“I like her, mijo.” Julia Hernandez stirred the ponche simmering on the stove as laughter came from the other room.
“Me too, Mom.” Carlos took the ladle out of her hand and spooned the spiced punch into a mug before adding a splash of rum. He heard his dad try to establish order in the living room, knowing it was an impossible task for even a high school principal.
“And…” Julia retrieved the spoon and set it on the plate Carlos scooted across the counter. Even with forty people milling around the house, his mother’s kitchen was as tidy as the tiny woman with an oversized apron wrapped around her waist.
He leaned against the counter and sipped the spiced drink. “She’s not ready for anything.” He shifted uncomfortably under his mother’s gaze. He’d known this conversation was going to happen the moment he’d casually mentioned inviting Sami and her kids to Christmas dinner.
“Do you want me to talk to her?” Julia unfolded her apron and lay it across the back of one of the four stools lining the counter high island in the middle of the kitchen.
Carlos shook his head. “I think it’s a conflict of interest for you to treat her.”
“It’s not and I won’t,” Julia said. Carlos narrowed his eyes. Her tone was too casual. Having a psychiatrist for a mother came with pitfalls, one of which was her offers to “help” her children with their love lives.
“I mean it, Mom. No talking.”
She patted his cheek the way she had when she’d assured him she wouldn’t have a little chat with the fourth grade bully who had made his life hell. She hadn’t, she later reminded him, promised she wouldn’t talk to the kid’s parents. “Don’t worry, mijo.”
Carlos sighed as she left the kitchen and studied the contents of his mug as if the key to Sami’s heart lay in the diced apples and raisins floating on top.
“What’s the sigh for?” He looked up as Sami entered the kitchen, her cheeks flushed from the warmth of the living room and laughter in her eyes.
“What’s going on out there?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“You didn’t tell me there was an adult pinata,” she said, holding up two small bottles of alcohol.
Carlos grinned. “Yeah, my dad started the tradition the year my cousin got a black eye from a three-year-old when he tried to steal her candy.”
Sami laughed and set the bottles on the island.
“Are you having fun?” he asked her.
“I am,” she said with a smile. “Thanks again for inviting me. Your family is…”
“I was going to say amazing,” she said softly.
“They’re that too,” he agreed, staring at her steadily.
Sami’s eyes darted around the empty kitchen. Carlos knew she was uncomfortable being alone with him, but a part of him didn’t care. “About dinner…” she started.
“Don’t worry about it,” he interrupted, draining his mug and setting it down.
“The thing is,” she chewed her bottom lip.
“Seriously, Sami. Don’t worry about it. It was weeks ago.” Carlos pushed away from the counter. Irritation flared when she took a half step back. Patience, he thought to himself, didn’t mean he couldn’t be annoyed. “I need to go see if Dad needs help.” With what, he didn’t know. He just knew he needed to get out of the kitchen and away from Sami who looked so right in his family’s home.
He walked out of the room and into the chaos trying not to feel guilty over the hurt in her eyes.