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By Debby Mayne
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Debby Mayne
All rights reserved.
Nothing like the aroma of authentic Greek food to stir a woman's injured soul. Paula Andrews had to walk around toys scattered on the front porch. She inhaled deeply and knocked on the door of the large, two-story, wood-frame house. Nestled among other old Tarpon Springs, Florida, mansions, the Papadopoulos family home overlooked the Anclote River's Spring Bayou. She heard the bustling and scurrying inside the house as she stood and waited. A wave of nostalgia blended with the smells coming from the house and flooded her senses. The only thing that trumped chicken fried steak on her taste buds was Greek food cooked by one of the Papadopoulos women.
"Don't knock!" someone yelled. "Just come on in!"
Tentatively at first, she pushed open the door a few inches. When she was certain a small child wasn't smashed up against the other side, she shoved harder, making the heavy wooden door squeak. As she entered the grand two-story foyer, she spotted a familiar petite figure standing on the top rung of a ladder, her arms stretched to their maximum, fussing with the end of a piece of crepe paper.
"Hey, girl," Paula called up to her best friend. "What can I do to help?"
"Hand me that streamer." Steph Papadopoulos pointed to the table beneath the ladder.
Paula grabbed the first one she came to and passed it to her friend. "Nick will love this." She surveyed the room, and her eyes rested on the banner. "But why does it say 'Welcome home, John Smith'?"
Steph smoothed the tape over the streamer and chuckled as she stepped down off the ladder. "Remember that old family joke? Nick Papadopoulos is the Greek version of John Smith?"
"Yeah, that's right." Paula grinned. "I do remember. And this is so you, Steph! Nick'll be beside himself when he sees all this."
Steph snorted. "Nick's so full of himself, that's impossible."
A couple of children scampered past them. Steph hollered, "Slow down, or you'll break something." She shook her head. "I don't know where my brothers are, but they're obviously not watching their kids."
"Young'uns. Gotta love 'em."
Steph grinned at her. "You always did have a way with words."
As if on cue, a shrill scream emanated from the other side of the wall. "Stephie! Joey put gum in my hair!"
"Did not," the little boy yelled back. "That's yellow gum in your hair. Mine's blue."
Steph groaned and rolled her eyes, but Paula noticed the spark of amusement on her face as she rounded the corner and placed her hands on her hips. "Okay, you two. Enough of this craziness. Get me the scissors, Cleo, and I'll get that gum out of your hair."
"No way." The little girl giggled. "I'll get the peanut butter. That's what Mama always uses."
Steph quirked an eyebrow. "This is obviously not the first time your hair's been tangled with gum." She plucked another streamer from the table and held it up. "Sometimes I think I'm better off than my brothers."
"Not so much," Paula said. "At least they're married." She nodded toward the child who was still in Steph's grip. "And they have you to watch their little angels."
Cleo stuck her tongue out at Paula.
"Yeah, I know, they're all happily married and everything, but in my fertile family, kids follow shortly after the wedding, and the only time they're quiet is when they're sleeping. What do you think?"
Paula contemplated making a face back at Cleo as she studied the decorations for a few seconds then thought better of it. "Want my honest opinion?"
"When they're your own kids, their noise is like music." She rolled her eyes. "Or so I hear."
Steph made a face. "I was talking about the streamers, goofball. Do you think we should put silver or gold with the blue?"
"Nick used to fancy silver." Paula lifted one of the silver streamers, held it up against the blue, and studied it. "But I'm not sure now."
Steph gave her a look of annoyance. "Just tell me which one you think he'd like so I can be done with it."
Paula paused only for a split second. "Silver. Definitely silver."
"Then gold it is. We don't want Nick to think we put too much thought into his homecoming party, or he'll accuse us of trying to make him feel guilty for leaving."
"What's so funny?" Steph moved away from her work and took a long look at it. "I'm serious."
Paula had known the Papadopoulos family for sixteen years. Since she didn't have much of a family herself, she was happy they didn't seem to mind her hanging around. But not so much lately. Her business, Paula's Natural Soap and Candle Shop, consumed most of her waking hours.
"Paula?" Steph waved a hand in front of Paula's face. "Are you in there?"
"Oh, sorry." Paula gestured around the room. "Why are you doing all this now? I thought Nick wasn't coming until Saturday. It's gonna wilt in all this humidity."
Steph shrugged. "You know my family. They like to turn everything into a holiday, and they always start early for holidays." She held out her hands and shook her head. "Mama says that's the Greek way. Who am I to argue?"
"Best not to argue with a Papadopoulos," Paula agreed as she looked around the room again. "Okay, so are we still on for the outlet mall tomorrow?"
Steph nodded. "Yeah, that's why I'm trying to knock out my share of the work around here. Mama wants everyone to do something ... you know, carry our share of the load and all?"
"I know. I should help out too since y'all have as good as adopted me."
"Yeah." Steph smiled and nodded her understanding.
Paula helped Steph finish hanging the streamers. The room looked like a high school gymnasium before a pep rally, but that was the whole point. The gaudier the decorations, the more welcome Nick would feel.
The shrill voice of Steph's aunt reverberated through the house, making Paula jump. Steph contorted her mouth, bugged her eyes, and clicked her tongue. "We know who that is."
Paula bit her bottom lip to keep from bursting into laughter.
"Whaddya want?" A middle-aged Greek woman with shoulder-length, gray-flecked black hair trudged out of the kitchen carrying a silver tray and tea service. "Oh, hi, Paula. You'll be here for Nick's homecoming celebration, right?" Without giving Paula a chance to answer, she yelled, "Whaddya hollerin' for, Phoebe? I'm right here."
Another group of kids ran past. "Slow down!" Steph shouted after they'd left the room and trotted out of hearing distance. "C'mon, Paula, let's go outside where we can talk. This place is a zoo."
"Don't be rude, Steph," her mother barked. "Let me talk to Paula before you take off with her." She put down the silver tray and offered Paula a sweet smile. "Will you be able to make it to the party? We have enough food for all of Tarpon Springs and half of Tampa." She lowered her chin and looked at Paula from beneath very bushy eyebrows. "Nick'll be pleased to see you."
"I ... uh, well ..." Paula widened her eyes and shot Steph a look for help.
"Of course, you're coming. You can't stay away from Nick." Without missing a beat, Steph's mother took a few steps, grabbed her sister Phoebe, and pulled her toward the stairs. "You should see how I fixed up Nick's room. It's a sight, I tell ya. Football posters, football statues, and football pillows everywhere."
"Don't forget the sponges," Steph added. "Once a Sponger, always a Sponger."
"I told Arthur he'd better bring home some sponges." She hesitated then added, "The biggest net he can find full of sponges — the best ones in the lot."
Steph gestured toward the front door. "Let's get outta here while they're not looking."
As soon as they escaped to the outside, Paula stared back at the house. "Why is Nick staying here instead of at his parents'?"
"He's getting passed around." Steph snickered. "They drew straws, and Mama got him first."
Nothing had changed for Nick. Everyone wanted him. "Must be nice."
"Huh?" Steph shot her a quizzical glance.
"Oh, never mind. I tried calling your cell phone, and you didn't answer so I figured I'd just stop off on my way home from work to see if you were still coming with us to the outlet mall. Looks like you're busy, so I'll let you get back to your ... work." She paused before adding, "Unless you need help, that is."
"Nah, I'm good."
"Okay, then. I'll see you tomorrow."
Paula stood up to leave, but Steph yanked her arm. "You are coming to the party, right?"
"I'm not sure, Steph." Paula felt her shoulders sag as the memory of her failed romance with Nick flooded her. "It just seems so ... I don't know ... desperate?"
"That's not true. You and Nick never really broke up. You even told me so yourself."
Paula widened her eyes and bobbed her head. "In case you haven't noticed, Nick isn't exactly beating my door down. As soon as my back was turned, he took off and joined the Army."
"Air Force," Steph corrected.
"Whatever. We have completely different lives now. He probably doesn't even want me at his party."
"He doesn't know he's having a party." Steph shook her head. "Don't give me a hard time about this. You're coming, and that's the final word."
"The final word was when he didn't even say good-bye when he took off for the Army."
Paula shrugged. "Okay, Air Force. If he wanted me around, he would have called."
"You could have called him just as easily," Steph said. "Besides, it's not like you haven't both gotten on with your lives. You can be friends now." She narrowed her eyes. "You are over him, aren't you?"
"Yes!" Paula said a little too quickly. "Yes, of course I am. I'm just saying ..."
Another group of younger cousins chose that moment to run out of the house screaming, so Steph had to go quiet them down. Paula stood on the front lawn, waiting and thinking about Nick's homecoming.
Steph obviously didn't get it. Maybe Nick had gotten on with his life, but Paula hadn't. She didn't think she'd fooled Steph. After college she returned to a town where she didn't fit in anymore — but she never really fit in anywhere — and opened the shop on the docks, half-dreaming about, half-dreading the sight of Nick Papadopoulos when he returned to grace the town that had always belonged to him.
Back in high school he'd been a superhero on the Tarpon Springs Spongers football team, while she'd barely won a spot on the school newspaper. She'd zeroed in on Nick the second she spotted him in the school hallway, standing in the midst of a group of his ardent admirers. It wouldn't have been a big deal if he hadn't glanced up and caught her standing there with her mouth hanging open. She'd been ready to run in shame, but he winked and grinned at her.
The next day she pointed him out to Steph Papadopoulos, her best friend since seventh grade. Steph had howled with laughter. "You've got to be kidding," Steph said. "That's my dorky cousin Nick. He's a junior. And he thinks he's Elvis."
Steph went on to tell her how she'd caught Nick making Elvis faces in the mirror. That intrigued Paula even more. When she pushed for more information, Steph brushed her off, saying Nick was two years older, and they'd just gotten out of middle school.
It was obvious Steph wasn't going to be any help at all, so Paula had to come up with her own plan. At the time she thought it was pretty crafty. Now that she looked back, she cringed with embarrassment over how transparent she'd been. But it worked.
She wanted to find a way to be around Nick, so she spent her first week of school scoping out all the possibilities. It was too late to be a cheerleader; besides, she wasn't perky enough. Then there was the newspaper staff. Since all the athletic boys were on the football team, her only competition to be a sports writer was some wimpy guy who couldn't have cared less about following around a jock who towered over him. She asked for the position and got it by default.
The whole setup was easier than she'd expected. Nick was the football star. Paula was the sports reporter, so she interviewed him after all the games. He loved being on the front page, and she didn't mind putting him there. It had been a match made in high school heaven from the get-go.
Steph teased her at first, but by the end of her freshman year, Paula and Nick were an item. Her plan had worked. Classic matching of the hunk and the geek.
When people had asked Nick what he saw in her, he let them know that he wondered what she saw in him. After all, she was the smart one. Steph told her that when she wasn't around, he bragged about how he'd caught the smartest and prettiest girl in school.
The shrieking of children snapped her back to the present. She waved at Steph. "Since you're busy —"
"Don't go yet. I'll be right there," Steph called out. "Let me get this game started so we can talk."
After Steph got the kids settled in a quiet game of duck-duck-goose, she rejoined Paula. "This whole thing would be easy if we didn't have so much distraction. So what did you decide? You gonna come to the party and show Nick you've moved on with your life, or are you gonna hide out and let him think he got the best of you?"
Paula flinched. "Now that you put it that way, I guess you're right. I don't see that I have a choice."
Steph grinned. "Good. Now what time are you picking me up tomorrow?"
"Nine. Oria said she'd open the store for me, so I can leave early."
Another of Steph's aunts came to the door and waved. "Hey, Paula. Coming to the party?"
With Steph's blistering gaze on her, she didn't have a choice. "I'll be here."
"Good. Steph, we need you in the kitchen."
Steph took a step back toward the house. "Gotta go. Baklava's calling."
* * *
Two more days, and he'd be home. Nick was more than ready to see his family. He left the office and headed over to his barracks, where he shed his uniform and slipped into some gym clothes. What he needed was a mindless workout to keep him from counting the seconds until his leave kicked in.
He'd served two four-year stints in the Air Force, and it hadn't been half bad. The lure of new faces in exotic places had called him a couple of years out of high school — right after Paula went off to college. He thought he could bide time while she was gone, but mostly he felt like jumping out of his own skin, thinking about her away at college and doing exactly what he'd told her to do — date other guys to see if what they had was real.
Someone needed to knuckle some sense into his head. What had he been thinking?
The intense love he felt for Paula was real. There was no doubt about that. As young as he was, he'd had experience with girls, and no one came close to Paula. But he wasn't so sure about her feelings. They'd met when she was a freshman, even before she could date. His cousin Steph had her over to the house quite a bit, and he just happened to be there most of the time, until his aunt shooed him away.
He'd never forget when her mother gave her the go-ahead to go on a real date. For the first time he could remember, he was nervous about meeting a girl's parents. After days of rehearsing answers to questions he figured her mother would ask, he arrived at her house with sweaty palms and wobbly legs. But Paula had been waiting at the door for him. Alone. Her mom had left with instructions not to let him in. As anxious as he was, he couldn't imagine his own parents being gone if a girl came to see him.
The instant he focused on Paula, he lost his breath, she was so beautiful. Her eyes sparkled as she greeted him at the door. "Ready?" Her soft, sweet voice had charmed him the first time he heard her speak, and now it carried a melody unmatched by anything on the radio.
"Hey, Sarge!" His buddy's voice startled him back to the present.
Nick forced a smile as he spun around. "What's up, Brock?"
"Wanna go to the NCO Club?" Brock, the guy who bunked across the hall, arched an eyebrow. "They've got two-fers during happy hour. And if we're lucky, we'll see some hot girls who like their men in uniform."
"No thanks," Nick replied.
Sergeant David Brock chuckled. "I was just hoping I could lure you over to the wild side."
"Not a chance." Nick squatted to tie his sneaker. "I don't want to make life any tougher than it already is."
"How tough can it be for you?" Brock shook his head. "You made rank faster than anyone I know, you've managed to save most of your money, and you could have any girl on base if you stopped long enough to let one of them catch you."
"I don't know about that." Nick straightened and gave his friend a two-finger mock salute. "See you tomorrow, buddy."
Excerpted from Sweet Baklava by Debby Mayne. Copyright © 2011 Debby Mayne. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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