The Husband Recipe
Linda Winstead Jones

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“Invest in a pair of really high heels,” Summer suggested with a grin.

Lauren’s initial thought had been a stepladder, but heels would be more practical. She hadn’t worn really high heels in years, but she wondered …

Summer continued while Lauren’s mind was on shoe shopping. “You need to toss that list. Finding a man isn’t like making a cake. There’s no recipe for a husband, no list of necessary ingredients.”

Lauren started a bit, jerked out of her shoe-related thoughts. Husband? Who’d said anything about a husband?

The piercing scream that followed the thought caused Lauren’s gut to turn over. She—and everyone else present—turned toward the scream, which was followed by a moment of horrifying silence.

All the children who stood by the pool were very still, for a change. Those in the water treaded in place. One child was down, there at the side of the pool near the steps. Down and completely still. The scream had been Meredith’s.

Cole broke away from the group of men and ran. Others were soon right behind him. Lauren drifted in that direction, though she was certain Cole Donovan didn’t want her help. There were more than a dozen adults present, and judging by the way he’d ignored her today, not even so much as nodding his head in her direction or waving halfheartedly or making eye contact, he’d prefer assistance from any neighbor here before he called on her. Besides, most of the adults here had children, or grandchildren, and surely they’d been through disasters like this one before. They’d know what to do. They were much better equipped than she was to help out.

And still, Lauren moved forward. There were too many people in the way, but she had to know who was down. She elbowed her way past the hefty man who’d moved into the two-story at the end of the street last year and ducked around a surly teenager dressed all in black. Her eyes soon found Hank and Meredith in the crowd, so the one who was hurt was Justin, the little one. The one who didn’t like lasagna—who didn’t like her.

Cole squatted down, examined his youngest son, then whipped off his T-shirt and pressed it against Justin’s temple. He scooped up his son and stood in one smooth motion. Blood ran down one side of the little boy’s face, in spite of the makeshift bandage, but he was conscious and talking. Lauren couldn’t hear what Justin was saying, but she noted that while he had begun to cry he was not hysterical.

His father was another matter. Cole had gone pale. The hands that held his son were shaking. Subtly, but she saw the tremble even from a distance. A couple of people tried to help, but Cole practically bit their heads off as he headed out of the yard at a fast clip, his long legs carrying him away from the party. Meredith and Hank followed. Meredith was crying, too, and she explained in a trembling voice that she’d reminded Justin not to run but he hadn’t listened. Again, someone asked if they could help and Cole said no. He barked no. They were going to the hospital for the stitches Justin obviously needed.

T. J. Smith offered to drive, but Cole shook him off with an expression that cut everyone out, that built a barrier around him and his family and left no room for intruders.

Lauren stood completely still for a moment. She didn’t need to get involved. Cole didn’t want her—or anyone else—to intrude. Justin was conscious, and head wounds did bleed a lot. The child needed stitches, but he’d be fine. He hadn’t lost consciousness, which was a good sign. Right? That was all true, but dammit, there was no way she could let Cole get in the car and drive, not in his condition.

She turned to Summer. “I have to go.” Lauren didn’t give her friend a chance to respond, she just turned and ran, cutting around the other side of the house and across the street to intercept Cole and his crew.

It was a simple gash, bleeding heavily but not life threatening. So why was his heart beating so hard that he couldn’t see straight? The sight of all that blood on Justin’s head and face made Cole’s stomach turn. A part of the T-shirt he’d pressed to the wound was already soaked through. He couldn’t bear it if anything happened to his son. He couldn’t live with himself if it turned out Janet was right and he was incapable of raising these three kids alone.

If she found out what had happened, would she try to take the kids away from him? He sometimes suspected that she wanted to, and he knew she’d been angry that he’d moved two hours away, taking all she had left of her sister with him. She hadn’t made a secret of her displeasure.

His worse fear was that Janet might be right, that he might not be enough for his family.

He threw open the door to the minivan and carefully deposited Justin on the backseat. He didn’t want to let go of the kid, didn’t want to leave Justin—a ball of fire who was currently pale and bloody and not at all himself—alone. The door on the other side opened and Meredith jumped in. Cole reached into his pants pocket and grabbed his keys, glad they were in his pocket as usual and not sitting on the dresser or hanging on a key rack where he’d have to retrieve them. Nothing could slow him down, nothing could stand between him and help for his son.

Cole had just swung open the driver’s door when a sharp ‘Wait’ made him freeze in his tracks. His neighbor Lauren ran to the van. Without asking if he wanted or needed help she started issuing orders. “Meredith, you and Hank run inside and throw on dry clothes. Grab a clean shirt for your father. The hospital keeps the air at full blast in the summertime, and y’all will catch a cold if you go in wearing your swimsuits.” As they ran for the front door, which Cole had left unlocked since they were going to be right across the street, Lauren yelled after them. “And bring a clean hand towel and a blanket for Justin.”

Justin lifted his head and glared at Lauren. It looked to Cole as if the bleeding had already slowed. “I knew you wanted to date my dad. You’re not going to kiss him, are you?”

Lauren looked a little surprised—her eyebrows lifted slightly, and her lips thinned—but she responded calmly. “First of all, a trip to the emergency room isn’t a date, and secondly, I don’t date.” She didn’t mention the kiss.

“Why not?” Justin asked.

Yeah, Cole thought. Why not?

“I’m a very busy woman,” Lauren said. “I have no time for dating.”

“Oh,” Justin said. He looked more than a little relieved, and surely Lauren noted the fact. “Dad doesn’t date, either.”

Just a few minutes later, Meredith and Hank ran out of the house. They were both dressed in khaki shorts and plain T-shirts, and Meredith carried a towel, a clean T-shirt for her dad and a well-worn blanket.

“I locked the door,” Meredith called as she ran for the backseat and her little brother.

Lauren took charge without missing a beat. She took the towel from Meredith, peeled back the bloody T-shirt and placed the towel against Justin’s wound, pressing down with one hand while with the other she snatched away Cole’s keys without even glancing his way. Sneaky woman.

“You can’t possibly drive,” she said. “You’re shaking like a leaf.”

Cole wanted to argue that he was perfectly capable of driving, but he didn’t. She was right.

“Besides, they’re doing construction on Governor’s Drive, and I know a shortcut to the E.R.”

Cole climbed into the backseat with Justin and Hank, and Meredith took the front seat, beside Lauren. He pulled on the clean T-shirt before repositioning Justin so he could hold him as he put pressure on the wound. Cole was grateful to be able to hold on to his son while someone else drove them to the E.R., but at the same time a little warning bell went off in his head.

He could do this alone. He didn’t need anyone but his children. And to become dependent on his pretty neighbor at this point in his life would be foolish beyond belief.

Lauren shivered. Knowing how cool the E.R. would be, she should’ve grabbed a sweater. Her toes were cold. Her arms were cold. At the same time, she knew if she’d run inside her house to collect anything, Cole would’ve taken off without her.

Without a shirt. Was it wrong of her to have taken note of how amazing he looked without a shirt? Sculpted muscles, wide shoulders, slightly hairy chest, not even a hint of a pot belly. This was a crisis, and all of her attention really should’ve been on the injured child. And to be fair, she’d only given a shirtless Cole Donovan a small bit of her attention. Just enough to note that he must still work out, because muscles like that did not come from folding laundry and eating chicken fingers. Just enough to be surprised that he had a tattoo on his shoulder—a small baseball with flames shooting out behind it, as if it were flying past a particularly nice muscle.

Cole and Justin had been taken back a while ago, leaving Lauren in the waiting room with a sullen Meredith and a scared Hank. Meredith actually leaned away from Lauren, and probably would’ve taken another seat if there had been one available. On a holiday weekend the E.R. was packed, and the only empty chair was next to a dubious-looking character. Lauren was relieved that she ranked above a constantly mumbling man with a scraggly beard and a nasty rash.

Hank was another story entirely. He leaned into Lauren, resting his head on her arm, taking her hand and holding on. Somehow he managed to hang on without ever being entirely still. He hadn’t said much, but his attitude toward her was decidedly warmer than his sister’s.

Eventually he lifted his head and looked up at Lauren with the biggest blue eyes she’d ever seen. He had his father’s eyes. In fact, Hank and his younger brother were both little carbon copies of their dad. And he whispered, “Justin’s not going to die, is he?”

Lauren’s heart broke for the child. “Oh, no, honey. Justin is going to be just fine.” She should’ve said something before now, should’ve soothed the child’s fears hours ago, but she hadn’t even considered that they’d be worried the injury was more serious than it was. Deadly serious. “He’ll have a boo-boo on his head, and he might have a headache for a while, but he’s going to be just fine.”

Meredith scoffed and muttered, “Boo-boo?”

Lauren ignored her.

“My mother is dead,” Hank said. “I don’t remember her, but Dad shows me pictures and tells me stories about her.”

Lauren felt as if a brick had settled in her chest. She didn’t know what to say, what to do to soothe a child who knew more about death than he should. “I know,” she whispered.

“Dad told us not to run around the pool,” Hank said, relaxing visibly. “But one of the other kids started chasing Justin, and he just …”

“She doesn’t care, Hank,” Meredith said coolly. “Don’t talk her ear off.”

It would be easiest just to ignore Meredith and settle back into silence. But these kids and their father were going to be her neighbors for a long while. It would be easiest if they could find a way to get along.

Lauren didn’t let go of Hank’s hand, but she turned toward Meredith and gave the young girl her full attention. Meredith must look like her mother, because she didn’t look much like Cole at all. The nose, maybe a bit through the mouth. But she had blond hair and dark brown eyes, and a heart-shaped face that was almost pixielike. She was almost as tall as Lauren. And right now there was so much anger on that pretty face. “I do care,” Lauren said softly.

“You’re just trying to impress my dad.” Meredith turned her head so she was no longer looking at Lauren. “He’s famous, and you don’t have a husband or a boyfriend, and if you’re nice to us it’s just because you want to impress him.”

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