand.
“Clara calls them sister cookies, since she knew we were making them special for you.”
“Oh, thank you.” I took a bite and moaned in exaggerated delight. “So good. You made these?”
Both the girls nodded, their eyes bright with pride.
“Oh my God, what is that?”
My eyes widened as Beth caught my hand, bringing my diamond studded ring closer to her face.
“Oh, um.” I struggled to come up with the right words, let alone with pink sugar cookie in my mouth. I hadn’t thought much about how to break the news to Elliot, but Beth might beat me to it. “We’re engaged.”
She let out a small squeal. “Elliot, come in here!”
A few seconds later, Elliot and Blake joined us in the kitchen.
“Erica and Blake are engaged!”
“What? When did this happen?” Elliot looked between Blake and me.
“Have you set a date?” Beth interjected before either of us could answer.
“We’re just doing a small beachside ceremony in a few weeks,” Blake said.
“You’re kidding?” Elliot looked to Beth. They both shook their heads. “Well, shoot, you should have told me, Erica.”
I shrugged. “I know you’re busy. I didn’t want to put any extra pressure on you. Plus everything came together really fast. I can barely keep up with it.”
“Well, we’ll figure something out. I want to be there,” Elliot said without hesitation.
“Seriously, it’s going to be really small. I know you guys are swamped.” I didn’t want him to come because he felt guilty. He had a whole life here and a family who really needed him. That much was obvious as the two little girls padded around the kitchen between us.
“Don’t be crazy, Erica. We’ll figure it out, one way or the other.” Beth came in for a hug.
“Okay, but no pressure. I understand you both have a full plate.”
Beth hushed me and we proceeded to work together to get dinner together. Blake and Elliot had retreated to the other room while Beth dove into questions about how Blake and I met. Clara and Marissa took turns feeding me sister cookies and eventually succeeded in tugging me away from their mother and toward another room. Despite Beth’s attempts to distract them, I ended up spending the next hour on the floor of their shared room, while the “grownups” prepared dinner and talked downstairs.
I overheard Blake talking about our businesses and some of his contacts in the city. I didn’t feel too badly about abandoning him with Elliot and Beth, who were basically complete strangers to him. He could make conversation with almost anyone. When it came to programmers, he was more social than most.
When I was just about full from our pretend tea-party, the whole family settled down for dinner. The girls monopolized the meal with their questions and laughter and generally cute antics. I didn’t mind. Their happiness filled up any awkward silences we might have otherwise had, and I was quickly enamored with both of them.
As dinner wound down, Elliot’s girls wound up. They were giggling and crawling under the table, interjecting themselves into the grownups’ conversation frequently. Elliot’s flash of irritation melted in seconds, as he curled an arm around each of them. Collecting them into his arms, he threatened bear hugs and princess kisses.
I smiled, their love as a family evident and infectious.
Beth rose from the table, lifting one of the girls away from Elliot and onto her hip. “I think it’s bath time now. Let’s say goodnight to Erica and Blake.”
“No!” Clara cried, rubbed her eyes, and rested her head on Beth’s shoulder.
Beth smiled. “Yes, it’s time. Elliot, why don’t you and Erica get the fire going in the backyard? I’ll put the girls down.”
“Yeah, go ahead,” she insisted, shooing him off with a wave of her hand.
He sent her a warm smile, letting Marissa leave his embrace and snuggle up to Beth’s leg.
Blake rose quickly. “I’ll work on cleaning up dinner. You two go ahead.”
Elliot and I shared a look. Apparently everyone was in on us making the most of our brief reunion. He smiled, grabbed his wine, and stood. “I guess that’s our cue. Come on out. It’s a nice night.”
Elliot’s backyard was fenced in, a large play set filling most of the yard and the girls’ toys littering the rest of it. I settled down on a chair on the patio while he stoked a small fire to life in the little outdoor fireplace. He sat back, and the fire grew over the next few minutes.
“I can’t believe you’re getting married.”
I laughed. “That makes two of us. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it since Blake asked me.”
“Blake seems like a great guy. I’m really happy for you both.”
I smiled with a nod. “I think so too.”
“Is he good enough for you?”
To that I had to laugh. “He’s amazing. Completely amazing.”
“Just watching out for you. I never got the chance to scare away any of your boyfriends. I feel like I need to make up for lost time,” he said, the half smirk on his face telling me he was only half-serious.
“You’ll get your chance with Clara and Marissa, I’m sure. They’re growing up beautifully.”
“Oh, man, don’t remind me.” He rubbed his forehead.