The Husband Recipe
Linda Winstead Jones

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When she’d gathered her composure she stood carefully, stepping over the pieces of glass on the floor, glad that she wasn’t working barefoot as she often did. And there, on top of her edits, sat a baseball. The offending, intruding, destructive and muddy baseball, which was now perched on top of the once-pristine top page of a once-perfectly-aligned stack.

Lauren had heard the term her blood boiled, and now she knew exactly what that felt like. She experienced an intense physical response to the sight of that baseball on her work, to the broken glass and the ruined papers. That was it. She literally couldn’t take any more.

She snatched up the baseball and stalked to the back door, bursting onto her small stone patio like a woman on a mission. In her fury she noted—not for the first time—the crushed flowers and the broken tomato stalk. The trampled grass and the discarded juice box. The juice box was new, tossed into her backyard as if this were the city dump. Like her office, the backyard had been in perfect condition before the new family next door had moved in and disrupted her life.

In the neighboring yard—where the recently added trampoline and soccer net marred the landscape—the sprinkler continued to spurt a jerking stream of water this way and that, but the children were nowhere to be seen. For once, all was quiet. Lauren cut in between the two houses, glancing at her broken window as she walked by on her way to the front door. She’d never before really noticed how close the two houses were. Little more than an alleyway separated her home from the one next door.

The Garrison house, which wasn’t the Garrison house any longer, was larger than her own. Some years ago, long before Lauren had bought her home, Mr. Garrison had built an addition that consisted of two bedrooms and another bath. At one time he’d had children of his own living there, and they’d needed the space. Once the children moved out, that extra space had been unnecessary. Helen Garrison had happily told Lauren all about the small condo they’d bought in Phoenix. The older woman was thrilled to have less house to clean, no yard to tend.

Ringing the doorbell would be too passive for Lauren’s mood, so she knocked soundly on the front door. She knocked so hard her knuckles stung. As she waited for an answer she shook out her hand and studied the mess on the small porch. A baseball glove, Frisbees, a Barbie doll with one leg and a frighteningly original haircut, and a skateboard. It could be such a cute porch, with a couple of white wicker chairs and a pair of hanging ferns, but instead the space was messy, untended and chaotic. She imagined whatever lay beyond the door was no better.

No one immediately answered her knock, so she rang the doorbell. Twice. Inside she heard whispering. The heathens were ignoring her. Heaven above, surely those kids weren’t in there alone! No, the family car, a white minivan that had seen better days, was parked in the driveway. It was the only vehicle she’d seen in front of the house since the new family had moved in, not that she spent her time watching the neighbors. She couldn’t help but notice a few details, as she collected the mail or drove into her own driveway. For all she knew there was another vehicle parked in the one-car garage.

All was quiet now. She didn’t even hear whispering. She rang the doorbell for the third time and then lifted her hand to knock once more. Harder this time around.

The door swung open on a very tall, broad-shouldered man who held a cell phone to his ear. Obviously distracted, and also obviously not in a good mood, he held up one finger to indicate that he needed another minute.

The heathens’ father needed a lesson in manners as much as his children did. It was all she could do not to snatch the cell phone out of his hand! What she really wanted to do was grab the offending finger and bend it back. That would get his attention.

But of course, she did no such thing. The hand holding the offending baseball dropped, and some of the wind went out of her sails. She’d never been very good when it came time to confront a man—especially a good-looking one. In most situations she was confident and in command, but most situations didn’t require her to look up quite so far.

He who had spawned three little devils was much too tall for her tastes, which didn’t help matters at all since Lauren was barely five foot three. Her new neighbor was six feet tall, at least, which meant she was at a serious disadvantage when it came to talking to him face-to-face. A step stool would come in handy right about now. The man needed a shave; he didn’t have a beard, but that face hadn’t seen a razor in a day or two. He had shaggy-ish dark brown hair which wasn’t long but wasn’t freshly cut either, fabulous bone structure, a perfect nose—Lauren always noticed noses—and big hands with long fingers. Dressed in jeans and a plain, faded gray T-shirt, he still managed to give off an “I’m in charge” vibe.

Great. Maybe she should’ve tacked a scathing note to the front door.

“Look, I’ll have to call you back.” For the first time, the man who’d shaken his finger at Lauren really looked at her. And he smiled. “A woman in bunny slippers and her pj’s is on my doorstep holding a muddy baseball and looking like someone spit in her Cheerios this morning, so she must be here about something important.”

Lauren tried not to be obvious about turning her gaze downward, but yes—she was still in her pajamas. Long, soft cotton pants and a matching tank just a touch too thin for someone who wore no bra. Not for the first time, she thanked her lucky stars that she didn’t have much to brag about in that department.

But still … she loses her temper in the first time in forever, and this is where it gets her. Embarrassed. No, mortified.

And she was still holding the damn baseball.

Her new neighbor, the father of the heathens who were tearing Lauren’s neat schedule to pieces, ended his phone call and looked at her. He really looked at her, his gaze cutting to the bone. He had blue eyes. Not just a little blue, either, but wowza blue. Cut-to-the-bone blue. His eyes were the color of a perfectly clear spring sky shot with disturbingly piercing shards of ice. Lauren shifted her own gaze down and stared at his chin, which was perfectly normal and not at all eye-catching like his nose or his eyes or any of the rest of him. It was just a stubbly chin, thank goodness, not at all out of the ordinary.

Lauren handed over the baseball, which he took, then she crossed her arms over her chest in a too-late attempt at modesty. She had quite a few things to say, and she’d played a few of them through her mind as she’d waited. But suddenly she lost her nerve. “Is your wife at home?”

Cole had been amused, but with a few words that amusement died entirely. He should be used to the question by now, but he wasn’t. He’d given up beating around the bush long ago. “She’s dead. You’ll have to deal with me. Sorry.”

He was accustomed to the change in expression, the shift from annoyance to pity.

“I didn’t mean to … I apologize.” The pity turned to confusion. “I saw a woman carrying in suitcases when you moved in, and I just assumed …”

“That was my sister-in-law. She helped us move.” Grudgingly, yes, but Janet had helped.

Cole recognized his neighbor. He’d seen her a few times, working in her garden or collecting her mail. That was about it, since her garage wasn’t filled with unpacked boxes—like his—and she could actually park in it. He’d noted from a distance that she was cute, but up close she was more than cute. Not gorgeous, but interesting. Pretty. She had honey-blond hair caught in a ponytail, hazel-green eyes, nicely shaped lips, petite build…. Yeah, she was definitely interesting.

It was easy enough to guess that the muddy baseball had either gone into her garden or through a window. No wonder the kids had come running inside and dashed straight to their rooms.

She took a step back. “I shouldn’t have bothered you with this. Just forget it. I’ll …”

Cole turned and yelled. “Get in here, every one of you!” After a moment of strained silence, the three kids came creeping into the room. Heads down, bare feet shuffling, they were all soaking wet and chagrined. Cole asked, in a calmer voice, “What happened?”

After a moment of complete silence—a rarity in this house—all three started talking at once, each trying to outdo the other in pitch and storytelling. It was a window after all. Just what he needed. A damaged garden would be easier to fix. A little dirt, a new plant or two, and it was done. Windows were more complicated. He tried to make sense of the story. Apparently Justin had thrown the ball, but it was Hank who’d missed it. And as the oldest, Meredith should’ve stopped them from playing ball in the first place.

Cole had to work hard to disguise his fatherly pride. Justin was just five. It had to have been a helluva hard pitch to break a window. He kept his pride to himself. What kind of parent would he be if he gave his son a pat on the back for breaking the neighbor’s window?

“Y’all apologize to …” He looked over his shoulder to the pretty neighbor who’d taken yet another step back. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Lauren Russell,” she said.

He stepped forward and offered his hand. “Cole Donovan. These rug rats, in order of appearance, are Meredith, Hank and Justin.” She took his hand for a quick shake that was firm enough but not long-lasting, then quickly resumed the position meant to protect her from showing too much boob but that actually pushed them up and out a bit. Something he really shouldn’t be noticing. “Kids, apologize to Ms. Russell. Then everyone gets a timeout.”

The kids apologized without much sincerity, then complained about their punishment. Cole turned to look at them. “No one came to me and told me about the broken window. Accidents happen, but trying to pretend they didn’t isn’t acceptable.”

“Would you like me to make you some coffee, Dad?” Meredith asked sweetly. Almost thirteen—and wasn’t he terrified by that fact—she was sometimes the spitting image of her mother. Long blond hair, deep brown eyes, high cheekbones and long legs. Why couldn’t she stay twelve forever? Awhile longer, at least.

He maintained a stern expression. “Coffee isn’t going to fix this.”

Cole could practically see Hank’s mind spinning. Great. His middle child, the budding wizard who was currently without front teeth, would probably be in the kitchen this afternoon whipping up yet another potion designed to improve his father’s mood. If coffee wouldn’t work, surely magic would. The boy was seven; when was he going to outgrow this phase? Why couldn’t he be into baseball or football or soccer? No, he had to be into dragons and spells and magic wands. As always, Justin, the wizard’s apprentice, would help with the process when Hank went to work. Leftovers, half-filled boxes of juice, whatever they could find in the pantry—anything was fair game when it came to their concoctions. Cole would drink at least a sip of the potion, no matter what it contained. The boys hadn’t killed him with their experiments yet.

He never should’ve let the kids watch those movies….

Chastised, all three shuffled off to their rooms. He wouldn’t make them stay there long. Just long enough to realize they’d made mistakes.

Cole turned back to Lauren. “I’ll fix your window.”

She was already making her escape. “Don’t worry about it.”

Cole stepped onto the front porch, but stopped short of following his neighbor into the yard. She was most definitely a woman making a getaway. “Nope. My kids broke it, I’ll fix it.”

“Whatever.” She waved, but her back was to him by then so he didn’t get another nice view. Too bad. Though he had to admit, the rear view wasn’t too shabby. Lauren Russell walked like a woman, with a hint of sashay as she hurried home.

Like he had time for a woman, pretty or otherwise.

“Hang on a minute,” he said, ignoring his initial instinct and following in Lauren’s footsteps. She stopped, waited a couple of seconds longer than was necessary, and turned around slowly. Her chin was up, her eyes … defiant. He just wanted to talk to her, smooth the rough way they’d been introduced. After all, they were going to be neighbors, probably for a good long while. But the way she looked at him … Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea….

“Yes?” she prodded when he just stood there too long like an idiot, saying nothing.

“Sorry we got off to a bad start.” He tried to think of a couple of neighborly questions he could ask. Where’s the best shopping, what about the other neighbors, what are the best movie theaters … Can I borrow a cup of sugar? Yeah, right, that would go over well. Judging by the look on her face, the woman just wanted peace and quiet, she wanted to be left alone. He couldn’t blame her. “I’ll try to keep the kids out of your hair.”

Her expression softened. “I’m sorry I overreacted.” She was trying to very casually cover her breasts, which only drew his attention to her gentle curves. “Kids will be kids, I suppose, and it’s not like I think they broke the window on purpose.”

Cole rocked back slightly and shoved his hands in his pockets. He shouldn’t have followed her. What the hell had he been thinking? Oh, yeah, he’d been thinking that Lauren Russell was cute and interesting and he hadn’t talked to an adult face-to-face in days. Fortunately he knew how to undo his awkward mistake. He knew how to end this conversation here and now. “So if I ever need a babysitter …”

The horrified expression on Lauren’s face was priceless, and Cole couldn’t help but grin widely. “Just kidding.”

She nodded her head, muttered a polite goodbye and made her final escape. This time, he didn’t bother to follow.
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