The SECRET INGREDIENT

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It was a delicious sleep, the kind that could only be achieved when the day was settling and the breeze swirled a mix of warmth from the sun and coolness from the sea. The hammock upon which Max lazily napped swung gently with his weight, the pages of his forgotten book stirring with the wind. He had missed this tremendously, his cozy home on the water, but work kept him away. But now he had a month—four glorious weeks!—to unwind and enjoy his peaceful home.

It was Cujo's faraway bark that roused him—far away, not as in faint through the haze of Max's dream—far away, as in no longer in the vicinity of his master. He woke himself more fully as he realized that his dog must have wandered off of his land. When not terrorizing sand crabs or chasing gophers through their holes, the feisty beagle liked helping himself to the vegetables in Mrs. McGregor’s garden.

Mrs. McGregor. Max did not relish the thought of knocking on her door, though if Cujo had misbehaved, presenting himself to apologize would be the only decent thing to do. There was nothing decent about Mrs. McGregor—not the revealing clothes she wore in Max's presence, and especially not her repeated propositions. The woman was married, a fact of which Max had reminded her many, many times. And he had no wish to run-in with her husband, Emmett, so he kept his distance whenever he could.

Slipping on his leather sandals, he placed his book on the porch's edge, next to a half a bottle of beer that had long gone warm. He pocketed his sunglasses as he set his lips just so for a long, loud whistle for his dog. The houses here were far apart, though close enough that he might see Cujo's movement in the McGregor yard. He looked left, scanning the near corner of his neighbor's property line, surprised when a familiar answering bark came from the right.

He blinked in slight disbelief, not knowing how he hadn't seen it that morning. Lawn furniture and other signs of life now graced the adjoining yard. The house must have sold while he was away. His new neighbor had arrived.

The house next door had been vacant for quite some time. It was prime waterfront real estate, but with the economy what it was and many of the homeowners who bought in Longport using their properties as second homes, it was of little surprise that such a lovely (and expensive) house would sit awhile on the market.

Making his way down his back steps, he followed Cujo's bark, ducking through some hedges along the property line that afforded each home a bit of privacy. A woman whose face was obscured by a wide-brimmed sun hat and wavy brown hair sat sideways on a long pool chaise, facing his dog. She was scratching his scruff and serving him morsels from her own impressively-appointed plate. The little beagle's tail wagged happily behind him.

Cujo barked again, before relieving the woman of what looked like a succulent cube of beef. She looked up, but before Max could thank her for her grace in sharing her dinner with Cujo, he froze. The sheepish smile belonged to Marcella Dawes!

o/o/o/o/o

"Marcella’s Bites" was more than a television show—it was Max's religion—and he worshipped at the altar of its host, chef extraordinaire and goddess of the kitchen Marcella Dawes. Though he traveled days at a time for work, he found solace from an emotionally taxing job through perfecting the art of cooking. He braised; he flambéd; he fricasseed. He paired his creations with fantastic wines. With him every step of the way was "Marcella’s Bites". He found tremendous enjoyment in preparing the recipes from the show, and truly idolized its host.

Marcella was everything a woman should be—all confidence and curves and a true classic beauty to boot. He had often admired her generous proportions and everything that perfected them—those vibrant eyes, that gentle voice, and her mane of thick, dark hair. She was the type of woman whom he compared other women to, the kind of woman who spoiled a man from ever wanting to settle for less. The lady herself was as much a work of art as the confections she baked. She was exquisitely Rubenesque.

"In my defense, he's got some of the best puppydog eyes I've ever seen," she quipped somewhat nervously, a gorgeous blush staining her cheeks. "I hope you don't mind that I fed him."

Already, Max felt smitten.

"Cujo is shameless," he remarked finally, his voice edged with wonder. "His begging left you with little choice."

She laughed, and it was music, its true melody amplified far beyond what could be heard on TV. It tickled him, prompting a sudden and genuine smile that felt fantastic to let show. Joking and lightness had little place in his everyday.

"Cujo? Really?"

She bit the corner of her lip to conceal what seemed like extreme mirth. The tiny gesture charmed him beyond reason.

"You didn't know him as a puppy," he murmured, fully taken with the beauty before him and astonished by how easily they'd begun to converse.

"Well, he seems like a sweet little thing now," she said, refocusing, for a moment, on petting him lovingly.

As her skilled fingers tousled the canine's fur, Max felt more than a little jealous.

"In any case, please let me know whether his begging ever becomes a bother," he recovered. "He enjoys food nearly as much as his master."

A brief silence fell upon them, though it was not altogether uncomfortable. She blushed slightly, but continued smiling, holding her gaze upon him as he greedily drank in her face. He marveled at her faint sprinkling of freckles, the way the sun lightened the ends of her hair, and the familiarity of her espresso eyes.

"I'm Max," he said finally, holding out what he hoped was a dry, steady hand. "And I'm sorry if I stared. I have seen you so often on television, as a celebrity, that it's somewhat strange to fathom that you've bought the house next door."

When she snorted, she even made that sound delightful.

"I'm hardly a celebrity!" she laughed. "And I'm just renting, actually. I'll have it for the rest of the summer."

She stood to greet him, returning his handshake with a soft but strong grip. She smelled of citrus and jasmine. The corner of her light-colored skirt billowed gently in the breeze, shifting against lickable calves. Max's indulgent eyes followed them upward, caressing her shapely thighs.

"Well, I really enjoy your show," he posited, hoping that sincerity, and not lust, colored his voice. Worse yet, he didn't want to come off like an obsessed fan boy—few things were more shameful than a thirty-five year old man sounding like a twelve year old girl with Bieber Fever.

"You cook?" she asked with what seemed like genuine interest.

"I dabble." he shrugged modestly.

"Outstanding" she nodded. "So I can count on you if I ever need to borrow a cup of sugar?"

Several critical organs stirred when her teeth closed down on a succulent bottom lip. Was it just wishful thinking, or could Marcella be flirting?

"My kitchen is at your disposal," he breathed.

The faint sound of a bell could be heard from the direction of their houses. She frowned a bit when it rang.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Max. Sorry to cut it short, but I need to go check on my cake."

His disappointment was immediate. He did not want her to leave.

"Marcella," he stated earnestly, "…the pleasure is mine."

She removed her hat and shook out her hair before fixing her eyes on him once again. Another delicious wave of her aroma crashed upon his wanting shores.

"You can call me Cella."


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