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“Going stir-crazy, but otherwise hanging in there.”

“Okay, I gotta go. Go make your risotto or enchiladas or whatever.”

Carlos laughed as he set his groceries down in the kitchen and took the risotto rice out of the bag. It was good to have friends who knew you better than you knew yourself.

He turned on the basketball game to keep him company while he cooked. One of the only things he’d made the time and effort for after moving into this house was to put his TV on a pivot, so he could watch it in the kitchen while he cooked, and then turn it so he could watch it from the couch while he ate. The ideal set up, really.

He chopped an onion, sliced the fresh mushrooms and soaked the dried ones, and peeled the asparagus. The rote movements gave him the feeling of zen that this kind of cooking always did for him. He couldn’t think about the stuff that had happened at work that day or worry about what would happen tomorrow when he was busy carefully dicing an onion so that all of the pieces were the exact same size. Just as he turned the heat on underneath his big sauté pan, he heard his phone buzz and grabbed it out of his pocket. Nik.

I just finished a huge story and I’m starving, want to get dinner?

He texted her back without stopping to think.

I’m in the middle of making dinner. Want to come over? How do you feel about mushrooms?

Holy shit, what was he thinking? He never invited women over to his place; it was kind of a thing of his. After a few way too fast relationships in his mid-twenties, he’d learned to keep the women he was dating away from his space. If women came to your place, they always wanted to change things to how they liked them, probably in preparation to move in all too soon.

I feel great about mushrooms. What’s your address? I’ll leave here in about fifteen minutes. Does that work?

Okay, but wait. This was Nik. She’d made it very clear to him that this was a rebound for her, just quite not in those words. And unlike a few of the conversations he’d instigated with women about keeping a relationship casual where they’d said that was fine with them but had made it clear shortly afterward that that was absolutely not fine with them, he knew that Nik hadn’t been bullshitting him.

4242 Sequoia Street. See you soon.

Plus, Nik was fun to cook for. She’d gone crazy over those pancakes he’d made her. And it seemed like they’d both had busy days. Some stress release with her in his big bed sounded like an excellent way to end this day.

* * *

• • •

As Nik walked up the front steps of Carlos’s little gray cottage, she suddenly felt shy about basically inviting herself over to his house. Had he really wanted her to come over, or did he just ask because she’d texted him out of the blue and he didn’t know what else to do? She wished she’d called him instead, even though the two of them never talked on the phone—it was always easier to tell from a voice how someone really felt than from a text message. Well, it was too late now. He opened the bright red front door before she reached it.

“Hey.” Okay, he looked normal. “Come on in.”

The house was as masculine and put together as Carlos always was. The living room had a big fat leather couch, a huge TV on one wall, and a fireplace against the other. She dropped her stuff by the door and followed him into the big open kitchen that looked like something out of the Williams Sonoma catalog.

He moved back to the pan on the stove and started stirring. He was wearing a soft blue cotton T-shirt, the gray pants that he’d clearly worn to work, and patterned socks that made her hold back a smile.

“This kitchen is incredible. You told me you were a good cook, but I didn’t know you were, like, copper-pots-hanging-from-the-ceiling good.”

He glanced up at the pots and shrugged. Was that a blush she saw? He wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“The copper pots were definitely an extravagance. To be fair, the first one was a housewarming gift from Angie. But when I bought a house with a beautiful rack to hang pots, what was I supposed to do?”

She thought about her collection of high heels that she almost never wore but kept buying because of the built-in shoe shelves in her walk-in closet that displayed them so beautifully. She nodded.

“Obviously you had to buy pots to fill it; I get it.”

He handed her a glass of wine.

She took a sip of the wine as she looked around the kitchen and big open living room. She liked it. Even without anything but the TV on the wall, it felt like a home.

“I didn’t even ask what you wanted to drink. Sorry, I didn’t have any rosé,” he winked at her, “but that should go well with dinner.”

Wait. This seemed way too cozy, didn’t it? His nice little house, his big warm kitchen, Carlos at the stove, stirring together things that smelled delicious . . . maybe Courtney had a point after all.

No. They’d talked about this, remember? Carlos had looked very relieved when she’d said she wasn’t in the place for a relationship. This wasn’t that, this was just one friend making dinner for another friend. She and her friends did this all the time. This time, she and her friend would just happen to have sex afterward, that’s all.

“I wouldn’t dare to question you on wine. You told me to always trust you with food and drink recommendations, and I took that to heart.”

She took another sip of wine and tried to let herself relax. She’d spent days wrestling with a big story that she still didn’t know if she was good enough to write. While she’d had moments of thinking she’d nailed it, the rest of the time she worried it was a complete failure.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Yeah. I’ve just been holed up in my apartment for the past three days finishing that story, and now that it’s done, I feel like I’m coming out of a coma.” She took her sweater off and tossed it on a stool. “It’s great to relax here with some wine and have you cooking a delicious-smelling dinner for me.” He looked back down at the food with a smile. Was he blushing? Maybe.

“Thanks for inviting me to share your dinner, by the way. What are we having?”

He looked back up at her.

“Risotto. I hope you like it.”

Wow, he wasn’t kidding about being able to cook.

“I don’t know anyone who knows how to make risotto. I’m pretty sure I’ve only had it in a restaurant.”

He laughed as his big wooden spoon made rhythmic circles in the pan.

“Oh, I love making it.” He poured some liquid from the smaller pot on the stove into the big one and stirred some more. “It’s funny; I don’t even really like eating it that much. I mean, I like it, but I would never choose to order it in a restaurant. But I love to make it.”

She took another sip of her wine and looked around at his kitchen. He had four bowls lined up next to him, two with mushrooms in them, one with bacon, one with cheese. And then there were the two pots on the stove. But most amazingly, other than a cutting board with a knife sitting on top of it, there were no dirty dishes anywhere. The rest of the kitchen looked spotless.

“It seems like a lot of work for a Wednesday night,” she said.

He nodded.

“It is—that’s why I love it. When I’ve had a really long or difficult day, it relaxes me to cook. It gives me a break in the day to concentrate on something else. And risotto is especially great, because after you do a whole bunch of chopping, then you just have to stand there, preferably with a glass of wine, and slowly stir the rice until it’s just right. Every so often, you add some liquid, and you stir some more. You can’t rush it; you can’t turn up the heat or add the liquid all at once to make it go faster. It’s ready when it’s ready. And so you just stand there and keep stirring, and everything settles down by the time the food is ready.”

She’d never heard anyone be so eloquent about risotto before.

“Wow. I feel more relaxed just hearing you talk about making it.”

He looked up and met her eyes, and she could feel his smile all the way down to her toes.

“What a nice compliment from the person who wrote that heartbreaking story about foster children in the Times Sunday magazine.”

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