The following is the third excerpt from the small-town, second-chance romance What Comes After Dessert, Copyright © 2015 by Ren Benton, available November 3, 2015.
The door opened before Ben’s knuckles touched the wood, as if the woman on the other side was standing with her hand on the knob in anticipation of his arrival.
The grapevine had lost none of its efficiency during the past twelve years.
It certainly wasn’t the first time Janine Fielder’s reproving scowl confronted her son on the stoop. “What are you doing here?”
Who would have thought he’d miss the days when she greeted him with You were supposed to be home two hours ago, as if she wanted him to return?
He lifted the bakery box into her line of glare. “Somebody had to deliver these cookies, but everyone is afraid of the grumpy witch who lives here, so I was elected to be the sacrifice.”
She rolled her eyes skyward and stepped back from the door. “Why am I not surprised your first stop was sniffing around her?”
He crossed the threshold and closed the door, pushing his shoulder against the warped spot so the deadbolt would slide home. His mother hadn’t gotten it fixed in the past twenty years because no one in Westard locked a door on a regular basis — one of a thousand issues they could turn into a fight if either of them was so inclined.
In the name of a few more minutes of peace, he didn’t mention the door. “I was surprised. You never told me Tally was back in town.”
“I don’t alert you every time I use the toilet, either.”
“While I appreciate your restraint in that regard, I fail to see how the two are related.”
She sniffed by way of explanation and cut through the living room en route to the kitchen, slippered feet silent on the wood floor.
Those ugly slippers were the only gift he’d ever given her that wasn’t gathering dust in a closet. In the name of a few more minutes of peace, he didn’t mention that, either.
He followed a few steps behind and set the box on the counter between the microwave and coffee maker, tracing a finger over the newest scratches in the Formica. She had refused his offer to renovate her kitchen, too.
She raised her voice to compete with the washing machine’s spin cycle rattling in the next room. “You should have warned me you were coming.”
He tried making plans with her in the summer, when the school didn’t require her services, but she claimed her schedule was too full to entertain him. “I warned you in June. You never got back to me with a better time. I thought I should check on you to make sure you’re not hiding a hoarding problem or a meth lab or my new daddy from me.”
“Nobody can hide anything in this town. If anything that gossip-worthy was going on, someone would have called you.”
You wouldn’t have.
What he’d seen of the house looked both tidy and devoid of massive quantities of cold medicine. In the dish drainer, the customary one plate, one glass, and one fork she used for every meal awaited her solitary breakfast.
She hadn’t been hiding anything other than not wanting him to visit.
In the name of a few more minutes of peace, he didn’t burden her with his bruised feelings. “Hi, Mom. I missed you, too. Work is good. Thanks for asking. Will and Liz send their regards. Have a cookie and catch me up with you.”
She stood her ground in the center of the room, arms crossed over her chest. “You’re just trying to soften me up.”
“I know better.”
The woman was a rock — a wonderful quality when a boy needed one stable thing in his life to cling to, not so much when she formed a wall of resistance. She could be eroded by minute increments with the application of continuous abrasion over a period of years, but she never softened.
“I’m not here to fight with you.” He took a plate from the cupboard and wiped off the dust with a dish towel. He covered the plate with cookies, topped each with a marshmallow, put a cookie lid on each one, and let the microwave work its magic. “I’m sure we’ll get around to it eventually, but until then, take a load off and eat a damn cookie.”
She pinched the warm confection he gave her between her thumb and forefinger and wrinkled her nose as if she objected to the fragrance of cinnamon and cloves. “These aren’t Stella’s cookies.”
Because his mama raised him with manners, he refrained from stuffing a stack of four in his mouth whole. Because he wasn’t trying to prolong his exposure to Tally this time, he didn’t drag out the devouring for more than two bites. If anything, they were more eyes-rolling-back divine in the absence of competition from the girl of his dreams. “Stella wasn’t there, and if the coconut-pecan brownies live up to their reputation, she’s going to lose her position as my sweet tooth’s one true love. Why is she allowing a mere mortal in her kitchen this time?”
“They botched her colon surgery. She’s in an assisted-living place over in Marion.”
Ben couldn’t imagine Stella Hood needing assistance to live. She was… a rock.
A thought of his mother weakened and dependent on strangers struggled to form, but he shoved it back into the abyss from whence it came. He would never let that happen to her, whether she wanted his help or not. “How’s she doing?”
“Not dire anymore.” She dropped her untasted cookie in the trash. “She got a fat settlement, but she’ll be crapping in a bag the rest of her life.”
Loss of appetite seemed like the appropriate response to that revelation, but she hadn’t supplied graphic enough details to justify wasting the last cookie on the plate. “I’m surprised she didn’t close the bakery. By the looks of downtown, that’s the hot trend.”
“She says people have to eat.” The washer stopped, and she stepped into the mud room to transfer — he peeked around the door jamb to confirm his suspicion — sheets to the dryer. “And I suppose they do, if they’re not picky who handles their food.”
That was the third time she’d approached the subject of Tally with a tone he’d call bitchy, if not for the sake of peace. “Tally seems to have everything under control.”
The door of the dryer clanged shut. “I wouldn’t put anything she’s touched in my mouth, but she attracts a certain clientele that doesn’t care if they catch a disease from her food or between her legs.”
The insult shocked Ben’s jaw slack. Fuck the peace. “What the hell has gotten into you? You know Tally’s not that kind of girl.”
Which was a ridiculously old-fashioned, Richie-Cunningham thing to say, but it didn’t take long to get sucked into the time warp of Westard. He’d guarantee he wasn’t the only man who looked at Tally and got sex on the brain, but she had never courted that kind of attention. She always covered herself from neck to ankle, usually in clothes several sizes too large for her, as if she didn’t want to be looked at — understandable, considering the lecherous looks she attracted even when doing her best to be invisible. She barely spoke, never to flirt. She’d been so terrified of getting knocked up before she could escape from Westard, she never even let Ben get a hand down her pants.
The things she’d done to him with her hands made her a sweet, merciful angel.
They’d never discussed her experience with other guys, but Tally Castle gives hand jobs was the sort of news that would have burned up the gossip circuit like a brush fire in August. The locker room buzz about her ran more toward Those tits are wasted on that frigid bitch — as if she deserved further disrespect for not being romantically inclined toward guys who collectively started calling her Titsy in eighth grade and infected everyone they came in contact with through high school with the same obnoxious habit.
Tally was the warehouse for the town’s entire supply of grace and dignity, like a princess exiled to live among the uncouth peasants. She warmed up only if you climbed to her level and treated her with the respect and courtesy befitting her station, an impossibility for those who considered her to be nothing but an exceptional pair of breasts.
She’d been an old-fashioned good girl, if for no other reason than being surrounded by unworthy pigs, and the man-pig epidemic wasn’t quarantined in Westard. Unless she had changed completely — and the plain braid, bare face, flannel tent, and closed mouth had given him the opposite impression — she was still too damn good for this town.
His mother’s smirk suggested she knew something he didn’t. “Things have changed.”
Tally pressed harder on the gas pedal as she drove past Dogwood Road. The Fielder house pulsed on the periphery of her mind, a ping on her radar a quarter mile distant. That house had never before been an object of such heightened awareness. Tonight, with Ben harbored there, it lit up like an enemy warship.
The Castle home, by contrast, was lit by the steady, comforting glow of a porch light left on by a father who refused to let his little girl come up the steps in the dark. No matter how many times she told him she could find her way from the bakery to the front door blindfolded at this point, reminded him electricity cost money they didn’t have, or removed the lightbulb, she came home every night to a well-illuminated porch.
Every night, the first thing she did upon coming through the door was turn off the porch light. Tonight, she multitasked, flipping the switch with one hand and prying a shoe off one achy foot with the other.
Four guys in fancy ties recapped the day in football on the TV. At the moment, they had nothing to say about the only game of interest in the Castle household.
An arrhythmic step-clunk-tap heralded her father’s approach from the hallway connecting the bedrooms to the living room and cued the dropping of her stomach.
“Hi, princess.” His lips grazed her temple. “How was your day?”
“The usual.” She eyed the cane gripped in his right hand but refrained from asking the obvious question. “How was the game?”
“What we ought to do is get one of those young, dynamic quarterbacks who gets the first down even if it means diving headfirst into the defensive line.”
One of those young, dynamic quarterbacks he referred to as reckless showoffs any other day. “How badly did we lose?”
“Twenty-one to twenty.”
She peeled off her other shoe and added it to the collection of discarded footwear by the door. “You’re ready to trade in our QB for a newer model over one point? Didn’t any of the other players show up?”
“He’s in charge. Winning is his responsibility.”
“Tough job when he’s only allowed on the field half the time. What we ought to do is hire a guy to kick extra points and field goals and a bunch of guys to keep the other team out of our end zone.”
His glower followed her to the kitchen. “You’re spoiling my post-defeat wallow.”
“Sorry. Sulk away.”
Step-clunk-tap. “At least none of our guys got hurt.”
She hid her smile behind a cabinet door. He sounded like he’d pulled a groin muscle grasping at a bright side. “Maybe if they hadn’t played like they were scared to break a nail, they could have put a couple more points on the board and won.”
“Make up your mind, girl.”
She made up her mind she’d starve to death waiting for toast and smeared peanut butter on a slice of three-day-old bread she’d sold herself at cost from the bakery. She remembered eating more substantial meals, but hunger had a way of making feasts of meager fare. “I stand by my team when they’re down while acknowledging that losing always sucks.”
“Maybe if you were here to cheer them on, they’d win more.”
Wayne Castle didn’t believe in superstitious nonsense until the playoffs. He spoke in the code they had tapped out through the cell wall between them so her mother wouldn’t understand. They’d made no effort to break the habit since her death. They understood each other just fine.
He was really saying, I miss watching games together.
“There’s a prime-time game in a couple weeks. I’ll be home for kickoff.” I miss games with you, too.
“And passed out before halftime. I can’t yell at the TV when you’re asleep on the couch.” You work too hard. I worry about you.
The bakery needed full-time-and-then-some management, and they needed the money. Her paycheck and his disability income barely covered survival expenses.
Tally had spent her entire life keeping one wolf or another from getting further than the door. The tone of the howls changed once in a while, but there had never been a moment of peace. She no longer believed there ever would be.
Her dad didn’t need it explained to him. He lived with the same racket.
Mouth full of bread and peanut butter, she opened the fridge, then scanned the counter for what she didn’t see inside. She swallowed the sticky lump. “Where’s the milk?”
“I drank the last of it.”
There had been more than half a gallon when she bolted down a bowl of cereal that morning. She grabbed the bottle of ibuprofen on the counter. A couple of pills rattled around the bottom. That had also been half full within the past couple of days.
On bad pain days, he relied on his cane and over-the-counter painkillers, since he refused to take the narcotics that might actually put a dent in his pain. He drank the milk to keep the pills from tearing up his stomach, and the milk made him queasy. “Did you eat anything today?”
“I drank my shakes, so I got better nutrition than you did.” I can lecture right back at you, Miss Peanut Butter Bread for Dinner.
She couldn’t tell him how to handle his pain or his upset stomach or his aversion to addictive substances any more than she could tell him how to walk on his prosthetic leg, and she couldn’t take any of his burden on herself, no matter how willingly she would have done so.
She couldn’t help him. They told each other she had come back to take care of him. They meant the timing coincided with her running out of money and options and having nowhere else to go.
He was the one taking care of her.
His bad days came in pairs. He’d need more milk and pills to get through tomorrow. She could make herself useful one way, at least. “I’ll run to the store.”
If the clock on the microwave told the truth, she had enough time to drive to Sterling. As long as she got a foot in the door before nine, they wouldn’t throw her out before taking her money.
“It’s late. I’ll go in the morning.”
Her mother’s car had crumpled like a beer can in the wreck, so they had only one vehicle between them. If he needed the truck, he had to get up at four to drive Tally to work and pick her up at the end of the day because walking a mile to and from town in the dark was out of the question, as far as her dad was concerned. They made do when he had appointments, but a gallon of milk wasn’t a good enough reason for him to take a road trip while sleep deprived and hurting. “I’ll get it. A drive will help me unwind.”
His pain-dulled gaze sharpened on her. “Something wrong?”
I’ll be lucky if I don’t have nightmares tonight. “Not really. The bakery is short on eggs and Ben Fielder is in town, though.”
His expression went neutral as the paint in a rental apartment. “Is that right?”
“It’s funny.” She made him wait for the punch line while she grabbed cold packs from the freezer to protect the milk for its voyage. “The last time you mentioned seeing him, you said he was bald and fat.”
“Did I say that?”
She dragged the cooler from the pantry and stuffed it with cold packs. “He must have gotten some hair plugs and liposuction since then.”
“Men are so vain nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was wearing makeup, too.”
She lugged the cooler to the door. If she put the cold packs on her feet for twenty minutes, she might be able to stuff them back into her shoes. Time being of the essence, she’d have to white-trash it and wear flip-flops out in public. She slipped her toes under the straps. “What matters is on the inside.”
“Inside, he’s a punk.”
“A fat, bald punk. If that boy bothers you, you tell him your daddy has a gun.”
Her daddy had a .22 he fired at a steel trash can lid to scare vermin out of the garden. It might raise a welt on Ben Fielder’s perfect ass.
“I doubt I’ll see much of him.” Since I plan on avoiding him like a hornet’s nest covered in Ebola. “Do you need anything else to get you through grocery day?”
He opened the door in deference to her loaded hands. “Couple of porterhouse steaks.”
“Okay.” She hooked her keys with one finger and headed out. “I’ll be gone a while, since I have to knock over a liquor store first.”
“Don’t get caught. We don’t have bail money.”
The porch light came on before she reached the steps.
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