A Valentine's Day Odyssey
By Ann McMan
Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine (although two of them may bear uncanny physical resemblances to two others you might recognize—or choose not to, as the case may be).
Violence/Sex: Some (brief) food-related violence. And there might be consensual sex between two people who may bear uncanny resemblances to two… well… you've been there, and bought the t-shirts.
Warning: This story does involve a consensual loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. It also contains graphic scenes of the brutal and pernicious abuse of a KitchenAid stand mixer. If either of these acts is offensive, illegal where you live, or if you are underage (or are not licensed to operate powerful kitchen appliances)—please consider another story selection.
Dedication : To all of you who were brave enough (and persistent enough) to slog through my first work of fiction, Jericho —this bud's for you. (Oh… that would be a rosebud , of course—not an indifferent American beer. Of course, if you'd rather drink than read, ring me up. I like wine— lots and lots of it. I also have been known to indulge in other kinds of whines, but that's not important right now.) So. This is the sequel you've been nagging me to produce—and I hope you enjoy it. If not, I may be forced to enter a witness relocation program.
BUT I should still have email access in Bora Bora ; so if you decide that you do like it, write me— I'd like to know what you think. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Copyright Ann McMan, January 2011. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment, provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
“Okay. So, tell me again how this is supposed to work.”
“Syd, we've been over this about a thousand times.” Maddie was growing exasperated, but was trying hard not to show it.
“I know—but I just need to be really sure.”
“Sweetie, I've done everything but show you a PowerPoint presentation.” Maddie hesitated. “You really don't have to do this at all if you're still this uncomfortable with the idea.”
“No!” Syd was determined. “I said I'd do this, and I will. I'm just—”
“A chickenshit?” Maddie volunteered.
Syd glared at her. “ Not helping.”
“I really don't think you are.”
Maddie sighed. This was going from bad to worse in record time.
She took hold of Syd's free hand. “No…I'm sorry . Honest.”
Syd eyed her with suspicion.
“I mean it. If you want to go over everything again—we will. We can stop right now. There's no rush. We can do this any time. It doesn't have to be today.”
Syd looked out the tiny window. Then she sighed and looked back at Maddie.
“It's just that it's such a big step for me.”
“I know that, sweetheart.”
“I mean—I've never done this before, and it's scary. What if I mess up? What if I can't make it work? What if I change my mind in the middle of it? What if—”
“Honey,” Maddie cut her off. “ Relax. I promise…you won't mess up. I'll be right here beside you the whole time. Trust me . We've done everything right, and you're ready for this. You'll be through it in a flash—and then it'll be over, and our biggest problem will be how to keep you calmed down until you can do it again .”
“But what if I can't pull it out?”
“No. I mean it.”
Maddie sighed and sat back against her seat. “Then I swear on the blonde heads of our unborn children that we'll take deep breaths, regroup, and try again.”
“Are you sure?”
Maddie leaned toward her. “C'mon, baby. Let's go for it.”
Syd nodded. She closed her eyes and started to extend her hand—but Maddie caught hold of it before it reached its destination.
“Honey,” she said, giving Syd's hand a gentle squeeze. “This generally works better if you keep your eyes open .”
“Oh.” Syd looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Maddie laughed, and kissed her hand before relinquishing it.
Syd reached out again and took hold of the throttle levers. Taking a deep breath, she released her foothold on the brake pedals, and the twin engine Cessna started rolling down the runway.
That night at dinner, Henry was beside himself with excitement. He hammered Syd with a nonstop barrage of questions—most of them related to when he could learn to fly the airplane, too.
“Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Shortstop.” Maddie used her own napkin to wipe some gravy off his chin. “And let's try to keep the peas on the fork, okay?”
Henry looked down and regarded the sea of tiny green balls that trailed across the napkin on his lap.
“I don't really like peas very much.”
Maddie leaned toward him until their foreheads were touching. “Tough noogies .”
Henry sighed, and looked over at Syd.
Syd shrugged. “Don't look at me, Sport—I don't really like them either. But you don't see me dropping them on the floor.”
“Pete likes them,” he volunteered.
At the mention of his name, the big yellow dog lifted his head and cast a hopeful glance up at Henry. It hadn't taken him long to stake his claim to the section of kitchen floor that supported Henry's chair.
“Pete's on a diet,” Maddie cut in. “And that's beside the point. We don't deal with food we don't like by giving it to Pete.”
Henry looked confused. “But you did last night with your ‘sparagus, when Syd had to go answer the phone.”
Maddie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she dared to open them, Syd was staring back at her with pursed lips, and was slowly tapping the edge of her fork against the rim of her plate.
“Um,” Maddie explained. “Asparagus is good for Pete. It has lots of iron, and makes his coat shiny.”
Henry looked unconvinced. “You said it would make him fart.”
“Henry!” Syd's jaw dropped—and she reached out a hand to touch him on the shoulder. “That's impolite . We don't say things like that.”
Henry was really confused now. He stared down at his plate. “That's what she said,” he muttered.
Syd glowered at Maddie, who sat across the table from her, looking like she'd rather be locked-up in a supply closet with an insurance salesman.
The silence in the kitchen was deafening.
Then Maddie sighed and picked up her spoon.
“Here, buddy,” she said. She reached over to Henry's plate, scooped up a mound of peas, and dumped them onto the floor. “Lemme help you out.”
Long after Henry had safely been tucked in, the two women sat together on their big bed, propped up against a pile of mismatched pillows.
Maddie was reading an article about the efficacy of the Herpes Zoster Vaccine, and Syd was grading papers. She had been teaching for six months now, and was starting to settle into a comfortable routine. The Jericho Public Library had reopened—but only for three days a week, and Syd was able to assist the board with hiring a part-time branch manager. She continued to help out whenever she could—and volunteered her time at least two Saturdays a month.
And Maddie still worked one weekend a month in the ER at the Wytheville Community Hospital .
Weekends were harder to orchestrate now, with Henry in the equation. He was like a floating decimal point in their lives: he belonged, but, while his father continued to serve out his tour of duty in Afghanistan , his position remained unfixed. And his presence changed everything.
Quiet evenings like this one were a rarity, and the two women were basking in the luxury of having a Saturday night at home together, with no other commitments.
With a yawn, Syd capped her pen and shifted her stack of papers over to a bedside table.
Maddie glanced at her over the rim of her reading glasses.
Syd nodded. “For tonight. I'll finish these up tomorrow.”
Maddie began to close her journal. “I can put this away, too.”
“No—that's okay.” Syd picked up her student pilot's flight manual. “I wanted to look through this a bit.”
Maddie gave her a smug look. “You seem a tad more confident than you did earlier today.”
“Not at all. I just know you.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.” Maddie reopened her journal.
Syd sat chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment. Then she lowered her gaze to the flight manual and started thumbing through its pages.
After a minute or two, Maddie noticed that Syd seemed to be turning more pages than she was reading— loudly.
She lowered her journal again. “You sure you don't want me to put this away?”
Syd turned to face her with raised eyebrows. “Are you talking to me?”
Maddie hooked an index finger over the bridge of her glasses and pulled them down her nose. “Is Robert De Niro hiding someplace in this bed? Of course I'm talking to you.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn't think you needed to ask me what I wanted.”
Maddie sighed. “Could we hit the reboot button, please?”
“Why? You feel the need to take something back?”
“On whether or not it'll get you to stop acting like Travis Bickle.”
Syd smiled at that. “Have you ever even seen a movie that was made in this century?”
Maddie shrugged. “You got the reference.”
Syd held up the aircraft manual. “Yes, but I don't get this one.”
Syd turned the book around so Maddie could see a diagram that illustrated the four-stroke process of an engine's piston and cylinder cycle.
“Internal combustion? That's just basic physics.”
“Well—maybe it is to you , Brainiac. But I don't get the whole squish, bang, pop, thing.”
Maddie looked confused. “You mean, suck, squeeze, bang, and blow?”
“Exactly. There's nothing— intuitive —about it.”
Maddie closed her journal. “Sure there is.”
Syd sighed. “Maybe it's just my learning style—I've always been better at hands-on instruction.”
“Honey, there's really no way to get ‘hands-on' instruction in the operation of an internal combustion engine.”
Syd reached out to run a fingertip down the inside of Maddie's v-neck t-shirt. “Sure there is. You just have to be creative .”
Maddie looked down at her hand. “Are we still talking about airplane engines?”
Syd moved closer. “Do you really care?” She pulled Maddie's glasses off and tossed them over to the bedside table.
“Um—well….” Syd was kissing her neck now. Maddie felt her heart rate begin to shift from idle into full-throttle mode. “I guess not.”
“So, what were those stages again?” Syd breath was now hot against Maddie's ear. She bit down on her lobe. “Suck?”
Maddie moaned and wrapped an arm around her. “Squeeze.”
They were kissing now.
“Bang?” Syd muttered against her mouth, as she pushed the tall woman back against the pillows and crawled on top of her.
Oh, Jesus. Zero to V1 in ten seconds. Maddie took hold of Syd's head, which now was traveling down her torso at an accelerated rate of speed.
“Blow, baby,” she gasped, while she could still make intelligible sounds. “ Blow. ”
“You have got to be kidding me?” David was incredulous.
Maddie looked back at him with her characteristic, deadpan expression. “Do I look like I'm kidding?”
David considered that for a moment, as he looked her up and down. “You can't show up here dressed like that and expect me to give you a serious answer.”
Maddie looked down at her clothes. She had just finished an eight-hour shift in the Wytheville ER, and had stopped by the inn on her way home. Her blue scrubs were covered with iodine stains—the aftermath of going ten rounds with an anxious four-year-old who had vehemently (and vocally) resisted being the recipient of the nine stitches Maddie was obliged to apply to the gaping head wound she had sustained after riding her tricycle down the back steps of her parent's deck.
She looked around the completely empty dining room. Pretty typical for early February—which is why they closed the inn for the mid-winter months. She brought her blue eyes back to David.
“I apologize for committing the egregious error of not arriving in cocktail attire to sit here and watch paint dry.”
“Well, I guess that's something .” He plucked a piece of lint off his trouser cuff and re-crossed his legs. “Besides, I'm not watching paint dry, thank you very much. I'm just killing time until Chopped comes on.” When Maddie looked back at him with a blank expression, he sighed and continued, “If you weren't such an unrepentant Philistine, you'd know these things.”
“Whatever. May we return to my original query, please?”
“We may—but I still think you've lost it. She'll never buy it—and, besides… there's no way you can pull this off.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Davey.”
He waved a hand toward her. “I'm just trying to help you out, Cinderella.”
“By undermining my confidence?”
“No. By helping you face reality.”
Maddie sat back against her chair. “That's simply ridiculous. I certainly have the skill set to pull this off.”
David leaned forward. “Oh really? I have two words for you, Sparky.”
Maddie lifted her chin.
“Easy Bake. Not .”
“That's three words.”
He rolled his eyes. “You know what I'm talking about. You damn near burned down the farm with that thing—and, may I add, that oven was only powered by a fucking light bulb . It boggles the mind to think about what kind of damage you could do on Michael's precious, eight-burner, turbo-powered Bertazzoni.”
Maddie sighed. “Look. It's Syd' birthday—and I want to cook dinner for her.”
David shook his head. “I don't get it—I thought you two were doing great.”
“We are doing great.”
“Then explain to me why you want to kill her?”
Maddie exhaled. “I may not have to kill her if I can satisfy my blood lust by eviscerating your ass . Now, will you help me out or not?”
“Why are you even asking me for help? It's Michael you need, not me.”
“I'll get around to him—but I need you on board, first.”
“Yeah… on board . Perfect image. Just like the fucking Titanic's maiden voyage.”
He shook his head. “I know I'll live to regret this—but, okay . I'll help you.”
Maddie sat back and smiled.
David took a sip from his glass of wine. “Now, pray tell—what part will I be playing in this little Greek tragedy?”
“Ah,” Maddie said, as she tented her fingertips. “You'll be cast true to type.”
David eyed her with suspicion. “As?”
Maddie shrugged. “My alibi, of course.”
“Your alibi? ”
“Yeah.” When David exhaled in frustration, Maddie pressed her advantage. “Oh come on—it's not like you don't have experience at this.”
“Sure...but convincing your father that those copies of Playboy he found stashed under the sofa cushions belonged to me was a cakewalk, compared to this.”
“Now, why do you say that?”
“ Hello? Seen the woman you've been keeping company with, Cinderella? Isn't she now like some kind of brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, or something?”
“Green belt. But what's your point?”
“My point is that I value my gonads. And I know Syd—if she suspects that you're up to something clandestine, and that I'm protecting you—she'll body-slam me first, and ask questions later.”
Maddie was growing impatient with this. “In the first place, if Syd ever body-slams you, you'll be too— titillated —to care about anything else. In the second place, I promise not to let it go that far. I only need an alibi for a couple of nights—her birthday is in two weeks, as it is.”
“I know when her birthday is—I remember last year, Miss ‘Oh, by the way, I'm gay.' I'm still pissed at you about that little Valentine's Day revelation.”
Maddie sighed. “I've apologized to you for that—a lot of times, if memory serves. Can I help it if it came out before you were able to join us?”
“Yeah. All kinds of shit came out that night.”
Maddie made no response, but sat drumming her fingertips on the tabletop. They stared at one another. All they lacked were ambient cricket noises.
David was the first to blink.
“Okay. All right. I'll do it.”
Maddie gave him one of her most brilliant smiles. Then she sat back and told him the details of her plan.
Michael was a harder sell.
It was his kitchen, after all—and Michael was very— specific —about his kitchen. And especially, about his stove.
“I don't know about this,” he said to Maddie, as he regarded her with crossed arms. “What were you thinking about making?”
“I have a few thoughts,” she replied.
“Like?” he prompted, when no details seemed to be forthcoming.
Maddie sighed. “What difference does it make?”
“You're joking, right? It makes a huge difference. I mean…honestly, Maddie. Sauces alone can take months—even years to perfect.”
Maddie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.
“Oh, don't think I didn't see that, Dr. Strangelove. Being able to cut up a cadaver with your ham fists and your crude medical implements doesn't automatically qualify you to prepare a perfectly proportioned platter of crudités.”
“Fine. I'll buy precut vegetables.”
Michael looked like Maddie had just suggested that they roast a goat on his range— without a drip pan.
“Okay, okay,” she offered, in her most conciliatory voice. “We'll do it your way. What do you want to know?”
“For starters—what kind of cuisine, and how many courses?”
Maddie hauled up a stool and sat down. Clearly, this was going to be a long conversation.
“I was thinking—French.”
Michael's gasp was audible.
“And, maybe, four courses?”
Michael looked pale. “Four?”
“ Only four? Why not six ? Why not eight? Why not just drive a stake through my heart, and get this nightmare over with now? ”
Maddie sighed. “You know…I'm not an imbecile.” She fluttered her hands in front of him. “Look. I actually have opposable thumbs. And I did manage to graduate at the top of my med school class.”
Michael still looked unconvinced.
Maddie decided that it was time to haul out the big guns.
“It's for Syd, Michael. Help me do this for her?”
He folded like a cheap suit.
Then he sighed, and sat down on a stool facing Maddie. “All right—but with one condition.”
“I need time to have the deductible lowered on our fire insurance.”
“ Very funny.”
“Come on,” the big man gestured toward the file folder Maddie brought along with her. “Show me what you got.”
It was well after 8:00 that night when Maddie finally pulled into her barn at home, and parked her Jeep next to Syd's Volvo. She regretted that she'd missed dinner with Henry—although she'd called Syd from the hospital to tell her she'd be late. She just hadn't volunteered the reason why —choosing to let Syd draw her own conclusions.
This was going to be the hard part—inventing reasons for her absences from home while she worked on honing her culinary skills with Michael.
Shit. Maybe David was right—and I should just let them cater the whole damn meal?
No. She wanted to this for Syd. After all, Syd was willingly leaving her own comfort zone to learn how to fly—learning how to cook one, decent meal seemed like the least she could do to pay her back. It would be a selfless and loving quid pro quo.
At least, she hoped so.
She glanced over at the workbench in her barn. Edna Freemantle's toaster oven sat there—in about five pieces. Edna had dropped it while trying to empty its crumb tray, and she desperately wanted Maddie to fix it—even though Maddie told her it would be cheaper to just go to Wal-Mart and buy a new one. But Edna refused, and now Maddie was waiting on replacement parts to arrive from— someplace .
Damn David for reminding her about that regrettable incident with her Easy Bake oven. How was she supposed to know that it wouldn't work with pizza rolls? Those damn things went up like mini Roman candles. Her parents punished her for weeks. She remembered that Celine was furious with her—but she thought her father had a hard time concealing his grudging pleasure that she had expressed a desire to try and cook anything . She shook her head and walked on toward the house.
Pete met her at the kitchen door. She let him outside before taking off her jacket, and announcing, “I'm home!”
“We're up here,” Syd's voice carried down the back stairs.
Maddie took the steps two at a time. They were down the hall, in Henry's room—the big room at the front of the house that had been Maddie's when she was a girl. Henry was already under the covers. He was wearing his sock monkey pajamas—a Christmas gift from Celine—and Syd was reading to him.
Maddie bent over and kissed Henry on the head, then turned and kissed Syd. “Hello my little family. I missed you both tonight.”
Syd smiled at her. “We missed you, too. Did you get some dinner?”
“Yes—I grabbed something on the way home.” She looked at Henry. “How was your day, Sport?”
“I got to ride in a fire truck, Maddie. And I got to make the siren go.”
“You did? How did that happen, pal?”
“They came to my school. They told us not to start fires.”
Maddie nodded. “That's very good advice, Henry. I hope you never will.”
She was glad David wasn't present to hear this conversation.
Syd had been staring at the stains on Maddie's scrubs. “Do I want to know what that is on your clothes?” she asked.
“It's iodine.” Maddie sighed. “I went ten rounds with a four-year-old who needed stitches. Believe me when I tell you that she fared much better than I did.”
Syd laughed. “Why don't you go change, then, and I'll put those in to wash?”
“What's eye-dine , Maddie?” Henry asked, with wide eyes.
Maddie sat down on the edge of his bed. “It's a yucky, brownish liquid that we use to clean cuts and boo-boos before we can sew them up.”
“I don't want any of that,” he said with determination.
“Then be very careful, and maybe you'll never have to have any.”
“Why don't I stay here while Syd finishes reading your story?” Maddie looked over at her partner. “Syd never reads to me any more.”
Syd raised an eyebrow. “I don't really have to read to you any more—you generally find other ways to unwind before bedtime.”
Maddie cleared her throat. “On the other hand, why don't I go and change out of these dirty clothes?” She stood up and kissed Henry again. “I'll come back to listen to the rest of your story, Henry—and to say goodnight.”
“Okay, Maddie.” He shifted his small frame around in the big bed, and pulled the blankets up closer to his chin.
Maddie ran a hand down Syd's back as she walked toward the door. “And I'll come up with something special for you, Blondie,” she whispered.
Syd leaned into her hand. “Oh, I just bet you will, Stretch.”
As she was walking back down the wide center hallway toward the master suite, she smiled as she heard the soft tones of Syd's voice, reading to Henry.
“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool,
In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,
He was splashing…enjoying the jungle's great joys…
When Horton the elephant heard a small noise….” 1
Maddie fared pretty well coming up with convincing explanations for her cascade of evening commitments—at least for the first three sessions with Michael. By the fourth night, however, Syd was beginning to chafe at her continued absences, and was struggling to contain her growing concern about what might really be behind them. It didn't help that once or twice, she'd walked in on Maddie while she was engrossed in phone conversations with someone —and Maddie's reflexive and abrupt efforts to terminate the calls only ratcheted up Syd's anxiety about what might be driving her partner to be so illusive and secretive about her nocturnal activities.
But Syd was a mature woman—and reminded herself that she loved and trusted her partner, and had no reason to suspect that Maddie was up to anything—untoward.
She didn't, did she?
Of course not. She understood that the biggest part of what drove her to worry about Maddie's unusual behavior was her own, ill-fated tenure as the spouse of a philandering husband.
But Maddie wasn't Jeff—not by any stretch of the imagination. And she knew that her reactions and fears were reflexive, and not rational.
Still, her conscience argued, what would the harm be to check it out?
Her first course of action simply would be to ask Maddie about it—circumspectly, of course. She didn't want to appear paranoid or over-anxious. Needy would also be bad—she wanted to avoid that appearance as well.
Even though ‘needy' pretty much summarized how she was starting to feel.
She got her chance to broach the subject when they met for an impromptu lunch on Thursday. Maddie had a long break between appointments that day, and called Syd at the high school to see if she could sneak away before her afternoon orchestra practice to grab a fast bite at Freemantle's market. Syd agreed at once, and the two of them sat close together at a small table behind a towering display of motor oils and fuel injector cleaners.
They dined on the inevitable hot dogs and Diet Coke.
Syd finished hers, and licked a stray drizzle of chili from her fingertips. “I'll live to regret this.”
Maddie reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew a foil-wrapped pill. Smiling, she slid it across the tabletop.
“Here you go—I raided the supply closet.”
Syd picked it up and examined it. “And this would be?”
“Twenty milligrams of Famotidine.”
“Just what the doctor ordered?”
“Just what this doctor ordered—at least, for you.”
“Why, thank you. I wish my other needs were as easily met.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Really? That sounds ominous.”
“I wouldn't say ‘ominous,' exactly.”
“Well, whatever you would say—I'd be happy to hear about it.”
“Do you mean that?”
Maddie's blue eyes looked genuinely concerned now. “Of course I mean that.” She extended a hand and rested it on Syd's forearm. “What's up, honey?”
Looking at Maddie's earnest and worried expression made Syd feel awkward—and ashamed of her suspicions. She laid a hand on top of Maddie's, and gave it a squeeze.
“It's nothing. I'm just being silly.”
“It's not nothing if you're worried about something—what is it? Come on, sweetie—it's me .” She smiled at her. “Sit back, and tell me where it hurts.”
Syd sighed. “I'm embarrassed to tell you.”
“No,” Syd cut her off. “Let me finish.” She sat twisting her Diet Coke can around while she tried to find the right words to ask Maddie about what was really on her mind.
Maddie slid her chair closer and took hold of Syd's hand.
“Okay—you're really starting to scare the shit out of me.”
Syd looked at her. God, the woman was drop-dead gorgeous . She still took her breath away. There were a thousand things she wanted to say.
“I love you,” she said, instead—opting for the only one that really mattered.
Maddie eyes softened. “I love you, too.”
“I know you do.” And she did know it—in her viscera, where real truth resided. She shook her head. “It's nothing—I think I'm just hormonal as hell. And all these make-up snow days are driving the kids nuts —and they're all getting on my last nerve. I'm just—tense.”
“Tense?” Maddie looked unconvinced.
“Yeah. Tense. Honest.”
“That's it? The stuff at school?”
“Nothing at home? Nothing with Henry? Nothing with us?”
Syd smiled at her and squeezed her hand. “Never.”
Maddie exhaled and sat back in her chair. “Well, thank god.” She lowered her voice and spoke in conspiratorial tones. “Lucky for you, I did a standard rotation in ‘stress relief.' I think I can help you out with your problem.”
“My problem? ” Syd was beginning to think that approaching Maddie about her ‘tension' might prove to be one of her better ideas. “Do tell, Doctor…I'm all ears.”
Maddie gave her a look that was anything but chaste. “Once again, I'm happy to point out that you are anything but.”
“I'm suddenly feeling very dirty.”
“Again, lucky for you. I have a cure for that, too.”
Syd was on the verge of asking Maddie when and how she might prove the veracity of her claims, when the doctor's cell phone rang. The rest of their conversation would have to wait. Peggy was calling to tell her that Zeke Dawkins had sliced open his hand while cutting down some cardboard boxes on the loading dock of the post office. He was at Maddie's clinic now, and it looked like he was going to need stitches. A lot of them.
Maddie pushed back her chair and stood up.
“I'm sorry to have to run off, honey.”
Syd smiled at her. “It's okay, Dr. Kildare. I know where you live.”
Maddie squeezed her shoulder. “You certainly do. And I'll see you there later on.”
“Count on it.”
Syd watched her go, wondering what she had ever been worried about.
Maddie wasn't at all lacking in sensibility where Syd was concerned, and after their lunch conversation, she almost gave up on her double-whammy, Birthday cum Valentine's-Day Culinary Extravaganza. She said as much to Michael the next day when they met over coffee at Dunkin' Donuts to confer about the details of their next practice session—but Michael encouraged her boldly to soldier on.
“You can't stop now ,” he said. “We're at a crucial stage: tonight, we clarify butter . And you know how important that is. The success or failure of this entire enterprise hangs in the balance. If you walk away now…well. I can't even find the words to describe the breadth of disappointed hopes you'll leave in your wake.”
Maddie looked at him in wonder. “You sound like we're planning the invasion of Normandy . It's only a birthday dinner, Michael.”
Her remarks met with dead silence.
“Hello?” Maddie prompted, snapping her fingers in front of him. His face looked like it had just been etched in stone.
“Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” His voice was a pained whisper.
“Oh, please —you're not seriously playing the Churchill Card? Can we dial this back a bit?”
He crossed his arms. “I don't see how —not when you seem determined to cast aspersion on my entire craft.”
“Oh, come on—Syd thinks I'm cheating on her, for god's sake. I just can't keep this deception up.” She sighed and shook her dark head. “I should've listened to David.”
She was stunned when Michael suddenly reached across the table and slapped her.
“Snap out of it!” His voice rang out across the restaurant.
Maddie raised a hand to the side of her face and looked at him like he had suddenly sprouted horns. Patrons at other tables were all spinning around in their seats to stare at the two of them.
“What the hell was that for?” she hissed.
“For saying you should have listened to David. ”
“Oh.” Maddie rubbed her cheek as she considered that. “Thanks. You're right.”
Michael nodded and picked up his cup of coffee.
Maddie turned to face the other diners. “Finish your donuts folks…there's nothing else to see here.”
Slowly, the other patrons returned their attention to their lattes and Bavarian Kreme Sticks.
Maddie turned back to regard her companion.
“By the way, big guy—nice job channeling Cher .”
He smiled at her.
“I guess attending all 42 of those farewell tours finally paid off.”
“I'll say.” He leaned forward. “Now, about tonight….”
When Maddie called Syd late on Friday afternoon to say she'd be out again—Syd gave up trying to be understanding, and not jump to conclusions. She'd had it—and all bets were off.
Maddie said she'd been called in to help Tom Greene out in the ER that night—that the plague of upper respiratory crud that had been blazing a trail across the county had finally hit the hospital staff, and half of Tom's employees had called-in sick. She said she'd try not to be too late—and apologized profusely for missing yet another evening at home with Syd and Henry.
Syd opened her mouth to protest when Maddie cut her off.
“I gotta run, sweetie—this waiting room looks like Wal-Mart on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I love you.”
She hung up.
Syd stood there fuming, holding the phone against her ear. Before she could talk herself out of it, she hung up, then punched in the number for Freemantle's Market.
“Hello, Edna? It's Syd Murphy. Do you happen to know if Roma Jean is available tonight? I need a sitter for Henry….”
“I can't believe I let you talk me into this. I'm freezing my ass off.”
Syd glared at him. “Will you quit complaining? There was no way I was going to sit out here in the dark by myself.”
David pulled his fur-trimmed car coat tighter across his neck. “Can't we at least turn the damn heat on?”
“Why the fuck not?”
“I told you. I don't wanna steam up the windows.”
“Oh. Right. Because you're afraid that any fucking polar bears that wander by in search of food might mistake our frozen corpses for ringed seals?”
“You know…you'd stay warmer if you'd shut up.”
“How long are we gonna sit out here?”
“Until she comes out.”
He sighed. “And then what?”
“We've been over this already.”
“ And? ”
“And—we follow her.”
David drummed his gloved fingers on the center console of Syd's Volvo. This was shaping up to be a bona fide nightmare . And he was caught right in the middle of it.
When Syd called him and said she was on her way over to pick him up, he grilled her about why. What she said made his hair stand on end. He shot a quick text message off to Maddie:
The eagle has landed. Goldilocks headed to big house to catch Mama Bear with fingers in porridge bowl.
In exactly 90 seconds, Maddie called him back.
“Would you mind translating that message into English, please?”
He sighed. “Syd is on her way to stake out the fucking hospital. She wants to find out what you're really up to—and she's dragging my ass along with her.”
“ What? ”
“You heard me. So you'd better come up with an alibi fast. ”
“David, that's your damn job.”
“Hey…you can't pin this one on me , Cinderella. I'm an innocent bystander. And one, I might add, who now deserves hazardous duty pay.”
“Tell me about it. Look—you need to figure something out. Fast . She'll be here in about five minutes and I have to change.”
“Duh?” He sighed. “I can't go on a stakeout in February wearing poly-blend…I need flannel .” He paused. “What kind of lesbian are you, anyway?”
“Oh, good god.” She hung up.
That was two grueling hours ago—and David was certain that his caps were going to crack from how much his teeth were chattering.
He thought he'd try again to talk Syd down off her ledge of suspicion.
“Look, Syd,” he began. “This is really a fool's errand. I know Maddie. Believe me —she's incapable of cheating.”
Syd brought her eyes to bear on him like the laser beam of a shotgun. “ Cheating? Who said anything about her cheating?”
Fuck. “Forget I said that. Bad, bad choice of words.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What do you know?”
He threw up his hands. “Nothing! I know nothing .”
“Right, Sergeant Schultz.” She grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket. “Give it up— now. ”
“Syd,” he slapped at her hands. “Do you mind? Careful with the ermine.” He brushed down the fur collar of his jacket. “I told you—I don't know anything .”
“Then why are you so anxious to get me to give this up?”
“Because my lips are turning a hideous shade of fucking puce! It's freezing out here!”
She sighed and sat back against her seat.
“All right. I'll start the car and turn on the heat— briefly . Just long enough to take the chill off. But in exchange, you fess up and tell me what the hell she's up to. And don't lie to me and say you don't know anything, or I might just slip up and tell your mother about some of the more eclectic interlibrary loan items I've had to procure for you from the state prison collection.”
He turned pale. “You wouldn't dare .”
She leaned toward him. “Oh, I promise you—I would .”
“ That's blackmail. Isn't that against your creed?”
“Librarians don't have a creed.”
“Oh—nice. Great time to tell me that.”
She lifted her hand and placed it on the ignition. “So. Whattaya say? A little tit for tat?”
He rolled his eyes. “Not the most effective phrase to use with a gay man, Syd.”
“You get my drift.”
He sighed. “All right already. I'm so fucking cold that right now I'd agree to do a pole dance in a pair of your father's hip waders to get you turn on the goddamn heat.”
She shook her head and started the car. They sat there in blissful silence for a few minutes as the passenger compartment started to warm up—and the windows began to fog over.
David stretched his cramped legs out and sighed contentedly as warmth flooded over his body. Down the hill, across the parking lot from where they sat, the big glass door that led into the ER lobby opened. He stared as two figures emerged, and headed straight toward them. Panic raced over his frame.
“ Oh, Jesus H. Christ! ”
“What now?” Syd looked over at him.
“Tom Greene at 10:00! Headed STRAIGHT for us .”
David frantically pointed out the windshield.
“Oh, shit .”
“What do we do? ”
“ Do? How the fuck do I know? Think of something! ”
“ Me? ”
“Yes, you. This whole ridiculous stakeout was your fucking idea.” David was nearly hysterical now. “Oh, shit— he sees us . I know he does. That old letch will never let us live this one down…how will we ever explain— mmmmlllnnphhhh. ”
Syd grabbed David and hauled him across the console so he was half lying on top of her. She pressed her lips to his in a passionate kiss—trying as much to shut him up, as to disguise their identities—and to give the appearance that they were just an illicit couple, hooking up for a late-night tryst in the hospital parking lot.
Only David wasn't cooperating. He was too shocked and too addled. He fought against her, and reflexively flailed his arms around—succeeding only in knocking the car's gearshift lever into drive. As they continued to strain and wrestle with each other on the front seats, they failed to realize that the Volvo had started to pull forward out of its space—gaining momentum as it rolled downhill and right into the path of an inbound ambulance. In fact, they didn't notice that they were moving until they had stopped moving—and both of the car's front airbags announced that they had stopped moving by deploying when the Volvo slammed into the side of a Wythe County EMT wagon.
Syd's car alarm also cooperated by deciding that this was exactly the right time to sound an alert.
The two of them sat there, dazed, while medical personnel flooded out of the ER and into the parking lot. Steam was rolling out from beneath the crushed hood of Syd's car. People were running and shouting. Orderlies ran toward the two vehicles with gurneys.
Dazed, Syd and David broke their clinch and looked at one another.
“Fuck,” they said in unison.
The parking lot was like a production number from a Busby Berkeley musical. There were people crawling all over the place. In the five minutes since the accident, it seemed that police cars from nine departments had shown up and blocked them in.
David noticed that, too. “How many fucking donut shops are there in this goddamn county?” he complained.
Syd felt like time had stopped, and they had been sitting inside the car for at least a decade. She had a sick feeling that life, as she knew it, would never be the same.
A gentle tapping against the driver's side window finally got her attention. Slowly, inevitably, she turned her head toward the fateful sound to see Maddie standing outside the car, peering in at them with crossed arms, and an unreadable expression.
Syd reached over and slowly rolled down her window.
Maddie cleared her throat, and just stood there—saying nothing. But, in this case, Maddie saying nothing, managed to speak volumes . Syd was amazed at how much she looked like her mother right then.
Not a good sign at all.
“I suppose you wonder what we're doing here?” Syd asked, meekly.
“No,” Maddie finally said. “I think that part is pretty obvious. Why you're here, however, is likely to remain one of life's great unsolved mysteries.”
Syd just stared back at her in abject silence.
Maddie sighed. “I think there are some gentlemen here who are eager to talk with you.” She turned her head to indicate two Sheriff's deputies who stood near the hospital entrance, tapping their pens against open notepads, and staring at the carnage.
Maddie then took a step back, and opened Syd's car door. “Lucy—perhaps you and Ethel would care to join us inside, so we can discuss this little sitcom?”
Syd looked over at her partner in crime, who was busy trying to brush white airbag dust off his fur collar. He raised his head and met her hopeless gaze.
“Don't look at me, Mrs. Ricardo—I'm just the sidekick. You're the one with the ‘splaining to do.”
It was after 10:00 that night when Maddie paid Roma Jean, and thanked her for spending the evening with Henry. To her credit, Roma Jean managed to thank Maddie, take the cash, and stumble out of the house without tripping over anything.
Syd's Volvo had been towed to the Firestone garage in Jericho , and she had ridden home with Maddie in the Jeep. Silently.
They had dropped an equally silent David off at the inn on their way back to the farm. When Maddie smiled and wished him a good night's sleep, he shot her the bird and muttered, “Paybacks, Cinderella. Paybacks .”
Syd watched him trot up the steps to the inn, leaving a trail of white dust in his wake.
“What did he mean by that?”
Maddie looked over at her. “Oh—so you're talking to me now?”
“ No. ”
Maddie chuckled. “My mistake.”
Syd didn't respond.
Now she was upstairs showering. Maddie could hear the water running as she walked to Henry's room, to tuck him back in.
Henry had a tendency to kick his blankets off—then wake up cold during the night. Maddie smiled when she entered his room and saw Pete, sound asleep on the foot of his bed. Since Henry came to stay with them, Pete had more or less taken up residence in Henry's room. The two were inseparable.
Henry rolled over and opened his eyes when she started adjusting his covers. He gave her a sleepy smile when he saw her.
“Hi, Sport.” She sat down on the edge of his bed. “Did you have fun tonight with Roma Jean?”
He nodded. “We ate pizza and watched American Idol .”
Maddie smiled. “Did you do your homework?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “I did it with Syd before Roma Jean came.”
Maddie smiled at him. “Good.” She ran a hand over his tousled hair. “I'm sorry I've been gone so much lately. I want you to know that I miss you and Syd when I'm not here.”
“We miss you, too.” He yawned. “Gramma C. called.”
He meant Celine.
He nodded. “She said she would call back.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“She said she was coming for Easter.” He seemed excited at first—then he frowned as something else occurred to him. “She said she had a new piano book for me.”
Maddie tried not to laugh. “You go back to sleep now, Sport. We'll talk about it at breakfast, okay?”
“Okay, Maddie.” He rolled over and pushed his head down into his pillow. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, buddy.” She kissed his head.
She reached down to scrub Pete's ears—then left his room to head for the master suite at the opposite end of the hall.
The water had stopped running, so Syd must have finished with her shower.
Maddie paused at the doorway to the room, deliberating about what to do.
“Are you going to stand there all night—or are you going to get in here and join me?”
Syd's voice came from around the corner. Apparently, she was still in the bathroom.
At least she was talking now. That had to be a good sign.
Maddie walked into the bedroom, and rounded the corner into the bathroom. It was illuminated by candlelight, and Syd reclined in the big garden tub, wearing nothing but a sultry smile.
“Um,” Maddie began. “Did I miss a few plot points?”
Syd lazily trailed her hand through the sudsy water. “I can't think of any points you've ever missed . ”
Maddie sat down on the edge of the tub. “Not that I'm complaining or anything—but I confess to being a little—”
“Confused?” Syd suggested.
“Yeah. That about covers it.”
“Well, how about you shuck off your clothes and climb in here? I'm sure I can clear everything up for you in record time.”
Maddie pinched herself. “Nope. I'm still awake.” She looked at Syd in amazement. “An hour ago, you wanted to kill me.”
Syd ran a hand along Maddie's arm. “No—an hour ago, I wanted to kill myself —for being so stupid. And for giving in to a ridiculous, irrational, and paranoid delusion.”
Maddie narrowed her eyes. “Is this horrifying characterization of your mental state supposed to make me feel better ? ”
“No,” Syd sat up and reached out to take hold of Maddie's head—tugging her forward until their lips were nearly touching. “ This is.” She ran the tip of her tongue across Maddie's lips, then kissed her, and slowly started untying the drawstring on the pants of her blue scrubs.
When they finally drew apart, Maddie's head was spinning, but things were definitely getting clearer. A lot clearer.
“I'm sorry for being such an idiot,” Syd whispered.
Maddie was too busy pulling off the rest of her clothes and climbing into the tub to hear any more of her apology.
Once Maddie had settled into the tub beside her, Syd slid over to straddle her lap. “Think you can ever forgive me?”
“Well, I—” Maddie wrapped one arm around her, and latched on to the side the tub with her free hand—just so they could stay above water.
Syd's lips now were busy expressing the nonverbal portion of her apology, and Maddie was learning how easily breathing could become a foreign concept.
Coherent thought appeared to have left the building, too.
“If I did forgive you, I guess that would make me—”
“All wet?” Syd asked, innocently—although what she was doing beneath the surface of the water was anything but innocent.
Oh my god.
Forming complete sentences was now a lost art. Another minute passed.
“Yes…yes,” Maddie finally managed. “ All wet. ”
Syd smiled against her mouth. “That makes two of us.”
The hell with it.
Maddie let go of the tub, and they both slid deeper into the water.
February 14th. D-Day.
It wasn't going well.
Not at all.
And Syd's birthday dinner was tonight.
Maddie was flying solo this evening because, way back in December, Michael had picked up a catering gig for a wedding reception in Jefferson —and he couldn't get out of it. He promised her that he'd back in plenty of time to oversee most of what they had on tap for the evening—but Maddie was charged with doing the initial prep work, and getting a jump-start on the dessert course: a pumpkin custard tart with red-wine caramel sauce. Her job was to premix the dough mixture so it could refrigerate (it apparently required two hours to do whatever-in-the-hell-it-was-that-dough-had-to-do in the refrigerator)— and make the custard filling. All this, so they could be ready to assemble the actual tarts when Michael returned.
There was just one problem—she got held up at the clinic when Lizzy called to say she'd be late getting back from Blacksburg (where she'd celebrated an early Valentine's Day with Syd's brother, Tom). That meant that Maddie had been unable to be at the inn by noon, as she'd planned. So she found herself in a time crunch—and didn't have the requisite two hours to wait for the dough to properly…do whatever.
Her clothes for the evening (and her overnight bag) were already there. All Syd knew was that they were meeting at the inn for a Valentine's Day/birthday dinner—she had no idea that Maddie was cooking, or that they would also be spending the night there, alone, in the very biggest and best guest suite. And this time—there'd be no red, Dr. Denton footie pajamas in the equation.
There'd be no pajamas at all, if she played her cards right.
Lizzy was keeping Henry overnight at her place—Syd didn't know that part yet, either.
Maddie told Syd that she had late appointments at the clinic, and that she'd have to meet her at the inn. She made a grand ceremony out of carrying a garment bag containing a change of clothes with her when she left home that morning—and she told Syd that she'd change at the clinic. Syd didn't seem to question this. And if she was harboring any nascent suspicions, she was still enough enmeshed in atonement mode from the whole demolition derby stunt at the hospital, that she bravely kept them to herself.
Now Maddie was running about five hours behind schedule, and she needed to make some hard choices.
Well, she reasoned, when something doesn't fit—you make adjustments. Right? Cooking, after all, was a science—just like medicine…or small appliance repair. It shouldn't be rocket science to puzzle this one out. Really . So she glanced at the clock, and thought about how to make this work.
First, the dessert.
Why not just premix everything together—and then toss the whole thing into the freezer? That would expedite the setting up process—cutting the time down by at least half. Maybe even two-thirds?
Michael would never know the difference—and she'd be right on track for them to finish the tarts, and start the Daube de Boeuf a la Saintongeaise (which Michael said needed to be prepared a day ahead of time and reheated, for best results—but they'd have to make do with half a day).
She also thought she could get a jump-start on the French Vinaigrette with Hard-Boiled Egg Dressing—for the grilled, bacon-wrapped asparagus appetizer (a concession, and an apologetic offering for the recent, regrettable incident with Pete).
Like any good clinician, she assembled her tools and ingredients first.
She was a whiz at multitasking, and knew it—so she didn't worry too much about Michael's solemn admonition that she needed to concentrate on completing one task at a time. Hell…she could single-handedly juggle multiple gunshot wounds, gang fights, drug over-doses, and crazy indigents pissing in the water fountains in the Presby ER on any Saturday night—this should be like a walk in the spring rain.
She looked at her watch again. Fuck. It was 2:30. Syd would be there in less than four hours.
Okay. First things first. The dough .
Well…. Maybe the eggs. Those she could set to hard-boil while she started the pastry mix.
Oh—and the meat. That needed to be at room temperature. She walked to the big walk-in cooler and grabbed the two pounds of beef shin she'd bought at the butcher shop in Roanoke . She also grabbed the fat slabs of bacon they'd need to wrap the asparagus. Correction: it was pancetta , not bacon. Michael was quick to correct her when she showed up with the wrong damn side meat, and had to go back to the store. Again . Hell…she was practically a shareholder in that joint now.
So. Okay. The eggs.
She took a heavy, stainless steel and copper pan down from the pot rack that hung over the kitchen's big center island, and put a couple of inches of water into it. She only needed one egg for the dressing—but decided to go ahead and hard-boil six or seven. Why waste a whole pan of water for one damn egg? Besides, she liked hard-boiled eggs, and they could always use them for something else.
Once the eggs were nicely going, she started carrying her pastry and filling items over to the area where the big, gunmetal gray mixer stood—proud and gleaming, like some kind of culinary obelisk. Michael practically worshipped the damn thing. He even had a name for it—“ Gloria .”
G-L-O-R-I-A. Yeah. That one.
She paused to look over the recipe.
The damn eggs were supposed to be at room temperature, too.
No problem. She'd wait just a few minutes—then grab a couple out of the hot water on the stove. That should work just fine, as long as she got them out before the water started to boil.
In the meantime, she could start chopping and combining the spices.
Okay…ginger— check . Almonds— check . Cloves— check . White pepper— check . Whole beans of fucking, has-to-be-grated, nutmeg— check . Cardamom— shit . Cardamom . God damn it! She forgot the fucking cardamom . She looked up at the ceiling, and took a deep breath. Then she squared her shoulders.
That's what the best chefs did.
They always did it.
Okay. What would work instead of cardamom? It was a mainstay of Indian cuisine, right? So that meant it was spicy . It was one of the key ingredients in garam masala—a seasoning Maddie loved. So what was like that? She walked over to Michael's spice cabinet and looked it over.
That should work. That was in garam masala, too. Okay, curry powder it is.
She walked back to the mixer.
Shit… the eggs.
Well. The water had only just started to roll—so they were probably still okay.
Grabbing a sieve-style spoon, she scooped three of them out and carried them over to the table next to “Gloria's” mixer altar.
Okay. Let's see. She looked over the instructions.
Pulse almonds, flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a food processor until nuts are very finely ground.
Beat together butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in egg. Add flour mixture in 2 batches, mixing at low speed just until a dough forms. Form dough into a disk and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 2 hours.
Whisk together brown sugar, eggs, molasses, salt, and spices. Whisk in pumpkin, then cream.
Okay. That “chilling” part was not happening. No time.
But she could do all the other stuff.
Where the hell was the food processor?
She looked around the kitchen, but didn't see it. Shit. She checked her watch again. Then she turned back to regard the stand mixer. The damn thing had more attachments than an Electrolux. She looked them over. One of these must be used for chopping stuff.
Michael had them all arranged on a peg-board above the mixer—like medieval torture implements. Shit…he practically had the damn things outlined in paint.
She picked up a fat, cone-shaped and spindled metal whisk and hefted it, before turning it over in her hands.
Probably this one.
She attached it to the mixer and started dumping in all of the ingredients.
All of them .
Including the flour, the brown sugar, the molasses, the solid-pack pumpkin and the assortment of nuts and spices.
Oh—and the eggs. The perfectly poached eggs.
She needed six tablespoons of unsalted butter. Softened . Well, she could go ahead and start “pulsing” everything else while she went and got that.
Sighing, she set the mixer control to— damn . There was no “pulse” setting.
Great. What the hell would be closest to that? The thing had 10 speeds. Not helpful.
Okay. Let's parse it out .
She stood back and looked the unit over, critically. She'd repaired a few of these in her time. They were pretty nice machines. High-performance motors—575 watts. Planetary drive systems. Mechanical bowl-lifts. Plenty of torque.
Torque had to be good for chopping. More speed=greater torque. She set the dial to 8, and turned the unit on. It made a tortured, gurgled, grinding sound at first—but then seemed to even out. There was a dense cloud of— something —drifting in waves up out of the bowl, but that was probably okay. It smelled sweet and spicy.
It tickled her nose.
Damn…that curry was really strong .
Shrugging, she walked back to the cooler to grab a stick of butter.
While she was in the cooler, she decided to go ahead and get the vegetables she'd need for the Boeuf dish—and the damn asparagus.
Let's see. Carrots. Onions. Garlic. Artichoke. Leeks.
Nope. Didn't need leeks.
She forgot about that. The damn “Boeuf” needed to be braised in lard—not vegetable or olive oil.
Now where in the hell would he keep that? Would it be refrigerated or not?
She was standing there deliberating when she heard the first explosion.
Three more followed it in rapid succession.
What the fuck? She exited the freezer in time to see tiny pieces of egg shrapnel flying across the kitchen.
“Oh, my god! ” She ducked as a huge piece of shell ricocheted off the wall behind her.
The pan containing the eggs had boiled dry—and the eggs had blown up. Pieces of them were flying around and landing everyplace—even on the ceiling fans.
And the stench was incredible.
Maddie dropped all the vegetables in an unceremonious heap on a prep table and ran over to the Bertazzoni to turn off the gas ring under the, now charred, All-Clad pot. Great…that thing was a write-off.
Pieces of egg and shell were all over the top of the stove. She didn't even want to look at the shelf behind the stove.
How would she ever get the stench out of the kitchen? And what about all that black smoke?
Wait a minute…black smoke? Where in the hell was that coming from?
She stood back. Not the stove… it was off.
But the kitchen was filling up with it, and it would only be a matter of time before….
There was an ear-splitting sound as the smoke alarm went off, and Maddie turned around to see that “Gloria” was the culprit. Dark, black smoke and flames were shooting out from the mixer's engine housing. The stainless steel whisk had been twisted into an unrecognizable shape, and finally, had stopped turning. A dense-looking, orange-colored, nut and spice magma was overflowing the bowl and dropping onto the floor in fat blobs.
She raced across the room to unplug the mixer, and grabbed a towel to suffocate the flames.
“How could this possibly get any fucking worse? ” she bellowed.
Ten seconds later, she got her answer when the overhead sprinkler system kicked in—and the entire kitchen got doused in a fire-prevention monsoon.
Yeppers. This was going to be one helluva Valentine's Day.
Maddie stood gazing up at the ceiling, as the overhead waterfall soaked her—both arms extended in a ludicrous pantomime of crucifixion.
Now all she needed was for Michael to show up.
“ What the fuck is going on in here??? My kitchen! Oh my god—GLORIA!”
Maddie closed her eyes.
Jesus died for somebody's sins—but not mine.
Not even Patti Smith could save her, now.
Judging by the murderous look on Michael's face as he stood in the doorway to his kitchen surveying the carnage, she thanked god that she had done her residency in emergency medicine. She would've offered even money on whether or not he'd be able to kill her before he went into shock.
She was only sure of two things right now.
One: it was a very good thing that she had her attorney on speed-dial.
Two: she'd never be able to mention Syd's misadventure in the hospital parking lot again.
“I think that was just about the best meal I've ever had,” Syd was licking her fingertips.
“It was certainly the safest .” Maddie poured her another glass of the cold Veuve Clicquot—the only thing she'd managed to salvage from their original dinner.
Syd stifled a laugh. “I'll say.”
Maddie shoved the bottle back into its bucket of ice. “Hey—no laughing. We agreed . Truce. Right?”
“Right.” Syd saluted. “Truce.”
Maddie held up the big, red and white striped cardboard bucket. “Another drumstick?”
“No thanks. Four is my limit.”
“Yeah. I thought you and Henry were going to have to arm-wrestle for that last one.”
Syd smiled, and looked over at the sleeping bag in the corner of the room—still rolled-out on the rug where Henry had fallen asleep after they brought him back from Lizzy's bungalow. Maddie had long since carried him upstairs to bed, with Pete following along at her heels.
They were back at home, in their living room—lounging on the floor in front of a big fire, with the remainder of their KFC Family Feast for Four spread out on a blanket beside them.
Syd stole a sidelong glance at her tall partner. Incredibly, she didn't look any the worse for wear—which was remarkable, considering the events of the evening.
By the time Syd arrived at the inn, the fire had been contained, the sprinklers had been turned off, and Michael had been calmed down considerably by a generous dose of David's Xanax—and a couple of single malt Scotches. Maddie had tried to protest the combination—but backed-off right away when Michael picked up one of his waterlogged Shun paring knives, and started drying it with the hem of the tablecloth.
“I'll get you some more ice,” she'd said instead—and beat a hasty retreat from the dining room, where they all ended up after the fire department left.
That was several hours ago, and now the unhappy chain of horrifying events was already beginning to claim its rightful place in the county annals of myth and heroic misadventure. Syd was certain that by tomorrow, no one would even remember her own fifteen minutes of fame. But Maddie's? Well. Hers could be expected to live on. For one thing, she was such an iconic figure in the lives of her patients, that any opportunity to humanize her—especially one that occurred on such a grand and epic scale—was sure to resonate with the locals for a good, long time.
But Syd had to smile as she thought about the lengths Maddie had gone to in her efforts to do something special for her—and what those efforts had nearly cost them both.
“Do I want to know what you're thinking about over there?” Maddie's voice sounded almost tentative.
Syd looked over at her. She was beautiful in the firelight. Hell. She was beautiful in any light—or in no light.
“Only how lucky we are.”
“I mean it.”
Maddie still looked dubious. “It's been quite a few weeks,”
Syd smiled at her. “It's been quite a year.”
Maddie took hold of her hand. “This isn't quite the evening I had planned to celebrate your birthday.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Syd looked around the room. “An amazing home. A beautiful fire. Great champagne. Henry.” She raised their linked hands to her mouth, and kissed Maddie's fingers. “ You . What more could a girl ask?”
Maddie smiled at her. “That reminds me,” she said. She fished into the front pocket of her jeans and pulled out a tiny gold key, and held it out to Syd. “I got you something.”
With a confused expression, Syd took it from her and looked it over. “What is it?”
“It's a key,” Maddie drawled.
Syd lowered it to her lap. “Thank you, Dr. Stevenson. Now that we've cleared-up that mystery, would you like to tackle global warming?”
Maddie smiled at her. “Turn it over, and look at the back.”
Syd sat up straighter and held the key out toward the fireplace so she could read the tiny inscription. “429WP?”
Syd looked confused.
Maddie nudged her playfully. “Come on, Blondie… reach for it.”
Syd smiled as recognition dawned. “Your tail number…of course .”
“I didn't want you to forget.”
Syd looked at her archly. “As if I could ever forget how to identify your tail….”
Maddie laughed and pulled her closer. “Well…here's hoping. But in this case—it's a functional key.” She smiled. “It unlocks the airplane.”
Syd dropped her head to Maddie's chest and groaned. “Like you'd ever trust me near another engine….”
“Oh, honey—it's just like riding a horse. You get tossed off—you get right back up on it.”
“ Oh, really? Think that works with KitchenAid appliances, too?”
Maddie thought about that one for a moment. “Doubtful.”
Syd smiled into her chest. Maddie smelled wonderful—a heady mix of pine and lavender.
An idea occurred to her.
“Still,” she said, as she slowly began to lay a trail of soft kisses along Maddie's collarbone. “I suppose we could work on that physics lesson again—I think I nearly had the hang of it last time.”
“You think?” Maddie ran her hands up along the warm skin beneath Syd's sweater.
“Um hmmm.” Syd was kissing up the side of Maddie's neck now. “You, know,” she said, grasping the taller woman by the shoulders. “Since you have that CFI rating….”
Maddie sighed happily. “That's CFI, MEI .”
Syd kissed her chin. “ Two instructor ratings?”
“Yeah.” Maddie was serious now. She lifted her head to try and capture Syd's mouth—but Syd backed away.
“ Overachiever. I knew I loved you for a reason.”
Maddie tried in vain to kiss her again, but Syd was in motion—skillfully rolling over, and yanking her partner along with her.
Maddie landed on top of her with a huff. “Oh— I get it, now. You want some more of that ‘hands-on' instruction, don't you?”
“What tipped you off?” Syd's hand reached a very sensitive spot, and just about launched Maddie into orbit.
“ Easy, baby,” she breathed, as she started a long, slow descent down Syd's body. “Remember…once we hit V1, we're committed— and we have to go .”
“Oh, honey,” Syd's hands were now tangled up in Maddie's thick, dark hair. “I reached V1 ten seconds after I met you.”
Like the good scientist she was, Maddie was quick to show that her own findings trended in the same direction.
And that wasn't a bad thing—for when they returned to earth, they were still wrapped-up together…on a blanket, in front of a fire, in their own home, with the boy who would one day become their son, sleeping soundly upstairs.
1 Theodor Geisel, Horton Hears a Who (New York, Random House Books for Young Readers, 1954)
Maddie's (original) Four Course Birthday Menu
Canapés au Camembert ; Pancetta-Wrapped Grilled Asparagus with Vinaigrette Dressing
Daube de Boeuf a la Saintongeaise; Roasted Vegetables
Pan-Seared Artichoke with Balsamic GlazePumpkin Custard Tart with Red-Wine Caramel Sauce