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“Have you always been this dramatic?” I laughed as I ate another cookie.

“Pretty much, yes.”

Wiping the powdered sugar off my hands onto my jeans, I stood up. “All right, sorry to cut the visit short, but I have to be somewhere. I’ll stop by when we get back into town, okay?”

I bent down and kissed her wrinkly forehead.

“Where do you have to be? What’s better than me?”

“Uh…” I stammered. “I’m teaching a friend to cook today. Just something easy for dinner. No big deal.”

Her eyes sparkled and she hit the table with her hand again. “I knew it!” she yelled.

“Knew what?”

“Is this little someone a woman?”

I sighed, not wanting to answer her question. She stared at me pointedly, tapping her fingers on the table.

“Yes,” I finally admitted. “It’s a woman, but it’s not what you think. It’s Mike’s wife.”

“Oh.” Her head jerked back a little in surprise. “That’s not at all what I was expecting.”

“Exactly. It’s just a cooking lesson. Let’s leave it at that, okay?”

“Okay,” she said unconvincingly. I gave her a wave and turned toward the front door. “Most men wouldn’t put cologne on for a cooking lesson, though!”

I shook my head and reached for the doorknob as she yelled out one more time. “And don’t forget about my party. And the strippers. Maybe they can jump out of the cake!”

“Good-bye!” I waved as I shook my head and closed the door.

THE BEST SOUND ever greeted me as I walked through the front door of Michelle’s house.

“Yay! Viper!” I heard the thud of Matthew’s footsteps running toward me.

“My man!” I set the grocery bags down so I could catch him when he jumped into my arms like he always did.

“How are you feeling today?” I scanned his face. Nice pink color. No dark circles. “You look great.”

“I feel better.” He smiled as he wrapped his arms around my neck and squeezed so hard he made me cough. “You were right, the electricity worked!”

I frowned at him. “Electricity?”

“In the Gatorade.”

“Oh! The electrolytes!” I laughed. “Yep, they seemed to work. I’m so glad. Want to help me carry these bags?” I lowered him gently to the ground, and he immediately grabbed two of the bags and dragged them along behind him on the wood floor. He dropped the bags in the doorway, almost making me trip on them, and ran off to the family room to watch TV.

I pushed the bags on the floor into the kitchen with my foot. Michelle was standing by the island with the biggest smile on her face.

“Oops! I’ll get those.” She ran over and picked up the abandoned bags. Her blond hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail and a pink apron hung from around her neck. She looked completely adorable standing there, all ready to go. “I’m so excited. I hardly slept last night.”

I laughed as I set the bags on the kitchen table. “Really? For lasagna?”

“I love lasagna!” She licked her lips and sighed happily.

“Me too. It’s one of my favorites.” I started pulling things out of the bags. “I also got the stuff for an awesome salad, garlic bread, and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.” Turning back to face her, I pulled my brows in tight. “Do you drink wine?”

“Not often, but yes. Tonight, yes.” She nodded excitedly. “What can I help with?” She grabbed one of the other bags and started pulling things out. “Holy cow, this is a lot of stuff.”

I sensed the intimidation in her voice. “Don’t worry, it’s not a tough recipe. I promise.”

“Okay,” she sighed. “But if it sucks, I’m blaming you.” She winked at me and started moving the ingredients to the island.

Once everything was out of the bags and set up, it was time to start.

“Okay.” She clapped loudly and put her hands on her hips, swaying back and forth as she eyed the stuff on the island. “What do we do first?”

“First, you relax.” I smiled. “You’re not gonna wrestle it, you’re gonna cook it.”

“Sorry.” She laughed. “I’m a little pumped.”

“I can tell.” I motioned toward her apron.

She looked down at herself and back up at me. “What? You don’t like my apron?”

“Oh, it’s fantastic,” I teased sarcastically as she frowned at me. “Let’s get moving or we’re gonna be ordering pizza again.” I piled up the ground beef, Italian sausage, onion, and garlic. “Why don’t you start browning those?”

“Okay.” She nodded, then shifted her eyes up to mine. She looked tiny and innocent and adorable. “Um… how do I do that?”

“How do you brown something?” I repeated back to her, positive I’d heard her question wrong.

She bit her lip and nodded.

“Whoa. Okay, let’s start with the basics. Where are your pots and pans?”

“Ugh. This is so embarrassing.” She covered her face with one hand and pointed to the cabinet behind me with the other.

I opened the cabinet and pulled out a frying pan that had clearly never been used.

Trying hard to contain my shock, I held it up and looked at her. “Is this brand new?”

Still hiding her face behind her hands, she nodded.

I reached out and moved her hands from her face. Her cheeks were as pink as her apron and she looked down at the ground, avoiding my eyes.

“How long have you had these?” I asked as I lifted her chin to face me.

“That’s not important,” she snapped playfully as she grabbed the pan from me and put it on the stove. “Teach me how to brown this stuff.”

She turned to face the stove and my eyes moved slowly from the top of her head, down her neck, then down to her collarbone. I swallowed hard and forced myself to look away.

Get your shit together, Viper. You’re teaching her to cook dinner and then you’re leaving.

“Okay.” I cleared my throat. “Open the meat and drop it in the pan, turning the heat between medium and high.”

Michelle’s movements were very slow and very graceful as she did everything I said, just the way I said to. Every time I gave her instructions on something, her tongue stuck out just a bit as she concentrated.

We worked together in the kitchen like a well-oiled machine, and before long, dinner was ready.

Maura woke up from her nap just in time to eat. While Michelle went up to get her, Matthew and I set the table. I moved the tray of lasagna over to the table and poured two glasses of wine while Michelle buckled Maura into her highchair. Matthew sat in his seat, Michelle sat in her seat, and I pulled the chair out at the end of the table.

“That’s daddy’s seat,” Matthew said innocently, staring up at me.

Michelle gasped quietly and covered her hand with her mouth, turning away from him.

“You know what, buddy? You’re right. That’s your dad’s seat and I don’t want to take it. Can I sit in this one next to you instead?” I moved over to the chair next to him as he nodded eagerly.

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