What the heck did I just agree to? I sneezed as I wiped down the counter once, twice, three times until every remaining spot of flour was gone. But a clean counter didn’t help. The rest of the kitchen was a mess. The rest of the house was even worse.
Zeke and I had spent most of the day playing hot lava, which entailed pulling off all the couch cushions and pillows and putting them on the floor to hop on. I had melted in the lava way more times than Zeke thanks to my constant sneezing in between jumps.
“Mommy.” Zeke pitty-patted my leg. “What are you doing? It’s your turn to make it through the lava course.”
“I’m just…” I let my voice trail off. Screw it. I tossed the washcloth back down on the counter. My house was a disaster. And freezing cold. Zeke was dressed in his snow-pants and layered up in a few sweaters. The only reason I had agreed to let Tucker in was so that he’d fix the broken heater. Who cared what he thought of my house? This wasn’t a date. I wasn’t trying to impress him. We both knew why he was really here. He was fishing around for information. And my lips were sealed. And I was only going to open them to eat the food he had brought. If I hadn't been exhausted, I would have turned him away.
I tucked a dreadlock behind Zeke’s ear. “You know my friend who brought us doughnuts earlier? Well…he brought dinner for us too.”
Zeke’s eyes grew round. “More doughnuts for dinner?”
“No, not doughnuts.” Honestly I didn’t know if that was true. He may have brought doughnuts for dinner. He was a cop after all. It may have been the only thing he ever ate for all I knew. “I don’t know what he brought, we’ll have to see when he brings it in.”
“Doughnuts!” Zeke took off toward the front door.
Abandoning my lame attempt at cleaning up my house, I followed my son.
Zeke threw open the door and yelled “doughnuts” to a very confused looking Detective Reed.
He looked at me and then back at my son.
I assumed he knew I had a kid. I had told him I didn’t live alone. And he had known my name without me offering the information. He had clearly done some digging on me. But the way he was looking at Zeke made me think he wasn’t very good at his job. Because he sincerely looked surprised. Or maybe I had this all wrong. Maybe he wasn’t digging at all. And this was a real date.
Which meant that letting him come in was a terrible, awful idea. I put my hand on Zeke’s shoulder and stared at Detective Reed. I was about to tell him to go when he crouched down in front of my son.
“You know,” he said. “I didn’t bring doughnuts this time, but I did bring dessert. How about we eat dinner first and then you can have that?”
“Or…we could have dessert first.” Zeke looked at him hopefully.
“Or we could have dinner first.”
Zeke sighed. “Fine. But we have to get away from the lava fast or else we won’t be able to eat anything because we’ll be dead. Hurry, your feet are burning!” Zeke started to hop from foot to foot like his feet were on fire.
“You better hurry! Or the lava will get you!” I grabbed the take-out bags from Detective Reed’s hands and watched Zeke pull him toward our family room.
Zeke looked so happy. It made me realize just how much I was failing as a mother. He never had friends over. It was always just the two of us. I knew some of the kids at school picked on him, but did he not have any friends? Or was he just embarrassed to have them come here? Or maybe his friends’ parents wouldn’t allow their children to come play here. All three options stung.
His laughter drifting from the family room eased some of the pain in my chest. We were happy just the two of us. We had been playing hot lava all day and laughing just as much as he and Detective Reed were. And I was a trooper because I felt like I was five seconds away from passing out.
I set the table for three, which was a first in this house. I tried to ignore the warning bells in my head. There was a detective in my home. One that seemed dead set on tying me to a crime I didn’t commit. So why did I feel excited? It had just been too long since I had been around a single man. That was all. But it didn’t stop me from tidying up the kitchen just a bit more.
I started to remove the take-out containers from the bags Detective Reed had brought. My fingers wrapped around a bottle and I pulled it out. It was just a simple bottle of Nyquil, but when I looked down at it, I felt the oddest sensation overcome me. My whole body felt warm, but it wasn’t from my fever. He brought me Nyquil? I felt tears prickle the corners of my eyes. This morning Zeke had offered to make me pancakes. And now a complete stranger had brought me medicine for my cold? I wasn’t sure I had ever felt more loved in my entire life. I immediately shook away the thought. Love? Detective Reed was just trying to butter me up. But my mind couldn’t convince the rest of me. I felt…cared for.
“I thought you’d appreciate that more than a bottle of wine tonight.”
I looked up to see Detective Reed leaning against the doorjamb. His shirt was a little off-center and his hair was askew. Zeke had probably jumped on him at some point during the game. And his cheeks were slightly rosy either from how cold it was in here or because he had been running around. He had also ditched his shoes somewhere because he was in his socks. He looked so comfortable and at home. I had never seen a more handsome sight.
“Yeah. Thanks.” I cleared my throat because the words had come out weird and squeaky. “Thank you, Detective Reed, I…”
“Tucker.” He smiled, making his appearance that much more handsome. “I’m off duty.”
“Tucker. Right.” I looked back down at the bottle. “I really appreciate this.” It was sweet and thoughtful. I sneezed.
“Bless you. There’s actually a box of tissues in there too.”
My knight in shining armor. I grabbed one of the tissues and blew my nose. When I lowered the tissue, Tucker’s smile looked even bigger. “What?” I touched my face, worried that I had just trailed snot everywhere.
“You have a little grease spot right there.” He tapped his right cheek.
I grabbed another tissue and mimicked him, wiping off my left cheek.
He laughed. “No, opposite.”
I could feel my face turning red as I wiped off the correct cheek. There was a lot of black residue on the tissue for it just being a tiny spot. My whole cheek was probably covered in grease. I continued to wipe it. “Is it gone yet?”
“Yeah. You got it.” He cleared his throat and looked around the room. “Is your furnace in the basement? Just point me in the right direction, I should probably get started on it so you don’t have to sit here shivering while you’re sick.”
“Let’s eat first, before it gets cold.” I gestured to the seat that was always empty at the kitchen island. For once in my life I was happy I loved to do everything in threes. Or else I wouldn’t have a seat for him.
Tucker may have been expecting a romantic night for two, but an extra seat was all I had to offer him. I didn’t even have a dining room table. I also had a son that he hadn't known about. And I was sick. Yet Tucker was still looking at me with a smile on his face. Like somehow this was his idea of a perfect night regardless of the weird surprises. I looked away.
“Zeke! It’s dinner time!”
He came running into the room, sliding in his socks across the wooden floorboards. “You’re both dead. Which means I get dessert first.” He scrambled into his usual seat, the one in the middle, with a big smile on his face.
I sat down on the other side of him. “Nope, we’re still alive.” I sneezed again. “Sick, but still breathing.”
He sighed like that was the most disappointing thing in the world.
I opened up the container closest to me and then closed it again. And opened it. And closed it. I started to do it one more time when Zeke put his hand on my wrist to stop me.
“Mommy, you’re doing that thing again.”
I pressed my lips together and set the container down. Normally I loved when he pulled me out of my funk. But in this one rare case, it felt like he had highlighted my issues to the whole world. I could feel Tucker staring at me, but I ignored it as best as I could. “Thanks, bug. You know what? You serve everyone.” I slid the container toward him and handed him a serving spoon. “I’m going to have a bit of Nyquil.”
I grabbed the bottle and turned my back to the two of them. Now I kind of wish he had brought a bottle of wine. Although, I hadn’t had a drink in ages. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a drink. There wasn’t any alcohol in the house. For all I knew, it would make my issues worse, not better. I twisted off the cap of Nyquil and took a huge sip instead of taking the time to measure it out. Hopefully this would at least help with my cold symptoms. I immediately sneezed after swallowing the sweet liquid. Ugh.
The two of them laughing made me turn back around. They both had dessert on their plates instead of the delicious chicken parm Tucker had brought. But in their defense, they both had adorable grins on their face that made it impossible to reprimand them. Plus the dessert looked pretty amazing too. It was some kind of ooey-gooey chocolatey goodness that I definitely would have chosen myself.
“You’re going to be up all night,” I said and kissed Zeke on the top of his head as I sat back down.
“So? It’s a three day weekend!” He shoved a spoonful of dessert into his mouth.
“Three day weekend?” Tucker asked. “I feel like kids get off for holidays I don’t even know about now. What is it this time? National Puppy Adoration Day?”
Zeke shook his head. “No, I just earned it.
Tucker moved his gaze to me but I looked away.
“This looks amazing.” I grabbed the container of dessert and put some on my plate. “What is it?”
“Chocolate bread pudding. I hope you like chocolate.”
I took a bite and held back a moan. “It’s amazing.”
“She loves chocolate,” Zeke said. “She has a whole drawer of it in her bedroom that I’m not supposed to eat.”
Zeke. I didn’t even know that he knew about that. “It’s dark chocolate. You wouldn’t like it.” I tickled his side.
His spoon clattered onto his plate as he fought a fit of giggles. “I love all chocolate too. Almost as much as hot lava! It’s your turn, Mommy.” He scooted off his chair.
“Zeke, you didn’t even touch dinner.”
“But the lava! It’s coming into the kitchen. Look.” He pointed to the clean wooden floor.
“Oh no,” Tucker said. “We better get back to the rocks!” He slid off his stool, lifted Zeke off the ground, and carried him back to the family room.
“You too, Mommy!” Zeke called through his laughter.
I abandoned the food and followed them into the other room. Who needed a well-balanced meal when there was fun to be had? And I was feeling a lot better after downing more than a recommended dose of Nyquil. I hopped from cushion to cushion, pillow to pillow with them before collapsing on the cushion-less couch to catch my breath.
END OF CHAPTER 7
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