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Now that fall was just around the corner, Karen Cruz was experimenting with a new navy bean soup recipe for tomorrow's lunch at Sullivan's when sous-chef and friend Erik Whitney peered over her shoulder, gave an approving nod, then asked, "So, are you excited about the gym Elliott's going to open with us?"
Startled by the seemingly out-of-the-blue question, Karen spilled the entire box of sea salt she was holding into the soup. "My husband's opening a gym? Here in Serenity?"
Obviously taken aback by her puzzled reaction, Erik winced. "I take it he hasn't told you?"
"No, he hasn't said a word," she responded. Unfortunately, it was increasingly typical that when it came to the important things in their marriage, the things they should be deciding jointly, she and Elliott didn't have a lot of discussions. He made the decisions, then told her about them later. Or, as in this case, didn't bother informing her at all.
After dumping the now inedible batch of soup out, Karen started over, then spent the next hour stewing over this latest example of Elliott's careless disregard for her feelings. Each time he did something like this, it hurt her, chipping away at her faith that their marriage was as solid as she'd once believed it to be, that he was a man who'd never betray her as her first husband had.
Elliott was the man who'd pursued her with charm and wit and determination. It was his sensitivity to her feelings that had ultimately won her over and convinced her that taking another chance on love wouldn't be the second biggest mistake of her life.
She drew in a deep breath and fought for calm, doing her best to come up with a reasonable explanation for Elliott's silence about a decision that could change their lives. It was true that he did have a habit of trying to protect her, of not wanting her to worry, especially about money. Maybe that was why he'd kept this news from her. He had to know she'd react negatively, especially right now.
They were, after all, planning to add a baby to their family. Now that her two children from that previous disaster of a marriageMack and Daisywere both settled in school and on an even keel after the many upheavals in their young lives, the timing finally seemed right.
But between Elliott's fluctuating income as a personal trainer at The Corner Spa and her barely above-minimum-wage pay here at the restaurant, adding to their family had taken careful consideration. She'd wanted never again to be in the same financial mess she'd been in when she and Elliott had first met. He knew that. So where on earth was the money to come from to invest in this new venture of his? There was no savings for a new business. Unless, she thought, he intended to borrow it from their baby fund. The possibility sent a chill down her spine.
And then there was the whole issue of loyalty. Maddie Maddox who ran the spa, Karen's boss, Dana Sue Sullivan, and Erik's wife, Helen Decatur-Whitney, owned The Corner Spa and had made Elliott an integral part of the team there. They'd also gone way above and beyond for Karen when she'd been a struggling single mom. Helen had even taken in Karen's kids for a while. How could Elliott consider just walking out on them? What kind of man would do that? Not the kind she'd thought she'd married, that was for sure.
Though she'd started out trying to rationalize Elliott's decision to keep her in the dark, apparently the strategy hadn't worked. She was stirring the fresh pot of soup so vigorously, Dana Sue approached with a worried frown.
"If you're not careful, you're going to puree that soup," Dana Sue said quietly. "Not that it won't be delicious that way, but I'm assuming it wasn't part of your plan."
"Plan?" Karen retorted, anger creeping right back into her voice despite her best intention to give Elliott a chance to explain what had been going on behind her back. "Who plans anything anymore? Or sticks to the plan, if they do have one? No one I know, or if they do, they don't bother to discuss these big plans with their partner."
Dana Sue cast a confused look toward Erik. "What am I missing?"
"I mentioned the gym," Erik explained, his expression guilt-ridden. "Apparently Elliott hadn't told her anything about it."
When Dana Sue merely nodded in understanding, Karen stared at her in dismay. "You knew, too? You knew about the gym and you're okay with it?"
"Well, sure," Dana Sue said as if it were no big deal that Elliott, Erik and whoever else wanted to open a business that would compete with The Corner Spa. "Maddie, Helen and I signed off on the idea the minute the guys brought it to us. The town's been needing a men's gym for a long time. You know how disgusting Dexter's is. That's why we opened The Corner Spa exclusively for women in the first place. This will be an expansion of sorts. We're actually going to be partnering with them. They have a sound business plan. More important, they'll have Elliott. He has the expertise and reputation to draw in clients."
Karen ripped off her apron. "Well, isn't that just the last straw?" she muttered. Not only were her husband, her coworker and her boss in on this, but so were her friends. Okay, maybe that meant Elliott wasn't being disloyal, as she'd first feared, except, of course to her. "I'm taking my break early, if you don't mind. I'll be back in time for dinner prep, then Tina's due in to take over the rest of the shift."
A few years back, she and Tina Martinez, then a single mom struggling to make ends meet while she tried to fight her husband's deportation, had split the shifts at Sullivan's, which had allowed them both the flexibility they desperately needed to juggle family responsibilities. Karen was still thankful for that, even though they were both working more hours now that their lives had settled down and Sullivan's had become a busy and unqualified success story.
Though she'd thought mentioning Tina would reassure Dana Sue that she wasn't going to be left in the lurch, Dana Sue's expression suggested otherwise.
"Hold on a second," she commanded.
Then, to Karen's surprise, she said, "I hope you're going someplace to cool off and think about this. It's all good, Karen. Honestly."
An hour ago, Karen might have accepted that. Now, not so much. "I'm in no mood to cool off. Actually I'm thinking I just might divorce my husband," she retorted direly.
As she picked up steam and headed out the back door, she overheard Dana Sue say, "She doesn't mean that, does she?"
Karen didn't wait for Erik's reply, but the truth was, her likely response wouldn't have been reassuring.
Elliott had been totally distracted while putting his seniors' exercise class through its paces. Usually he thoroughly enjoyed working with these feisty women who made up for in enthusiasm what they lacked in physical stamina and strength. Though it embarrassed him, he even got a kick out of the way they openly ogled him, trying to come up with new reasons each week to get him to strip off his shirt so they could gaze appreciatively at his abs. He'd accused them on more than one occasion of being outrageously lecherous. Not a one of them had denied it.
"Honey, I was one of those cougars they talk about before they invented the term," Flo Decatur, who was in her early seventies, had told him once. "And I make no apologies for it, either. You might be a little out of my usual range, but I've discovered recently that even men in their sixties are getting a little stuffy for me. I might need to find me a much younger man."
Elliott had had no idea how to respond to that. He wondered if Flo's daughter, attorney Helen Decatur-Whitney, had any idea what her irrepressible mother was up to.
Now he glanced at the clock on the wall, relieved to see that the hour-long session was up. "Okay, ladies, that's it for today. Don't forget to get in a few walks this week. A one-hour class on Wednesdays isn't enough to keep you healthy."
"Oh, sweetie, when I want to get my blood pumping the rest of the week, I just think about how you look without your shirt," Garnet Rogers commented with a wink. "Beats walking anytime."
Elliott felt his cheeks heat, even as the other women in the group laughed. "Okay, that's enough out of you, Garnet. You're making me blush."
"Looks good on you," she said, undisturbed by his embarrassment.
The women slowly started to drift away, chattering excitedly about an upcoming dance at the senior center and speculating about who Jake Cudlow might ask. Jake was apparently the hot catch in town, Elliott had concluded from listening to these discussions. Since he'd seen the balding, bespectacled, paunchy Jake a few times, he had to wonder what the women's standards really were.
Elliott was about to head to his office when Frances Wingate stopped him. She'd been his wife's neighbor when he and Karen had first started dating. They both considered her practically a member of the family. Now she was regarding him with a worried look.
"Something's on your mind, isn't it?" she said. "You were a million miles away during class. Not that we present much of a challenge. You could probably lead us without breaking a sweat, but usually you manage to show a little enthusiasm, especially during that dancing segment Flo talked you into adding." She gave him a sly look. "You know she did that just to see you move your hips in the salsa, right?"
"I figured as much," he said. "Not much Flo does surprises or embarrasses me anymore."
Frances held his gaze. "You still haven't answered my question."
"Sorry," Elliott said. "What?"
"Don't apologize. Just tell me what's wrong. Are the kids okay?"
Elliott smiled. Frances adored Daisy and Mack, though both were unquestionably a handful. "They're fine," he assured her.
"She's great," he said, though he wondered how truthful the answer really was. He had a hunch she'd be less than great if she found out what he'd been up to. And truthfully, he had no idea why he'd kept these plans for opening a gym from her. Had he feared her disapproval, anticipated a fight? Maybe so. She was rightfully very touchy when it came to finances after going through a lousy time with an ex-husband who'd abandoned her and left her with a mountain of debt.
Frances gave him a chiding look. "Elliott Cruz, don't try fibbing to me. I can read you the same way I could read all those kids who passed through my classrooms over the years. What's wrong with Karen?"
He sighed. "You're even sharper than my mother, and I could never hide anything from her, either," he lamented.
"I should hope not," Frances retorted.
"No offense, Frances, but I think the person I really need to be talking to about this is my wife."
"Then do it," Frances advised. "Secrets, even the most innocent ones, have a way of destroying a marriage."
"There's never any time to talk things through," Elliott complained. "And this isn't the kind of thing I can just drop on her and walk away."
"Is it the kind of thing that will cause problems if she finds out some other way?"
He nodded reluctantly. "More than likely."
"Then talk to her, young man, before a little problem turns into a big one. Make the time." She gave him a stern look. "Sooner, rather than later."
He grinned at her fierce expression. No wonder she'd had quite a reputation as a teacher, one that had lived on long after she'd retired. "Yes, ma'am," he said.
She patted his arm. "You're a good man, Elliott Cruz, and I know you love her. Don't give her even the tiniest reason to doubt that."
"I'll do what I can," he assured her.
"Soon," he promised.
Even if it stirred up a particularly nasty hornet's nest.