The Husband Recipe
Linda Winstead Jones

<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 >>

“He could hit the ball so far and fast, you’d get whiplash trying to keep an eye on it. You know your grandfather was a huge fan of the Atlanta team.”

“Of course.”

“Well, I was never as fanatical about baseball as he was, but I did follow the game. What choice did I have when he was always watching it on television or listening to the games on the radio? Even after he passed I watched when I could.” She gave a small, sad smile. “It made me feel closer to him, as if we were still rooting for the team together even though he was gone.”

Pops had been gone four years, and this was a detail of Gran’s life Lauren had never known. Sure, she remembered Pops watching sports on television, and wearing those team T-shirts and ball caps, but it wasn’t a passion grandfather and granddaughter had shared. They’d gardened together, played games, made homemade birthday cards, assembled endless puzzles….

Gran shook off her melancholy, again with a literal wave of her hand. “Donovan was one of your grandfather’s favorites. He so wanted to see that record broken. When Whiplash’s wife died and he walked away he took a lot of heat. Many of the fans were very upset with him. A lot of them simply didn’t understand.” Her chin came up. “But I did. Donovan put his family first—before fame, before money. Baseball players spend so much time on the road, there’s no way he’d be able to raise his children and continue to play. He made a choice, and I never for a moment doubted that it was the right one. You have to admire a man who has his priorities in order that way.”

Lauren almost grimaced. She didn’t have to admire her neighbor. She just had to deliver a peace-offering food and get out of the way.

Getting out of the way was what she did best.

Lauren’s grandmother reached for a second helping of fried okra. “So, tell me, is he still gorgeous?”

“Gran!” Lauren said, trying to put a hint of shock and disapproval in her voice. Anything to avoid answering with a resounding yes.

The older women laughed, and Lauren took a long, slow bite of meatloaf. She chewed deliberately, but eventually she had to swallow. Gran and Miss Patsy were still looking at her. Waiting.

“Fine, yes, he’s a handsome man. Some women might consider him gorgeous, I suppose, but he’s not my type at all.”

“Since when is tall, dark and handsome not your type?” Miss Patsy asked.

Lauren hesitated, and the older women did her the favor of changing the subject. They began to discuss recipes. Normally recipes were one of Lauren’s favorite subjects, but her mind was still on Cole Donovan. Just a little. No, that wasn’t right. Her mind was on men—or rather, the lack of one in her life.

She was happily single, for the time being. Her attempt at building her life around a man had failed miserably, and she was in no hurry to repeat that mistake. Of course she’d been too young to even think about marriage when she’d allowed hormones to override her common sense, and Billy had been a self-centered jerk. Looking back she could only be relieved that their two-year engagement had ended before she’d actually become his wife. At the same time, she was still annoyed that all the hours she’d spent planning her wedding had been wasted. There had been a couple of other romantic mistakes, misjudgments on her part, but neither of the other mistakes had gone so far.

These days Lauren worked so hard there were no hours to waste, no spare time to sit back and ponder the few failures in her life. Whenever Billy crossed her mind—which wasn’t often—he didn’t stay there long. He just flitted through like a pesky mosquito, not at all worthy of her attention. The details of the wedding reception she’d planned, however, stayed crisp and clear. Maybe one day the right man would come along and she’d be able to pull out her three-ring binder and start again.

Then again, who had time for men? She didn’t. One day, in the foggy, indistinct future, she’d work a man into her busy life. But not anytime soon. There were only so many hours in the day, after all. Where would she pencil romance into her schedule?

If she ever did decide to pencil romance into her schedule, she wouldn’t consider a man who had three uncontrollable children. No matter how tall, dark and handsome he might be….

Chapter Three

Cole was surprised to find his neighbor at the door. Again. He answered her cautiously friendly hello with a sigh and a “What have they done now?”

Lauren smiled, and as she did he noticed that she held a very large wicker basket covered with a red-and-white-checkered towel that looked as if it had never been used to mop up spilled grape juice or ketchup. She looked more than a little like Little Red Riding Hood, and he wanted to eat her up. Did that make him the Big Bad Wolf?

She lifted the basket a couple of inches. “I’ve brought a little something to welcome you to the neighborhood, and to thank you for getting the window taken care of so quickly.”

What choice had he had? His kids had done the damage, and he couldn’t very well have left Lauren’s house vulnerable overnight. Not that this neighborhood seemed to be unsafe. It was just common sense. Still, he supposed it would be rude to send her and her basket away, so he stepped back and invited her inside.

She hadn’t seemed at all interested in getting to know him yesterday, when he’d made a fumbling attempt at being neighborly. Maybe something had changed her mind. Then again, maybe she was just more sociable when she was wearing a bra.

Her eyes scanned the living room, and he knew very well what she saw. The laundry he’d been folding on the couch, the half-finished puzzle on the coffee table, the toys Justin had been playing with and left scattered about. If he’d known she was coming he would’ve picked up a bit, but since she’d dropped by unannounced she’d have to take what she got.

She shifted the basket a bit, and Cole realized it must be heavy. Belatedly, he reached out and took it from her.

“Lasagna and peach cobbler,” she said. “The cobbler can sit out for a while, but the lasagna needs to go in the refrigerator.” She gave him quick instructions on how to heat it up for supper, then backed toward the door.

“Wait one minute,” Cole said, and he turned toward the back of the house and called the kids’ names, one at a time. They came running, smiling and laughing, their usual boisterous selves, but when they saw Lauren they skidded to a stop and their smiles died.

“We didn’t do anything!” Justin said indignantly.

“Yeah,” Hank agreed. “We’ve been playing video games and Meredith is reading some stupid book.”

Meredith didn’t say anything, but her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Cole let them stew for a minute, then said, “Even though you broke Ms. Russell’s window and stomped all over her garden, she’s brought you supper. Lasagna and peach cobbler. What do you say?”

“I hate lasagna!” Justin said vehemently. “Yuck!”

Hank shuffled his feet and looked at the floor, and Meredith rolled her eyes in that maddening way young girls had. Twelve years old, and he could already see the woman she was going to become. Soon. That vision scared the crap out of him. He wasn’t ready for her to grow up, wasn’t ready for boyfriends and dates and short skirts and makeup. But like it or not, those things were coming.

“I was going to make chicken fingers for supper,” Meredith said.

Like frozen chicken strips could hold a candle to homemade lasagna—an observation he didn’t dare make out loud. “The chicken fingers can wait for another day. I want you all to thank Ms. Russell.” He gave them a glare his neighbor couldn’t see, since his back was to her. It was a rarely used glare that told the kids he was serious. He’d spoiled them for too long; he’d indulged them, trying to make up for the fact that he was all they had. Just last year he’d realized that he’d done that, and he was trying to undo the damage. It was a slow process.

Meredith was the first to speak. “Thank you, Ms. Russell.” Her chin was lifted a touch too high, which made her appear defiant even though her words were proper enough. Her eyes were anything but friendly.

Hank was antsy. The middle child was never still, unless he was sleeping. “I like lasagna,” he said, taking his eyes off the floor to peek up at their neighbor and give her a gentle, oddly charming, mostly toothless smile. “And I’m really tired of Meredith’s chicken fingers. Thanks.”

Justin, the stubborn one, sighed. “Thank you, Ms. Russell. For the peach cobbler.” The youngest—who would live on chicken strips and honey mustard if given the option—was doing his best not to look directly at his father.

“Why don’t y’all call me Miss Lauren,” their neighbor said. “After all, I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.” She looked directly at Justin. “I’m very sorry to hear that you don’t like lasagna. Tell me, what do you like? Just in case I cook for you again, I should know.”

Justin wasn’t shy about answering. “I like chicken fingers, hot dogs and Pop Tarts and chocolate chip cookies and ice cream.” He lifted a stubby little finger. “But not butter-pecan ice cream. Yuck. That’s worse than lasagna.”

Lauren worked to suppress a smile. Her lips firmed as she resisted, but Cole could see the laughter in her eyes. It was a good—and oddly enticing—look for her. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Cole dismissed the kids and they returned to their activities, leaving him alone with Lauren—and the food. She took a step back, toward the door. It was almost as if she was trying not to look directly at him.

“Thank you again,” he said. “You really didn’t have to, but we’ll enjoy it.”

She nodded, and still her eyes were everywhere but on him. Had he done something to piss her off? He couldn’t think of anything he might’ve done to make her nervous, but she was definitely uncomfortable. Out of her element. She’d been fine when he’d answered the door, okay when the kids had been with them, but now that they were alone again it was like she couldn’t wait to get away.

“You can just drop the pans off on the porch when you’re finished with them,” she said. “No rush. I have more than enough cookware.”

Cole peeked beneath the warm cloth that covered the food. Sure enough, the food had been prepared and delivered in heavy glass dishes instead of disposable aluminum foil. No wonder the basket weighed so much!

When he returned his gaze to Lauren, he found her no longer avoiding him. In fact, she stared right at him and for a moment, a long, lingering, uncomfortable moment, she looked as if she were completely and totally lost and confused. He recognized the pained expression on her pretty face because he saw it in the mirror almost every day.

It took all of Lauren’s discipline not to run home and slam the door behind her. She walked with purpose, almost positive that someone was watching her through a window or from the front porch. Tempted as she was, she didn’t run and she didn’t look back.

She should’ve just let things go. If she hadn’t decided that the family next door could use a good meal and she needed to make amends, she might not have suffered that moment of clarity. She might’ve simply resigned herself to the increased neighborhood noise and looked forward to school starting in a few weeks. Once school began she’d have several quiet hours every day.

But for a moment, a long, horrifying moment, she had suffered. Her life was perfect. She loved her job. She loved her house. She had friends and family, though in her small family only Gran lived close enough to see on a regular basis. Lauren never ever missed having a man in her life. She didn’t have time for a man, didn’t want one, didn’t miss the messy complications of a romantic relationship. She remembered too well what it had felt like to lose what she’d thought was love, to have the rug pulled out from under her. One day she’d meet a man and fall in love, though next time she intended to be more careful, to be cautious and wait until her career was more well established and then … only then …
<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 >>