Waiting On You

Page 26


By the time she got back, the three burger specials were just about ready; the two medium burgers were on yellow Fiesta ware; the well-done order was on blue. Colleen lifted the bun to check it. It was dark, all right. Just not dark enough.
“What are you doing?” Connor asked as she put the burger back on the grill.
“It’s not well-done enough,” she said.
“You said well-done. It’s well-done.”
“I said petrify. Where’s that Chinese sauce?”
“Which Chinese sauce?”
“The fire sauce.”
“It’s over the sink. Go easy on that. It’s vicious. Two drops will bring a grown man to his knees.” He turned back to the chicken marsala he was making.
Colleen rummaged through Connor’s salt collection; honestly, did a person need seven different kinds? Rock, kosher, sea, truffle, black... Aha! Here it was, the strange little bottle with the dragon on the label and some mysterious Chinese characters. She took it out, checked to ensure that the burger was a hardened, dry, hockey puck of meat, then put it back on the bun. Doused it with fire sauce, then added a splash more on the fries.
She brought the plates out to the bar and set them in front of their respective orders. “Enjoy, gentlemen,” she said.
Levi folded up the blueprint of the public safety building. “Lucas will be helping us out,” he said. “Project manager.”
“That’s great,” Colleen said easily. “Glad you found someone to help you.”
Lucas gave her a long look, picked up his burger and took a bite.
Colleen smiled. Happiness was being in charge.
His eyes began to tear. Sweat broke out on his forehead. He raised an eyebrow, then, she had to give it to him, chewed and swallowed. With great effort. He took his doctored up beer and drank it down. Rested the cold glass against his forehead.
“All right, mate?” Tom asked.
“I’m fine,” he wheezed, as the fire sauce had paralyzed his vocal cords a li’l tiny bit.
“How’s that burger, hon?” Colleen said.
“Perfect.” He wiped his face with a napkin, and Colleen leaned her elbows on the bar and just enjoyed the sight of him, sweating, red-faced, maybe a little closer to death than he had been a few minutes ago.
“I made it special just for you.” She smiled sweetly.
“I guessed that.”
Then he stood up, slid his hand around her neck and pulled her in for a kiss.
She didn’t see that coming.
Didn’t pull away, either.
It was a hard, authoritative kiss that seared through her. Good God, the Spaniard could kiss. His five-o’clock shadow scraped her just the right amount, and his mouth, oh, yes, that mouth of his, that fallen-angel mouth...and then it was over, and he stood in front of her, dark and sure and steady when she was lucky to be standing, her legs suddenly warm and wonderfully weak, her special places bursting into song. Also, her lips were burning, thanks to the fire sauce, but hey. Worth it.
Then Lucas smiled that pirate’s grin full of secrets and fun and cockiness, and her heart was rolling and shaking like a hyperactive puppy.
Oh, man. She was in trouble.
The bar was completely still.
“We should get that dinner sometime,” he said calmly, his voice normal now.
“I thought this would count.”
“It doesn’t.”
“Oh. Okay, then,” she said, then cleared her throat.
“Thank you for the wonderful meal.”
“You’re very welcome,” she said. “My pleasure.”
Then the kitchen door banged open, and Connor tapped Lucas on the shoulder, and punched him in the face.
* * *
“I’M NOT SEEING him,” Colleen said three hours later. “Rufus, tell your uncle Connor he’s got his head up his butt.” Unfortunately, Rufus was engrossed in a documentary about Yellowstone National Park and couldn’t drag his doggy eyes off the family of wolverines on screen. It was ten past midnight, and Connor had demanded an audience to discuss her love life. Which was a joke because there was no love life, of course.
Not yet.
Lucas had taken Connor’s anger like a boss; a Southie from Chicago wouldn’t be bothered by one punch, no matter how enraged the brother who’d thrown it. Levi, being a cop and all, jumped to his feet, and Tom did, too, but Lucas just said, “It’s fine. I earned that.” He slid a twenty under his plate, nodded at Colleen and left calmly. Connor glared at his retreating back, then at her, then at Levi, then at the bar in general, then stomped back into the kitchen, where he banged around for the rest of the night before coming for Big Brother Lecture. He’d always taken those three minutes very seriously.
“Colleen, I saw how you were looking at him.”
“Yeah, okay, he kissed me. Look. He’s back in town because Joe Campbell is dying. Of course I’m going to see him from time to time.”
“You know what you are? You’re one mattress fire away from becoming our mother.”
“I’m not like Mom,” she said calmly. “How dare you and all that. Want some ice cream?”
Connor folded his arms and tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling (and pray for patience, Colleen knew). “If you’re not dating him, why were you flirting with him?”
“I wasn’t.” Rufus put his head on her foot, then licked her ankle with his giant tongue.
“Yeah? What was that game with the fire sauce, then?”
“Oh, just a little...signal. A shot across the bar.”
“It was flirting. And then you let him kiss you.”
She pulled a face. “Yeah. That might’ve been dumb.”
“He’s divorced.”
“I know.”
“Do you want to get back together with him? You gonna move to Chicago? Is he dating anyone back there?”
“I don’t know. Look. It was one kiss.” Well, then, there was that other kiss, down by the lake. Two kisses.
“One kiss? This wasn’t the first time, was it?”
“Look, Long Island Medium, he took me by surprise, okay?”
“Just remember what he did to you last time. I don’t think he deserves a second chance, personally. But I’m just your brother. I’m just the one who’s been watching you avoid a serious relationship this past decade.”
“Where’s your wife, huh? Do you have three beautiful children stashed somewhere? No? So don’t throw stones. You won’t even be seen in public with this mystery woman of yours.”
“Don’t change the subject.” He sat on the floor; Rufus, the whore, rolled onto his back and presented his stomach (and other parts) for admiration. Connor flinched. “You should get this dog neutered.”
“He is neutered.”
The twins were quiet for a moment. They didn’t fight often; well, they bickered constantly, and Mom still complained about it, but they hardly ever really disagreed. “You shouldn’t have punched him,” she said.
“He broke your stupid heart,” Connor grumbled.
There was no lying to her brother.
She’d done her best to hide her feelings last time. She certainly didn’t want to be like Mom. Didn’t want people to know she’d been dumped. She was supposed to be smarter than that.
But Connor knew anyway. Despite her playing it lightly with most people—You know how fickle young love is. Hardly ever lasts—Connor knew.
“I don’t want you to get hurt, Collie Dog Face,” her brother said now.
“Me, neither.”
“Be careful.”
She swallowed. “Yeah.”
Connor scratched Rufus’s tummy another minute, then stood up and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “See you.”
“Wait. Who’s your girlfriend? Do I know her? Is she a prostitute? I won’t judge either of you. Please tell me,” she said.
“Good night,” he called from the door. Tossed her a grin and left, his feet thumping on the stairs.
THE CHICKEN KING lived in a beautiful old Victorian house that had once belonged to Mark Twain’s wife’s aunt, legend had it. Colleen was here to go over the planned encounter with Bryce. And just to hang out a little because, let’s face it, she really liked Paulie.
The blue-and-cream-painted house sat high on a hill in a heavily wooded neighborhood overlooking Keuka Lake. Their driveway was long and shaded, and the house had to have at least twenty rooms.
However, the yard—grounds, really—were littered with giant metal chicken statues in lurid colors, like a terrifying dream you might have as a kid when you’re running a very high fever. As the breeze blew, it made a strange whistling sound through the, uh, artwork, making it sound like the chickens were moaning. And those beaks looked mighty sharp.
“Dad collects these from all over the world,” Paulie said. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Colleen said, trying not to look. She’d always been a little afraid of chickens, personally. The polka-dotted statue seemed especially hostile.
Inside, the house was just as beautiful, carefully restored and extremely elegant. Not what you’d picture for the Chicken King; well, no, there were a lot of paintings of chickens on the walls, as well as Mr. Petrosinsky dressed in chicken garb standing next to various local celebrities...and some national celebrities, too. “Is that Meryl Streep?” Colleen asked.
“Oh, her. She’s so nice. Loves the Sweet Home Alabama Triple Batter Honey Dijon,” Paulie said.
“And Vladimir Putin?” Perhaps the Russian Mob rumors were true, after all.
“Make-Mine-Miami Cuban Spice.”
Paulie’s bedroom was a Maxfield Parrish–blue, deep and poignant. A dressing room bigger than Colleen’s entire bedroom, filled with clothes.
“Yeah, I don’t wear much of this,” Paulie said. “If you see something you want, take it. You know me. I mostly wear gym clothes.” She was, in fact, now clad in spandex shorts that showed her ripped muscles in great detail, and a Cabrera’s Boxing T-shirt.
“You shouldn’t. You have a great figure. Very girl-power strong. Here. Put this on. My God, it’s Armani! Hello, gorgeous! Dog, don’t chew on that,” she added as one of Paulie’s rescue dogs, this one looking like a dirty mop, began gnawing on a boot.
A few minutes later, Paulie frowned at her reflection.
“See how it hugs you here?” Colleen asked. “You look taller and leaner.”
“These shoes are killing me.”
“Offer it up to God. And this belt is funky and young and surprising. You look incredible!”
“Are you sure? I feel weird.”
“It’s just an adjustment, trust me. Where’d you get all these clothes, anyway?”
“My dad. He does a lot of online shopping.”
“He’s single, right?” Colleen asked. Hey. If she was going to have a sugar daddy, she was going to have one who bought Armani.
“Yeah. Ever since Mom left, you know.”
Colleen squeezed her hand. “Okay, so on to Operation Flat Tire. This is how it’s gonna go.”
“Oh, God. Will this really work?”
“Of course!”
The plan was simple. Bryce was home, a little benign stalking had shown. Joe was at dialysis, Evil Didi was at work. Lucas—not that she was thinking about him too much (pause for laughter)—was out at the public safety building, according to Levi, who’d come to the bar for lunch just half an hour ago.
“So,” Colleen said. “You get a flat tire, and heck, what’s this? You’re right in front of Bryce’s house, and Bryce is home! What do you do?”
“Change the tire.”
“No, Paulina. You don’t change the tire.” The pug barked, backing her up.