Doug took the last two steps at a jump as he descended to the entry hall and headed for the door. His slippers made a soft swishing sound against the lush pile of the new carpet as he stepped towards the front porch.
"Jeff! Linda! Come on in," he said, opening the front door wide to allow his guests entry.
"Hi, Doug," Linda said, pausing to give him a quick peck on the cheek as she stepped inside.
Jeff grabbed Doug's hand and shook it vigorously. "Good to see you, man. It's been too long."
Doug clapped Jeff on the shoulder. "Three months, at least. How do we let the time slip us like that?"
Jeff chuckled. "I don't know. It just happens."
Doug closed the door and stepped back inside. "Honey," he called up the stairs, "Jeff and Linda are here."
"I'll be right down," came a distant voice from the upper level.
Linda held out her hands, brandishing a bottle-shaped paper bag. "We brought the wine."
Doug took the proffered offering. "You didn't have to do that."
"We wanted to bring something," Jeff said.
Doug smiled. "Thanks, guys." He stepped towards the hall closet. "Let me take your coats."
He slid open the folding closet door and grabbed a couple of hangers. Linda slipped off her brown and cream houndstooth check coat and handed it to Doug. Jeff's baseball jacket followed a moment thereafter.
"Come on in," Doug said. "I'll open this wine and we can relax a bit before dinner."
He led them into the living room.
"New carpet?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah, we just had it installed about three weeks ago. The old one had pretty much had it. A couple of stains just wouldn't come out no matter what we did."
"Hello, you two."
Jeff and Linda turned at the sound of the new voice.
"Joan," Linda said, moving towards her. "How are you?"
The two women embraced.
"I'm fine. Just great." Joan stepped back to survey her friend. "Linda, you look wonderful."
"Why, thank you, ma'am. You're not looking too shabby yourself."
"Hello, there, lady of the house," Jeff said as he, too, stepped over to her and gave her a hug.
"I'll open the wine," Doug said, slipping past them towards the kitchen.
"Come. Sit," Joan said, gesturing towards the center of the room.
Jeff and Linda took their cue and stepped around to the front of the leather sofa to sit down. The seat cushions sank much deeper than they had expected, causing them to clutch onto each other as they dropped hard into their seats. They both chuckled as they came to rest.
Joan put a hand to her mouth. "It kind of eats up the guests," she said, trying hard not to laugh out loud.
"Look what I found," Doug said as he re-entered the room.
Linda and Jeff craned their necks as they turned to look at him. He was moving towards them, steering a young woman by the shoulders as he gently pushed her ahead of him. She had shoulder-length blonde hair and wore a sweatshirt and jeans.
"Where've you been hiding?" Joan asked.
The young woman blushed. "I was in the den, watching Oprah. I didn't want to intrude."
"Don't be silly. We want you to join us."
"Are you sure it's okay?"
Joan waved the comment away. "Jeff and Linda, I'd like you meet Pam. She's staying with us for a few days.
Doug led Pam around to the front of the couch, then deftly navigated his way back towards the kitchen. Jeff leaned forward to greet the new arrival.
"Don't get up," Pam said. "I know all about that couch."
Jeff shook her hand from his seated position. Linda did the same.
"It's very nice to meet you, Pam," Jeff said. "How do you know Doug and Joan?"
Pam blushed again. "We actually just met a couple of days ago."
Joan stepped forward and put an arm around Pam. "She's a stray," she said to Jeff and Linda.
Pam rolled her eyes. "Joan..."
Joan patted her shoulder. "I'm just kidding."
"It's embarrassing," Pam said. She turned her gaze back to Jeff and Linda. "I was hitchhiking."
Linda's eyes widened. "You're a brave girl."
Jeff shook his head. "You sure lucked out finding these two."
Pam let out a long breath. "No kidding."
"Wine. As promised," Doug said as he returned from the kitchen. He handed a glass to Jeff and another to Linda, then turned to his wife. "A glass for you, hon?"
"Pam, how about you? Wine?"
Pam smiled slightly as she looked at him. "Sure. That would be great."
"One moment." Doug slipped out of the room again.
Pam sat down in one of the room's upholstered armchairs and crossed her arms. She stared at the floor for a moment before clearing her throat and lifting her gaze to the room at large.
"Everything okay?" Jeff asked her.
"Mmmmm. Yeah, I'm fine. Just tired."
"A likely story..." Linda said.
Pam's eyes darted towards her.
"I mean..." Linda continued, "that most people say that when they've got something on their minds and don't want to bother anyone with it."
Pam uncrossed her arms and slumped in the chair. "I'm worried about my brother," she said. "He's sick, and I'm trying to get out to see him. And now I've run out of money."
"Which is why we've decided to let her stay here for a few days. We want to be sure she's okay before she sets off again."
Pam managed a slight smile. "You guys are godsends."
"Here we go," Doug said, returning with three glasses of wine this time.
He handed one to Joan and then stepped over to Pam's chair to give her one. He moved to the remaining empty chair in the room and raised his own glass.
"To friends," he said. "Old and new."
"To friends," his wife and guests replied in near-unison.