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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Christmas Cookies

Copyright © 2017 by CL Mustafic

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2017

Edited by: BJ Toth

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com

Printed in the USA

First Edition

December, 2017

Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers.

Christmas Cookies

CL Mustafic




Table of Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

About the Author

To Ky, thank you so much for all your help. It’s been invaluable.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the usual suspects, Tonna Saunders, Jamila Lindsey, Christina Quinn, and BJ Toth. You ladies are the bee’s knees.

Chapter One

“You guys sure you got all your stuff?” Russ asked for the third time as he backed out of the driveway.

“Yes, Dad,” both his children said in that tone all adolescents use when irritated by their parents.

“All right, I’m only asking because I don’t want a repeat of what happened last weekend.” Russ drove down the quiet residential street, past houses where lights gleamed in the early dusk of late November.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Yeah, sweetie?” Russ looked in the rearview mirror at his fourteen-year-old daughter.

“Remember those turkey cookies David used to make?”

The question hit Russ in the gut, but he schooled his features for the benefit of his children. “I do.” His gaze went from the road to the mirror to the seat next to him, where his sixteen-year-old son was staring intently at the screen of his phone, causing Russ to wonder if the question had been something the boy had known was coming.

“Do you think maybe you could give the recipe to Mom so we could make them this year?” Annabelle asked.

“We’ll see.” Russ’s words sounded hollow as they passed his lips, which suddenly felt numb. The thought of someone else making his David’s cookies didn’t sit well with him.

“I really like those cookies and I miss–”

“Enough, Belle. He said he’d see.” RJ interrupted his sister before she could say something that would upset the quiet calm of the car ride.

“It’s fine. I’m not sure where the recipe is, that’s all, but I will see if I can find it, okay?” It was a flat-out lie, but Russ knew it would buy him some time to figure out how to handle the situation.

“Okay.” Belle settled back in her seat and quiet descended on them for the rest of the five-minute drive.

Pulling into the driveway of the house he used to call home, Russ put the car in park and turned to RJ. “I’m not going to come in tonight, so tell your mom I had something important to do so she doesn’t worry.”

“Okay, Dad.” Putting his phone in his pocket, RJ turned to open the door but stopped. “Are you going to be okay?” he asked without looking back.

“I’ll be fine,” Russ said, patting his boy on the shoulder. It didn’t matter how not okay he was going to be once alone, but he had to reassure his kids that he would make it through just fine.

Arms came from the back seat area to wrap around his neck. “I love you, Daddy.” Annabelle squeezed him tight from her awkward position, and Russ wanted to say something to let her know he was fine, but she disengaged and was out the door before he could find the words. He waited until the kids were at the front door before waving at them and pulling out onto the street.

Home. For Russ, the word held little meaning, and walking into his empty three-bedroom ranch-style house after dropping his kids off was always hard. He put his keys on the peg next to the door before stripping off his coat and hanging it on the coat tree, both habits he’d established in another time, another life. He bent to untie his boots and set them on the matt off to the side of the door before walking through the dark house to the kitchen. He flipped on the light and stared at the shiny marble countertops, not a crumb remaining after his kids had cleaned up the supper mess. They were good kids, and he was thankful for the hours he spent with them—the hours when his mind was too occupied to think about the past.

The refrigerator was one of those big stainless steel monstrosities that took up twice as much space as the original had, but David had insisted they needed it. Popping open the drawer on the bottom revealed a selection of frozen pizzas, ready-made meals, and the thing he was looking for: ice cream. The half gallon of rocky road was only a quarter full but Russ felt the need to indulge, and since alcohol was out of the question, he’d have to take what he could get. Grabbing a spoon and forgoing a bowl, he sat on one of the stools at the raised center counter and spooned up a gob of chocolatey goodness while his gaze stayed trained on the box on the opposite counter.

The box, covered in cartoon cookies and cakes with top hats, had belonged to David. His David, the man he’d shared his house, his life, and his love with, the man who’d left him alone far too soon. He didn’t even register the first tear, and by the time he noticed he was crying, there was a small puddle on the table next to the empty ice cream carton. He couldn’t do it; there was no way he could open that box and face what he’d lost again. Instead of digging for the recipe Belle had asked for, he got up, threw the empty container in the trash, rinsed the spoon, and then splashed some water on his face. Shutting off the light, he left the box in the dark.

The couch in the den had become his bed, so after pushing his jeans off, he lay down and turned on the television. Watching but not watching, he spent the evening in a stupor, just passing time until he fell asleep.



They were sitting next to each other in a booth at the Downtown Café when David’s smile stretched his lips up enough to show his teeth. He quickly covered his mouth to hide the one crooked tooth he was so self-conscious about.

Don’t do that,” Russ said, and just like always, he reached over to pull David’s hand away from his face. He leaned in and planted a kiss on the other man’s cheek. “I love your snaggle tooth. It’s cute.”

You lie, Love, but I’ll pretend I believe you.” David’s very proper British accent made every word he spoke sound like music to Russ.

It’s true, but if it really bothers you why don’t you have it fixed?”

David sighed and shook his head sadly. “I’m terribly frightened of dentists and only go when I’m in pain,” he said, looking down at the checkered tablecloth before slowly raising his blue eyes in a shy gesture to meet Russ’s adoring gaze. “Do you really not mind how ugly I am?”

Russ snorted. Ugly was not even on the list of words he’d use for David, who in his eyes, was one of the most handsome men he’d ever met. What a beautiful, cultured man like him was doing with a blue-collared nobody like Russ was a question for the ages, but Russ wasn’t going to let the man go if he had a say in it.

Leaning in close so as not to be overheard, Russ whispered, “I think you’re gorgeous, and if you’ll come home with me tonight, I’ll show just how much I like the way you look.”

David’s smile was radiant and Russ’s chest tightened at the sight of it. Russ bent his head, thinking he’d give the other man a little taste of what was to come, when the background music was suddenly blasting out a familiar tune. Russ looked around and when he turned back, David was gone.

The tightness in his chest changed to a painful, crushing squeeze that didn’t dissipate when Russ woke up to answer his phone. “Yeah?”

“Hey, Russ, sorry if I woke you up, but RJ left his geometry notebook at your place last night, and I was wondering if you could find it and maybe drop it off at the school for him,” Aubrey said in a burst of words that rattled Russ’s sleep-addled brain.

“Slow down and give me a second.” Aubrey’s familiar laugh came through the phone as Russ rubbed his face and sat up. “Okay, now what did he forget again?”

“His notebook. It’s neon green and he says it should be on the desk in his room, and if it’s not there, check under his bed because that’s where everything always ends up.”

“Does he need it right away?” Russ stood and walked down the hall to his son’s room, and sure enough, the notebook was sitting right there in the middle of the desk. He picked it up and took it with him when he went back to the living room.

“No, he doesn’t need it until third period, so you’ll do it then?”

“Of course. I don’t have my first appointment until nine so I’ll just leave a few minutes early and swing by,” Russ said before looking at the clock to find he was already running short on time.

“Thanks, hon. I wouldn’t ask but I have Lamaze class this morning.”

“Ah, well, I wouldn’t want you to miss a class on how to breathe.”

“So funny. Okay, I have to run, thanks again,” Aubrey said before hanging up.

Russ had to hurry to get dressed and out the door. Climbing into his big white van with the words VISOK PLUMBING AND HEATING in big green letters on the side, he plopped his coffee cup in the holder and backed out. The high school was on the way to his first job so he stopped and dropped RJ’s notebook off in the office before driving across town to the townhouse complex where he was kept on retainer for all their plumbing and heating needs.

Parking in front of the unit on the end, Russ got out of the van. He opened the side door and grabbed his toolbox. In his experience, most jobs could be handled with just a few select tools. He walked up the concrete path but before he could even take the two steps up to the front door, it opened.

“Oh my God, you’re finally here!”

Russ stepped back when the woman—he thought the long-haired, robed figure was a woman—reached out for him. The person let their hand drop and the eyes above the scarf wrapped around their face twinkled with mirth. “Sorry, I’m just so happy you’re here. Please come in,” the—Russ wasn’t so sure, but the voice sounded more masculine this time—person said.

The smell hit Russ as he stepped over the threshold and suddenly the scarf around the resident’s face made perfect sense. “Man, that really stinks.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s what I told the building manager,” the person—okay, Russ was almost certain it was a guy—said.

Russ followed his nose to the bathroom and knew instantly what the problem was. “You got a blocked vent.”

“Is that bad?”

“Well, we usually don’t see this sort of thing unless the temperature is in the minuses when the vent is on the roof, but it could be that an animal got in there or a bird built a nest that got dislodged and fell in to block it,” Russ said, turning and walking past the man—yes, it was a man, or a very hairy lady who didn’t shave her legs. “I’ll have to go up on the roof.”

Russ retrieved his ladder and set it up against the side of the townhouse. The shingles were slippery with the overnight frost, which was nothing new for him, but he still carefully made his way to the vent. Finding it strange that anything could have gotten in when the vent was capped with only quarter inch slots, he unscrewed it to find something odd. He reached in and pulled out a balled up piece of cloth that he shoved halfway in his pocket before recapping the vent and climbing down.

The man was standing at the door and opened it when Russ climbed the stairs. “Was it blocked? I hope no helpless animals got trapped in there,” the man said from behind the scarf.

“Nope, no animals but it was plugged.” Russ pulled out the red fabric and watched as the man’s eyes widened in surprised recognition.

“That fucker!” He snatched the shirt out of Russ’s hand and turned to go into the hall, leaving Russ to stand there not knowing what he should do.

“Hey, I’ve got to get going,” he called into the empty hall. “I have another appointment. Your problem should be solved, but if the smell doesn’t clear up by the end of the day, give me a call.” He pulled a card out of his pocket and was just about to set it on the little table next to the door when the man came back out. He had a wallet in one hand and a cell phone in the other that was on speakerphone and ringing.

“I’m sorry, how much do I owe you?”

“Ah, nothing, the manager of the building pays me.” Russ rubbed the back of his neck before turning to the door.

“Thank you, so much for coming—” A tinny voice on the phone interrupted him when it answered the call and Russ hesitated before stepping out the door. “Randy, you son of a bitch! How could you do this to me after all we’ve been through? I swear I’m going to—” the slamming of the door cut off the rest of the man’s rant to the person on the other end of the call.

Russ shook his head as he walked to his van. Some people.



Russ took a deep breath as he stood in front of the recipe box. Annabelle had called and asked him if he had found the recipe she’d asked for, and he’d had to make up an excuse for not having done so, but now he was going to remedy that. He ran a finger along the top of the box. He could do this. He could and he would. He closed his eyes and flipped the lid, took a couple more deep breaths, and looked into the box.

David’s cards were all there, and seeing them brought back memories Russ had been trying to shut out, because when they hit, they hit hard. He quickly flicked through and it was easy to find what he was looking for because David was always organized and his recipe box was no different. Once he had the card that was labeled “Kid’s Favorite Turkey Cookies” he sunk to his knees on the floor. Staring at the familiar handwriting, he felt the emotions build in his chest until a loud sob just couldn’t be contained.

Do you want to help me make the cookies, Love?”

Which cookies?” Russ had just walked into the kitchen to find his new lover wrapped in an apron.

I’m making my Thanksgiving Turkey cookies. I thought the kids would like them,” David said with a smile as he accepted a kiss.

Do you want them to be edible?”

Of course, that’s the whole point now, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want them to taste like shite, would we?”

Russ chuckled at the way David’s accent always made everything sound so proper—even swear words. “Then you don’t want my help.”

You can cook, so why do you think you can’t bake?” David was already measuring out ingredients into a mixing bowl.

It’s a whole different ball game, baking and cooking, not the same at all.” Russ grabbed a beer out of the fridge and propped a hip against the counter. “I’ll just watch if it’s all the same to you.”

Fine, but I think you’d be able to make cookies if you put your mind to it,” David said, stopping to give Russ a kiss on his way to the fridge to grab the eggs.

Why should I learn to bake?” Russ asked, pulling David into his arms before he could make it past to set down the eggs. “When I have you to do it for me?”

David’s eyes shined when he looked up at Russ. “That’s right, you have me and I’ll always bake whatever you want for you.”

Russ opened his eyes and stared down at the card in his hands. “Not always, David, not always.”

Chapter Two

Flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, butter, eggs—Russ ticked off the items on his list as he walked through the store putting the ingredients into his cart. After a long night of thinking about it, he’d decided to take a stab at making the cookies on his own. Why? Russ didn’t know but the thought of handing over David’s recipe card to anyone else made his stomach hurt. Why not copy it down then? Nope, that made him want to puke too, because those cookies were David’s way to show how much he loved Russ’s family, and even though David was gone, his love lived on. Sappy? Yes, but it was the way Russ felt, and he was going to make the damn cookies if it killed him.

His phone began ringing just as he was loading the bags into his SUV. There was no name attached to the number, so he adopted his professional tone as he answered. “Visok’s Plumbing and Heating; this is Russ.”

“Hi, um, this is Amos Knight. You were at my place yesterday, clogged thingy because of a T-shirt?” the caller said.

Russ rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mr. Knight, what can I do for you?”

“I think the smell is back.”

“Back? As in, it went away and now it smells again?” Russ asked looking for clarification.

“Well, yes, it seemed to clear out pretty quickly, and I didn’t smell it when I got home yesterday or this morning, but today when I got home… I think it’s back,” he said, not sounding too convinced.

“Well, I’m not in my van right now, but I can stop by and check it out, and if it’s indeed back, I’ll have to go get my ladder unless you have one I can use.” Russ got in the driver’s seat and started the engine but waited for an answer before he pulled out since Amos’s place was in the opposite direction from his house.

“Um, I’m not sure. There might be a ladder in the garage. I’ll check before you get here,” Amos said. There was a pause and then. “I’m really sorry to call after hours.”

“It’s no problem. Guys in my line of work are never off the clock.” Russ hung up and drove to the complex.

The man was standing in front of an open garage door, and once again, he had the scarf wrapped around his face, but at this point Russ wondered if it was a fashion statement rather than a necessity.

“You got here fast.” Amos’s eyes twinkled at him above the scarf.

“I was in town doing some grocery shopping,” Russ said, not knowing why he felt the need to share that information.

“Well, there’s no ladder. I thought Randy might have left one in there, but it seems he thought that was more important to take than his damn underwear.” Amos shook his head as he looked into the neat and orderly garage that held a light-blue Prius and some shelving but no ladder. He turned and walked to the front door, leaving Russ to trail behind him.

The lack of smell when the front door opened surprised Russ. “I don’t smell anything.”

“Really? I’m sure I smell it.” Pulling the scarf down just enough so that his nose was exposed, Amos sniffed and made a face before pulling the material back up. “No, I smell it, are you sure you don’t?”

Russ walked down the hall to the bathroom but didn’t detect any odor. He stood in the small room breathing deeply, but nope, there was nothing but the faint scent of cologne lingering in the air. “Sorry, there’s nothing here.”

Amos put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “I’m going crazy then.”

Russ chuckled. “Nah, maybe you’re just worried that it will happen again and your mind is providing you with the olfactory proof it needs to convince you it’s happened.”

“And that’s not crazy how?”

“It happens.” Russ shrugged and followed Amos out to the front door. “I have to get going. Ice cream in a warm car is not a good thing.”

“Well, thanks for indulging my crazy, and I’m sorry. I promise not to call you again unless I get a second opinion about the smell.” Amos’s eyes crinkled with an unseen smile, and Russ wondered why the man didn’t take the scarf off now that he knew the smell was just in his head and not in the air.

“Not a problem, I’m on call twenty-four seven.” With that, Russ left the strange little man on the doorstep and headed home. He had some baking to do.



The dough was sticky, and then the dough was too stiff to roll out properly after he added flour, so Russ threw the first batch into the trash and started over. The next dough was better, and he actually got a pan in the oven but that didn’t end well. It seemed he’d forgotten to read the back of the card where David had left a note that their oven temp was off, and he had to adjust the temperature down which meant Russ’s first pan of turkey cookies came out browner than an actual turkey.

After scraping the pan off into the trash, he readjusted the temperature to reflect the change David had made and tried again with the other half of the dough. He watched the cookies carefully through the little window in the oven door and was just about to yank it open when the timer went off. He took out the pan of perfectly cooked treats and smiled at his win. Just a couple of minutes to cool and he picked one up to taste it only to spit the chewed up cookie into his hand while looking for something to rinse the foul taste out of his mouth.

He rinsed, gurgling and spitting into the sink until the awful taste no longer lingered on his tongue. What the hell had he screwed up? Well, he knew the answer, but how had he used too much salt? He’d followed the recipe to the letter. He was sure of it. He picked up the card and looked at the ingredient list and then smacked himself on the forehead. Teaspoon not tablespoon, idiot. He didn’t have enough ingredients or the patience to try again, so he cleaned up his mess before nuking himself a frozen meal for a late supper.

He sat in front of the television eating food that had no taste and watching a show that didn’t keep his attention, before falling asleep on the couch.



“Russ! Russ, over here!”

Russ heard his name and found the person responsible for drawing everyone’s attention to him. He waved at Aubrey as he made his way up the bleachers to where she was sitting. “Sorry I’m late, had a broken water line that couldn’t wait until morning.”

“It’s no problem, RJ doesn’t swim until the next race,” she said, before leaning into him and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Belle is over there sitting with her friends.”

Russ looked for and found his daughter, who was deep in conversation with her group of friends. “Ah, I see she worked things out with Erika.”

“Yeah, you know how it is: one day they’re best friends, next day mortal enemies and then just as quickly, back to best friends again,” Aubrey said with a smile for the antics of teenage girls.

“So, how are you? Getting excited about the new one?” Russ looked pointedly at his ex-wife’s bulging belly.

“Getting excited? Hell, I’ve been excited since the day I found out. But I have to admit, I’m a little scared to go back to being the mommy of an infant. Do you remember when we brought RJ home?”

“Oh, do I ever.” Russ cringed.

“You were awful.”

“Not as bad as you. I thought you were going to bubble wrap everything and that was before the kid could even roll over.” Aubrey laughed and he waited until she stopped. “But we did good and it will all come back to you.”

“We did do good, didn’t we?”

Russ smiled and they watched as their son took the block and second place in the hundred-meter freestyle. Russ cheered louder than anyone, even Aubrey, who he could feel was staring at him once the pandemonium died down. “What?”

“How are you doing?”

“I’m fine.” Russ sighed because he’d known the question was coming. He’d avoided going into the house when dropping off the kids, which Aubrey took to mean he was avoiding her. It had taken him six months after David’s death to resume his weekend visits with the kids, when he’d gotten sober enough to be trusted with them. Since then he’d made an effort to go into the house when he dropped them off to chat with Aubrey about the weekend and the schedule for the upcoming week. Usually the only times he didn’t was when a holiday or an anniversary of an important date was fast approaching. Though it had been over a year and a half since David’s passing, the thought of spending yet another one without him still threw Russ into a depression he found hard to crawl out of. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever again be able to feel the joyful anticipation holidays used to inspire in him.

“Belle told me she asked for the recipe. Was that the reason you didn’t come in?”

“No…yes…no…not really. I don’t know, it just took me by surprise and hit me a little harder than I thought it would,” Russ admitted. It was still tough knowing everyone had seen him at his lowest, and having them treat him like he was something fragile was hard on his ego at times.

Aubrey put her arm around his waist, and as a result, he had to put his arm around her shoulders to make it comfortable for both of them. “I’m sorry. When she told me how much she missed David and his cookies, it was my idea for her to ask for the recipe.”

“It hurts to think of someone else making his cookies. To think of eating something he used to make but made by someone that’s not him. I’m not sure I could handle that yet.” Russ was sure he wasn’t making any sense, but it was the way he felt.

“I understand that. I mean, divorce isn’t the same but there’s a loss there too. After our divorce, I couldn’t stand the thought of doing things that I thought of as stuff we did as a couple. It hurt so much the first time I had to put up the Halloween decorations without you there,” she said. Halloween had been the first holiday they’d spent apart after the divorce, and Russ hadn’t even decorated his small apartment since he’d had no kids there to enjoy them.

“It’s not the same.”

“I’m not saying it’s exactly the same because I know it’s not but the principle is. Loss is loss and you have to find a way to go on.” Aubrey clutched him harder. “David wouldn’t have wanted you to stop living.”

“You know, I hate it when people say that,” Russ said, taking his arm off her shoulder to give himself some distance. “Nobody knew David like I did, so how do you know he wouldn’t want me to sit around moping for the rest of my life?”

“You’re just angry and sad and you and I both know that’s not true. David loved you so much there’s no way he’d have wanted to see you miserable for the rest of your life, so don’t tell me you think that way.” Aubrey pinched his side to put a point on it before withdrawing her arm from around him.

In frustration, Russ rubbed his scruffy cheeks with both hands. “Yeah, I know, and I’m trying, okay?”

“I know, sweetie. I know.” Aubrey patted his knee.

After RJ’s last race, Belle and her friend Erika joined them in the bleachers. “Dad, can Erika spend the night tonight?”

“Did she ask her parents?”

“Yep, and her mom said it was fine as long as she didn’t stay up all night because she has music lessons tomorrow morning, so can she?”

“Sure. Do we need to stop by her house to get her things?”

“Nope she brought them with because I told her you’d say yes,” Belle said before throwing her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Daddy.” The two girls went off to gather Erika’s bag.

“I got played, didn’t I?” he asked Aubrey.

“It happens.”

RJ was done with his races but stayed with the team on the side of the pool until the meet was over. Once all the medals were handed out, they met at the door. After saying goodbye to Aubrey, Russ loaded the three teenagers into his SUV and drove them home. The kids went straight to their rooms, leaving Russ to call for pizza. He paid the delivery guy and hid in the den with his pizza while the kids watched movies. At midnight, he shut the television down and sent the girls to bed with the promise to make sure Erika got up in time to be ready for her mom to pick her up for her lesson in the morning.

Russ slept relatively well for the first time in months.



With Erika off to her lessons and RJ still in bed, Russ and Belle were sitting at the counter in the kitchen when he decided to tell her his plan. “So those cookies you wanted, what do you think about you and me making them?”

Belle raised her eyebrows and cocked her head. “But, I thought you couldn’t bake stuff.”

“To be honest, I can’t, but you used to help David, and you bake with your mom, right?” Belle nodded. “What do you say? Want to give it a try?”

“Sure, I guess.” Belle didn’t look too enthusiastic about it, but Russ figured once they got into the process, she’d come around.

“Okay, so do you know how to use the mixer and stuff?” Russ’s idea was to get his daughter to mix the cookies because so far his attempts at it had failed.

She rolled her eyes in typical teenage fashion before getting up and gathering the utensils she’d need while Russ grabbed the ingredients and lined them up on the counter. He watched as his little girl competently measured out and mixed the dough.

“You’re good at that.”

“I like to bake with Mom, but she doesn’t have the time with work and baby stuff,” Belle said. She dumped the dough on the counter and formed it into a ball before putting it back in the bowl. “I need cling wrap.”

“For what?”

“Well, this dough is easier to work with if it’s cold, so you put it in the fridge for a bit before you roll it out,” she explained.

“It doesn’t say that on the card.” Russ picked up the card and read it again, even turning it over to see if there was something in the note on the back.

“I suppose David knew that and didn’t have to write it down.” Shrugging, she found the cling wrap and covered the bowl before setting it on the shelf in the fridge.

“So what do we do while we wait?” he asked.

“Watch a movie?”

An hour and a half later, they were back in the kitchen, and Russ had to admit the cold dough was much easier to roll out, which he did, but he let Belle use the turkey-shaped cookie cutters. He put the turkeys on the pan, made sure the temperature was right, and set the timer before crossing his fingers the cookies would turn out.

“You’re great at this. I’ll tell you a secret,” Russ said after the next pan was filled and awaiting its turn in the oven. “I tried to make these a few times this last week, and I screwed it up every time.”

“Really?”

“Really, so that’s why I asked for your help and you exceeded my expectations,” Russ said proudly.

“Well, we haven’t tasted them yet…”

“I’m sure they’ll taste great.”

Belle bent to look at the cookies in the oven. “You know, you could have asked RJ to help. He’s actually better at baking than me. Mom lets him do it on his own sometimes.” She stood up and faced Russ, who was trying to digest what she’d just said, because he had no idea RJ liked to bake. He realized he’d missed a lot in the past few months while he’d been wallowing in his misery and vowed to try to do better. “I miss David’s Christmas baking. Remember all those things he used to make?”

Russ nodded. He remembered how the house smelled like heaven throughout all of December as David made it his personal mission to gift as many baked goods as humanly possible to everyone he saw. And how he’d had to fight to keep from gaining twenty pounds with all that temptation around him.

“Are we going to have a Christmas tree this year?” Belle’s question brought him back to the present.

“Um…sure, do you want one?” Russ hadn’t had any decorations up for any holiday since David’s passing, but he never thought it would affect the kids, since Aubrey always went all out, and they’d spent the holidays with her since David died.

“It would be nice, but if you don’t–”

“No, if you’ll help me, we’ll set it up this year.”

“It’s a deal.” Belle’s smile was bright, but Russ thought he detected a hint of sadness behind it. Before he could dig into the matter further, the timer went off.

He pulled the hot pan out and set it on the pad before sticking the next one in. They stood and admired the cookies. “I suppose they need to cool before we can frost them, huh?”

“Unless you want the frosting to run all over the place. I prefer my frosting on the cookies though.”

“Funny.” Russ pulled his daughter into a hug.

After spending the day with his kids and hearing them talk about the upcoming holidays, Russ started to formulate a plan. He wasn’t sure how he was going to pull it off, but he felt it was something he needed to do, and maybe, just maybe, it would help him get a start at moving on with his life. He made a note to check into the classes at the community college when he had some time alone.



When Russ showed up at his old house for Thanksgiving, he knocked on the door before letting himself in. He was greeted by Noel, Aubrey’s husband and the stepfather to his children. “Hey there, I didn’t hear the bell,” Noel said as he took the flowers from Russ’s hand.

“I didn’t ring it. Just sort of let myself in. Guess old habits and all.” Russ slipped out of his coat and hung it among the many others in the hall.

“Ah, well, I can’t blame you. It was your house first.” Noel shrugged and led Russ to the living room where everyone else was gathered.

“Daddy!” Belle got off the floor, where she’d been playing a board game with her cousins, and hugged Russ.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Russ said as he hugged her tightly. “Where’s your brother?”

“He’s in the kitchen with Mom and Grandma and some woman mom invited because she had nowhere else to go,” Belle said. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Ah, not right now, I’m going to go say hi to your mom first.” Russ greeted the other people in the room on his way through and sighed with relief when he got to the quiet calm of the kitchen. Well, relative calm since there were three women and one man jostling around for position as they prepared the big meal. The smell was awesome though, and Russ smiled at the fond memories it brought back of a simpler time. Holidays were a double-edged sword for him since David had died, once-cherished memories turned bittersweet by the loss.

“You made it,” Aubrey said, looking up from the cutting board and finally noticing him.

“Of course I did. Did you think I wouldn’t?”

“Well, it is a little later than you usually show up.” After wiping her hands on a towel, she rounded the counter so she could hug him. “I’m happy to see you.”

“Me too. Do you need any help in here?”

“No, in fact everyone was just talking about the cookies you and Belle made so I think you get a pass this year on helping out in the kitchen.” She turned to the woman, the only person in the house Russ was unfamiliar with, and said, “Mary, this is my ex-husband, Russ.”

Mary’s face lit up with a smile, and Russ’s heart sank. He glared at Aubrey who pretended not to notice while Mary washed her hands and made her way to join them. “Hi Russ, it’s so nice to finally meet you. Aubrey has told me so much about you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too. How do you know Aubrey?” Russ asked to make it clear he’d not heard anything at all about her.

“We volunteer together down at the community center’s daycare,” Mary said without missing a beat. “We’ve known each other for a couple of years now, but this is the first time I’ve been on my own for a major holiday.”

Russ kept himself from asking why she was all of a sudden alone for the holidays, fearing he’d have to sit through a messy divorce story, so instead, he changed the subject completely. “Where’s RJ? I didn’t see him out there and Belle said he was in here.”

“Oh, well, you know him, he’s probably up in his room on his phone,” Aubrey said. She’d gone back to chopping things, but it seemed that Mary was going to accompany Russ out into the living room.

Russ spent the day trying to avoid Mary as much as possible by sticking close to his kids who, thankfully, caught on to what was happening and rallied around their old man. Aubrey just rolled her eyes when she saw what was happening to her little attempt at a setup. It was during the cleanup that he finally had to face his ex-wife alone.

“Is this going to become a thing then?” he asked as he took another pot and submersed it in the hot soapy water.

“Why? Are you hoping the next one will be more to your liking?” Aubrey finished drying the pot in her hands and turned to put it away. “I know Mary is your type, in the looks department at least, and if you got to know her, you’d see that she’s the kind of woman most men dream about. She’s independent so she’s not overly clingy. She’s well educated, so you could have a conversation with her that’s not just gossip about the neighbors, which I know you hate. She’s—”

“If she’s so great, why’s she single?”

Aubrey crossed her arms right above her bulging tummy and scowled at Russ. “She was with her partner for seven years. She moved here to be with him and then things went downhill. A woman like Mary isn’t the type to put up with a wandering man, if you get my meaning.”

“So he cheated on her, and she kicked him to the curb. Good for her.”

“It is, but she’s out here now, all alone. Her family’s back East and I know it’s hard at our age to meet people, so I thought maybe…” She avoided looking at him, and instead, picked a lid out of the steaming rinse water.

“Maybe you’d take the two sad sacks in your life and throw them together and see if they stuck?”

“It’s not that simple, and you know it.” Aubrey stopped vigorously rubbing the lid in her hands and put one hand on her hip. “You need to get back out there and start seeing people. Mary’s a nice woman, and she knows what you’re going through, so she wouldn’t push for more than you’re willing to give. I thought—”

“No.” Russ threw the sponge into the sink and turned on her. “You didn’t think, Bree. You couldn’t have thought because if you had, you’d have thought about how ambushing me at a family gathering was not a good idea. Not now, not when I’m just starting to get my feet back under me.”

Aubrey’s lip trembled and for a moment Russ felt bad about his outburst, but then she threw her arms around him, and he was angry again as he tried to get away from her embrace. “Don’t, Russ. Don’t pull away from me. I’m so sorry about what I did, but I’m so happy to hear you say that you’re getting better.” She released him and took a step back so she could look into his eyes. “Has something changed?”

Russ shrugged because she probably wouldn’t understand that him opening David’s recipe box had been a huge step for him toward moving on with his life, but if he told her what he’d done after baking with Belle, she’d never let him live it down. “I just know that it’s time to start living a little more, nothing huge,” he said. He dried his hands. “Do you think I could take the kids now? I’d like to go home, but if you want them to stay I can come back and get them later.”

“You can ask them, and if they want to go, it’s fine with me.”

“Thanks, and for that I will forgive you the Mary thing,” Russ said. With a kiss on the cheek for her, he left to find his kids so he could get the hell out of Dodge.



“Okay, up and at ’em.” Russ roused his sleeping kids just before noon. “I have French toast and bacon in the kitchen. Last one up has to do the dishes.” Knowing the threat would get them moving, Russ went back to the kitchen and sat with his coffee.

“Dad, why did you let me sleep so late?” Belle asked when she joined him.

“Well, we were up pretty late last night, so I thought you should get to sleep in. Plus, you can rub it in when your mom picks you up and whines about getting up at four to go shopping.”

“That’s true.” Belle dug in and was almost finished by the time RJ came out of his room.

“What are we doing today?” he asked, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he sat down and shoved a piece of bacon into his mouth.

“I thought we’d decorate, put up the tree, maybe me and you can string up some lights outside while Belle does the ones around the windows in here.” Russ watched as his kids exchanged a look. “Oh, come on, it will be fun.”

“It’s not that.” RJ wasn’t looking at Russ but, instead, at his plate while he sliced up his food.

“Then what is it?”

“Are you going to be okay, like, with putting up the tree and stuff?” Belle asked.

Russ suddenly knew why his kids were acting strange, and he rushed to assure them that he would indeed be able to handle the emotional impact of hanging up colored lights. “I can handle it. It’s time we get back to some normal activities around here.”

“Yay!” Belle squealed. She popped up and hugged Russ before running off to the garage where the decorations were stored.

“Belle, sweetie, it’s cold out there. You should finish eating and get dressed and then we’ll—” The slamming of the door cut him off.

“I’ll go help her.” RJ got up and followed his sister, leaving Russ to stare at the half-finished breakfast on the table. Grumbling, he stood and cleaned up the mess while the kids dragged boxes in from the garage.

By that evening, his home had been transformed into a winter wonderland. Sitting on the couch with the kids after supper, watching holiday movies, Russ knew decorating had been the right thing to do. It had hurt to see the ornaments he and David had picked out together, but it had been a muted pain, one that had had a little time to heal and so he’d been able to bear it better. Seeing his children happy and not walking on eggshells around him had been a result he hadn’t expected, and that was something wonderful, making any pain worth bearing.

Chapter Three

The community college was only a short drive from Russ’s house, but it had snowed just enough to cover everything in a couple of inches of white. As always, with the first snow of the season, came the multiple idiots who forgot what just seven months before had been the norm. He avoided at least three accidents in his commute to the newly cleared parking lot in front of the large brick building that housed the town’s one and only institution of higher learning.

The classroom where Introduction to Baking was held was in the back of the building, but Russ had printed out a map and followed the red line through the maze of hallways that were nearly empty. Inside the room, there were a few people milling about a table, which held a big metal coffee percolator and assorted cookies. To Russ’s surprise, there were quite a few men in the crowd, but as he joined the group, he realized all the men, himself excluded, were there as part of a couple.

He unzipped his coat, thankful he’d gone home and changed out of his work clothes before coming, since it looked like everyone else had dressed in their Sunday best. He poured himself a cup of coffee and took one of the cookies off the platter, smiling at the people standing around him the whole time. A quick look at the clock told him the class should start in a minute or two, but it didn’t seem like the people standing around were in any hurry to find a seat at one of the ten stations set up around the room.

A chime played, and on the final note, a man rushed into the classroom. “Hello!” he called in a booming voice that got everyone’s attention.

Russ watched, along with the rest of the class, as a young man in chef’s whites took off his coat and hung it over the back of the chair that sat by the small desk in the corner of the front of the room. He swept the stocking hat off his head to reveal a long, jet-black ponytail. He turned and smiled at the assembled people and something about the way his eyes scrunched at the corners was familiar to Russ.

“Good evening, and welcome to Intro to Baking,” he said as he stepped closer to the group. “I’m sorry I’m running a bit late, but I see that you all found the snacks Carmen set out for you.” An older woman smiled and gave a little finger wave when he pointed her out. There were mumbles of thanks to Carmen. “I like to keep this class informal and fun because baking is fun.”

It sounded cliché to Russ, and he was immediately skeptical of his choice to sign up for the class. What had possessed him to do such a stupid thing? Like one class was going to give him the skills he needed to make all the things in David’s Christmas section of the recipe box. Russ found himself sidling toward the door, thinking maybe he could make a quick, unnoticed exit, but his plan was stopped short.

“Russell, why don’t you start us off?” the man said.

“Huh?” Russ realized he hadn’t been listening to a word the man had said after he’d declared that baking was fun.

“I guess we’ve already found our reluctant baker for this term.” The class laughed along with the instructor. “I have to admit, you’re the first person who’s tuned me out this quickly. Heck, I’ve barely introduced myself and already you’re heading for the door.” More laughter made Russ uncomfortable with the attention he was receiving from the young instructor.

“I guess I just spaced out for a minute there,” Russ said, trying to smile. “What did you ask?”

“I asked everyone to introduce themselves and give us a short explanation of why you’ve come to this class.”

“Oh, um, I’m Russ and I’m here because my kids miss the Christmas cookies,” Russ said without thinking and like always when he thought of David, his right hand went to his left and found the empty place where the gold band had once been. It was the first mistake he made because all the women in the group gave him that look. The one that said, “Oh, poor you, let me do something, anything, to make it better.”

“Well, by the time you’re done here, you will be able to make cookies, I promise.” The man smiled at Russ before moving on to the next person.

Russ listened to everyone’s story of what brought them to the class. Most cases were couples who wanted to do something together; others were women who either wanted to learn to bake for the man they had at home or the one they hoped to get one day. When all was said and done, Russ felt like an outsider, so when it was time to pair up, he hung back.

“Would you like to be my partner?” one of the unattached ladies asked.

Looking up from his feet, Russ realized there was a line behind her—all the single women were waiting to hear what he said. He could feel the rush of heat running up his neck at the attention, but thankfully, he was saved.

“Russ, I’d like to pair you up with Joanne here,” the instructor said, eliciting a few grumbles from the line of would-be partners. He waved Russ over to a table occupied by a small pregnant woman who wasn’t paying attention to anything but the phone in her hands. “Russ, this is Joanne. I think the two of you will make a very successful baking team.” The man winked and suddenly recognition dawned on Russ.

“You’re that guy, Amos, right?”

Amos smiled. “You really weren’t paying attention earlier, if you missed my introduction, but to answer your question, yes, I’m that guy, Amos Knight.” He held out his hand, and Russ had no choice but to take it. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Is he going to get a better grade because he knows you?” Joanne looked up from her phone to ask.

Amos chuckled. “There are no grades in community education classes, Joanne.” He pulled Russ aside just out of hearing distance and said lowly, “I thought it might be better if you didn’t have to fight off advances from your partner, but if I was wrong, by all means…”

“No, thanks. I appreciate the help,” Russ said, letting his gaze go from Amos’s handsome face to the woman who would be his partner. “She looks ready to give birth at any second though.”

“She actually emailed me and told me she was just beginning her ninth month and wondered if she could still come because she wanted to bake a cake for her husband’s birthday. I think it’s sweet, but I told her I wasn’t sure we’d get to cakes before she’d need the knowledge. She paid the fee anyway, so who am I to judge?”

Russ shrugged because he had nothing to say to that. “Thanks again for the help,” he said when he noticed everyone else was staring at them. He joined Joanne at their station and watched in amazement at how fast the woman could type on her phone.

“So, I always like to start off with a few questions to gauge where we need to begin,” Amos said from the front of the room. “Who here knows how to crack an egg?” Russ raised his hand as did everyone else in the room. “Good, that’s good, so nobody here has to attend the special egg-cracking class.” Laughter greeted Amos’s joke, and Russ started to relax just a bit at the laid-back atmosphere the other man perpetuated.


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