“Where the heck are you?” Stacy demanded through the phone.
Dan squinted at the digital clock on the nightstand and tried to get his sleep-clogged mind to read it. “It’s not even five a.m., Stace. Where do you think I am?”
“Well, get your butt up and get over here. You said you’d help me.”
“Help you with what?” Pushing himself up out of bed, his body protested and his joints popped.
“The cookies! They have to be done by two. Chop, chop!” She hung up.
“Damn woman,” Dan muttered as he stumbled through the dark to the bathroom.
Dolly was harder to rouse out of bed, her elderly body protesting louder than his, but he got them both going and headed over to Stacy’s.
She stood watching out the window. The moment he stepped onto the porch, she whipped open the door. “Took you long enough.”
“Don’t push it,” Dan grumbled and headed straight for the coffee pot.
Stacy set out water and a bowl of leftovers for Dolly’s breakfast, then got busy making Dan’s. By the time he got to the bottom of his cup, his eyes had fully opened, and Stacy set a plate piled high with an omelet, bacon and toast in front of him. When he took the first bite of omelet, he forgave her impatience. Heaven in his mouth, the flavor was nothing short of an orgasm for his taste buds, with a kick of Tabasco sauce afterglow.
“Oh, Stace,” he moaned. “That’s amazing.”
“Thank you.” She ruffled his uncombed hair. Her hand lingered on the back of his neck as she leaned in close and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
As she straightened, he saw her cheeks blushed pink in embarrassment. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her onto his lap and pressed a kiss to her cheek, close to her ear. Wordlessly, he stabbed a forkful of omelet and held it out for her to take a bite. He refused to let her to feel guilty for what happened the night before. She had no reason to. Just as he refused to feel guilty when he brushed her hair away from her face and leisurely kissed the Tabasco off her lips before he let her go.
While he ate, she set bowls, utensils and the ingredients for the cookies on the counter in an assembly line fashion, and pre-heated the oven. Dolly circled the room for a place to nap, settling on the rug in front of the patio doors. The room warmed with the oven, the air comfortable and inviting as the sun rose, and Dolly let out a sigh of contentment. Dan agreed with the sentiment. He believed it impossible for the morning to get any better, but then Stacy proved him wrong when she turned on the radio and her hips began to sway to the music.
“Okay, let’s do this.” Dan pushed his plate back. He was stuffed, but he was awake and ready for anything.
“Here,” Stacy said, tossing him an apron. “Put this on.”
He caught it and threw it right back. “Not happening.”
“Suit yourself.” She tied hers around her waist. Bright pink, covered in gigantic red, kissy lips, it elicited an immediate laugh, but Dan didn’t dare. She clapped her hands together and said, “We’re doing this one batch at a time. Otherwise they don’t turn out right.”
“You’re the boss,” he agreed. He washed his hands and rolled up his sleeves.
Stacy held a piece of paper in her hand and said, “This is Gram’s secret recipe. I trust it with no one. I’m breaking my own rule by showing this to you, kochanie, and I’m warning you now, if I ever taste one of my grandma’s cookies and I didn’t make it myself, I will hunt you down like a dog and rip your balls off in your sleep. You got it?”
Thinking she was joking, he laughed, but he quickly realized she wasn’t. The laughter died from his lips as he swallowed hard and nodded. She handed him the card.
“Rum? Really?” he asked.
“Shh!” she said, putting her finger to her lips.
“You think the room is bugged or something?”
“You never know.”
“How much coffee have you had this morning?”
“Just a pot,” she answered and started sifting flour.
“I’m officially cutting you off.”
“Don’t forget, one full egg, one yolk,” she reminded him.
“I got it. I got it,” he said, brushing her away. With practiced ease, he cracked open an egg, one-handed. “Did you see that?”
“Quit showing off and get to work.”
“Just because you made me breakfast doesn’t mean you own me.”
“Yes, it does.” She smiled. “That’s why I did it.”
They settled into a rhythm and whipped through one batch after another, piling hot cookies onto the counters and table to cool. Midmorning, Stacy’s coffee buzz started to fizzle. They both needed a break from the heat of the oven, so they sat at the table and started packaging sets of three cookies in decorative baggies tied with ribbon. Thinking she wasn’t looking, Dan snuck one of the cookies into his mouth, but when she smacked him on the back of the head he knew he’d been caught.
“Daniel Joseph!” she scolded.
“Ooh, that’s creepy. You sounded exactly like my mom. Don’t do that again,” Dan said around a mouthful of melted chocolate. He stole another cookie from the table and took a big bite.
“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t take it anymore. They smell so good.”
“You might as well take one more so we’re back even again.” She sighed and handed him another cookie.
Snatching it from her hand, he ate it in one bite.
Smiling, she rolled her eyes. They teased and laughed as they wrapped, and were almost done with the first half when the front door slammed. Both Stacy and Dolly jumped from the noise, and a very upset, very camouflaged Chase came storming into the kitchen seconds later. Stopping dead in his tracks, he looked at the mountain of cookies piled on the kitchen table and counters.
“What in the world…?”
“You’re just in time to help with round two.” Stacy hopped up from her chair and moved to kiss him on the cheek, but immediately backed away, plugging her nose. “Oh, my gosh! You stink.”
“Sorry, had a little accident with the deer pee,” Chase explained. “It spilled in the truck.”
Dolly got up from the rug and sniffed him up one side and down the other, her tail wagging so fast her rear end looked about to take flight.
“Just get out of here before you ruin the cookies,” Stacy demanded. “And don’t leave those clothes in the laundry room. Take them outside.”
“Bossy today, aren’t we?” Chase joked.
“Go!” Stacy pointed to the door.
As Chase passed by, he leaned down to Dan. “Baking cookies, jackass?”
“You’re the one who gave me the idea,” Dan replied. They exchanged glares, and then Chase left with Dolly hot on his heels, leaving a cloud of deer pee in his wake. The bacon and cookies in Dan’s stomach did the two-step from the stench.
Jaw tight and eyes narrow, Stacy asked, “Do I have to get out boxing gloves for the two of you?”
“If I hit him, do I get out of finishing the rest of the cookies?” Dan asked.
“If you want to go, then go,” Stacy snapped. “I can finish them by myself.”
“I was just joking, Stace.” Dan sighed in irritation. In two seconds, Chase had sucked the joy out of the room and ruined the morning.
Stacy turned up the radio and they worked through the next batch without talking. When the cookies came out of the oven, she scraped so hard with the spatula they crumbled, destroying half the pan. Flushing red in anger, she threw the spatula into the sink, and then tossed the pan full of cookies after it.
“Hey.” Dan grabbed her arm. “Relax.”
She turned to him and said, “I’m sorry. He just pisses me off so bad sometimes.”
“What did he do?”
“It’s nothing,” she denied, her face tight with anger as she pulled her arms from his grasp.
“Just drop it, Dan!”
She turned her back to him, effectively ending the conversation. He pulled the baking sheet out of the sink and scraped the cookies into the trash, then washed the pan and handed it to her to refill. She gave him a weak smile, but said nothing.
When the next batch came out of the oven, Dan carefully lifted them from the pan and they all stayed in one piece. Over the next few hours, she barely said two words as they finished baking and wrapping the rest of the cookies. As soon as they were done, Dan helped her load them into her car and she headed over to the church. Dan stuck around long enough to clean the kitchen and do the dishes, and then he and Dolly left without saying good-bye to Chase.
When Stacy returned home from the bake sale, the driveway and street in front of her house were full of beat-up trucks and crap cars. Inside, Chase’s friends lay sprawled around her living room, drinking her beer and eating her food, watching NFL on her television. She bit back a hot flash of anger and went straight upstairs without a word to any of them.
It was well past midnight before the last of Chase’s friends left the house. When she heard the front door close for the final time, Stacy emerged from the bedroom to find Chase lying on the sofa, half asleep with the remote loosely grasped in his hand. She stood in the middle of the living room, arms crossed over her chest, and surveyed the damage. The room was trashed, beer bottles and dirty dishes stacked on every flat surface, salsa ground into the carpet, a heavy cloud of smoke hanging in the air.
“Are you planning on cleaning this up?” Stacy asked, not bothering to hide her irritation.
“Are you planning on being a bitch all night?” Chase asked in return, not bothering to open his eyes and look at her. “You know, you could’ve come down at least once and showed a little respect to Deuce and the other guys.”
“Why, so you could treat me like your servant bringing you beers and snacks all night?”
“Oh, come off it, Stacy.”
“Where were you this weekend?”
“Bullshit. You weren’t fooling anyone with that deer pee cologne, Chase. Where were you?”
Chase turned up the volume of the television. Stacy crossed the room and ripped the remote out of his hand. She wanted to beat him senseless with it, too, but she refrained.
“Did you and Dan have fun playing house while I was gone?” Chase asked, his voice as full of hate for her as she felt toward him.
“Tons,” she spit back in reply.
She had felt guilty about what almost happened in the kitchen the night before—what she had wanted to happen—but the guilt was long gone, replaced by anger. If she allowed herself to put the pieces of the puzzle of Chase’s whereabouts for the past few months together, she had a feeling they would reveal a picture of Chase playing his own version of house as well, except his wouldn’t have stopped with a longing. It had happened before.
“Tell me where you were.”
“I’m sick of that fuck coming into my house when I’m not here. I don’t know what the hell you two are up to, but I better not catch him here again.”
“Where. Were. You?” Stacy enunciated, refusing to back down.
“I already told you where I was. Believe me or don’t. I really don’t care.”
“Do you even want to be here, Chase? Do you even want to be doing this anymore?”
“This,” Stacy said, waving her hand around the living room in frustration. “Living here. Being with me. Pretending you still love me.”
“I love you,” Chase answered, but his attention was on the television and not her when he said it.
“I don’t know if I can to do this anymore.”
“So leave. No one’s stopping you.” Chase’s eyes met hers, and they were dead inside.
“Maybe I will.”
Stacy turned her back on him and went to bed. She expected him to stay downstairs all night, or leave the house all together, but an hour later he slipped into bed alongside her. Curled on her side, she was wide awake, but she kept her eyes closed and her back to him, feigning sleep.
“I’m sorry, Stacy,” he whispered in her ear. “Don’t leave me.”
His arm came heavy around her, his hand settling under her breasts as he pressed his body along hers, holding her tight. She kept her breathing steady and waited for him to fall into a deep sleep before sliding away from him. For the rest of the night she lay in the dark and listened to his uneven snores, wondering what it would be like if she actually did leave, and wishing she had the courage to find out.