The whirring sound of his mother’s ancient hand mixer drew Nathaniel’s attention away from his homework. He sniffed the chocolate-scented air appreciatively. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched as his younger brother, Benjamin, leaned on the counter, eyeing the mixture and waiting for just the right moment to stick his finger in and get a taste of the icing.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” his mother said, with an amused smile.
“But you said we could lick the spoon,” Ben protested.
“That’s if you get your homework done.”
With an exasperated sigh, Benjamin trudged across the worn linoleum floor and back to his chair next to Nathaniel. After he flopped down, he reluctantly took up his pencil.
“There. This one is done,” his mother announced. She had just put the final touches on one of the chocolate cakes she had spent the better part of the afternoon baking. He and Benjamin would have to wait until she was completely finished to devour the remaining icing.
His mother glanced over at Nathaniel. “Honey, would you do me a huge favor and run this down to Miss Mae’s?”
“Sure.” He rose from his chair and went over to the counter. “But you better save some of the icing for me.”
Smiling, she reached over and ruffled his hair. “Of course I will.” After putting the cake into a container, she thrust it into Nathaniel’s arms. “Thanks, sweetheart.”
He headed out the kitchen door and down the back steps. Mae Sanders lived three houses up the road from them on the right. All twelve of the houses in the semicircular lane, or compound, as people called it, belonged to members of his father’s church. At the top of the hill sat the old cotton mill office that now housed Soul Harbor, the church where his father was the pastor.
Carefully balancing the cake tray in his hands, Nathaniel made his way up Miss Mae’s flower-lined front walk and then up the three steps onto the porch. After he pounded on the door, it swung open. But it wasn’t the blue-haired, grandmotherly Miss Mae standing there. Instead, it was the tall, lanky figure of Kurt Miller, one of the homeless men from his father’s church whom Miss Mae had taken on to help her with work around the house. She had a soft spot for the less fortunate and always had one or two people living with her.
“Well, if it isn’t Nate the Great,” Kurt said, with a wide smile.
Nathaniel felt his cheeks warm under the attention. No one at church ever paid much attention to him. Compared to his two rambunctious brothers, he was quiet, the well-behaved and obedient one. But since Kurt had arrived two weeks ago, he had gone out of his way to make Nathaniel feel special.
Amusement flickered in Kurt’s dark eyes. “You brought me a cake? But it isn’t even my birthday.”
Shaking his head, Nathaniel replied, “No, my mama sent it to Miss Mae to take to the VFW for bingo night.”
Kurt stroked his chin. “That’s right. Tonight is bingo night.” Stretching his arms wide, he motioned for Nathaniel to come in. “She just left for the beauty shop and won’t be back for an hour. But you can leave the cake for her so you don’t have to make two trips.”
“Okay, thanks,” Nathaniel replied as he stepped over the threshold. All the houses in the compound were alike, so he knew the way to the kitchen. They had once been part of the row houses belonging to the cotton mill before it had gone out of business.
After setting the cake on the counter, Nathaniel turned to go, but Kurt stopped him. “What’s your rush?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Just need to get back to my homework.”
“Ah, it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Why don’t you sit down for a minute?”
Even though he knew a spoonful of chocolate icing was awaiting him at home, Nathaniel felt it would be rude if he refused to sit for just a minute. Or at least his mama would think it was rude, and the last thing he wanted was to disappoint her.
After easing down into one of the straight-backed kitchen chairs, he looked expectantly at Kurt.
“How about something to drink?” Kurt asked.
“Um, okay. Sure.”
“How’s school?” Kurt asked as his footsteps creaked along the worn floorboards.
“It’s fine. Got all As,” Nathaniel replied.
“Good for you.” With his back to Nathaniel, Kurt glanced at him over his shoulder. “Got a girlfriend?”
Fiery embarrassment filled Nathaniel’s cheeks. “N-No, I—I don’t,” he stammered in reply.
“Don’t worry about it. With your looks, in a few years the girls will be all over you.”
“I hope. I mean, I guess I want them to be,” Nathaniel murmured. He couldn’t imagine a girl ever being interested in him, and he was too shy to talk to them. He wished he could be more like his older brother, David. At fourteen, he always had a steady girlfriend, with others waiting in the wings.
Kurt set a mug down in front of Nathaniel. “Here’s some coffee to warm you up before you have to head back out into the cold.”
Nathaniel fought the urge to protest that his mother didn’t allow him to drink coffee, as he was afraid of looking uncool in front of someone like Kurt. So he took the mug and blew ripples across the dark surface of the steaming liquid. When he thought it wouldn’t burn his tongue, he took a sip.
Wrinkling his nose, Nathaniel eased the mug away from his lips. He surveyed the contents curiously. “This sure doesn’t taste like coffee.”
“I put a little nip of Jack in there,” Kurt replied, with a wink.