Ellie’s question was an insult, but Sam let it pass.
“What friend?” Ellie asked, as though Nichole should immediately be stripped from the friend list.
“Nichole is another teacher,” Sam explained. “She’s married to Rocco, who is my best friend. They arranged for Beth and I to have dinner together.”
“The funny part is,” Beth said, smiling down on Sam, “when we first met, neither of us were terribly impressed with the other.”
Sam swore he could drown in her warmth.
“But then Sam was there at the accident scene,” Beth explained.
“He caused it?”
“Ellie!” Phillip laid aside the book and looked pointedly at his wife.
“You know Sam didn’t cause the accident, Mom,” Beth answered. “Sam was at the stoplight when I got hit by another car. He was the one who helped me most.”
“She was hurt,” he said, picking up the story. “We didn’t know how badly at the time, and I held her hand until the nine-one-one team arrived.”
“I don’t know what would have happened without Sam,” Beth added. “We’ve been together ever since. He’s important to me, Mom.”
Ellie nodded slowly. “I’ve read about incidents like this where someone saves the life of another and then that person feels an obligation to look after the other. Phillip,” she said, looking to her husband, “what’s the name of that syndrome?”
“You know the one. It’s like what happened in Stockholm, only it’s when someone helps another and then the person saved feels an obligation … or is it the other way around? I don’t quite remember how it goes.”
“Mom, that’s ridiculous.”
“I never heard of any such syndrome,” Sam said.
“Yes, but Sam, pardon me for being blunt, but you don’t look to be an educated man.”
Despite his determination not to make waves, he bristled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Oh dear, that did sound rude, didn’t it? You’ll need to forgive me. I should have put that another way. What is it you do for a living, Sam?”
“Mom, you already know Sam is the head mechanic at the Bruce Olson GM dealership.”
Ellie’s stare made him feel like he’d crawled out from under a rock. It irritated him, and he decided then and there that he was through playing nice with this woman.
“I left college because I discovered I’m much better with my hands.” He looked pointedly at Beth. “Isn’t that right, babe?”
Ellie’s face reddened.
“Sam.” Beth groaned, silently pleading with him. She turned to her mother then and glared at her. “What’s with all the questions? You’ve met Sam. You know him.”
“I met him, yes, but there wasn’t time to get to know him. You say he’s important to you, so I feel I should learn more about him.”
Sam didn’t believe that for a moment. Ellie Prudhomme was doing her best to belittle him. He loved Beth and would do anything for her, but he wasn’t going to allow anyone, not her mother or anyone else, to look and act as if he was dirt under their carefully manicured fingernails.
“Who are your people, Sam?” Ellie asked next.
“Your family,” she clarified.
“Mary Alice and Joe Carney.”
“The Prudhomme name goes back several generations,” Ellie said proudly. “My husband can trace his family tree all the way back to the Mayflower.”
“My family tree goes all the way back to Ellis Island and then to Ireland,” he said. “I come from good people, Mrs. Prudhomme, if that’s your concern. We don’t have a pedigree, but we have big hearts, determination, and guts. The Carney family is grounded and there’s a lot of love. I want Beth to meet my parents and they want to meet her. My brothers and sister, too.”
“Just how many of you are there?” Ellie asked, wide-eyed.
“Two brothers, one sister. All married,” he answered. “They live in California, near Sacramento.”
“How …” Ellie paused, as if searching for the right word. “American,” she concluded.
It wasn’t her words as much as the way Beth’s mother studied him. He’d given it his best shot. As much as he loved Beth, as much as he wanted this meeting to go smoothly, he was not going to allow this ridiculous woman to put down his family, Beth, or himself.
“Does anyone object if I turn on the television?” Sam asked, as he reached for the remote to the television. “The Seahawks have a game against the Denver Broncos that starts in about thirty minutes.”
“Football on Thanksgiving?” Ellie asked, as if there was something wrong with a society that would allow such a travesty of poor taste to occur on a national holiday.
Sam ignored the question and turned on the TV, changing it to the proper channel.
The time had come for Sam to man up. “Phillip,” he said. When Beth’s father glanced up from his book, Sam cleared his throat. “Mr. Prudhomme, I want you to know that I love your daughter.”
Ellie gave no indication she’d heard, but Sam noticed that the chardonnay sloshed in her wineglass as if she’d jerked.
Phillip considered Sam’s words. “Beth is an easy girl to love.”
“She’s a woman,” Sam corrected. “And you’re right. She is easy to love. From the day I met her, she’s turned my world upside down. She’s the most caring person I’ve ever known. She’s thoughtful and wise, generous in spirit, and one incredible person. Just being around her makes me a better man.”
Beth stood frozen just outside the kitchen, and he noticed a tear roll down her cheek.
“Mom and Dad,” she said, returning to the room. She stood next to Sam and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I love Sam, too.”
In all these months, neither of them had verbalized the words. Sam knew long ago he had strong feelings for her. He’d tried to deny it, mainly because giving his heart to another woman scared him unlike anything human. It seemed unfair that he should admit it to Beth’s parents before he told her, but it was necessary. Sam wanted it clear where he stood with Beth and that he wasn’t going to slink away in the middle of the night because he’d been intimidated.
Ellie looked to her husband and desperately whispered, “Phillip, say something. Surely you recognize this relationship will never work.”
Phillip looked from his wife to his daughter and grinned.
Sam reached for Beth’s hand. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but it seems to me Beth is an adult. She can make her own decisions on who she chooses to love.”
“My daughter is an educated—”
“Mom,” Beth said, cutting her off. “Sam is right. I love him,” she said, and looked at him smiling, “and he loves me.”
“But Kier …”
“Oh please,” Beth exploded. “Kier is not half the man Sam is, and if you don’t see that, then I pity you.”
Sunshine applauded from the kitchen.
“Stay out of this,” Ellie flared at her sister. “It’s your influence that’s destroying my daughter’s life.”
“Daddy,” Beth said, ignoring her mother. “I’m happy with my life. I can’t ever remember being happier.”
“That you would choose a mechanic over Kier tells me otherwise,” her mother cried, as though she couldn’t believe what was happening.
“Kier, Mother?” Beth said again. “What exactly does Kier do? He isn’t even employed.”
“He doesn’t need to work,” her mother supplied, as if that was all the qualifications she needed to recommend him. “His grandfather left him a trust fund that has secured his future. You could have everything you’ve ever wanted.”
Beth wrapped her arm around Sam’s. “Don’t you see, Mom, I already do.”
Ellie glared at her husband as if she expected him to leap to his feet and challenge Sam to a duel. “Phillip, for the love of heaven, will you say something?”