The dinner party went off without a hitch. Almost.
After Lettie had arrived back home from the grocery store, she grabbed as many bags as she could and stumbled into the house, laden with food and supplies. Thankfully, Braxton was walking past the front door and witnessed Lettie almost fall over the threshold to their home. Without a word, he steadied her and grabbed more than half of the bags and took them into the kitchen. Lettie followed, surprised by his silent assistance.
It took Lettie over two hours to hustle around the kitchen and prepare Braxton’s dinner party menu. She was sure she set a personal record; this wasn’t the first time Braxton demanded a laborious meal on short notice, but Lettie managed to get everything cooked on time as she multitasked around the house.
While the pork chops were baking, she did a quick dusting around the house, picking up or rearranging any random items that could lead Braxton to think his home was unkempt. When the pork chops were resting on the roasting rack on top of the range, Lettie popped her cored and spiced apples into the oven, finished off her bacon wrapped asparagus and precut the rich lemon pound cake she found in the market’s bakery. Braxton didn’t ask for a dessert, but she knew well enough that a dessert was required for the party tonight. Since he didn’t ask for anything specific Lettie took the rare opportunity to make her own decision and chose the pound cake. She had three flavors of Italian gelato in the freezer to accompany the dense cake.
It was almost eight-thirty when Lettie finally made it upstairs to change. Braxton was already in his navy Calvin Klein suit with a red “power” tie, complete with fat and petite navy diagonal stripes cutting across the bright red. He had brushed his short hair to perfection, and when Lettie passed him in the bathroom, she smelled the trademark scent of Braxton’s favorite Georgio Armani cologne. Lettie had to admit her man looked delectable. However, he had all evening to get ready. Lettie had thirty minutes.
To Lettie’s delight, Braxton had chosen a royal blue cocktail dress and matching sling-back pumps for her to wear. Normally Lettie would be irritated by his presumption, but tonight she was grateful she didn’t have to hunt around in her closet for something to wear. He even picked out her underwear. Hose included.
Lettie showered quickly, donned her outfit, and ran a brush through her hair. For a more elegant dinner, she would have pinned her long curly brown hair into an up-do, probably with cascading curls to encase her round face. Though with this just being an informal dinner party, she knew she could get away with letting her curls fall gently over her shoulders and down her back. A couple of designer hairpins on one side swept her hair away from her ear and displayed a simple gold chandelier earring. A rush of pressed powder on her cheeks, light pink lipstick, and eyeliner completed the look.
Lettie stepped to her full-length mirror in her bedroom and admired herself. She was not as small as she used to be in her younger years, but she was plump in all the right places. Her long legs were one of her best features; they peeked out from the hem of her knee-length dress, shapely, curved, and strong. The bodice of the dress was tailored to showcase the lush curves of her bust without revealing cleavage. Her mocha skin no longer showed the signs of adolescent acne but instead looked as smooth and clear as a baby’s. Lettie knew she was no longer that awkward little girl who was afraid of her own reflection. At least in the physical sense. The woman in the mirror was confident, pretty, and rich looking. On the inside, though, Lettie struggled to feel as attractive as she knew she looked.
She just wanted this night to be over.
Lettie jumped at the sound of Braxton’s deep voice calling to her from the open doorway to their bedroom. She calmed her nerves and turned toward him as he came into the room.
He eyed Lettie from her small feet to her curly mass of hair and smiled gently. Blood rushed to Lettie’s face as her heart sped up. Even after all these years of unhappiness, it still gave her pleasure to see him admiring her. She could not stop the flush of warmth that flooded her body as she looked at her man and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she pleased him.
Braxton, noticing the sudden pinkness in Lettie’s face, further curled his lips into a charming smile. His entire face lit up with his smile, and his gray eyes gave a long forgotten twinkle that made Lettie flush all over again. He extended a strong hand to Lettie.
Lettie took his offered hand. He gave it a gentle squeeze, and led her out of the bedroom without a word, smile still on his face. Despite all of the hustle and bustle of the day and her anger over his treatment of her with this spur of the moment party, she enjoyed the feeling of her hand in his. This is how it was supposed to be. Four years was long enough to become content with a partner but not long enough to fall completely out of love. Not to Lettie. She hugged his palm to hers as closely as she could without squeezing.
She let him led her down the stairs and into the museum-clean living room. Braxton never lost his smile as he softly caressed Lettie’s delicate fingers beneath his strong, manicured digits.
Maybe tonight will not be so bad, Lettie thought, nearly bursting with sudden optimism. Maybe tonight we’ll be like we used to be.
She was wrong.
* * * * *
Two things happened during the dinner party that threw Lettie into a panic. The first event happened in the middle of dinner.
At first, everything was going smoothly. It turned out, only six people had arrived for dinner. Braxton was never clear about how many invitations he dished out, so just to be safe Lettie prepared enough food for fifteen people. Because of the extra food, everyone was able to eat full plates and have seconds if they wanted.
By the time the first guests arrived, Lettie had set out slightly warmed brie and baguette pieces, which were broken, lightly toasted, and drizzled with olive oil. She and Braxton greeted everyone side-by-side upon their arrival: Braxton’s boss and his wife, William and Amy Hutchinson; a senior partner in his firm, Angel Burton, and her husband Charlie, and fellow litigator, Wayne Alexander and his long-time girlfriend Sofia Purdy. Braxton took the opportunity to talk to everyone and pour never-ending streams of chardonnay while they nibbled on the hors-d’oeuvres. Lettie played pleasant hostess for a little while before she excused herself to prepare the plates in the dining room.
It was after dinner when Lettie was clearing the dinner plates that the first mishap occurred.
“Oh my goodness,” Sofia breathed softly. She sat back in her chair and rubbed her petite belly, slightly swollen with a hearty meal. “That was amazing. I haven’t had such a big meal since the last time my mama cooked for me, and that’s been quite a while.
Charlie nodded his head in agreement. A slightly glazed look covered his eyes. As Lettie grabbed his plate from his extended hand, she wondered if he had had a little too much chardonnay or if he was just that happy with his meal. Either way, she took his plate, whispered “thank you,” and walked back into the kitchen with the rest of the dirty dishes.
Used plates in the sink and fresh dishes on the kitchen island, Lettie began portioning out the pound cake and gelato. For some reason, everyone wanted the banana and chocolate gelato instead of the plain vanilla and strawberry she’d bought earlier. Thankfully, she had the gumption to buy quarts and not pints.
Lettie was spooning the last bit of gelato into the last bowl when Sofia ambled into the kitchen, grinning. Her soft blond hair had been straightened and severely cut into a tight bob. On anyone else, the hairstyle would have come off as dull but on Sofia, it made her heart-shaped face stand out even more. Lettie could not help but smile every time she laid eyes on her. Sofia tended to have that effect on people.
“Do you need any help in here, darlin’?” Sofia drawled.
“Oh no! That’s all right. I’ve got it all covered.” Lettie grabbed the remnants of the gelato container and tossed it into the garbage can before she grabbed the remaining chunk of cake and covered it with plastic wrap.
“Now look, Lettie,” Sofia began with a low voice and a stern eye, “We both know I’m not that high on the social ladder, and unlike some people—” she cut her eyes to the dining room doorway and glanced in Angel’s direction “—I don’t mind getting my hands dirty every once in a while. And trust me, carrying cake and ice cream hardly qualifies as dirty work. I’d love to help. Especially after that delicious dinner you prepared.”
For the second time that evening, Lettie felt her body flush. This time, however, it was out of pride than love. Lettie had never been the type of woman to fish for compliments, but she didn’t deny them when they swam on shore.
Lettie parted her lips to deny Sofia’s assistance again, but before she could, Sofia held up her finger and shushed her like a mother gently scolding her child.
“Save the ‘no’ for someone else, Lettie. At least let me help you carry in the plates. Perhaps even the silverware?”
Lettie laughed. She had no choice but to abide by Sofia’s stubborn demeanor. She handed her two rectangular plates with small bowls on top.
Sofia beamed and took the plates. Lettie, picking up two more plates, followed her back into the dining room.
“— the problem with the Dash case. Those incompetent fools over at Morrison & Morrison should have known better than to settle out of court for pennies when taking the case to court would have been not only more profitable for the client but a damn jackpot for the firm.” Braxton ceased his speech to his boss and colleagues as he noticed Sofia and Lettie walking in with dessert. Sofia set a plate in front of the first two people she saw: Braxton and William. Lettie took her plates to Angel and Charles.
“Why thank you, Sofia. You know, I hardly invited you over so you could work the kitchen,” Braxton joked. Lettie’s smile faltered as she heard the undertone in Braxton’s voice.
“Please, Braxton, I’m hardly working. I’m just giving your awesome lady with the amazing cooking skills a helping hand. In fact, I’m surprised you’re not up helping her.”
Lettie stood frozen in the doorway to the kitchen. Sofia stood next to Braxton with a hand on her slim hip, smiling down at him. Braxton smiled back at her after he flicked his eyes to Lettie. Everything she needed to know about how he felt at that moment was in his eyes. It was a look she had come to know and hate: Braxton was far from happy.
Swift on her feet, Lettie practically ran into the kitchen and grabbed three of the remaining four plates. She held them like a waitress, two in each hand and one on the arm. She strode back into the dining room with a purpose and a smile she didn’t really feel.
“Sofia, you flatter me,” she said, her voice strong and a little bit loud. “Thank you so much for your help, but really, I got it all handled.” The three plates went to Wayne, Amy, and Sofia. Lettie deliberately didn’t give herself a plate. She didn’t want to leave Sofia any reason to go back into the kitchen. “Just like Braxton said, you are all guests here, and our guests don’t serve. That title is reserved for me.” Lettie gave an airy laugh.
Something passed in front of Sofia’s eyes as she locked gazes with Lettie. Something akin to a sad understanding. With a small smile and a head tilt in Lettie’s direction, Sofia took her seat.
William Hutchinson sat up higher in his seat and gave a nasty smirk in Braxton’s direction. William’s boss was a round thing, swollen with a belly wide and full enough for three well-fed men. With rosy cheeks that forever gleamed with a sheer covering of sweat and oil and a pleasantly deep voice, Braxton’s boss could easily be the younger brother of Santa Claus. Too bad he didn’t have Saint Nick’s jolly nature. Lettie despised any time spent with William. He was the type of lawyer people believed were synonymous with evil. That’s exactly was he was. Evil.
Of course, this was only Lettie’s perspective of him, but he had never let her down. Braxton’s boss was a grade A jerk, and sometimes Lettie could not help but wonder if Braxton learned to be cruel from him.
“Braxton, I see you trained Leticia well. See, that’s how a woman is supposed to keep her home and her husband. She knows her place and works with her husband to establish a strong partnership. He leads and she follows, with a lovely smile.”
It took every ounce of strength not to speak against what William said; Lettie fought the urge as best as she could. Counting slowly from ten helped a little but not much. Neither did digging her manicured fingernails into her palms.
It wasn’t so much the chauvinistic attitude William carried that bothered her. It was the fact that Lettie could do or say nothing to discredit his statement. It was clear to William, and probably everyone else, that Lettie was well “trained” and knew her place. It only took one unsatisfied look from Braxton to cause her to revert to the submission Stepford Wife role she hated. William called it out and there was nothing she could do about it.
Lettie inhaled deeply and slowly uncurled her fists. Her palms still stung as though her fingers were still pushing into her hands’ soft flesh. Smile frozen on her face, she spoke. “William, you must have forgotten. Braxton and I aren’t married yet.”
William furrowed his brow and looked at Braxton. In response, Braxton cleared his throat and gave his trademark smile to everyone at the table. It was a smile that screamed, “trust me.” Lettie knew better. That smile let her know she had just made the second mistake of the night.
“Forgive me, William. I may have taken a liberty or two when I discussed my relationship with Leticia. We are not yet married but engaged. However, we have been together for so long, I often forget that we haven’t walked down the aisle. Regardless of whether or not we have taken those vows, Leticia has proven to be an amazing woman, and I’m truly blessed to have her by my side.”
Braxton stood and glided over to Leticia, still standing in the doorway to the kitchen. Her heart sped up as she watched Braxton come closer to her, grinning like a charming Cheshire Cat. He took her hand when she didn’t accept his open palm and kissed it. Lettie flicked her eyes to the guests at the table. Everyone seemed to be enraptured by the display of love between her and Braxton… Well, rather Braxton’s display of love for her.
The only person who wasn’t swooning at the host’s romantic gesture was Sofia. She sat, prim and silent, playing in her melting gelato with her spoon. She watched the couple with an earnest, curious gaze that held a hint of sadness. Lettie got the impression that Sofia was the only one in the entire room that knew exactly how uncomfortable she was. No one else bothered to glance beneath the surface of Lettie’s facial facade.
Oh well. She was used to it by now.
Again, Lettie took a steadying breath and smiled back at Braxton, pretending once more to be happy.
Copyright © 2018 Kris M. Bell