Leaving the oldies to either chat—or in his mother's case, sniff the garden—Luke followed Elliott and Estela into the bright, airy kitchen. From behind, Elliott friend looked relaxed and at ease in shorts and a tee that made Luke feel badly overdressed. That same behind was also…he parked that thought as, whatever was that already cooking, caught in his nose and started his mouth watering!
Wasting no time on idle chatter, Estela put her ‘slaves’ to work cutting and washing salad. Starting to get the hang of slicing thin disks of tomato, Luke made light conversation. “Wednesday was quite a day, eh!”
Elliott was at a chopping board too, and was methodically slicing the contents of a bowl of button mushrooms. He looked over. “At your school?”
"Yep." Luke didn’t look up from the chopping board as he concentrated on the delicate task of not adding the ends of his fingers to the salad bowl.
“Mmm…there was something I wanted to say about that.”
"Shoot—" Luke paused and looked up as Elliott's tone didn't quite fit into the 'throw me a cloth' category.
"I wanted to apologize. I acted like a real jerk the other day...after the fire at your school, I mean…when we started leaving on the buses."
"Ellie..." Estela looked from where she was whisking some salad dressing in a bowl, and frowned. She murmured something in Spanish that Luke didn't understand.
"It's okay, Es." Elliott was firm as he kept to English, though a flush crept around his ears. Luke waited, not knowing if he should say anything, though he had no idea what that would be anyway.
"The thing is," Elliott continued, "a close friend of ours in Spain was killed in a fire a few years ago, and it kind of brought it all back. It shook me up a bit."
At least Elliott's weird behavior at the school that afternoon after the fire made more sense, though Luke still didn't quite know how to respond. He couldn't say nothing, yet it didn't seem right to make light of it. Elliott hadn't needed to say anything about the incident at school if he'd not wanted to—it probably wouldn't have mattered—but it was obviously important enough to him that he did.
"That must have been awful." Luke laid his knife down as he gathered his thoughts. "What was it you said at the hospital that day—about when crap stuff happens and it really messes you up?"
Elliott’s shrug became a tentative smile. "Did I say that?"
Luke chuckled. "You might have—anyway, I didn't even notice it at school. It was all a bit of a mess." His friend’s face relaxed further and Elliott’s nose twitched. Both of them knew Luke was fudging it, but that somehow made it even more fitting.
"There—I told you!" Estela said. She didn't specifically say what she seemed to have told Elliott, but she had a look of satisfaction on her face.
"Oh here we go. Don't listen her," Elliott smirked, rolling his eyes and coming up to speed again. "She's from Barcelona!"
Luke burst out laughing. He hardly knew anyone who would even get that! "Did you see the one about the duck? 'Sorry...the duck's off!'”
"When he started beating the car?" Elliott was beginning to giggle.
"Oh God—I almost wet myself!"
Estela threw up her hands. "Why do I even bother learning your language? You make no sense...EVER!"
"Qué?" Elliott sounded so much like Manuel, the waiter in the TV show, Fawlty Towers, Luke was surprised Estela didn't clock him one! Elliott skewered a mushroom and grinned. "I still had a really great day over with you guys...especially beating the crap out of your volleyball squad!"
"Ellie is the best!" Estela said at once. "I've watched him play many times, but the first time, I was the other side of the net. We underestimated him in lots of ways!" There was a fondness in her tone, and Luke watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was someone else who always called him 'Ellie'. It was cute, though he'd never use it himself. Only a few had that right, he suspected.
Estela continued, "So, if you are finish with the salad, go to lay the table!"
"Finished—" corrected Luke and Elliott together.
Grinning, they obediently laid down tools and, armed with cutlery, headed through the spacious hallway and into the dining room.
“Tell me you don’t actually eat in here every day!” Luke studied the extensive architecture and rich colors of the formal dining area as he placed the cutlery on the already-clothed table. The room's walls were the color of sandstone and were accented with the memories of North African bazaars and the deep, rich tones of Middle Eastern deserts.
“Hell, no!” Elliott chuckled and looked around himself. "To tell you the truth, I don't think I've ever been in this room before."
"Sure! You got that from Batman!"
"Maybe..." Smirking, Elliott brought out crystal glasses from an extensive range kept in a beautiful display cabinet. “Actually, we usually just eat in the kitchen.” He waved a glass. “Do your mom and dad drink wine?”
Luke nodded. “And me too.” A little now and again.
“I prefer white.”
“Wimp!” Elliott started lifting glasses from the cabinet, carrying them to the table. “You need to try a proper red—and not the stuff most people around here buy at the local liquor store.”
“ELLIE…” Estela’s voice came bounding through from the kitchen.
“WHAT?” Elliott turned his head as he began arranging the crystal.
“Don’t forget to put red and white glasses out! Not everyone wants red wine.”
Luke guessed she’d been listening and she continued in a flurry of Spanish that ended with, “And if you tell me to speak English one more time, I stab you with this knife!”
“I’m going to stab you,” Elliott called back, smirking. “It’s a future tense!”
Luke sniggered as another tirade of irate Spanish got flung back, and asked, “So what did she say?”
Elliott grinned. “You don’t want to know—it wasn’t very lady-like! She can be a bit feisty, can Es! Can you get the white glasses from the right hand side for me?”
Nodding, Luke crossed to the cabinet and began lifting out the smaller version of the same cut-glass, crystal that were already on the table. They were surprisingly heavy and definitely not something that you would buy from Target!
But it wasn’t the lead crystal that caught his attention, but rather the framed painting that was set on the wall, just to the right of the cabinet. He studied it with interest. Apart from artwork he’d seen of Toby’s, he didn’t really have much interest in paintings, but this one caught his attention. It was unusually alive and full of light, though it wasn’t placed in any direct sunlight. Equally, it was by no means the biggest painting in a room brimming with art and culture. In fact, if he hadn’t been standing by the display cabinet, he probably wouldn’t have even known it was there! Discreetly placed, maybe, but it was different—and it was the only picture in the room he'd really noticed.
The boy in the picture was a teenager, though it was hard to give him a specific age. He leaned against an old, wooden fisherman’s boat which had been pulled up out of the water onto a beach of golden sand. The boy was South American or Southern European by appearance, with a richly tanned skin that looked like it saw plenty of sun. His dark, unkempt hair moved in the light breeze. Wearing black, speedo-style trunks, he was set perfectly against the flaking white paint of the old fishing boat as he gazed out towards where you could almost taste the salt of the unseen ocean.
It was the boy's eyes that captured Luke. Magnetic as they glinted in the sun of a late afternoon, they pulled him back into the center if he strayed too far. It was the first picture Luke could ever say he really, really liked, though it looked like an original oil painting, so there probably weren’t any posters you could just go out and buy.
And if were his painting, he sure wouldn't hide it away in a corner!
“What do you think?” The voice startled Luke off that eloquent beach, and he was glad he had a firm hold of the glasses.
“It’s quite a painting—really good,” he said at last. He wanted to say beautiful, but stumbled. He studied the name, brushed in a flowing script at the bottom. “Ortiz? Where did you buy it? South America somewhere?”
“Something like that.” Elliott reached for some more glasses. “Here, let’s get this finished before Estela comes and checks!”
Once the table was laid, and as if on cue, Estela came through to see what they had done. She seemed satisfied as she set them to work on something else in “her” kitchen. For Luke, it was great fun working alongside the two of them, and at that point, he wasn't sure whether he would end up enjoying the making even more than the eating!
It was funny, he mused as he worked on preparing a baking tray for some kind of dessert. Kitchens really made a home. Everybody's was different, but if you didn't have one that worked right for the family—like at Ryan's place—then there was no heart to a house.
"So what's this again?" he asked Estela once the tray was greased as she’d instructed.
"This is for Baklava." She eyed him over a bowl of couscous she was turning. "And you two will make it."
Make it? He couldn't even spell it!
"It's from Turkey," Elliott said, wiping his hands and coming around the table to join Luke. He held up his hands and grinned. "And before you ask, that's all I know!"
"I will put it in the oven when we are eating," said Estela. "You must make the syrup, too."
In fact, it turned out a lot easier than Luke feared. Together, he and Elliott layered crushed nuts and cinnamon in between buttered layers of filo pastry until the tray was full with the unusual dessert.
"We're done," he said at last. Either way, there was no more pastry left. He wiped his hands on a nearby cloth and gently extracted himself from the body contact he'd found he was enjoying. He'd been concentrating so much on layering pastry, which Elliott would then dress with melted butter, nuts and cinnamon, he hadn't even noticed how easily they had slipped into each other's space. It was just shoulder to elbow contact, but his nose filled with a heady mixture of cinnamon and the warmth of a guy who intrigued him...a lot. With it, he felt a twinge of guilt that he'd drifted. Yet the guy was such a conundrum—at times, it was impossible to know what he was really like.
In contrast, Elliott appeared more focused on the food than anything else just then, and asked, "Do you want us to cut it now, or after it’s baked?"
"Now," Estela replied. "Cut into small pieces with a sharp knife."
Elliott took a knife. "Like this?" He cut, what Luke felt would be a solid, manly portion.
"No, no!" Estela looked scandalized. "That is far too much! Half!"
"It's not that big."
Estela rolled her eyes and flicked her wrist at them. "What is it about you boys? You all think size is so important!" Luke burst out laughing as her face dissolved into a cheeky smirk. Her English seemed quite sufficient for a bit of banter.
Laughing too, Elliott moved the knife further across the dessert. "Well, if we're measuring, better make it here, then!"
"Oh, gosh, don't look at me. I'm not saying!" Luke laughed as Elliott raised his eyebrows at him with a rather provocative challenge in his glint.
He was a bit tempted to say that Elliott’s wanger was well worthy of a serious slice—either that or confess he himself had had his fill of knives and dicks! However, neither option ended up anywhere comfortable, so he changed the subject, and gave them a quick update on the school fire—at least the little he knew. Then he got Estela—because it was good for her English—to tell him about what it was like in Spain where she came from.
Before long, dinner was ready.
* * *
“That was absolutely delicious, Estela!” Lucy said as she finished off the final piece of Mediterranean lamb and couscous that had formed part of the third of what would end up being four courses.
Luke had to agree. It was as much a journey of the taste buds as it was one of the nicest meals he had ever eaten. It even gave Chops a run for its money!
Most of the dishes had to be explained, and came from across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The foods were a little dryer than the more traditional gravy-smothered Sunday roast, but the flavors were exquisite and were complemented by a mixture of sauces on the side, and several bottles of wine. He had tried a little bit of the red, but whatever Elliott thought, decided he was sticking with the white, which his mum was happy to allow. At least he wasn’t driving!
His mum was right. Estela was a great cook!
They pushed back their plates and drew in part-filled glasses for a break before the next course. If the previous courses were anything to go by, there would be no rush to clear the dirty dishes let alone bring out something different. Time meant little during a meal like this, and Luke quite liked it. They'd long since exhausted anything to do with the school fire, and, thankfully, had moved on to other topics.
“So how long are you here, Estela?” Lucy said, sipping her wine and making polite conversation.
“Just a few more days, Lucy. It has gone too quickly. My flying is on Monday. Tomorrow. Is sad."
"Yes, my flight," Estela continued, accepting Elliott's patient correction. "My mother is..." She paused and said a word in Spanish.
"We would say, ‘decorating’," Elliott said.
"Yes. My mother is decorating the villa and I should to be there to help and to make sure..." She paused again, looking for words. "My mother is..."
"Like you, but a whole lot worse?" Elliott suggested.
Luke covered a snigger as she thumped Elliott in the arm. She had a punch to her, he'd give her that, and Elliott retreated as the whole table broke into laughter.
Estela gave Elliott a last final glare, then said, "My mother has very many ideas. Sometimes too many—but she will listen to me. Then I must continue my work.”
“Studies.” Elliott dropped in a few Spanish words of explanation and she nodded.
“Yes—my studies,” she said. “At university.”
Elliott explained. “Es is studying International Law in Madrid.” This time he sounded like a proud brother.
“My French and Portuguese are good. Italian is okay, but English…” She grimaced. “It is not so easy.”
“It’s a shame really,” Benedict said, sighing and picking up the thread, “I offered her plenty of money to come and be our children’s nanny, but she doesn’t seem interested!”
“Oh, here we go!” Elliott rolled his eyes.
“Stop it, you!” Laughing, Rose flicked her fingers down the length of the table at her husband.
Estela seemed to enjoy the teasing and said. “It is a beautiful home here, Rosa. I will come anytime.”
“It is a lovely house, Rose,” Lucy agreed, glancing around the intricate features of the formal dining area. “How long have you lived here?”
“Not long. Two years isn't it, Benedict?”
“And didn’t you live near the Quince’s before that?” put in Luke, feeling clever at his own knowledge. Benedict looked at him curiously and Luke added. “Elliott was telling us about it at school the other day when he came over for the sports day.”
“That’s right, we did,” Benedict said, nodding, and you could see the way his mind was putting the pieces together. “We were across the road from Lemar and Alicia Quince. We didn’t know them that well, but enough to chat. And of course, their boys Todd and Mason attend the Academy as I recall.”
"I actually saw them both when I was there last week," Elliott said. "They've not changed much."
“You didn’t want to send your boys to the Academy, too, Rose?” Lucy said. Luke smirked to himself—he knew she'd have to ask.
“We considered it when Elliott was asking to start somewhere," Rose replied. "It is for the most part an excellent school, but the language department—at least then—was abysmal! The French sounded like they were teaching from a curriculum that came straight out of the pages of a book, and the Spanish…oh my, don’t get me going!”
Benedict grinned. “As you can probably tell, Rose home-schooled all of ours up until quite recently. With their—at least the older two’s—excellent grasp of languages, we found what they were doing at Creek was so much better. They have an outstanding department there, and some excellent staff!”
Luke smirked again, as the surprise in his mum’s tone was predictable.
“Of course,” Benedict continued, “we thought Elliott—with his language skills—would go that route and into teaching, maybe, or perhaps into politics or international studies of some kind. But now he tells us he’s planning on studying medicine!”
Geoff leaned forward. “Luke was quite keen on that, too. At least he was when we talked about it a few months ago.”
“Is he?” Lucy looked surprised. “You never told me that!”
From the other side of the table, Luke waved his hand. “I am sitting right here, you know!"
"You didn't tell me that, either," Elliott said. He was studying Luke curiously.
"That's because I’m only thinking about it," Luke said. "I’m also thinking about Veterinary Science.”
Elliott whispered a translation to Estela and she said, “Yes animals are different to humans!”
Natty broke into the conversation. “What about Sam? He can be a pig sometimes.” Luke tried to keep a straight face. She hadn’t said much during the meal, but this was priceless!
“Natty…” Rose tried to find the right level of rebuke in her tone.
“Talking about brothers, where did you say Simon was today?” Elliott asked, still chuckling.
“Oh he’s gone sailing with some friends," Luke said. "He has a boat up at the lake, north of here.”
“He goes up with friends who enjoy sailing, too.” Geoff said, then added, “So, Benedict, did you have to do a lot of work on the place, or was it like this when you found it for sale?”
Benedict grinned. “Actually it wasn’t for sale when we found it. Rose was scouting around and spotted the place, and managed to convince the owners—an older couple—to let us have it.”
“In fact,” Elliott added with a cheeky grin, “they’re both still under the big rockery on the left, if you want to go have a look!”
“Behave!” Rose put on a dignified expression. "It was nothing like that! I just fell in love with the place. I got talking to the owners, and it turned out they were beginning to think about downsizing anyway. So we made an offer."
"Mom, can I go now?" Natty had been surprisingly patient for a seven or eight-year-old, Luke thought, and it had been a long meal already, so he wasn't surprised when Rose said, "Sure you can, honey. You can have some dessert later if you want."
"Ellie," she scooted off her seat and poked her older brother. "Can you come in the pool with me?"
"After we've eaten Natty, I promise."
His sister pouted, but left to go do her own thing for a while.
"So where's Sam today?" Lucy asked as they began to gather the plates to clear space for what Luke hoped would be the Baklava.
"Ah." Benedict had a knowing look. He put his hand to his ear. "Shush - listen..."
Luke strained but couldn't hear anything, though Elliott pulled a face and grunted, "Dad, you’re as bad as Natty! Don't be mean!"
"But it's so peaceful!"
"Sam's over at Becky's today," Elliott explained. "What Dad is trying to say is that if Sam was here, you'd know it!"
"They're still together, then?" Lucy raised her eyebrows, but Luke was relieved she was careful enough to keep her disapproval at that relationship to herself. She didn't wait for an answer and instead turned her attention to the other side of the table. “You’re a lucky young man, too, Elliott. Estela is a wonderful cook!”
It was a natural assumption to make, Luke thought. Estela was a beautiful girl for sure and unashamedly touchy-feely with Elliott, and nobody had said otherwise that they weren’t dating. Listening in with interest, Luke wondered what Elliott would actually say. Would he come clean about his relationship now?
However, unusually for him, Elliott seemed unusually tongue-tied. Still, Estela's English seemed more than adequate to grasp the exchange, and it was she answered for him.
"I am afraid Ellie missed out on me some time ago, Lucy," she said. She gave Elliott a friendly pat on the bum. "His misfortune—but my boyfriend is a lot better at looking!"
"Hey!" Elliott pouted. "And anyway, I think you meant 'a lot better looking'!"
Estela thought about it, and then giggled. "I think both!"
The rest of the meal was just as raucous, and after dessert was served, Luke decided that as soon as he had some spare time, he was making Baklava at home. And who cared about size—he was scoffing the lot!
By the time they had finished coffee, it was hard to believe that two thirds of the afternoon had already passed. Luke spotted a quiet whisper pass between his mum and dad, and then his dad said, "We'd better be getting off, I'm afraid. Simon will be home soon and we'd like to be home for him."
It was a sign that the meal was over, and they all stood. "I'll have to take you up on the Gunners DVD another time, Benedict," Geoff added.
"Rose, it's been a beautiful afternoon," Lucy added. "I really haven't enjoyed myself as much as this for a long time!" She turned to Estela. "You are an amazing cook, young lady! Somehow I have to get that lamb recipe from you. Thank you!"
Luke stood too. He was a bit disappointed they were going so early, but he understood that his mum and dad would want to be home. Then, at his elbow, Elliott murmured, "Do you want to stay for a bit? We were going to go swimming, and I can always run you home later this evening if you want?"
It was a complete no brainier. While he actually wanted to catch up with Simon himself, he doubted his brother would be home for several hours yet. So, it was either go home and mooch around for the rest of the afternoon and evening, or stay and swim and enjoy the remainder of the day with some friends. And no doubt Elliott had plenty of swim shorts he could borrow.
"Sure. I'd love to stay." He glanced Rose's direction. "If that's all right with your mum and dad, that is?"
Rose was easygoing in reply. "Of course it is, Luke.”
“Well that’s nice of you all.” Lucy flicked a glance toward him. “Don’t be too late though, sweetheart—it's a school day tomorrow.”
Benedict checked his watch too. "In fact, I'll follow you out," he said. "I should go rescue the Kears!"