The Husband Recipe
Linda Winstead Jones

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Chapter Two

Lauren leaned into the computer. Her stomach was telling her that it was time for lunch, and she had leftovers in the fridge. Vegetable lasagna, one of her favorites. But her growling stomach could wait. Her article was finished and off by email, the broken glass had been swept and picked up from the floor and carpet, and she’d taped a piece of cardboard to the broken window. She’d decided to take a break before she got to lunch and then to the edits on her book. Google was a wonderful invention. Not only did it lead people searching for recipes right to her website, it was great for checking out new neighbors.

She’d been prepared to search for the correct Cole Donovan for a while. Neither Cole nor Donovan were unusual names. It wasn’t like his name was Rumpelstiltskin. She hadn’t started with a lot of hope; she was prepared to find next to nothing. It didn’t hurt to try, she supposed. Surprisingly, he came up first on the list. She knew without doubt that it was him because there was a picture.

Baseball. Huh. She’d never been a fan, otherwise she might’ve recognized his name. Apparently Cole Donovan had been a big deal a few years back, a star third baseman on track to break some sort of home-run record for the season. She had to scan down a few links to find out why he’d quit in the middle of the season, with that record and a promising career on the line.

Lauren’s heart dropped as she read the archived article. His wife had indeed died. Mary Donovan had dropped dead in the grocery store, victim of a heart defect she’d been born with but had never been aware of. A chill ran down Lauren’s arms. Here one moment; gone the next. It was the sort of thing no one could possibly be prepared for. There was no one to blame, no drunk driver or misdiagnosis or missed treatment. Just … poof. The young mother of three had been twenty-nine at the time; so had Cole. They’d been high-school sweethearts.

Cole had walked away from baseball after his wife died, giving up a lucrative career for his family. He could’ve pawned the kids off on relatives, she supposed, or hired a nanny and kept playing, but no. He’d left a promising career to take care of his children, to be a full-time parent.

Lauren felt about an inch tall. She felt like the wicked witch, maybe the Grinch. Perhaps an ogre. All green monsters, she noted. She’d never looked good in certain yellowy shades of green, and she certainly wouldn’t look good if she were green. Wicked witches were never a nice teal or sea foam. No, they were pea-soup green. Not her color at all.

She’d gone storming over there with that muddy baseball and her indignation, when that family had been through enough heartache for a lifetime. She checked the dates; it had been five years since Mary Donovan had died. The little one—Justin—must’ve been a baby at the time.

And she’d lost it over a broken window and a little noise. Talk about putting things in perspective!

She left her office a little sorry she’d looked Cole Donovan up online. There were some things that were better left unknown, unspoken, undone. But once those things were out of the box, it was simply too late to stuff them back in.

Lauren’s mother and grandmother had trained her well. As she went into the kitchen and took the leftover lasagna from the refrigerator, she decided to make her new neighbors a nice meal as a peace offering. Lasagna and peach cobbler. Not the vegetable lasagna she preferred, but a nice, hearty lasagna with lots of beef. It was possible the children next door didn’t get enough protein. Most kids didn’t, since they were usually drawn to junk food. At least, that’s what everything she saw and read led her to believe. There were no children in her everyday life, no nieces or nephews, no little ones she saw regularly. Several of her friends had young children, but though she heard details of their lives, that didn’t mean Lauren saw them more than once or twice a year. Girlfriend lunches and the occasional margarita were not exactly child-friendly gatherings.

Whether the Donovan children got enough protein or not, everyone liked lasagna, and her grandmother’s peach cobbler was to die for. That should suffice as a “sorry I made an ass out of myself” offering.

While the vegetable lasagna was warming in the microwave, Lauren poured herself a glass of iced tea. She straightened the other single-serving-size containers of lasagna on the second shelf of the fridge. Like the cabinets in her kitchen, everything in the refrigerator had a place. The fridge and everything inside it was sparkling clean, and the bottled water was lined up neatly between the skim milk and the pitcher of tea she’d made last night.

Her entire house was like the fridge. Everything had a place; disorder was not allowed. She wasn’t OCD, not by any means, but she liked everything to be clean, and if there were specific places for items then those items might as well be in those places. That made perfect sense to her.

Lauren ate her lunch at the kitchen nook, overlooking her well-kept backyard. As she ate she mentally went over her schedule for the rest of the day. The edits, thirty minutes on the treadmill, then a shower. Dinner with Gran and Miss Patsy at six, and after that she’d stop by the grocery store. Tomorrow after she finished the edits and dropped them off at FedEx, she’d make the lasagna and peach cobbler.

At the moment the neighboring backyard was as quiet as her own, and she had her schedule set for the next two days. All was well. For now.

The kids had been quiet for a good half hour or so. They must really be feeling guilty about that broken window. Whatever the reason for the rare moment of silence, Cole would take it. He made a couple of phone calls—including one to a glass company to arrange for the neighbor’s window to be repaired—and then he sat in front of the computer. Hank had used the family computer last, and it was still on his favorite site for games. This particular favorite was a Dad-approved site, as Cole insisted they all be. He checked the history, to make sure none of the kids had wandered too far astray. While he tried to watch them when they were using the computer, it was impossible to keep an eye on the kids 24/7. One child, maybe, but three? He was constantly being pulled in all directions. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the kids, but these days you couldn’t be too careful. There were a lot of weirdos out there, and children were trusting by nature.

Finding no offenders in the computer history, Cole went to Google and typed in his neighbor’s name. Lauren Russell. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, exactly, but these days it made sense to check up on the people who came to your door. No matter how cute they were. The kids were unerringly trusting; he was not.

Even though he’d gone into the search with no expectations, he was surprised by what he found. First of all, the picture of Lauren that was at the top of the first page of her website was not at all flattering. Her hair had been pulled back tight, entirely out of her face, and she wore one of those fake picture-smiles, like she was literally saying cheese. Was that a turtleneck? Did they even make those anymore? She hadn’t been wearing enough makeup when the photo had been taken, and the harsh lights had washed her out. But it was her.

He liked her better mad and in her pajamas, hair in a sloppy ponytail with bangs and escaping strands falling into her face, and eyes flashing. She looked better in natural light, with no makeup at all and fury coloring her face with a natural blush.

If he hadn’t been looking for her specifically, he never would’ve found this site. It was all recipes and decorating and table etiquette. In the Donovan house they ate a lot of fish sticks and spaghetti out of a can, their decorations were almost all made by the kids—they’d outgrown the limited space on the fridge door long ago and had moved on to the walls—and proper etiquette at the table meant you didn’t stand on it while anyone else was eating.

When they’d been living in Birmingham, Janet had provided a lot of their meals. She’d dropped by every weekend to stock the freezer with casseroles and homemade soup and chili. But they hadn’t relied on her entirely. Cole refused to let himself rely on anyone for anything. He could find his way around the kitchen, and for the past year Meredith had been learning to cook. He’d done his best to help her, but talk about the blind leading the blind …

A couple days a week Meredith insisted on making supper. Alone. She saw herself as the woman of the house, and like it or not, she was. Cole didn’t want her to spend her youth taking care of her brothers—and him—and he did his best to make sure she was just a child for a while longer. But it wouldn’t hurt her to learn to prepare a meal or two. She was already a whiz at making coffee. Maybe because all the kids had learned that their dad wasn’t fit company until after he’d had his caffeine fix, and it made the morning much easier if the coffee was ready when he rolled out of bed.

Lauren Russell’s website was mind-boggling and more than a little amusing. Apparently his cute neighbor was some kind of Southern Martha Stewart wannabe. She made Easter-egg dye out of onion skins and created elaborate handmade valentines for her friends and family. She’d posted recipes and detailed instructions for making fried chicken, biscuits and cornbread, as well as a multitude of fried vegetables. There were recipes for making candy bars, of all things, and homemade ice-cream treats—things easily purchased at the store, so why would anyone bother? Lauren didn’t leave out the health-conscious among her readers. There were also recipes for about a hundred ways to cook a chicken breast without frying it, and plenty of methods for cooking veggies without any fat.

Not that he could get his crew to eat a vegetable, except for the household staple french fries. Maybe corn on the cob, if they were feeling adventurous.

Cole closed the website and shut down the web browser. It didn’t matter how cute his neighbor—or any other woman—might be. It wasn’t that he was still in love with Mary, five years after her death. It wasn’t as if he compared every woman he met to his late wife, or idealized her after she was gone, or pined for what they’d had. No, he simply had no time for a woman.

He had dated since Mary had died. After she’d been gone a couple of years, well-meaning friends had tried time and again to set him up with women they thought were suitable. He’d dated, leaving the kids with Janet or a babysitter for a couple of hours, but something always went wrong. He had no patience for airheads, no matter how pretty they were. Some of his friends seemed to think “hot” was enough. It wasn’t. And no matter how he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to entirely leave his home life behind. Babysitters called. Meredith called. While his dates droned on about shoes or movies or—heaven forbid—baseball, his mind had always been elsewhere.

During one memorable emergency trip home, Justin had thrown up on airhead number two. Or had it been airhead number three? During another, Hank had wiped a glob of jelly from his face with the hem of a silk dress. While his date had been wearing it. Cole had found it kind of funny. His date had not. None of the other dates had gone any better, and it hadn’t taken long for him to just give up.

Maybe when his children were grown he could take some time for himself, if he didn’t completely forget how to treat a woman, what to do with one. But for now he was all the kids had, and they deserved every bit of him that he had to give. He was already spread too thin, and having a woman in his life would probably stretch him to the breaking point. Like any woman would be satisfied with the little he had to give at this time in his life.

Even though it was going to be a real change, he was looking forward to starting work again. Teaching would be very different from the career he’d left behind, but he liked history, and he loved baseball. He was good with kids—he’d found a healthy reserve of patience in the past five years—and he’d discovered that he was much more adaptable than he’d ever thought he could be. In the past few years he’d searched for a new career he could really enjoy and worked part-time here and there, selling cars—a job he’d hated—and working in a sporting goods store—even worse—and along the way he’d managed to take enough classes to fulfill the requirements for a teaching job.

A full-time teaching job and coaching a high-school baseball team would take up much more time than any of the endeavors he’d undertaken in the past few years. Three kids and a demanding job wouldn’t leave him any time at all for a social life that extended beyond putt-putt or a movie with the kids.

Besides, they’d probably have a fit if he started dating again. And heaven forbid he should get serious about a woman! They’d lost their mother. They wouldn’t lose their dad, too, not even a small piece of him. It was bad enough that he’d finally taken on such a demanding job. The money he’d saved while he’d been playing combined with Mary’s insurance payout and his own ability to manage his investments well had allowed him to limit his time away from home until Justin was old enough to start kindergarten. Come August, the youngest Donovan would be in school. And Cole would be taking on the job of history teacher and baseball coach for the new high school. He could continue to live as they had for several more years—hell, if he was really smart with his money he might never have to work again—but he needed a real job. He needed to refocus his energies and … move on. It was time.

Cole wasn’t sure how he’d handle teaching others to play, when he still sometimes longed for the crack of the bat and the thrill of the game. But he’d manage. He’d get the job done. What choice did he have?

The Gardens was an upscale retirement village, with condos, small houses and an apartment building, all arranged like any gated community. There were lots of trees, ample parking, winding sidewalks, several green spaces and a community center. The only differences between this and other communities like it were the personnel, the nurses and administrators who were available at the push of a button, and the ages of the residents. The prices were outrageous, but Gran considered her condo here a worthwhile investment. It didn’t look like a retirement home, but it had all the advantages.

Once a week Lauren had supper with Gran and her best friend, Patsy, who lived in one of the houses in the village with her husband of nearly sixty years. They all took turns providing the food, even though they always met at Gran’s condo. This week it was Gran’s turn to cook, which thrilled Lauren. Not only did she not have to cook, or endure one of Miss Patsy’s mystery casseroles, she got to indulge in the food she’d grown up with. Fried green tomatoes; meatloaf; mashed potatoes; cornbread;

fried chicken; green beans that had been cooking all day so that they no longer actually resembled green beans at all; squash casserole—an exception to the casserole rule; pot roast that melted in your mouth and desserts that were always out of this world. She didn’t know what tonight’s menu would be, but it would be wonderful, and the smells and tastes would transport her to her childhood.

Gran’s house, a sprawling ranch she hadn’t lived in for the past three years, had always been Lauren’s inspiration. Rather, it was the vivid memory of that house that inspired her. The food, the beauty, the details that went into making a house a home … Without that influence, she’d probably be working in an office somewhere. It wasn’t that her own home had been horrible—far from it—but she was an only child and her parents had both worked full-time. Often more than full-time. Though she was a stickler for good manners and, perversely, loved to entertain, Lauren’s mother had hated cooking, laundry, anything domestic. There had been times in her life when Lauren had been positive her mother didn’t entirely warm to the idea of child-rearing, either.

Her parents now lived in Washington State, about as far from Huntsville, Alabama, as they could get. A couple of great jobs had called them there, and they loved that part of the country. Lauren talked to them at least once a month, and they usually made it to Huntsville for a yearly visit, often around the holidays. There were frequent emails. Lauren loved her parents, but it had been her grandmother who’d made her house a home, who’d offered time, hearty hugs and homemade cookies.

That hadn’t changed.

Patsy was already at Gran’s condo when Lauren arrived, and the two older women were chatting as they set the table. For these weekly dinners Gran always used her good china, cloth napkins, polished silverware and crystal glasses for the decaffeinated iced tea. Life was too short, she said, not to use the best of everything at every opportunity. The smells from the kitchen were tantalizing, and Lauren couldn’t help but smile as she walked in and called out a friendly “Hello.”

The two ladies, like the table, were at their best. Both of them were white-haired and tastefully made-up, and tonight they both wore colorful summer dresses. Miss Patsy was thinner than Gran, a couple of inches taller, and was never seen out and about without enough jewelry to outfit three women.

Gran was more of a minimalist when it came to jewelry. She still wore her wedding band, and tonight she also wore small pearl earrings. Her hair was cut very short and spiked around her head, while Miss Patsy had pulled her long hair up into a bun, as usual.

Not wanting to be underdressed, Lauren had worn a lavender sundress and white sandals, tiny diamond studs in her ears and her hair down instead of in its usual ponytail.

There were hugs all around, then the three women carried dishes from the kitchen to the dining room table. Beyond the table the curtains at the doors, which opened onto a small patio, were pulled back to offer a relaxing view of a perfectly well-kept outdoor space with a wrought-iron table and chairs, hanging tomato plants, potted herbs and flowers. Past the patio a community green space was deserted and perfectly manicured. No kids at all. Lauren couldn’t help but wonder how old one had to be to move here….

After they sat in their usual places, and Gran began by passing the meatloaf, Miss Patsy asked Lauren if she’d had a nice day. That was all it took for Lauren to tell the older ladies about the day’s frustrations. The noise, the broken window, the man next door. She even told them how she’d stormed out of the house in her pajamas and bunny slippers, which gave everyone—even her—a good laugh. In hindsight it was pretty funny. After she’d told them how a repairman had shown up within a couple of hours to fix the broken window, she mentioned what she’d found online about her neighbor.

Gran carefully put down her fork and stared at Lauren as she finished her story. She wasn’t smiling, not that Lauren’s neighbor’s history was much to smile about. When Lauren finished sharing what she knew, Gran leaned forward just a little bit.

“Is this neighbor’s name Whiplash Donovan?”

Lauren was surprised. She hadn’t mentioned the man’s name because it wasn’t important. It wasn’t as if he would ever meet these two ladies. “Donovan is the last name, but he didn’t introduce himself as Whiplash. His first name is Cole.”

Gran waved that detail off, literally, with a sweep of her hand. “That’s him, has to be! I can’t believe it, Whiplash Donovan living right next door to my granddaughter. This is so exciting!”

“Whiplash?” Lauren asked suspiciously.
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