The wobbling casserole dish threatened to tumble from Susan’s grasp as she extended one trembling finger toward the door bell. She adjusted the weighty rectangle covered with aluminum foil, tucking the warm tray into the crook of her elbow. Crimping the edges she ensured the steam remained trapped and bought herself a few extra seconds. A chill gust smacked against her back, coiling down the pillared front porch and rebounding to numb her cheeks.
Blowing out a breath, Susan closed her eyes and pressed the bell.
On the other side of the oak door, split by lilies cut into stained glass, delicate chimes ran up an octave.
Thudding paws padded toward the door and a wet nose pressed against the glass. A few encouraging woofs brought the arrival of another figure.
Susan turned to adjusting the aluminum again as the door knob turned and heavy door opened.
“You must be Susan.”
Susan looked up to find a broad shouldered older man, decked in a mustard hued button down shirt. A steely and well trimmed beard nearly hid his pleasant yet tempered smile. One hand held the door open while the other gripped the collar of a rust hued retriever with a slow waving tail.
“Yes. Mr. Benedict?”
“Please call me Jerry.” The retriever woofed again. “And this is Harry,” said Jerry with a broader grin. “Come in, come in, it’s freezing out there.”
“Thank you,” said Susan. She felt her lips mirroring his and she stepped out of the chill. “I hope I’m not too late.”
“Oh no, no. Maggie was just going to holler at me to carve the bird.”
Jerry closed the door against the elements, and the warmth of roasted turkey and butter swam around the foyer. Susan heard voices chatting deeper within the cavernous halls. Thick walls draped with heavy frames surrounding lumpy oil paintings depicting landscapes from every part of the country, muted the conversations to a low hum.
“Let me take your coat…” Jerry’s smile stretched like a child having spotted candy. “You didn’t need to bring anything.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Susan, pulling the casserole a little closer. “Just something my family always makes for the holidays.”
“Here then.” Jerry reached out for the dish. “I’ll get it on the buffet table if you don’t mind hanging up your coat and hat in that closet there and then joining us.”
“Of course,” said Susan, releasing the casserole into Jerry’s waiting grasp. “But please keep the foil on. It’ll stay warmer that way.”
“Aye aye.” Jerry headed toward the muted gathering with Harry at the heels of his spotless loafers. The dog’s wet nose sniffed the dish with interest. “I’ll let Samuel know you’re here too,” Jerry added with a wink as he disappeared around the corner.
Susan dropped her gaze to the marble floor as she felt her cheeks flush and began unbuttoning her knee length coat. Her gloved fingers slipped on the loose toggles, but she sloughed off her wooly outer layer and pulled off her cranberry knit cap. She matted down her snug sweat, smoothing the wrinkles over her narrow hips.
Tussling out her short curls, she opened the closet. An array of plush velvet, faux fur trims, thick men’s trench coats and ski jackets decked with tags hung next to one another in a wintery rainbow of warmth. Digging into the closets depths, Susan found a spare wooden hanger and squeezed her coat onto the bowed rod. She closed the door again and laid a steadying hand on the fine paneling.
She wheeled around and froze, bracing herself against the closet.
Taller than his father, Samuel wore a plum shirt on a similar square shouldered frame and his mouth curved in the same welcoming grin on his close shave. He stepped forward, holding his wine glass to the side in order to cup her elbow and plant a quick peck on her cheek.
His warm lips against her skin reached down to help thaw Susan’s toes.
“Glad you could make it,” said Samuel, straightening and holding his glass with both hands.
“Thanks again for the invitation.”
“Of course. Everyone needs company for Thanksgiving.”
“It worked out well. My parents and sister are swamped under two feet of snow already. I’d probably be stuck in an airport with a horde of others.”
“Good thing the case ran late then huh?”
“Samuel!” A strident soprano called out, her voice ringing through the halls as if the wall paper provided a specialized acoustic enhancement.
“That would be Mother,” said Samuel with a slight wince. He guided them through the same doorway Jerry had taken. “She’s orchestrating the afternoon and I believe seating will occur in moments.”
Susan glanced up and found his eyes shimmering with humor.
“I’ll be sure to follow all directions and instructions,” she said with a smile.
“Then you’ll make her day.”
They passed through a cozy sitting room with a matching set of arm chairs and three seat couch. A ebony baby grand glowed under the lit sconces in the corner. Samuel led them on into a library, warmed by a roaring fire and whiskey hued carpet and paneling.
“Almost there,” said Samuel as he walked them through the fortress of books.
Samuel pushed through a sliding door and the conversations on the other side tittered to a hush.
“Wonderful,” said the older woman at the hub of the gathering.
She swayed toward them in a wide pair of evergreen slacks and elegant sage blouse laced at the collar by a casual droop of pearls. The hue complemented her hazel eyes, pale skin and twist of auburn hair streaked with classy strands of white. Susan noticed a slight loss of focus in the woman’s eyes as she wobbled on her pumps. “You must be Susan.”
“Mrs. Benedict,” said Susan with a smile and brief nod. She stroked her fingers on her sweater’s sleeves as she hugged herself beneath the crowd’s inspection.
Mrs. Benedict waved a dismissive hand ringed with sparkling emeralds.
“Maggie, please.” She squeezed her hand through Susan’s arm and guided her toward the cluster in the center of the living room. “Everyone, this is Susan Jones. She works at the firm with Samuel. Paralegal?”
“No, I’m a law librarian,” Susan corrected with a steady thread of pride.
Jerry gave her a small toast with his tumbler as the dozens of other well dressed individuals and couples smiled and nodded in greeting.
“We can all be better acquainted around the dinner table,” reasoned Maggie.
Maggie spun them around and Susan scampered to keep pace as her elbow remained in the other woman’s possession. Susan caught a supportive grin from Samuel as she managed to match Maggie’s wine wobbled stride.
A procession, dominated by eager conversation about anticipated dishes followed their entrance into a sparkling dining room.
Beneath a gleaming chandelier, the table stretched out along the length of the room. China and glassware were aligned in crisp rows while an array of cutlery was carefully placed as etiquette demanded. Ivory napkins with soft folds matched the floor length table cloth and the tapered candles in trios of branching candelabras. The flames alternated with delicate bouquets of mums and roses, full enough to occupy the empty space but low to enable conversation over the petals.
A buffet ladened with dishes in the same china pattern flowed along the right wall. A honey golden turkey sat beside a tray of carefully sliced pieces oozing with juice and steam. Piles of mashed and sweet potatoes, half a dozen types of vegetables and both jelly and relish cranberry sauces had been mounded in silver bowls.
Susan winced as she caught her own aluminum rectangle tucked onto the last bit of space by the table’s edge.
“You have a beautiful house, Mrs-,” Mrs. Benedict arched a finely trimmed brow. “Maggie,” Susan amended, grasping at her suede camel skirt.
“You’re sweet to say so,” said Maggie, seeming to take in the spread of food and porcelain anew. “Miranda did an excellent job this year,” she added absently “although I’m not sure what that one is.”
Susan gulped as she saw Maggie frowning at the misplaced looking casserole.
“I brought that,” Susan explained in a rush. “My mother always makes it and I wanted to bring something.”
Susan tried to keep her smile steady as Maggie patted her arm.
“Absolutely charming of you.”
Taking another sip, Maggie waved at the room like a conductor beginning a concert.
“Find you seat everyone and then you plates.” Maggie released her hold on Susan’s arm in order to gesture at a setting in the center of the table. “You’re there dear,” she said, then continued her sway to the foot of the table.
“Thank you,” said Susan, making her way to the indicated seat.
Noting the fine calligraphy on the name cards held in the tails of small silver turkeys, Susan nibbled at her lip as she saw hers between someone named Beatrice and Ferdinand.
Beatrice turned out to be a platinum blonde with a Botoxed set of features while Ferdinand a short bald man in a well tailored suit.
Susan let out a small breath as Samuel came to stand at the chair across the table from her. He gave her another grin and a toast with his empty glass before adding his bit of crystal to the table.
“Excellent, excellent,” bubbled Maggie. “Now to the buffet! And everyone, be sure to try some of Susan’s. She’s made…” Susan gripped the back of her chair as Maggie’s gaze drooped onto her, bringing along the rest of the room. “What was it you brought?”
“Stuffing. A cornbread and sausage stuffing. My mom calls it Wilbur’s Casserole.” Susan felt her cheeks coloring like the cranberry sauce as her mouth ran away with her. “From the book – Charlotte’s Web. It’s Some Pig…”
The flicker of candle flames filled the silence.
“Isn’t that what the spider wrote in her web?” asked a needle thin woman in a chestnut skirt and cream blouse. She leaned onto the back of her chair on one lean twig of an arm, her bony hand swirling her cabernet.
Susan felt her grin wobbling like Maggie’s pumps. “Yes.”
“Leave it to Amanda to remember something like that,” said Maggie with a warm hearted grin.
“It’s a clever turn of phrase,” countered Amanda with a frosty stare.
“I’m sure it’ll be T double e double r-ific,” Jerry interjected, coaxing a round of chuckles from Amanda and a few others at table who caught the reference.
“Come on then.” Maggie focused on walking over to the buffet and removing the foil on the casserole. With one hand she pressed the aluminum into a small wad and nestled the lump behind the lip of the ceramic dish. “Let’s eat.”
The guests began to assemble into amicable lines at either end of the mountain of food.
“Looks delicious,” said Samuel, from his post across the table where he waited for an opening.
Susan gave him a small smile then occupied herself by setting aside the folded napkin and collecting the plate monogrammed with the Benedict’s initials. Hugging the dish to her chest, Susan watched Jerry take a huge scoop of Wilbur’s, praying she had remembered all the ingredients and the casserole was still warm.