Authors: Stef Ann Holm
With handle in hand, she raised her arm and readied to stab the lid.
“What in the hell are you doing?”
Josephine's arm froze, and the butterscotch in her mouth slid down her throat making a lump in her windpipe. She coughed, her chin coming up with a start as J.D. closed the door behind him. He had to step over her discarded sheets in order to enter the kitchen. His boot tip hit a clothespin, and the wooden peg skittered across the floor and hit her in the shoe.
“What's this?” he asked, looking at the clean bedclothes in a bundle. She'd forgotten all about them. Always before when she'd forgotten about something, her maid had tidied it up before she'd remembered what it was she'd forgotten.
“My sheets,” she half whispered, wishing desperately for a glass of water to drink to dislodge the candy from the center of her chest where it had settled. Self-consciously, she lowered her arm and set down the knife.
“I can see that.” He carried a metal pan with a large, cloth-wrapped piece of meat inside. Splotches of vivid red soiled the linen, making her stomach clench. “What are they doing on the floor?”
Telling him she'd been distraught over witnessing that helpless cow being readied for slaughter would imply her cowardice at the very least. So she fabricated an answer she hoped sounded credible. “I was anxious to begin supper and didn't want to spare a minute to make up the bed.”
J.D. put the pan on the counter, then picked up the sheets. His large bootprint was on one of them. “Do you always throw down what you're doing to start something else?”
“Only when I'm inspired.”
He went to her room to put the linens on her bed. In his brief absence, she used the flat of her palm to pat herself between the breasts. She felt the candy slip down. Gasping, she forced a cool collectedness on herself.
Don't do anything that will make him suspect you are the fraud that you are
. She had to look busy. Like she knew what she was doing. Proceeding with the cans was out. What else?
What else to do?
The fire. Check the fire. That was important.
She acted like a seasoned cook when she fiddled with, moved, and adjusted each damper by its knobâthough she had no idea if what she was doing was right.
“Are you finding everything you need?” J.D. asked, having drawn up behind her without her hearing him approach. He stood a respectable few feet from her, but he may as well have stood right on her toes for as close as he was watching her.
Unable to meet his eyes, she stared at the can and said, “Yes. I have everything I need.”
“Except an opener for those.”
She needn't question what “those” he was referring to. Any simpleton could have figured out she had been about to puncture the can open.
He pulled out a drawer beneath the counter and came up with a very lethal-appearing apparatus. It had a wooden handle with a short but very sharp-looking blade and catch on the end. He said nothing about her near venture at puncturing the cans with a knife. Without a word, he grabbed a tomato can and jabbed the blade into the edge. He held the can and turned it, running the blade along the rim. There seemed to be a fair amount of strength needed to operate the opener. She wondered if he'd open everything.
“What are you making?”
Her throat was still sore from that butterscotch going down whole. Coughing slightly, she said, “It's a surprise.” And it would be, too, if everything turned out the way it was supposed to.
“Pan-fried steak with tomatoes would be damn welcome.”
“Yes, it would.” But it wasn't on the menu.
“That's a nice loin I brought you. I prefer my steaks cut thick. We've got plenty.”
She gave him a noncommittal response.
J.D. whipped through all the cans in no time, leaving their jagged tin lids on. “What do you need the milk for? The boys don't like it in their coffee.”
“That's good to know,” was all she replied, not telling him what the milk was for.
Stepping back, his gaze fell on the black powder staining her cuffs. Then his eyes traveled up her arms, the column of her throat, her lips, and lastly her eyes. The way he carried on with his thorough inspection had her flustered inside to distraction. She didn't know where to look, what to look at, or what to say. She'd never felt so exposed in all her life.
“You should have put on something more appropriate,” he remarked in a deep voice. “Out here women don't have much call for fancy duds like what you've got.”
That was all he'd needed to say to make her cry,
only she refused to let her tears fall. Her poor attempt at opening the eans, her misunderstanding of how the dampers operated, her uncertainty of her abilities, the sheets on the floor, her lost valise, her missing five hundred dollars. She had but to pick one, and she could turn herself loose in a monumental crying spree. Throw in the fact that she had but one spring suit to wear, and her not knowing how to iron it was enough to send her to her room to claim a headache from now until late next week.
The problem with that scenario was J.D. McCall would most likely drag her from her sickbed and demand she fry eighteen thick steaks. She had the strongest urge to feel utterly and completely sorry for herself. But that was no way for a woman of independent means to behave. She had longed for this momentâalbeit with a faceless opponentâwhen she could stand on her own two feet and speak for herself. To make her
views clear. People with “guts” didn't snivel. They were courageous and faced their opponents head-on.
“If you recall,” she said, keeping her eyes level with his, “my valise was taken from me. This is the only dress I own.” As she spoke the well-aimed words, her rapid heartbeat grew deafening in her ears.
If he felt any compassion for her, he certainly didn't exhibit it. “When I carried your case, it felt heavy enough to have clothes inside.”
She was appalled that he would make reference to her personal belongings in such a frank manner. Refusing to retreat no matter how embarrassed she was, she said simply, “The clothes in that valise were intended for another type of woman.”
“What do you mean?”
The thoughtless cad wanted her to spell it out. “A woman with a different bone structure than myself.” On that note, she plopped the contents of a tomato canâlid and allâinto a round-bottom pot. Moisture
broke out on her palms; her staid barriers were teetering. “Now, if you don't mind, your presence is destroying my creativity.”
She turned away from him, then proceeded to dump out the tomatoes from the remaining cans. Their juice splashed her hands. Seconds ticked by. She fished out the lids and stacked them. Perhaps a full minute passed. When she could abide the strain no longer, she looked up.
Mr. McCall was gone. For a big man, he moved quietly. She'd forgotten to thank him for opening the cans. But she consoled herself with the reminder that he'd insulted her mode of dress. When she'd first worn the Dolly Varden cretonne suit last Easter on Fifth Avenue, she'd demonstrated the epitome of refined taste and character. J.D. McCall called her attire “fancy duds.” She shouldn't have been so affected by his comment. What did he know about fashion? All she'd seen him wear were denim pants, vests, and cotton shirts.
Josephine pensively stared inside the pot at the tomatoes, then shook herself out of her thoughts to read the recipe. After sprinkling two teaspoons of baking powder over the whole tomatoes, she slid the pot onto the foremost hot plate of the stove.
Afterward, she scanned the ingredients list for cornmeal rolls since she didn't have the necessary time involved to prepare bread.
Exploring the larder's shelves once more, she brought down three stoneware canisters: flour, cornmeal, and sugar. It took her a good fifteen minutes to find the needed utensils. She hadn't been sure what a sifter was, so she'd had to refer to the chapter on kitchen economy. At length, she found the round gadget with the screen on the bottom. She was to sift the dry ingredients.
Ready to begin, she dove a teacup into the flour. A fine dusting of white puffed up. She blinked her lashes
to get rid of what was in her eyes. Resuming her measurement of the flour until she had four teacups, she then lifted the crockery lid to the cornmeal.
She needed one pint of cornmeal. Was she supposed to add that to the flour sifter as well? What did
mean? How many teacups in one pint? She wasn't very good at mathematics. Hugh used to drink his brandy from a pint. She closed her eyes and conjured the size of that pint. Opening them, she dipped the teacup once, twice, threeâ
“Y'all don't do it like that.”
Josephine turned toward the sound of Boots's condemning voice. He stood in the doorway that went to the dining room. “I beg your pardon?”
“Beg my pardon all you want, but y'all aren't going to get it. I'm old, and I don't remember who I've pardoned and who I haven't, so I don't pardon anyone anymore.” He shuffled to her and stared down his nose at the mess she was making on the counter. “Y'all don't sift the cornmeal in with the flour.”
Trying to save herself, Josephine set about cranking the handle on the sifter, spreading a cloud of white and yellow powder into a bowl. She replied, “Where I come from, we do it this way.”
“Where do you come from?”
“Good gawd,” Boots cried. “Y'all should meet Eugenia.”
Josephine's eyes met his. “She's here?”
“No, but you should meet her.” Angling a stool next to the counter, Boots sat down and made himself at home. “The infernal woman deserted me.”
Josephine could probably guess why, though she gave no more than a second of pondering to the marital problems of Boots McCall. How could she manage to continue with him watching her every move?
“Do you intend to sit there?”
He looked at her as if she were daft; she returned
the open stare. His face was a cobweb of lines, aged and tanned by sun. “I don't intend to, I am.” His arm rose, and he pointed with a knobby finger. “Watch what you're doing. Y'all're making a hell of a mess.”
She quickly averted her eyes and repositioned the sifter over the bowl instead of the counter where she'd deposited a small pile of the flour mixtureâhalf of which had fallen onto the floor.
With a healthy crank of the sifter that sent flour spraying, Josephine worked herself into a diminutive fit of temper. The McCall men were draining. They had no deportment when it came to a lady's presence. Both freely spoke their minds, not caring a whit for delicacy, and using swear words to boot. Not that she'd never heard an oath or peppered curse. Andrew Tilden, her father, before amassing his fortune, had been an uneducated steamboat captain. His vocabulary had been liberally salted with words not ordinarily heard in polite society. He'd never given a moment over people's reactions to his language, but her mother, Victoria, had. His coarse verbiage had nearly been her ruination.
“I did the cooking before y'all came along. J.D. had no call to hire you. The boys like what I fix.”
Josephine detected a hint of jealousy in his grizzled tone. To think, Boots McCall was jealous of her. It was absurd.
“I'll tell y'all right now, them boys don't like anything showy on their plates. None of your ornamental, highfalutin foods that's dressed up with greens. If the good Lord wanted man to eat salad, he would have made him into a cow.”
An odious smell came from the stove. A burning, smoky scent that stung her nose. Josephine dropped the sifter to investigate, momentarily putting her opinion of Boots to the side.
Billowing through the seams in the plates, a thick stream of black smoke rose from the stove. Panicking, Josephine opened the dampers that were closed and
closed the dampers that were open. Her quick switches didn't make matters any better. She stood back, helplessly staring at the growing cloud of smoke, at a loss over what to do next.
Scooting off his stool with an unexpected spryness, Boots slid open the oven damper, half closed the chimney damper, and fine-tuned the other two. When he was finished, he took up his stool once more.
“Good gawd,” he muttered, “you're like to burn the place up.”
The hiss of the stove and crackle of burning wood filled the gap of silence between them. At length, Boots further accused, “Y'all don't know a kitchen from a bull's hind end.”
Josephine didn't know whether she should be relieved the jig was up or staunchly deny his accusation. She had no opportunity to do either. A bubbling soundâor, rather, an ominous rumble that crackled like thunderâcame from the pot. No sooner had she decided that the pot was dangerous and should be examined from a safe distance than the lid shot up and smacked the ceiling, and a blurred expulsion of red blobs erupted like a squished bug.
“Good gawd!” Boots swore as he backed off the chair and scooted toward the back door.
Particles of tomatoes shot through the kitchen, smattering Josephine with hot darts on her thin sleeves as she held her arms out.
“Ouch!” she screamed, leaping backward to the sting of something hitting her in the cheek. She felt the debris fall in her hair, pepper her shirt, her skirt, and her shoes. Red everywhere. Everything was covered with tomato pulp. The open cookbook, the counter, the flour, the bowl, the sifter. It was a disaster. A great, big, disastrous mess.
The meal was ruined.
Having never tried and failed so miserably at something, Josephine hadn't honed her strong or full emotions. She hadn't developed a thick skin. Everything
she'd done in her life up to leaving New York had been safe. Secure. For the first time, she had to face the facts. She was a failure.
A failure of a wife.
A failure of a cook.
Once she accepted that, the high dam that had been keeping her innermost feelings from emotional exposure finally burst. She fell into a fit of weeping the likes of which she had never before unleashed.