"I've gone wrong somewhere," Chloe Hamilton said. The three women crowded around the circular oak table that filled the central portion of the big country kitchen stared dubiously at a freshly baked loaf of bread. The crust was a beautiful golden brown, the shape a perfect rectangle with a smoothly arched dome.
A young looking forty-eight, Chloe poked at the loaf with her fingertip. Nothing happened. The bread was rock solid. "This will not do! I don't have the option of producing dud loaves of bread. I'm going into a war zone--"
"Mom!" said her eldest daughter, Faith. "Come on! A bit much!"
"Let someone else do the baking," suggested her other daughter, Elizabeth, before she headed over to the counter. Like the other women, Liz boasted strong cheekbones and blond hair, but she lacked the long legs of her mother and sister.
"The problem with these old cookbooks is that they aren't precise. The recipes say things like 'a pinch of salt,' but how much is a pinch? Is it an eighth of a teaspoon? A sixteenth? Then there's 'a handful of nuts.' What's a handful? Your father's handful? My handful? A child's handful?"
Faith made her hand into a fist and tapped on the loaf of bread with her knuckles. The solid 'thunk' could have come from a two-by-four. She flipped her long, golden hair behind one ear as she grinned at her mother. "I think it's a process of trial and error, Mom. Anyway, you'll be a visitor. No one will expect you to do the chores."
"Who knows what hardships Mary Byrne has had to endure? And since I must be with her always during my visit, I will have to endure them too."
Liz returned to the table, cutlery in her hand. "Faith, we're using the good silver tonight, aren't we?"
Faith nodded. "We'll use the bone china dishes too. You know Uncle Andrew, Liz. He loves to visit, but he's not quite ready to accept twenty-first century manners."
"Not surprising," said Chloe, a trifle tartly, still staring balefully at the loaf of bread, the symbol of her failure.
"I think Uncle Andrew puts on all that old world charm." Liz said. "Give him a t-shirt and jeans and he'd be just another good-looking guy."
"Not quite." Resignation bound together with resentment sounded beneath Faith's words.
"Yeah, well--" Uncomfortable, Liz turned away. She began to lay the cutlery onto woven placemats. Opposite her, Chloe was hefting the loaf of bread up and down as if she was lifting weights. "You're obsessing, Mom."
Chloe's green eyes sparkled with annoyance. "I am an educated woman. I teach history at Harvard University. I am renowned in my field. Why is it impossible for me to successfully bake a loaf of bread?"
"That's why bread machines were invented, Mom," Faith said as she rummaged in the fridge. "Let's forget the homemade bread with dinner idea and concentrate on steak and salad instead. With winter over, but summer not yet begun, Andrew always appreciates fresh meat and veggies. Bread is something he has aplenty."
"Why can't I master a simple process, one my ancestors did without thinking? I'm an intelligent woman. I'm a good cook--"
"That's why you can be the one to barbecue the steaks, Mom," Faith said, handing her mother a large packet of beautifully marbled beef.
"Faith, didn't you say you had a can of artichoke hearts?" Liz asked. "I thought I'd combine them with the last of your spinach and make a dip for the corn chips."
"Check the pantry." Faith drew spinach, butter lettuce, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and a cucumber out of the fridge.
"Corn chips have transfats," Chloe said gloomily as she pulled the plastic wrap off the disposable tray holding the prime rib steaks. "Andrew's body is used to heavy doses of saturated fats in the meat he eats." She plopped the well-marbled beef onto a plate. "We're altering the man's normal diet. We're probably ensuring that he'll die before his time." She rubbed seasoning salt into the meat.
Faith looked pointedly at the steak on which Chloe was now shaking a light coating of cayenne pepper. "You think heavy doses of spices are part of Uncle Andrew's normal diet?"
"He uses spices when he can get hold of them," Chloe protested, wiping her hands on the bib apron she wore to protect her brightly patterned dress.
"These are organic corn chips," Liz said, busy with her dip. "They aren't fried with hydrogenated oils. They're baked. Uncle Andrew will be fine."
Chloe looked at her watch. "It's six-thirty. When do you think he's going to want dinner?"
Faith cocked her head, listening. "I don't hear the shower. He's probably primping in the bathroom by now. He told me he wants to be home by eight o'clock, so why not aim for seven, Mom."
Liz shot her a questioning look. "That's pretty early for Uncle Andrew to leave--usually when he has dinner with us he stays for a longer visit. What's up?"
"There's a dance or something tonight and he thinks his new neighbors will be going." Faith paused for effect, then added, "He wants to check out the daughter."
"Oh," said Chloe, sounding intrigued and wise at once.