Authors: Debbie Macomber
Kacey slowly shook her head. “You're the most amazing woman I've ever met.”
My face relaxed into a smile. “Thank you, but I don't know if that's true. I'm being very selfish with myself right now. Taking care of me, feeding my own soul.”
Kacey studied me as if she didn't know what to say.
Seeing that we'd both finished our lunches, I stood and carried our plates and bowls to the sink.
“That bread,” Kacey said, repeating herself, “is amazing.”
“It is,” I agreed. “I'll be happy to give you a loaf.” As it was, my freezer was full of bread. Despite my polite protests, Nikolai insisted on baking me bread for every class.
“Where does this talented student of yours work?”
“Koreski's Deli. From what I understand, Nikolai bakes all their bread.”
Kacey wandered into the living room and looked at the bookshelves as if she'd never seen my collection before. “You have to take me there so I can buy my own.”
Actually, I'd never been to the deli. “I'm not sure they sell full loaves.”
“Then we should find out,” Kacey insisted, reaching for her purse. “Let's go.”
This was just like Kacey. Once she had her mind set on something she became an unstoppable force, forging ahead.
“I'm here. I can't think of a better time, can you?”
I tried to think of an excuse, but knew even if I did Kacey would veto it. Amused, I grabbed my purse and out the door we went.
Koreski's Deli was less than a mile from my apartment. Finding a parking space was almost impossible. I would rather have walked, but Kacey had insisted on driving.
Seeing that it was the lunch hour, customers formed a long line, waiting to place their sandwich orders. As best as I could see, the deli didn't sell the bread. That didn't stop Kacey, however. She got in line as I wandered around the deli, looking over the specialty items. At one point I thought I saw Nikolai in the back, but I couldn't be sure. The kitchen was visible through a small window in the door and there appeared to be several workers purposefully moving about.
I picked up a jar of garlic-stuffed olives when the door from the kitchen burst open.
“Teacher.” Naturally, it was Nikolai.
Turning at the sound of his voice, I saw that he was dressed completely in white. I smiled, letting him know I saw him.
“Everyone, please, you must see my teacher.” Nikolai came around the counter and reached for my elbow, urging me toward the counter. “Mr. Koreski, this is my teacher. She knows all about English.”
“Nikolai,” I protested under my breath as he nearly dragged me to the front of the line to meet the owner.
“Leanne,” I said, extending my hand.
Mr. Koreski wore a large white apron and was well into his sixties. A huge smile broke out across his face as he took my hand. “Nikolai talks about you all the time.”
I feared that might be happening. He'd mentioned Koreski's Deli so often I knew working there was a big part of his life.
“I bake her bread,” Nikolai continued proudly. “Show her appreciate.”
“Appreciation,” I corrected under my breath.
“Yes, yes, appreciation.” Taking hold of my elbow, he led me to another employee and introduced me again. This process was completed until I felt I must have met everyone in the entire deli, including several of the customers. By this time I was convinced my face was pink with embarrassment.
“Nikolai,” I said, stopping him before he dragged me onto the sidewalk so I could meet passersby. I didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm, but this was too much. “My friend is here,” I said, hoping to distract him. “I made us lunch with your bread and now she wants to buy her own.”
Right away he shook his head. “Not possible. I only make bread for you.”
“I know, you explained you don't bake the bread here.” I wanted to be sure Mr. Koreski didn't think Nikolai was stealing from the deli.
He looked at me and blinked. “Here bread is mixed by machine. At home I make with my hands.”
“The deli doesn't sell your breadâ¦I mean, other than just for sandwiches?”
“Not the same.”
“So Kacey can't buy your bread?” I asked again, for clarity.
“No,” he said again, his eyes holding mine prisoner. “I only bake bread for you, my teacher.” And then he added something I didn't quite make out, but it sounded as if he said “my Leanne.”
Monday afternoon, I checked my phone for text messages as I walked across the school parking lot. Sure enough, Shawntelle had sent no fewer than six messages. Each one mentioned Rocco. The last one made me smile.
Shawntelle: You lasso in that man because if you don't want him, I do.
Rocco and I were friends. I wasn't even sure you'd call us that. We were more acquaintances than real friends. I knew Kaylene better than I did him, and this dancing lesson was for her benefit, not Rocco's or mine.
Me: Rocco and I are just friends.
Shawntelle: I can have him?
Me: You might want to ask him first.
Shawntelle: I knew there was a catch.
Me: U want me to give him UR contact info?
Shawntelle: Do bears poop in the woods?
Me: U got it.
I was still smiling when I picked up Owen from daycare, and I had just walked into my apartment when my phone rang. Owen charged into the apartment as I pressed the cell to my ear.
“We still on for tonight?” Rocco asked, sounding none too happy.
“Yeah. You're not canceling, are you?”
He snickered. “Do you seriously think Kaylene would let me?”
I smiled, knowing that if he backed out now he'd never hear the end of it. “You're right. Do you like wieners and homemade macaroni and cheese? If you don't, bring your own dinner, because that's what I'm serving.”
“I'll eat anything I don't have to cook myself,” he assured me. “I feel bad. I shouldn't have asked you to make dinner when you're the one doing Kaylene and me a favor.”
“Hey, a deal's a deal. I agreed, so come around six with an appetite and then be prepared to work it off.”
Background noise filtered over the phone and I didn't hear what Rocco said next. “Sorry, I didn't get that.”
“Probably better you didn't,” he grumbled.
“Okay, see you and Kaylene at six.” I was about to disconnect when I remembered Shawntelle's avid interest in hooking up with Rocco. “Rocco,” I said hurriedly.
“One of the women at Dress for Success saw you and is interested. Do you want me to pass along your contact info?”
He chuckled. “This is a joke, right?”
“No, I'm serious. Her name's Shawntelle. She's a whole lot of woman and has got the personality to match.”
He didn't answer, and at first I didn't think he'd heard me. “Rocco? Did you get that?”
“And?” I didn't want to pressure him, but I knew Shawntelle would bug me until she had an answer.
“Okay, I'll tell her. See you later.”
His response was unintelligible, but he sounded gruff, as if he was annoyed. I guessed this whole dance-lesson business had put him in a bad mood. When we first spoke he sounded like he was in good spirits, and then he'd gone all quiet and pensive on me. He might not have appreciated me trying to set him up.
By six I had dinner nearly ready. The cheese sauce was simmering on the stove and the pasta water was at the boiling point. I had brussels sprouts that I'd boiled and then sautÃ©ed in butter and garlic.
Owen was full of energy. My son got down on his knees and was driving his trucks across the living room floor and making loud noises when the doorbell rang.
It could only be Rocco and Kaylene. I greeted them and saw that Rocco wasn't in any better mood than he had been earlier. He carried a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bottle of white wine in the other.
“You ready for this?” I asked, enjoying myself. Rocco looked like a complete grump.
“I'm ready,” Kaylene answered enthusiastically.
Owen jumped up and ran to greet our guests, tilting his head back as far as he could go without falling backward in order to look up at Rocco.
“Owen, you remember my friend Rocco, don't you?”
Owen nodded and Rocco stuck out his hand for Owen to bump. My son grinned and they bumped fists.
“This is Rocco's daughter, Kaylene.”
Owen immediately grabbed hold of Kaylene's hand. “Come see my twucks.” His lisp was becoming more pronounced lately. I was concerned, but Jake felt sure he'd grow out of it.
Looking at Rocco with fresh eyes, I had to agree Shawntelle was right; he really was a gorgeous man, something I hadn't appreciated until now. “You ready to boogie?” I joked.
He scowled at me. “Whatever.”
“Dad,” Kaylene growled. “Attitude check.”
“Attitude check?” I repeated.
“Yeah, Dad says that to me all the time.” She was down on the floor with Owen.
“What happened to put you in such a sour mood?” I asked.
Rocco followed me into the kitchen, set down the six-pack, and opened up one for himself. He held one out to me, but I declined.
“Nothing's wrong with me,” he countered after taking a deep drink of the beer. “I wasn't excited about this dance lesson earlier; why should I be any more so now?”
“It'll be fun, I promise.”
He'd set the wine bottle on the counter next to the beer. I knew a few high-end wines because Jake worked as the head of sales for one of the more prestigious wine companies in Oregon. This bottle wasn't one of the cheaper brands.
“This is a great bottle of wine,” I said, a little surprised that he was familiar with wine.
“I figured anyone who ate pizza with a fork and knife wouldn't be interested in beer.”
For whatever reason, my pizza-eating habits bugged him. “I sometimes drink beer.” Not often, it was true. He had me pegged when it came to preferring wine.
“Are you telling me I wasted fifty bucks?”
“Not at all, I'll enjoy the wine.” The water on the stove had gone to a gentle boil so I added the pasta, stirred it, and then set the timer for nine minutes.
Rocco lifted the lid and inspected the brussels sprouts.
“I hope you like brussels sprouts.” I'd taken a risk, but they were one of my favorite vegetables.
“They're Dad's favorite,” Kaylene called from the living room.
I looked at Rocco and saw that he was frowning again. Reaching up, I cupped the side of his face, pulling his attention to me. “Rocco, I promise you I'll make dancing as painless as possible.”
His gaze held mine for the longest moment before he exhaled and nodded. Abruptly he turned away. “Anything I can do?” he asked with his back to me.
“No, I've got everything under control.”
He placed the rest of the beer in the refrigerator and then went into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Owen walked over to him and simply stared at him as if he couldn't believe how big he was. Rocco gave him a high five.
“How you doin', buddy?” he asked.
“I like twucks.”
Kaylene walked over to Owen. “Dad drives a truck like this,” she said, pointing to Owen's toy tow truck.
Owen's eyes doubled in size. “Weally?”
For the first time since he arrived, Rocco grinned. “Really. You want me to take you for a ride one day, Little Man?”
Owen nodded so enthusiastically I was afraid he might topple over.
“Great. We'll figure out a time with your mom and I'll take you out.”
“Weally, weally?” Owen asked again as if he couldn't believe his good luck. “Pwomise?”
“Promise, as long as your mother agrees.”
Both Owen and Rocco looked to me. I smiled. “As you can see, Owen would be beside himself. Thanks, Rocco. That's really nice of you.”
The timer dinged and I tested the noodles. I was about to empty the pot into the strainer when Rocco stepped behind me. “Let me do that,” he insisted.
I handed him the pot holders while I got out my largest ceramic bowl. The cheese sauce tasted great. I cheated and made it with Velveeta instead of real cheese and then made it even creamier by adding a half-cup of sour cream.
He drained the noodles, added them to the bowl, and then poured the sauce over the mixture. Licking his finger appreciatively, he said, “This doesn't taste like it came out of a box.”
“It didn't. I made it from scratch.”
“You did?” Kaylene sounded more than impressed. “I've never had macaroni and cheese that didn't come in a box.”
“This dinner might make this dance lesson worth the hassle,” Rocco muttered.
Kaylene walked over to the table. “Wow, this is a real dinner.”
“Wieners are my favorite.” Owen climbed into his chair and eagerly reached for his fork.
“Weally?” Kaylene joked with the same lisp as Owen. We all smiled, even Owen.
I'll admit the dinner was good and my mac and cheese couldn't have turned out better. Rocco's mood improved after we ate, and I had to assume he'd been grouchy because he was hungry. Both Rocco and Kaylene helped themselves to seconds. It seemed a home-cooked meal was a rarity for them. From bits and pieces of the conversation I learned that most of their meals were thrown together or takeout.
After the dishes had been done, Kaylene was eager to get dancing. I'd chosen several songs I thought would ease Rocco into some dance moves. My hope was that he'd become more comfortable as we progressed down the playlist.
“I'm not interested in learning to tango. Just a few basic steps.” He stood in his Jolly Green Giant pose again, arms crossed, glowering at me from across the room.
The music started up and it had a fast-paced beat. Kaylene leaped into the middle of the living room and gyrated her hips. She jerked her arms above her head, involving every part of her body as she proudly showed her dad her practiced moves.
Rocco's eyes rounded. “And I'm definitely not doing that.”
“Come on, Dad,” Kaylene called out, thrusting both arms toward him, wanting to get him moving.
Rocco shook his head. “No. Way.”
“Come on, Rocco,” I said, reaching for his hand. Getting him to move was like trying to uproot the Statue of Liberty. He wasn't budging. I figured the only way to encourage him was to join Kaylene and demonstrate less-frantic moves. I moved into the middle of the floor and swayed my hips while shuffling my feet back and forth.
Owen leaped in and started jumping up and down like he was on a trampoline. “Wike this. Wike this,” he shouted to Rocco.
“Great, now I'm taking dancing lessons from a three-year-old.”
I hid a smile. “Just move your body a little,” I told him in what I hoped was encouragement. “That's all that's necessary. Don't you feel the beat?”
“What I feel isâ¦” He bit off whatever he intended to say, and from the look on his face I was grateful.
Another song played. Kaylene bent over at the waist, catching her breath. Owen mimicked her, bracing the top of his head against the carpet.
“You honestly danced like that at the school dance?” Rocco asked, scowling at his daughter.
“It's how kids dance,” I assured Rocco. I reached for his hand and this time Rocco moved, stumbling forward a couple uneasy steps. “Just move your feet like this.” I did a simple shuffle, moving my feet from side to side. Rocco awkwardly followed my example, watching his feet as if he expected them to curl up and fly away.
“I feel like an idiot,” he muttered.
Kaylene and Owen danced circles around him, laughing as if they were having great fun.
“You're doing good.”
Rocco looked up and his eyes held mine. He looked completely miserable.
“Let me show you what to do with your arms,” I said, seeing that he was getting more uncomfortable by the minute and needed a distraction. I scrunched my elbows against my sides and moved my fingers along an imaginary keyboard.
“That's it?” He sounded shocked. “That's all I need to do?”
“For now,” I assured him, confident that once he loosened up he'd enjoy himself and be more inclined to find his own moves.
“Dad, you look great.” Kaylene paused long enough to beam him a smile.