If that was her aim, then she had succeeded, Nellie Lovett thought. True, the portion had been smaller (and so had she), but that had little effect on the outcome. The knowledge she'd gained from making soup for her aunt then was helping her make soup for herself and Albert and the Barkers today.
She continued to stir, occasionally dipping another spoon into the broth so that she might taste it. It still needed something, Nellie thought. She was attempting to find just that when she heard someone enter the room.
Nellie didn't turn around right away. The footsteps were too heavy to be Lucy Barker's. Nellie's husband couldn't walk right on his own, so it had to be Lucy's husband, Benjamin. She had been almost certain it was him before she had done any deducing. She had memorized the sound of his feet hitting the floor, the glimmer of his smile, the creases in his left hand.
The sound of chair legs grating against her kitchen floor drew Nellie's attention away from the stove and towards Benjamin Barker, who was now seated at the table. His hands were folded, his eyes lowered. Nellie was in the process of memorizing his numerous expressions. This happened to be one she recognized: worry.
"Everything all right?" she croaked. Her throat, it seemed, had tightened.
"That depends," he said. He looked up at her, but his hands remained folded. "Is everything all right with you?"
She managed to squeeze another phrase past whatever was blocking her ability to communicate. "I don't see 'ow it's not."
Benjamin sighed. "I heard a crash today," he said. His attention returned to his folded hands. "Upstairs."
"It was glass," Nellie explained. She could see the conversation was going to last, so she turned back to the stove and lifted the soup. Taking care not to burn herself, Nellie moved the heavy pot to the table.
Benjamin sighed again. His next sentence was sharp and deliberate: "Did he throw it?"
"He? Albert?" Nellie said incredulously. Benjamin nodded.
"No," she said. "No, Al didn't throw it. Knocked it over is what he did. Was trying to walk. Poor man can't even walk on 'is own."
"Are you certain?" Benjamin asked.
"Of course I'm certain," she shot back. He looked slightly startled. "I was there," she continued, "when he knocked it over. I swept up the pieces already. It was nothin' important."
"I was just concerned," he replied. "But I see now that it was nothing to worry about. And you're sure," he added, "that he's never abused you?"
Nellie shook her head.
"I'm glad to hear it," Benjamin said softly. A gentle smile broke out on his face. "I was just trying to be a good neighbor."
The thing that had trapped Nellie's words in her throat vanished abruptly. "You are a good neighbor," she murmured softly.
"What?" she snapped. "You think it's funny, bein' suspected of abuse and all?"
"No, Nellie," he said softly. The laughter had left his voice, but the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes were wet. "Have you seen your face, love? You're blushing like mad."
Nellie rubbed frantically at the bridge of her nose.
"I always wondered," Albert began as he adjusted his position. He beckoned for her to sit on his lap, which she did, taking comfort in the feeling of his thin arms around her. "I always wondered," he repeated once she had settled, "what it would be like when you fell in love."
The blush crept up into her cheeks again, and once again she attempted to remove it from her face as though it were merely a stubborn coat of paint.
"Ain't like that," she muttered, but she refused to look Albert in the eye.
Albert sighed. "See? You shouldn't have married me. You would've been much happier with another man, and I would've been happy for you."
"And what about Lucy?" she shot back.
There was a moment where their eyes were locked. Then Nellie turned away again, trying desperately to hide her embarrassment.
Albert just drew her closer, rocking her slightly. She gave in to her fatigue and leaned her head against his chest.
"It's hard, isn't it?" he murmured into her ear.
She remembered the moisture in his eyes and her heart sunk.