Welcome back and good morning all!
Today is predicted to be absolutely gorgeous here in the countryside, and that means only one thing. It's going to be real hard to stay in this chair and focused on getting the work done that needs to be done today!
Like A Wolf
A Little Red Riding Hood Story In Which the Wolf Must Choose Between Innocent Red, and the Seductively Skilled Hunter He’s Been Toying With For Years
He opened the book to the folded page…
Darkness glinted behind the diner windows, above the checkered curtains on their brass rods. Somewhere out in the night, a horn honked, a lonely call for company that went unanswered in the stillness. The sentiment echoed in Robbie’s heart, just as empty as the street beyond the locked door.
The closed sign had been flipped over hours earlier. The rest of his crew had long since departed. Robert lingered, obsessing over things he couldn’t change, reluctant to go home, unable to knock on his grandmere’s door a second time this week.
So he’d spent the hours doing what he always did when life didn’t measure up. He opened the cookbook to the folded page and measured flour and sugar and spices, cups of whole berries and crisp crescent slices of apple. He rolled crusts to perfect thinness, and he baked. He filled the emptiness with pie. Sweet, tart, delicious, heart-warming.
Sixteen pies, golden crusted, steaming hot, cooled on the counter. The air was ripe with the scents of cinnamon and sweet, juicy fruit.
Cherry, blackberry, blueberry, apple… And still his mouth was dry and tension knotted his stomach.
There’s no such thing as too much pie. His inner fat kid…the same kid who held on to that fear and resentment of gym class…wasn’t interested in eating those pies.
All Robert could think about was the plates Manny Dyer had sent back. All that food he’d ordered, and every single plate had come back to the kitchen nearly full. A bite or two of each item, that was the most he’d eaten.
It was—bar the moment he’d encountered Hank’s lover in the hallway—the most demoralizing moment of his life.
He’d always known he wasn’t handsome, or athletic, or a great conversationalist. Average Joe, if Joe weighed a few pounds more than he should, that was Robert Redding. But he’d somehow always thought he’d had this one talent…he could cook like nobody’s business.
Except now, maybe he couldn’t. If a foodie like Manny Dyer couldn’t choke down more than a few bites of anything Robbie had prepared…
His mind shied away… Brownies. Not everyone was a pie person, strange as that might seem. Seizing on the distraction, he grabbed a can of cocoa powder from under the counter.
A rap on the glass door drew his attention. Ordinarily he’d have ignored it. It was par for the course at most restaurants. If someone saw people inside, the closed sign might as well not exist. Tonight, it was some drunk’s lucky day though. He was so desperately in need of distraction, Robert turned to the door.
His eyes widened. “Ruby?” Setting the cocoa powder down he skirted the counter to open the door.
Ruby grabbed his arm with a tired smile. “Hey, I was hoping I’d find you still here.” She followed him into the dining room and made a beeline straight for the counter.
“I’m so sorry.” He apologized, leading her to a stool.
“Sorry?” Ruby dropped her purse on the countertop and a briefcase on the floor. with a shrug. “What for? I’m just so glad you’re still here. It’s been a hell of a day. God save me from celebrity businessmen. Is that apple pie I smell? Is there coffee?”
On autopilot, wondering if it was unethical to ask about Manny Dyer’s response to his food, he cut a wedge of apple pie, and poured a cup of coffee. “I guess…I’m apologizing for not cooking well enough for your friend.”
He passed her the plate and cup and retrieved a silver setting and basket of sweeteners.
“Don’t be silly.” She sounded so tired, world weary, and he was pulled from his own self-absorbed pity to look at Ruby more closely. “He loved it.”
“People who love my food do not leave mounds of it on the plates. If they can’t finish it, they ask for doggie bags.” Robert hitched himself up onto the stool next to hers and shook his head. “Don’t be nice to me. He barely ate a few bites of all that stuff he ordered. It’s okay. Not everyone likes simple food. I’m good with that.” And he realized that he was. He liked comfortable, homey recipes, and damned if he was going to let some stuck up restaurant critic slash foodie businessman steal his self-confidence.
Or some moody, intense, dangerous gourmet…
Ruby dug into the pie and moaned quietly as she chewed the first bite.
Pride welled inside Robert again, and he felt his world…which he’d admit had been off kilter since Hank Wolf entered it, tilt back to its proper, customary axis. He smiled and watched Ruby eat. Who cared what Manny Dyer thought? That appreciative moan and greedy gleam in Ruby’s eyes…that was what Robert cooked for.
“No, really. He raved about it. It was just that we’d already had dinner.” Her eyes widened, lips parted on a gasp. “Robbie?”
Immediately he jumped from the stool. “What?” His attention went to the pie, then followed her hand as she dropped the fork and reached for her stomach.
“I’m … I think I need to go to the hospital. I…” She fumbled off the stool, reaching for her bag. “I need to call Bree.”
“The baby?” He grabbed her elbow, then dropped it, bent to pick up the briefcase. “What do I…” Although he knew it was futile, Robert glanced frantically around for someone, anyone who might be able to deal with this better than he could. The empty restaurant yielded no capable prospects. “What do I do?”
Ruby laughed, a strained sound at best. “You? Nothing. I need to call and have Bree meet me at the hospital. She’s my birthing coach.” She winced and clutched at his arm.
Alarmed, Robbie caught her around the waist, trying to lend support. “I don’t think you can drive, Ruby. Here.” He handed her the briefcase and released her. “Wait here. Let me get my keys and lock the back door. I’ll take you.”
“Would you?” She peered up at him through teary lashes. “I hate to impose, but…”
“Absolutely, I would.” He raced to the back room, locking the door first, then snatching his keys and wallet from his office. He reached the dining room less than a minute after leaving it, to find Ruby on her cell phone, stooped over the counter, speaking in a low, intense voice.
She stood quickly, wincing again. “Bree, my ride is leaving now. Tell your ogre of a boss you have to go. I’m not having this baby without you.”
The moon hung, ripe and glowing, nearly full, perfectly centered in a patch of sky between the telephone poles at the end of the highway. Those men who favored fantasy might believe they could drive right onto it, park and look back at the earth in their rear view mirror. For just a second, his foot pressed harder on the accelerator, before he remembered that Hank Wolf wasn’t a believer in fantasy…not anymore. Nor did he want a speeding ticket. Practical and dangerous went hand in hand.
Danger in dining. The first reviewer to use the term had tickled his fancy, and he’d appropriated the phrase on his business cards and advertising. The idea that not knowing what you were going to be served was dangerous and amusing… Because of course, Hank always knew.
He knew what he was serving, and how it was to be eaten, he was in control of the whole experience for everyone who chose to dine with him.
In control, of himself, his food, his life. And that’s the way he liked it. If eating at Hungry was dangerous, then Hank was the master of that danger.
The ink black pavement slipped away under the wheels of his truck, Hank tapped relentlessly on the steering wheel, unable to contain the wave of energy that sharpened his senses and quickened his breath. Miles of road passed under him before he realized he didn’t really know where he was going, just that since he’d passed his own turn-off he apparently wasn’t going home.
It should have bothered him the moment he recognized it, that sense that he wasn’t, in reality, in control at this precise moment. After all, he’d left the restaurant after locking up with every intention of going home and tumbling into his own bed, hadn’t he?
Excitement hummed through his veins. He felt giddy, maybe drunk described it better, since he’d never been giddy in his life. Manny Dyer had eaten his food. He’d cooked for a culinary icon. A legend had dined in his restaurant, sat in his dining room, tasted his wares.
A broad smile stretched his lips, and since there was no one to see, he let it.
Despite the laws against it, Hank grabbed his phone and called someone, and knew that this was what he’d wanted to do all along.
He’d wanted an excuse to call for days now.
Someone he had no business calling in the darkest hours of the night.
Except someone answered the phone, and the excitement took over. “Red…you’ll never guess. The most amazing thing happened in the restaurant tonight.”
“Oh… Amazing must be the theme of the night.”
Red’s voice was strange, hushed and sort of filled with a wonder…a youthful if somewhat tamed exuberance. His words, full of emotion seemed too big for the whisper that conveyed them.
“You too?” Hank tilted his head to the side to hold the phone in place while he pushed the button to let the window slide down. Cool night air washed over his skin, raising a trail of prickling goose bumps. A core of calm eradicated the heavy darkness in his stomach that had stuck there since that day outside the lunch basket two weeks earlier when Red’s chocolate chip cookies had landed on the sidewalk at his feet, a crumbled mess of comfort and love rejected. Like thick sweet cream poured into strong black coffee, Hank recognized an irreversible change, and he welcomed it. “Hey… Can I come over and we can talk about it?”
Since his unsatisfactory conversation with Hunter days earlier, he’d been well aware that he really wanted to talk to Red, certain that Red would understand his excitement and pleasure over a certain diner in his establishment. The fact that he’d left things between them…broken…was awkward, but Hank knew now how he wanted things to be, and he had to believe that Red would be willing to listen.
“Actually, I’m not home.”
A hundred reasons for the hushed voice flitted through Hank’s mind in the moment it took him to brake at a red light. The cream curdled, the excitement faded. Because the only reason that stuck…the one that made the most sense? Was that Red was whispering because he wasn’t alone.
An image of Red, auburn hair gleaming in the moon’s bright light, scattered on some Lothario’s pillows, pale skin like the aforementioned cream in the darkness, naked and sated gazing at the moon through the window and dreaming of romance and happily ever after… While the vile seducer, the man himself…a predator, dark and undeserving, an evil user of young men, a villain who didn’t deserve the innocence and joy that Red carried around with him…snored in the background.
The image unfurled in his brain and refused to be dismissed. Hank’s grip tightened painfully on the steering wheel. “Where are you?” Hair prickled on his arms. A growl rumbled low in his throat. Words he’d never meant to say spewed into the night, uncontrolled, sharp, dangerous. “Who is he? Who are you with?”
Soft laughter brushed his senses, a response so wrong that Hank forgot that green meant go and stayed, as the light before him changed.
Finally, Red stopped laughing, and his voice came louder, no longer a whisper. “I’m at the hospital, and tonight…Hank…tonight I fell in love for real.”
“Oh.” His mind and heart glossed over the first part…and latched on to the second. In love for real. The pain was so unexpected, so vicious, it exploded outward from his stomach to his lungs, burning into his nose and searing his eyes. The green light in front of him wavered, turned amber, ran like a Dali painting. “That’s…good.”
What had he expected? That Red would linger and waste away in the background of life because Hank hadn’t been ready to admit that he wanted what Red offered? Wanted love and home and comfort?
Had he really expected that the love he’d known Red was starting to feel would be a forever kind of thing that he could set aside and pick up at will?
Had he really intended to treat Red like Hunter had treated him all those years?
“You had it right the first time. It’s amazing.”
With a shaking hand, Hank brushed warm raindrops from his cheeks. “I’m happy for you.” And he really was making progress, since he recognized that immediately as a lie. One day it would be true, so maybe it was more a prophecy than a lie. “Listen,” his instincts for self-preservation, so recently set aside, came to his rescue. “It’s late, I’ve got to do the market run in the morning. I’m going to let you go now.”
He disregarded the color of the light, and flipped a u-ey there in the intersection. Home wasn’t much…being empty and dark, and all, but it was all he had at the moment.
“I thought you wanted to meet and talk? We could go out to the truck stop, they’re open twenty-four hours and the coffee isn’t so bad. We have amazing news to share.”
Hank didn’t think he could stand to hear the details about Red’s amazing new man, and suddenly it didn’t matter that Manny Dyer had liked his food, gotten his concept. “I’m tired.” He offered up the lame excuse, realizing as he did so that it was true. “I’ll take a rain check.”
“Stop by the diner after you do your shopping, and I’ll make you lunch.” Red offered. “We can talk then.”
“I…good bye, Red.” Disconnecting took a split second, letting go of the phone, letting go of Red…that might take longer.
TO BE CONTINUED