Dora stopped in the entryway, mouth agape. Yellow light from the lamps filled the small living room with golden light. Hanging from the ceiling, from corner to corner, were ribbons of crepe paper in blue and white, and under them, her boyfriend and son stood wearing party hats and blowing paper horns that sounded like duck calls.
Dora brought her hands to her cheeks. “What’s all this?” she exclaimed, dripping in the front hall.
“Congratulations, baby,” Devlin shouted as he came to her side and planted a firm kiss on her cheek.
“You don’t even know if I passed the exam,” she protested.
“I know you will,” he replied confidently as he helped her out of her raincoat. “You studied harder than anyone I’ve ever seen, plus you had me as your tutor. You’re a shoo-in.”
Nate hurried toward her, and looking down, she saw his face flushed with a wide grin of excitement. That in itself was unusual, and she felt a rush of love. She wanted to bend to hug him in her arms, to squeeze his small, slender frame with all the love she had to offer, but she held back. Dora knew that part of his autism meant that her son didn’t like to be hugged or touched and accepted kisses only rarely, when he was in the right mood. She played fair and instead lowered herself to meet his gaze, matching his smile.
“Are you surprised?” Nate asked.
“I am. Very.”
“Was it a good surprise?”
Her heart melted at seeing his blue eyes, the same Muir color as her own, shining. “The best.”
“I have another surprise. I’ll show you!”
“Hold on, fella,” Devlin told the boy. “Give your mama a chance to take off her coat and get dry. We’ve plenty of time for more surprises.”
Nate’s face clouded. He didn’t like to wait. But to his credit he didn’t begin a litany of stubborn whines. He merely frowned and nodded his head, then stomped off to the table to wait for dinner. “I’m hungry.”
“I am, too, pal,” Devlin said.
Dora was still surprised at Devlin’s effect on her recalcitrant son. Cal had never spent time with Nate. He saw his son’s autism as some kind of failure, hers naturally. Cal never attempted the normal father-son activities or explored other possible ways to connect. In contrast, Devlin accepted Nate for who he was, appreciated Nate’s unique talents, and, more, enjoyed his company. He took Nate fishing and taught him how to clean a fish and steer a boat. How to ride a bike and not cry when he fell off. How to identify snakes and spiders, set up a tent, bodysurf the waves. Thanks to Devlin, her pale, thin child was becoming a golden-skinned, wiry lowcountry boy. Although Nate rarely displayed affection, she knew her son liked Dev, even respected him. Devlin was the male influence—she didn’t dare say the father—that Nate so desperately needed.
“Come sit down, pretty lady,” Devlin said to Dora, walking to the table and pulling out a chair. “I fixed us something special. Your favorite. Shrimp and grits . . . the good grits, too. Not that watery stuff you make. Stone-ground, cooked with cream and bubbling with cheese. Now don’t give me that worried look.” He waved his hand dismissively. He was in the kitchen, visible from the dining room. She watched him hover over the stove, giving his grits a final stir before preparing the plates. Devlin loved to cook, and most of the time he was mindful of her healthy-heart diet. They’d all been frightened last summer after the scare that had put her in the hospital. But he knew she yearned for butter, bacon fat, and any meat that came from a pig.
“Your diet can skip a day,” he said. He went to the gleaming stainless-steel fridge to pull out a bottle of champagne. With the speed of experience he twisted the cork, and they cheered at the sound of the reassuring pop. “Tonight’s special.” Devlin walked over to hand her a flute of the bubbly. “You’re a bona fide real estate agent!” Devlin bent to kiss her lips with a proprietary air.
“Almost,” she reminded him, accepting his kiss. She was touched at his thoughtfulness. It was typical of Dev to prepare an impromptu party. He loved a good time. Thought life was too short not to enjoy the special moments. She got swept up in his enthusiasm and felt her anxiety ease.
“Hey, Mr. Cassell, I guess this means you’re my new boss.”
“Welcome to Cassell Real Estate. Where your home is your castle,” he added, raising his glass with mock seriousness as he recited his company’s slogan.
Dora always thought the phrase a bit corny, but it seemed to work. People remembered his name, and his was the most successful real estate company on Sullivan’s Island. To her, though, Devlin would always be the adorable surfer that she’d fallen in love with at sixteen years of age.
She enjoyed the delectable shrimp and grits, forcing herself to ignore the calories. She saw tonight as a well-earned treat, promising herself she’d get back to her diet the following day. Across from her, Nate was wolfing down the grits, which were on his select list of approved foods. Though he wouldn’t allow the shrimp to touch the grits or a drop of the gravy. She drank another glass of champagne, then another, enjoying the buzz after the months of studying and the completion of her course. Once she got her license, her plan was to quit her job at the clothing store and begin her new career as a real estate agent. She lived in a house she loved, had a man she loved and a son she loved more than anything else in the world. She felt her world shift and suddenly life looked promising.
Nate squirmed in his chair and kept eyeing the hallway to his bedroom.
“What’s putting ants in your pants?” she asked.
“All right, big guy,” Devlin told him. “I reckon it’s time to give your mama your big surprise.”
Nate’s face lit up as he bolted from his chair and ran down the hall.
“What in the world?” Dora turned to Devlin. “Please don’t tell me he’s giving me a video game. That is the only thing that fires up the boy like that.”
“You’ll see,” Devlin replied mischievously, a grin playing around the corners of his mouth.
A moment later Nate returned, walking slowly, cautiously, down the hall carrying something in his arms. When he was closer, she heard a faint, high-pitched mewling. Dora glanced sharply up at Devlin and saw him looking at the boy, grinning. Whatever it was, Dora knew that Devlin was part of it.