Anyone feel like doing a beta read/proofread of a Maggie/Max scene?
If yes, keep reading and comment away in the comments or send me an email. (Feel free to tell me it makes no sense. It might not. Or that it’s stupid. It might be.) Ah, but be forewarned–it’s sort of depressing.
If no, you should stop reading now and wait for me to send you an email in a few days. (Ahem, assuming you’ve signed up for my mailing list, that is.)
There wasn’t enough food in the world.
But Maggie couldn’t stop.
Perfect small sandwiches, three bites each, of roast beef with arugula, ham and coarse mustard, smoked turkey with sharp cheddar.
Salads. Pasta with kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil. Potato using tiny red potatoes, hard-boiled egg and aioli. Chicken with green onions and red grapes. Spinach with warm orange dressing.
And desserts. Chocolate cake, so rich it melted on the tongue. Butterscotch cookies. Raspberry-topped cheesecake with a graham-cracker crust. Tiny cups of tiramisu.
The dining room table was full, dishes overflowing onto the sideboard, desserts organized on a side table in the living room, before the first mourners started to arrive.
Now she was on appetizers.
Smoked salmon wrapped around cream cheese, dill, and a sliver of lemon, rind included. Puff pastry stuffed with a spicy crab concoction, topped with fine slivers of green onion. Bacon, chopped small, mixed with hot peppers and grated sheep’s milk cheese, toasted on thin slices of baguette. Cheese puffs, light and airy.
Those must be Zane’s, Maggie thought, tears springing to her eyes. She blinked them back.
This wasn’t her tragedy.
She was just the caterer.
She had no right to cry.
She flipped the tiny burgers in the frying pan. It was a stupid way to cook them. A grill would be much better—easier searing, richer flavor. But she never argued with her subconscious when it came to food.
“Do you need any help?” a small voice whispered by her elbow.
Maggie looked down. She tried to place the face with no success until dim recognition swam up through her subconscious. “Emma, right?”
“Yes.” The girl beamed at her, her silver braces bright against her teeth.
“Where’s your grandma?” Maggie asked automatically.
Emma gestured with her head toward the living room. “She told me to make myself useful.”
“And you came to me?” Maggie said, annoyance stirring. She didn’t need help. Sure, the entire town was crowding into the house, spilling out onto the porch, gathering in small clumps on the lawn, but she’d cooked for hundreds of people before and for far more demanding clients. Max Latimer wouldn’t care if she served his guests pre-sliced cheese and cracker trays, with some fruit and veggies on the side. Her efforts were for her, not for him.
“I like it better in here,” Emma said. “And you need someone to carry trays.”
Maggie pursed her lips, looking down at the girl, then dipped her head in an abrupt nod. “Take that platter out.” She pointed at the perfectly arranged plate of appetizers. “And a pile of those little napkins. Make sure you give one to everyone who takes a crab puff. They’re messier than they look.”
Interest gone, she turned back to the stove, expertly sliding burgers onto open buns.
This was a hell of a way to cater. She didn’t even know what she had in the coolers she’d brought with her. She’d been dumping ingredients in at random, not thinking about what she would make with them.
But poor Max.
Poor all of them.
When had she last seen Dillon? Not the day of his death, she was sure of that. Maybe a few days earlier. He’d been in that sulky stage teenagers went through. Still polite, still called her ma’am and nodded when he said hello, but with that vague aura of discontent, of wanting more.
Had he killed himself?
But no, she couldn’t believe that.
The doubt must be killing Max, though.
The tears sprang up again and Maggie pressed a hand to her eyes.
Eleanor, now, she remembered exactly when she’d last seen Eleanor. It was the day before her death. She’d come into the bistro, looking as perfect as always, hair neat, back straight, clothes pressed, voice even, and asked Maggie if she would cater the reception to be held after Dillon’s memorial service.
Maggie had asked. She shouldn’t have asked. She should have kept her mouth shut. But she’d asked, “Do you want his favorite foods? He loved the mac ‘n cheese and those caramel brownies.”
Eleanor’s hands had clenched on the counter edge until her fingers turned white, and for a brief moment, Maggie could see the depths of the pain, a universe of pain, in her eyes. But before Maggie could come up with a way to backtrack, to rescind the suggestion, to say something—anything—to ease that agony, Eleanor had pulled herself together and said, “That won’t be necessary.”
Of course not. Dillon wouldn’t be there to eat the mac ‘n cheese. She needed to feed the living, not the dead. If only she could go back in time. Erase the words before they were ever said.
If only they could all go back in time.
Maggie paused, looking down at her work.
Her hands had kept moving while she was distracted. The sliders were finished and neatly plated, with tiny bowls of optional condiments—mustard, relish, ketchup—on the same platter. She’d put it on the table with the salads, and let people help themselves.
“Those look good.” Max stood in the kitchen doorway, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, striped tie.
“They are good,” Maggie snapped. She’d never seen him looking so… so…
“Sit,” she ordered, pointing at the kitchen table.
He looked so lost. The formal clothes, the clean shave, the neat hair—none of it disguised the fact that Max, the essence of Max, the laughing, cheerful, always confident Max, wasn’t present in that body.
She carried the sliders over to the table and set the platter in front of him.
His lips quivered before he tightened them. “Did you ever eat at White Castle?”
Maggie paused. “Sure.”
“There was a place in our home town. Not as cheap. But the buns, they were real bread and the burgers were…”
“Fried,” Maggie finished for him. The sliders weren’t for Zane. She pushed the platter a little closer to Max. “Eat.”
He picked up a burger.
“Use the ketchup,” she told him as she went back to the stove.
“Dad?” The voice was tentative, quiet.
Maggie glanced over her shoulder.
The daughter she barely knew, the dark-haired one who looked like Max but never smiled, joined them, stepping into the kitchen and dropping into a chair at the kitchen table as if her body couldn’t keep holding her up.
“The Raffertys…” she started.
“I know,” he said, around his bite of burger.
“All right.” The daughter sighed. “Did you—”
“No.” He interrupted her. “You?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said, her voice thick with tears. “I mean now… it all feels like something I’ve always known. But I swear this wasn’t how it was a week ago.”
“I never tried to find out. Not the kind of thing that you want to see,” Max said.
“No,” the daughter agreed.
A silence fell between them. Maggie started running water into the sink, trying to pretend she wasn’t in the room. Eavesdropping on their grief felt too intimate, too personal. But then they’d joined her in the kitchen. They knew she was there. It wasn’t as if she was intruding on their space.
Except she was, of course.
She wondered what Max cooked in this kitchen. He and Eleanor and Dillon were regulars at the bistro—or had been anyway. But not daily. Once, maybe twice a week. She knew from overheard conversations that Max took his turn cooking and that Dillon wasn’t—hadn’t been—an appreciative audience. He and Eleanor had laughed together about Max’s cooking while Max pretended offense.
What would he eat now?
But she was being stupid. Stupid and maudlin. Max was a grown man, with plenty of money, lots of friends, four grown children. He could take care of himself.
The suds were sufficient for her to start scrubbing. She washed dishes with the ease of long practice, moving from soap to rinse, stacking the bowls and plates and cutting boards in the dish drainer by her side, letting herself get lost in the monotony of the task.
“I wish…” The daughter’s voice was choked with grief.
“Don’t.” Max sounded calm, his tone even, easy. “We can’t change the future. Knowing wouldn’t have helped.”
Maggie glanced over at them. The girl—woman—had her face buried in her hands as Max stroked her hair. Hell. Of course he’d have to comfort his kids. They’d lost their mom. But who would comfort him? He’d lost his wife, his grandson—the people who shared his life. How was he supposed to recover from that?
The dishes were done. Everything clean, everything orderly and neat. Reaching out, Maggie flipped open the cover of the nearest cooler, but she already knew what she’d discover—she’d finished. The remnants in the coolers were just that, bits and pieces and scraps of food, nothing that she could use to make another appetizer or treat. But what had she intended to do with the half-dozen eggs?
“I’m good.” The daughter pushed back her chair and stood. “I’ll say our good-byes.”
Maggie barely caught the dip of Max’s head as he lifted another slider to his mouth. “I’ll be out soon.”
“Take your time.”
Max bit into the burger with a nod.
The daughter disappeared through the door.
Max set down the burger with a sigh and pushed the plate away from him.
“Come on,” Maggie said brusquely. The turn of Max’s head in her direction was so blank, so empty, it could have been insulting if she hadn’t understood how lost he was.
“Come here,” she told him, her voice more patient. “Up and at ‘em.”
“What do you need?”
“It’s not what I need.” She pulled the eggs out of the cooler and placed them on the counter top. “You need one meal. One base, upon which you can create multitudes.”
Was that a spark of interest in his eye?
“People screw up omelets because of temperature, mostly,” she continued. “Well, that or choosing the wrong ingredients to include. Tomatoes can be tricky. But we’ll start with the basics—nothing complicated.” She curved her fingers at him, gesturing for him to come closer. “Come on.”
“You’re going to teach me to make an omelet?” He pushed away from the table and stood.
“Two keys to a good omelet.” She ignored the question as she set a frying pan on the stove and turned the heat on. “First, temperature. You want your eggs to be room-temp and your pan pre-heated. Omelets need to cook quickly. Slow-cooked eggs get rubbery.” She held out an egg to him and he took it, holding it uncertainly. “Go ahead, crack it.” She nodded toward one of the bowls she’d just washed.
With a little too much enthusiasm, Max smashed his egg against the side of the bowl. It shattered, egg yolk and shell in pieces in the dish.
Maggie pressed her lips together. Sliding the bowl away from him, she dumped the mess into the sink. “Eggs are cheap,” she told him. “A good place to screw up. But try more gently this time.” She handed him another egg.
This time he was too tentative, tapping the egg against the edge of the bowl three, four times, before he finally cracked the egg and wound up with yolk and white trickling against his fingers, half the shell in the bowl.
“A reasonable start,” she murmured, sliding the bowl away from him and dumping it down the sink. “Try again.” She passed him another egg.
“Are you sure about this?”
She smiled at him. “We’ve got four more eggs and after that, we’ll start with the dozen in your fridge. Eggs are cheap. We can go until you get it.”
His next attempts were more successful. She passed him a fork. “Some people add milk or water now, for a lighter, fluffier omelet, but I prefer the richer taste of pure egg. A little salt and pepper don’t hurt, though.”
Max stirred the egg with caution, stroking through the yolk with the tines of the fork as if he were drawing in the bowl.
“Harder. You need to beat the eggs, not just play with them.” Maggie circled her hand in the air to demonstrate. “It’s not dough, you can’t over-mix it.”
“You can over-mix dough?”
“Flour forms gluten, it gets tough.” Maggie rummaged in the cooler. She hadn’t used all the green onion for the crab appetizer and she still had some left-over cheese from the toasted baguette slices. That would do.
“Ah, a molecular reaction. Interesting. I hadn’t thought of cooking as chemistry before.” He mixed the eggs with more enthusiasm. “So you said two keys to an omelet?”
“The second is butter, real butter.” Maggie dropped a generous dab of butter into the pan.
“Ah, don’t tell…” Max started, a note of humor in his voice, before pausing and continuing, his tone deeper. “… Natalya. She worries.”
Maggie heard the midstream name-change. She pressed her lips together and swallowed, staring at the butter already beginning to melt and bubble in the pan. Should she let it pass? No.
“Eleanor would say all good things in moderation,” she replied tartly. “Or at least she would if it involved chocolate.”
“Ha.” Max chuckled. “Yes. Yes, I suppose she would at that.” He set down the fork.
Maggie pointed to the pan. “Look at the butter. See how it froths? We want to pour the eggs in as soon as the bubbles settle and the butter browns. That gives it the best flavor.”
She walked him through the rest of process, letting him tilt the pan as the egg solidified, sprinkle on the green onion and cheese, fold over the eggs, and finally neatly slide the golden-brown omelet onto the plate she had ready and waiting.
“Well.” Max looked pleased with himself, then doubtful. “I’m not actually hungry.”
“You’re not going to eat it.” Maggie picked up the fork as Grace stuck her head in the door. “I am.”
“Uncle Trent’s on the phone, Dad,” Grace said. “Can you take it?”
Grace disappeared, but Max lingered. He watched as Maggie took a first careful bite of the omelet. “Is it okay?”
She chewed, swallowed, nodded. “It’s perfect.”
He grinned at her, his blue eyes bright. “So tomatoes are hard, huh? But onion, ham, maybe some peppers? Those are easy?”
“Easy enough.” She took another bite of the omelet.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets, hunching his shoulders. He looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words.
“Go.” Maggie tilted her chin at the door. “Your phone call’s waiting.”
“Yeah.” He moved to leave but before he passed through the door, he turned to face her again. “Thanks.”