Tara checks her reflection one last time in the mirrored wall of the elevator. She looks good. No, screw that, she looks amazing in a blue silk chiffon Nicole Miller (flattering, yet tasteful), champagne Jimmy Choo slingbacks (four-inch heels that are sultry without being tarty), and her hair tied in a loose knot with a few strategically-placed tendrils falling around her face.
Eliot Spencer is waiting for her in the lobby in a jacket and tie. He looks up when she steps off the elevator and raises his eyebrows appreciatively, his mouth curling into smirk. “Thought I told you to make yourself pretty.”
She doesn’t bother to hide her smile. As it happens, sarcasm is her favorite form of flattery. “I still don’t know why I’m here.”
“Moral support,” he says wryly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He was non-specific about the nature of the job on the phone. The only thing he was specific about was how she should dress and the fact that she wasn’t to breathe a word about it to Sophie or anyone else.
He shrugs. “Come on, we’d better get going.”
She follows him out to the parking lot, feeling vaguely annoyed. “Seriously, you are going to tell me what the job is at some point, right?”
He unlocks a black mid-size rental sedan and holds the passenger door open for her like an authentic Southern gentleman. For all she knows, maybe he is one.
“I’ll explain on the way,” he says, nodding towards the car.
It’s an hour drive from downtown Lexington to wherever they’re going. Enough time to work out the details of this … whatever it is. Job? Favor? Date? All of the above?
“So basically, you want me to be your beard,” she says, caught between amusement and disbelief.
His mouth twitches. “It ain’t like that.” His accent’s gotten more pronounced. It would be charming, except that this is Eliot Spencer she’s dealing with and there’s no way she’s going to let herself be charmed by anything about Eliot Spencer.
“What’s it like, then?” she asks.
He shakes his head slightly. “My family spent a lot of years worrying about me, when I was the service and when I was … doing other stuff. I just want them to think I’m happy now. Settled.”
“And you think bringing a fake date to your grandparents’ anniversary party will convince them of that?”
He doesn’t answer. He’s tapping his thumb on the steering wheel and she can’t decide if he’s beating out the rhythm of a song in his head or just annoyed.
“They’re getting old,” he says after a while. “This might be the last time we’re all together, is all.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
He looks over at her and frowns. “Just … be nice.”
“I’m nice,” she says, mildly offended.
“As a matter of fact, I’m excellent at being nice.”
He doesn’t say anything. Again. She shifts in her seat and stares out the window at the countryside rolling past. There’s nothing but green pastures, red-painted barns, and herds of sleepy cows as far as the eye can see. It’s so damn pastoral. She can’t quite believe she’s even here.
She sighs. “They’ll want to know how we met. We’d better get our stories straight.”
He parks the car in a gravel lot outside a VFW hall in some small town she didn’t even catch the name of. He cuts the engine but doesn’t make a move to get out of the car. His fists are gripping the steering wheel like a man heading for his own execution.
She kind of gets it. She’s got family of her own.
“Look, Spencer—” she starts.
“Call me Eliot,” he reminds her. “You’re supposed to be my girlfriend.”
“Sure,” she says. “Eliot.”
Before she can say anything else he’s out of the car and coming around to open her door for her. She takes the hand he offers and lets him help her out of the car because, as it turns out, he is an authentic Southern gentleman. He keeps hold of her hand as they walk towards the hall, his fingers twined tightly around hers, and she gets the sense that maybe he wasn’t kidding about the moral support.
Inside, there’s a band playing an old Patsy Cline song and a chocolate fountain and white Christmas lights strung up all over the place. There are bouquets of roses and carnations on every table surrounded by clusters of tealight candles and in the dim, sparkling light you almost can’t see the cheaply paneled walls and scuffed linoleum floor.
Someone recognizes Eliot across the room and calls out to him, and for a fleeting moment she feels him tense beside her before he fixes a broad smile on his face and waves back. His hand slips around her waist, pulling her closer as they move towards a gaggle of waiting relatives.
It feels strange, being here with him. Like this. But it’s also kind of exactly what she does, so she puts her game face on and plunges into the breech.
A half hour later she’s already met his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, his grandparents, three aunts, five uncles, and what feels like a hundred cousins.
His hand is resting lightly on the small of her back, his fingers moving idly over the fabric of her dress. At one point he leans over and kisses her lightly on the cheek. She smiles at him like it’s something they do all the time.
In a way it is. They’re both expert liars, both of them more at home playing a role than being themselves.
“When are you going to make an honest woman of this lovely young thing?” one of his aunts asks hopefully.
Eliot laughs uncomfortably. Tara just smiles and shakes her head.
“Sooner than you think, maybe,” she whispers conspiratorially to the aunt.
He shoots her a look and she shrugs at him. It was his idea to feed them a load of false hope. She’s just following the game plan.
Some of Eliot’s older cousins drag him outside to smoke cigars and she ends up standing alone by the collage of old family photographs. She’s trying see if she can find any pictures of him when his grandmother finds her.
“He’s that pudgy-faced kid in the bottom left,” she says, pointing an arthritic finger at a picture of a grubby toddler.
Tara leans in for a closer look. She can almost kind of see the resemblance to the Eliot Spencer she knows, if she squints. It helps that the baby is frowning in the picture.
“He was always a moody little critter,” his grandmother says. “Sweet as molasses, but not exactly the chipper sort.” Her eyes narrow. “Darlene says you two are as good as picking out your wedding china.”
Now it’s Tara’s turn to laugh uncomfortably. “I don’t know about that,” she says vaguely. “Who knows what the future will bring, right?”
His grandmother nods sagely. “I never really pegged that boy for the settling down type. And I’d wager you’re not, either … if I were the betting kind.”
Tara’s starting to get a pretty good idea where Eliot gets some of the steel that seems to run through his veins. Fortunately, he reappears before his grandmother can start the interrogation.
“What are my two favorite ladies talking about?” he asks genially, throwing an arm around both of their shoulders. “Not me, I hope.”
“As if we couldn’t think of anything better to talk about than you,” his grandmother says, winking at Tara. “Conceited boy.”
Eliot doesn’t try to make her join in on the two-steps or rowdy bluegrass numbers—for which she is extremely grateful—but he does lead her out onto to the dance floor for a few slow songs.
“I hope this isn’t too painful for you,” he says during their second dance. It’s Patsy Cline again. Tara always thought she hated Patsy Cline, but it’s starting to grow on her.
“Your family’s actually really sweet,” she says.
He snorts. “You sound surprised. What’d you expect?”
He smells like bourbon and cigar smoke, but for some reason on him the effect is sexier than it has any right to be. He’s a good dancer, not that she couldn’t have guessed that just from looking at him, and she’s having far too good a time swaying in his arms.
“I don’t know. You’re Eliot Spencer, I guess I thought they’d be more like a hillbilly version of The Godfather.”
“Nice,” he says dryly.
“It’s kind of like meeting Charles Manson’s parents and discovering that they’re this nice, normal couple who just happened to raise a cold-blooded killer.”
He pulls back so he can look at her. “Did you just compare me to Charles Manson?”
She shrugs lightly, smirking at him.
“Why are you here again?” he grumbles, but he’s almost sort of smiling.
“Moral support,” she reminds him.
Eliot’s cousin Brooke corners Tara and launches into a lengthy and extremely detailed description of the wedding she’s planning for next June. Tara’s not exactly sure who the groom is, but apparently the wedding’s going to have a swan theme and Brooke wants to have live swans flown in for it. Tara considers warning her that swans are actually pretty mean and unfriendly, but thinks better of it. Let her find out for herself.
Across the room Tara can see Eliot talking to his mom and his sister. She can’t make out what any of them are saying, but whatever it is, none of them looks happy. After a few minutes, Eliot stalks off angrily and ends up brooding in a corner by himself.
“Everything okay?” she asks when she finally extricates herself from Brooke’s insipid wedding chatter and makes her way back over to him.
“Fine,” he grunts in a way that says it’s really not fine at all.
“Is it me?” Tara asks. “Did I say something wrong to somebody?”
“It’s not you,” he assures her. “It’s me. And them. And all the same old shit, you know?”
She doesn’t know, not at all, but she nods sympathetically and squeezes his arm, because that’s what a real girlfriend would do. “I don’t know about you,” she says, “but I could use another drink.”
Over by the bar they’re sort of accosted by another one of Eliot’s cousins—Ed, or Ned, she’s starting loose track of them all by this point—a tall kid in his mid-twenties. He’s drunk, and he’s kind of wavering a little, swaying like a pine tree while he tells this story about some boar he killed when he was hunting with his brothers.
Tara listens with feigned interest until suddenly he kind of lurches towards her. She eyes him warily as he leans over her, the corners of his mouth twisting slightly. When he reaches forward to twist his fingers around a lock of her hair, a knot of dread forms in the pit of her stomach.
“Ned,” Eliot warns, frowning.
Ned doesn’t react. She’s pretty sure he’s a second cousin, or maybe a first cousin once removed—she always gets those mixed up. He shifts even closer so that now his mouth is hovering uncomfortably close to hers and suddenly she’s having nightmare visions of being at the epicenter of a Spencer family brawl.
“Ned,” Eliot warns more sharply. The testosterone in the air is so thick you could cut it with a knife, and boy does she wish had one of those right about now.
She reaches up and gently but firmly grasps Ned’s wrist and extricates him from her hair. Eliot’s fingers curl around her hip, pulling her towards him. Like a child protecting its favorite toy, she thinks absurdly.
Ned blinks and takes a stuttering half-step back. “She’s got nice hair,” he mutters, as if it’s some sort of apology.
“Dude,” Eliot says. “Uncool.”
“I think,” Tara says, reaching for Eliot’s hand, “that I’d like to go dance again. What do you say, honey?”
As Eliot guides her to the dance floor she decides they’re maybe a little like a hillbilly version of The Godfather.
For a couple in their seventies, Eliot’s grandparents know how to party late into the night. It’s not until sometime around midnight that the shindig finally starts winding down. First the older generation starts to trickle out, then the younger ones begin to follow suit. Eliot offers to stay and help clean up, but his aunt assures them it’s all taken care of and there’s no need for them to trouble themselves. They’ve got a long drive back to Lexington ahead of them, so Eliot starts making his goodbye rounds.
There are tears in his sister’s eyes when he hugs her, and he whispers something in her ear that makes her smile a little bit before she finally lets him go. The embrace he gets from his mom is stiffer than the one he got when he arrived, but there’s obviously a lot of affection there, beneath whatever it is that’s coming between them. Whatever it is, Tara knows better than to ask about it.
“Promise you’ll take good care of my boy,” his mom says, giving Tara a sharp squeeze, and she can’t think of anything to say in response. For the first time in her life, she seems to have run out of lies.
Eliot’s quiet on the drive back to Lexington and she’s busy trying not to think about how much she liked his family. Except for Ned; he was kind of a creep. The whole night was pretty surreal, and she still can’t quite believe that she’s met Eliot Spencer’s grandparents.
“Why me?” she asks finally. “Why didn’t you bring Sophie?”
He glances over at her, vaguely surprised, like he’d forgotten she was even in the car. “It’d be too weird,” he says. “You know, now that she’s sleeping with Nate.”
That, as it happens, is completely new information to her. “She’s sleeping with Nate? Since when?”
He winces. “Damn. Thought you already knew.”
Tara rolls her eyes. It’s not like it’s that much of a surprise, after all. “I haven’t actually heard from her in a while. Guess now I know why.”
He doesn’t say anything. If he’s got opinions about whatever’s going on with Sophie and Nate, he’s unlikely to share them with her.
“Okay, so I can see why you wouldn’t want to ask Parker, either,” she persists, because she’s unwilling to let this go. “But I can’t imagine you have trouble getting dates—”
“I do fine, thanks.”
“—so why not find some nice, normal, non-criminal girl to take home to mom?”
He looks over at her, then back at the road. “It’s my family,” he says simply. “I’m not going to let someone I don’t trust completely anywhere near them.”
She’s a little surprised by how touched she is. Rationally, she supposes she knew he trusted her, for the most part, anyway. But hearing him say it out loud is something else altogether. There aren’t many people in her life that she can say she trusts completely, and she imagines that for a guy like Spencer there are probably even fewer.
“You realize what this means,” she says. “The next time I need a fake boyfriend for some hideous family function I’m totally calling you.”
He snorts softly without taking his eyes off the road. “Guess I have that coming.”
His hand finds its way to the small of her back as he walks her through the lobby of their hotel. There’s no reason for his hand to be there, but there it is, like it’s a habit now or something. Oddly, she doesn’t even mind.
He walks her to her room, because, again, Southern gentleman. “Thanks for tonight,” he says, leaning against the doorjamb. “It really meant a lot.” He sounds tired, defeated almost. Which is not something she ever thought she’d see from Eliot Spencer.
“I had a nice time. Who knew there were so many good Patsy Cline songs?”
“I’m not very good at this,” he confesses, “as it turns out.”
He waves his hand vaguely in the space between them. “Faking this. In front of them.” He rubs his face in a way that makes her wonder how many drinks he’s had. She counts back in her head, but it wasn’t really that many. He’s just tired. Or something. “Why am I here again?” he asks.
“Moral support,” she reminds him.
“Right.” His fingers move to her hair, combing lightly through the strands in a way that is totally the opposite of creepy cousin Ned in every possible way. His leans closer and his lips brush her forehead.
She exhales. “Do you want to come in?”
“It’s probably a bad idea,” he says.
“Probably,” she agrees.
He cocks his head to the side, watching her. She bites her lip. Maybe he’s not going to do anything. Or maybe he’s just waiting for her to be the first to cross over into bad idea territory.
What the hell, she thinks. Her flight’s not until the afternoon. Sometimes it’s that simple.
As it turns out, it’s not so bad, kissing Eliot Spencer.