“Elliot!” Sandy cried when he walked into the restaurant. She went to him and wrapped him in a tight hug, and then punched him in the arm. “Why didn’t you call me and tell me you were coming by?”
“I wanted to surprise you,” Elliot said.
“Well, you did that,” Sandy said. “And who are these lovely people with you?”
“Sandy, this…” Elliot paused and looked around at the people in the room suspiciously.
“It’s all clear,” Sandy said. “The sweep cleared out a lot of undesirables, and the citizens have run off the rest.”
Elliot nodded. “This is my mother, Darlene and her fiancé, Terry. Mom, Terry, this is Sandy.”
Sandy hugged both of them, surprising Darlene and Terry. “Any family of Elliot is family to me. I hope you all are here to eat.”
“Of course,” Elliot said. “I had to check out how Jason was doing.”
“He’s holding his own, but we’d love to have you back,” Sandy said.
“I’d like to talk to you about that. We’re thinking about moving over here as a family,” Elliot said.
“That’s awesome!” Sandy said. “I’ve become pretty good friends with a local real estate agent that can hook you up with a place to rent or buy.”
“Great,” Darlene said. “We would probably rent first, just to make sure we like the area.”
“No problem,” Sandy said and pulled out her wallet. She gave Darlene a business card with an attractive brunette on the cover.
Elliot gave Sandy a questioning look with a raised eyebrow that she responded to with a wink. He’d always suspected that Sandy liked women, but she’d been military and FBI for a long time. She probably kept all of that information under wraps.
“Let me get you all a seat,” Sandy said leading them to a booth in the middle of the restaurant.
Putting a hand on his mom’s arm, Elliot said, “I’m going to go into the back and say hi to Jason.”
“Okay,” Darlene said and picked up the menu. “You have any suggestions?”
“Everything,” Elliot grinned and pointed to the menu. “I created all those dishes.”
“How’s your mom doing?” Sandy asked as they walked to the kitchen.
“Pretty good,” Elliot said. “She has good and bad days, but the doctors expect her to recover as much as is possible with a lung injury.”
“And Matthews?” Sandy asked.
“He’s going to go away for a very long time,” Elliot said.
Sandy fluffed Elliot’s blond hair that lay about his ears. “Letting your hair grow out?”
“Just a little,” he admitted. “I’m thinking about going for the Keith Urban look with my natural dirty blond hair and blue eyes. It’s just a shame I can’t sing.”
Sandy stepped back and looked at him. “You have the lankiness with the muscles,” she said gripping his bicep. “I think you could pull off Keith Urban.”
“Uh huh, mmm. He sure could,” a new voice said. A woman in her late twenties to early thirties came up to them giving Elliot a flagrant looking over. “You could be an American Keith Urban if you let your hair and beard grow out. You coming to work here?”
“Put your tongue back in your mouth, Angelica,” Sandy ordered. “She’s our new Steven. Screws everything not nailed down.”
“That’s not true,” Angelica pouted. “I don’t do fat old men.” She winked at Elliot and headed in the direction of the bar with a laugh.
“So are the blue eyes yours or contacts?” Sandy asked.
“Mine, as is the natural blond hair,” Elliot said.
Sandy shook her head. “It’s amazing what a little bit of hair and eye color can do to change how a person looks.”
“True,” Elliot agreed.
“It’s only been a few months since you left, but it feels like years,” Sandy said. “I missed you a lot. I hope you think about coming back.”
“I want to,” Elliot said. “I miss being here and having the freedom to be creative with my food.”
Jason’s head snapped in their direction when they were close enough for him to hear Elliot’s voice. Putting down his cooking utensils, Jason ran and jumped into Elliot’s arms. Elliot laughed and gave his friend a tight hug. “Please tell me you’re back. I can’t make anything as good as you do. I swear you have some magic formula. And I miss you.” Jason leaned closer. “Did you really shoot Steven to death?”
Elliot nodded sadly. It was one of the things he was still dealing with. He hated Steven but taking his life had affected Elliot more than he thought it would. Although, Steven had not given him a choice. It was him or Cara.
Jason hugged him again, and Elliot put him down. “Thank God! Did you know he threatened to have me gang raped once?”
“What?” Elliot and Sandy both asked at the same time.
“When did that happen?” Sandy demanded.
“About a week before hell broke loose. He was trying to get me to tell him where Elliot lived. I kept telling him I didn’t know. He was certain that Elliot and I were lovers. He said that I had to know where you lived. It was the night I closed with Steven and Sarah. Sarah went out ahead of us, and he grabbed me and pulled me to him. He told me he would tie me up and let ten guys have their way with me if I didn’t tell them where you lived. Sarah came back to make sure everything was okay, and I was able to get away from him, but I was terrified he would follow through with it,” Jason explained.
Elliot’s face turned dark, and his guilt for killing Steven lessened tenfold. “I wish you would have told me.”
“You would have confronted him, and then he really would have done it,” Jason whined.
“Where are Megan and Sarah? Did they go back to school?” Elliot asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah, and Megan’s pregnant and getting married at Christmas,” Sandy said. “She told me to tell you that you were invited if I had a chance to talk to you. Sarah is coming back to work over Christmas. Michael will be here later.”
“Where is Megan getting married?” Elliot asked as he moved into the kitchen to inspect Jason’s food and watch him cook.
“Lexington,” Sandy said and looked around. “Where’s Anthony?”
“I have no idea,” Jason growled. “He didn’t show up for his shift. Kelsey and Amber have been trying to help while they serve.”
Sandy sighed. “You just can’t get good help anymore.” She looked up at Elliot. “See how much we need you?”
“I do,” he laughed. “If I weren’t here with my family I’d help out.”
“It’s okay,” Sandy said donning an apron. “Fortunately, it’s a slow night. I guess I’ll have to do some more hiring.”
“I’ll try to talk to you before we leave, but if not I’ll call you tomorrow. You’re number still the same?” Elliot pulled his phone out of his back pocket and looked up Sandy’s number.
“No. I had to change it after everything that happened. Reporters kept calling and wanting to interview me,” Sandy made a face. “I hate reporters unless of course, they want to write about the restaurant.”
When Elliot got back out front, his mother and Terry had been moved to a table where they were sitting with Caroline and her parents, Ralph and Valerie. Cara was also there with a beautiful woman close to their age. Elliot felt like someone had poked him in the chest with a fork.
Pulling himself up straight, he walked up to the table. “Hi everyone.” He leaned down and kissed Caroline on the cheek. “I’m glad you guys could meet us.”
“We were glad for a chance to get to see you all,” Caroline said. “Darlene looks like she’s doing pretty good.”
“Getting better every day,” Darlene said, noting Elliot’s clear discomfort. “Elliot has been taking very good care of me.”
Elliot sat down between his mother and Caroline. He kissed his mother on the cheek and gave her a half hug. “Which has not been easy because you know nurses make the worst patients.”
“True,” Caroline and Darlene said at the same time and gave each other a high five behind Elliot’s back.
“And who is this lovely lady with you, Cara?” Elliot asked politely.
Cara couldn’t meet Elliot’s gaze and turned to the woman to her right and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder. “This is Bonnie. We met at school this semester,” Cara explained.
Elliot nodded at Bonnie, who seemed a little confused about the atmosphere at the table, which was a little cooler than Elliot would have liked. “Bonnie, I’m Elliot. It’s very nice to meet you. Has everyone else been introduced?”
“Yes,” Cara said meeting Elliot’s gaze directly.
Elliot noted the fear in Cara’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what she thought he was going to do. Did she think he would make a scene because she showed up with a new girlfriend? She’d made it clear at their last meeting that she was not comfortable with who he was now. It hurt him, but he understood. There were not a lot of women on any spectrum in the LGBTQ community who were going to be comfortable being his partner.
“Bonnie,” Elliot said, giving the blonde a brilliant smile. “I can promise that everything on the menu is great. I created all these dishes myself.”
“Really?” Bonnie said, clearly thinking that Elliot was being a braggart, and maybe he was.
“Yes, he did,” Sandy said as she came out with three plates of appetizers. “We have fresh catfish and venison if anyone is interested.”
“Venison?” Bonnie asked with a disgusted look on her face.
“I’m going to have the venison,” Elliot said. “I want to see how Jason is cooking it.”
“I was hoping you would say that,” Sandy said. “Jason has put his own spin on it that I think you’ll enjoy.”
Terry voted for a bison burger. Ralph, Valerie, and Caroline ordered catfish. Elliot ordered a light pasta dish for Darlene that he was sure wouldn’t mess up her digestion. Besides having trouble with her lungs, the stress from all that had been happening had caused her to develop GERD, so she had to watch what she ate. Cara ordered one of the simpler chicken and pasta dishes. Bonnie ordered a salad.
Everyone tried to make sure Bonnie was included in the conversations, but she seemed determined to sulk, which Elliot knew would make Cara mad, or, it used to.
“What is your major now, Cara,” Darlene asked.
“Forensic pathology,” Cara said.
“That sounds exciting,” Darlene said.
Bonnie wrinkled her nose. “You don’t like science, Bonnie?” Caroline asked.
“I just can’t believe she wants to study dead bodies,” Bonnie said sourly.
“It’s more than that,” Cara said, defending her major.
“Forensic pathologists play a critical role in crime solving,” Elliot said, smiling proudly at Cara. He thought she was going to make a great forensic scientist. She was determined and thorough. Any team in the country would do good to have her as a part of their group.
Bonnie shrugged. “I’m a business major. My goal is to get a high paying job with a corner office, preferably in upper management.”
Elliot raised his eyebrow and looked at Cara. She shook her head and grinned sheepishly. That’s when Elliot knew Cara had hooked up with Bonnie just because she was beautiful. He shook his head and changed the subject. “We’re planning on having Thanksgiving out here this year. It will be a real change to get away from everything.”
“Terry and I are considering moving over this way, especially if Elliot decides to take his job back as the head chef here,” Darlene said.
“That would be great!” Caroline clapped her hands together. “We could do some of the things together that we always wanted to, but Michael would never let you.”
“I know,” Darlene said. “Like yard sales!” Darlene and Caroline said together and gave each other a high five.
Elliot and Terry shook their head in dismay. Valarie looked at Ralph and said, “Aren’t you glad I was never a shopper?”
“Thank God!” Ralph said.
Cara and Bonnie had come separately from Caroline, Ralph, and Valerie, who had ridden together. They left first. Cara hugged her mother and grandparents. Darlene stood and hugged Cara. Cara gave Elliot’s arm a gentle squeeze as she walked past him.
“Well, that was awkward,” Caroline said after Cara and Bonnie left.
“Did you know Cara was bringing her?” Valerie asked.
“No, but I think she was trying her out on the family before Thanksgiving. Apparently, Bonnie wants them to spend Thanksgiving together, but they can’t go to Bonnie’s parents’ house because her parents don’t know she’s gay,” Caroline explained.
“I can’t see that working out for long,” Terry said.
Caroline glanced at Elliot who was kicked back in his chair listening to the conversation without commenting. When he realized that everyone was looking at him, he said, “What?”
Darlene and Caroline shared a look, and Terry waved for Angelica, who had served them to bring them their check. Sandy came out a few minutes later. “This is on me. I’m so glad Elliot might be coming back to work here, I’m ready to celebrate.”
“I think you should definitely plan on him coming back,” Darlene said. “You all helped him through a rough time and gave him an excellent opportunity to grow as a chef. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a done deal. What do you think, Terry? Do you think we could have a nice retirement over here?”
“Absolutely,” Terry said. “Ralph was just telling me about the great fishing holes and golf courses. I’m ready. All I have to do is put in for my retirement, and I’m done.”
Everyone looked at Elliot. “Hell yeah! I’m ready to come back.”
There was a whoop and holler on the other side of the restaurant from some of the regulars who started coming when the restaurant first opened.
A loud “WHAHOO!” came from the kitchen after someone apparently told Jason.
Elliot stood and hugged Sandy. “Looks like the dream team is back in business.”
“Yep. Now, we just need some good servers,” Sandy said.
“We’ll find a good team,” Elliot said.
Angelica and Amber came out to clear the plates from the table. “Looking forward to working with ya,” Angelica said and winked at Elliot, who blushed.
“Call me tomorrow, and we’ll talk about when you think you want to come back and go from there,” Sandy said.
“Sounds good,” Elliot said. He looked around the restaurant and had the sensation of being at home. He couldn’t wait to start this new chapter of his life.