Just after midnight, Theodore pushed himself to his feet as Russell’s car pulled into the driveway. Russell climbed out, the engine still running, the headlights bright against the garage door. “What’re you doing out here, Theo? Jesus, I–”
“I’m sorry. I lied. There was no noise.” Theodore held out a plate of cookies. “I didn’t know how to apologize over text. By the time I read your texts, it had been several hours, and I… didn’t know how to apologize without making you feel I was only doing it because I can’t stand up for myself.”
Russell took a tentative step toward him, eyes on the plate rather than Theodore. “What’ve you got there?”
“Cookies. I went with chocolate chip. I figured it was harder to pick a cookie someone hates if you go with chocolate.”
Russell’s eyes flickered up to his face, but he didn’t come any closer. “You read all but my last two texts as soon as I sent them.”
“Yeah, okay, ‘read’ is the wrong word. I couldn’t respond to them for several hours. Kids. Th-they need you most right when you’re in the middle of other things. Vera had a nightmare. I had to stay in her room for a bit, let her know she was safe,” Theodore said.
Russell came up the drive. “Is she all right? The nightmares–”
“You don’t have to worry about my kid or what she sees in her sleep, Russell. She’s fine. I’m taking care of her.” Russell almost looked… hurt as he took a step away from Theodore. “I think that came out wrong.”
“Nope. I get it.”
“It’s just… this is the first time it’s truly just been me and Vera. Ever. Letting other people know what’s going on in her head or in mine is… I don’t know. Dangerous. I can’t let people in again.”
“Like I said, I get it.”
Theodore cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’m sorry for not responding, and I’m sorry it made you feel like you’d totally ruined my night or… however it made you feel. I don’t want to cancel Friday’s plans.”
“You don’t want to let people in.” A pause. “Which is understandable, but keeping supper plans is… quite the contradiction.”
Theodore offered a smile. “Me making supper for you makes us even.”
“Then I don’t owe you anything for making us supper.”
“You don’t owe me anything in the first place. It was a meal I offered to bring on my own time. I made that decision,” Russell said.
“Maybe, but… it still feels like I owe you. I don’t want to be in anyone’s debt anymore. I was always in Shane’s debt.”
Russell stepped forward and grabbed two cookies from the plate. He held them up. “We’re even. Night, Theo.”
“I’m sorry, Theo. I’m not going to make you cook me supper so we’re even. That’s not a way of life I believe in. Forcing someone to make me a meal so we’re even is… the opposite of who I am. So we’re even. Try to get some sleep.”
Theodore’s brow furrowed as Russell turned and walked back to his car. “I-I already told Vera you were coming over for supper. She’s real excited, Russell.”
Russell laid a hand on the top of the door, tilting his head back. “Do you want me not to worry about her and how she’s doing, or do you want me to care about her feelings?”
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Theodore whispered.
“Look, Theo, I’ve got absolutely nothing against you. I’m just trying to respect your wishes here, and I’m trying to make sure you don’t feel like you owe me anything, because you don’t. I don’t operate on making deals with people so they owe me things. That’s not who I am,” Russell said. “So without telling me that you’re making supper for me to make sure we’re even, please let me know if you want me to come over for supper on Friday.”
Theodore drew in a deep breath, letting it out as slowly as he could manage. “I would love for you to come over for supper on Friday. Not to make us even. Just… to have you over for supper.”
“All right. I’ll see you on Friday after I get off work.”
“Okay,” Theodore whispered.
Russell walked back over to him and stole another cookie from the plate. He flashed a smile. “This one’s for the drive back home.”
“You can take the whole plate. That’s why I made them.”
“All of them?”
“That’s why I made them,” Theodore repeated.
“Mm.” Russell set the cookies in his hand back on the plate, taking the plate from Theodore instead. “Well, then I’ll bring this back Friday.”
Theodore smiled. “Sounds perfect.”
Russell smiled right back at him. “I’ll see you Friday. Thanks for the cookies.”
“No problem. I’ll see you then.”
Theodore sat behind the counter at the bookstore, hands toying with his cane every now and then. It was a relatively slow day, and he was more than happy with that. He was rather certain that the slowness was the only reason he was willing to actually sit down instead of forcing himself to stay on his feet.
If nothing else, that was a plus.
Theodore raised an eyebrow as Gina laid a hand on the counter. “Hello.”
“Hey. You skipped coffee this morning,” Gina said.
Theodore grabbed his travel mug and held it up for her to see. “Sorry. I brought my own today.”
“Hmm.” Gina crossed her arms over the counter. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just…” Theodore sighed. “I was worried you’d immediately know I had something stupid on my mind.”
“I doubt it’s stupid. What’s up?” she asked.
Theodore set his coffee mug back on the shelf beneath the counter. “That, umm, detective. His name’s Russell, and I invited him over for supper again. How… stupid do I have to be to start inviting men over for supper on a consistent basis?” he asked. “I even had the chance to let him turn me down, which he… thought he was doing for my benefit, but instead, I told him that Vera was already excited that he was coming over again.”
“And was she excited?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t told her yet.”
“Using your daughter to get yourself a date?” Gina asked. “I think you’ve evolved to your final form, Theo.”
“N-no, not a date. Just…” Theodore shook his head. “I don’t know what the hell it is.”
“Okay, that’s okay. You don’t have to know. Hell, Theo, it doesn’t have to be anything. It’s just what it is, you know?” she asked. Theodore offered a shrug. He didn’t know, not really. Russell definitely liked men. Whether he was gay or not, Theodore didn’t know, but no straight man would ever look him up and down the way Russell had several times now. “Why do you think it’s stupid?”
“Date or not, I’m still inviting a man into my house. I just got rid of one abusive man. Should I really be going out of my way to make it worse now? To… find another one?”
Gina’s expression softened. “It’s totally reasonable for you to have that fear, Theo. But for what it’s worth, assuming everyone’s an abuser makes sure they never have the chance not to be in your head. Even if they never lay a hand on your or Vera.”
“After what happened, isn’t it better to be cautious?” Theodore asked.
“That depends, I guess. I think it’s okay to be cautious to a point, but you shouldn’t let it stop you from living your life. Now, I’m not telling you that you have to march outta here and go find a boyfriend, but… you shouldn’t let what that fucker did ruin you,” Gina said. “You can be cautious. You can play it safe. That’s okay. But don’t let it stop you from living. The nightmare with Shane is over. The… main event, anyway. He’s behind bars. He can’t hurt you and Vera. Don’t let him keep destroying your life from inside a prison cell.”
“I wish it was that easy.”
“I know, Theo. I know. I wish it could be easy for you, too. You deserve for something to be easy in your life, just this once.” Gina offered a smile. “But, hey, I’ll always be here to talk to you. And if any other guy ever starts treating you like shit, you let me know, and I’ll beat his ass.”
Theodore smiled. “Thanks, Gina. Thank you for always being the one I can count on.”
“No problem. It’s what I’m here for. You know that.” She leaned across the counter and punched his shoulder. “I’m always gonna be here for you. That’s all there is to it.”
“I know you are. And it’s appreciated. Always has been, and… hopefully always will be.” Theodore sighed. “So I’m not an idiot for inviting him over again? I didn’t ask him on a date. It’s not… I don’t want it to be a date. But let’s say he’s a… kind acquaintance. Does it make me stupid?” he asked.
“Well, let’s see. Has he treated you well?” Gina asked. Theodore nodded. “And how about Vera? How did he treat her?”
“He let her show him all of her drawings. I mean, like, all of them. They’re mostly oddly shaped people and scribbles, but he treated each one like it was a piece of art. Shane… would never, not even when he was still pretending he wasn’t the worst person in the entire fucking world.”
“See? Date or not, having a guy in your life that’s not like Shane in any way, shape, or form, is a good thing, Theo. It’s a step up. It’s progress. You don’t have to be dating him for it to be progress.”
“Really. Theo, the only positive male figure you have in your life right now is your dad. Of course adding another one is progress. Of course it’s a good thing. Even if he’s only ever just a friend, it’s a good thing.”
Theodore smiled. “Thanks, Gina. This has… This was helpful. Thank you.”
“Never a problem. You’re welcome.” She pushed herself away from the counter. “I gotta get back to work, but I just needed to know everything was okay. See you after shift?”
“I can drive you home so you don’t have to take the bus.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay. I’ll manage.”
“Theo, come on. Until you’re good to handle driving again, I have no issue driving you to and from work whenever we work together. I can only imagine that’d be less stressful for you,” Gina said.
“Possibly, but it feels like it’s asking too much. And before you say it, yes, I know I didn’t ask it, you said it. I know. But still.” He cleared his throat. “You have to let me pay you gas money at the end of every week.”
“Fine. If that makes you feel less terrible about it, that works for me.”
“Great. Thanks, Gina.”
“Sure thing, Theo. I’ll see you after shift.”
I don’t know about you, but midnight cookie plate is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever written in a romance book. Ugh, I just love ’em so much
Enjoying the story? Consider dropping a comment or a like down below!!
Updates every Wednesday!
Love what I do and want to help support me? You can ‘buy me a coffee’ on Ko-fi!