Saucy Secrets 5

“Queenie! You’re back!” I’d followed my nose and found the older woman stirring a pot in the kitchen. “I’m so happy to see you!” I beamed at her. “I gather that my presence here was missed?” She laughed. “Of course you were! Did you enjoy your month-long trip to Vegas?” I asked. “Indeed. It was…very interesting.” She gave me a sly look. “As far as birthdays go, I can happily say this one was the best.” She declared. “I didn’t realize it was your birthday! How old did you turn?” I babbled away without thinking then immediately regretted it. The twinkle in Queenie’s eye let me know that it hadn’t bothered her though. “Oh Valerie…you already know the answer to that. 29 of course!” She winked at me.

13

“So what are you making? It smells really good.” I changed the subject before I could embarrass myself any further. “It’s a surprise.” She murmured as she added more things to the pot in front of her. “In one of Johnny’s letters, he mentioned that you were keen on experimenting in the kitchen.” My face turned red and I shrugged in response. Apparently the only thing I was keen on doing was setting fires. “It’s an art, Valerie, and it should be nurtured. Some people can’t even boil water.” She glared out the window at Nancy who was sitting on the back patio. “With the right herbs and the right sauce…you can create a masterpiece. Taste this.” She held a wooden spoon to my lips. “Wow! That’s delicious!” I exclaimed.

14

“Damn right it is!” She chuckled. “So I was thinking, Valerie.” She turned the stove eye off and faced me. “Yes?” I replied anxiously. “I’m still in touch with an old friend of mine who runs his own restaurant. He’s a pain in the ass but he’ll get you set on the right track. Would you be interested in working for him?” She was offering me a job? “Wait.” I blurted out dumbly. “You would do that for me?” She nodded her head slowly and grinned at me. “Thank you!” I threw my arms around her. “You have no idea how much that means to me!”

15

“Don’t get the girl’s hopes up, mother.” Nancy snorted and sat down at the counter behind us. “The last thing we need is for her to burn down my house too.” Going by the grim expression on her face, she wasn’t joking. “Nancy, dear?” Queenie gave her daughter a sickeningly sweet smile. “What now, mother?” She sneered and waited for Queenie’s rebuttal. “Shut the hell up!” I pursed my lips to keep from laughing as Nancy stormed out of the room. Things between Johnny and I had been tense since we’d been under Nancy’s roof but now…I finally had an ally.

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Saucy Secrets 4

“If I have to live with that woman for one more day…I think I’ll explode!” I complained to my mom and best friend a few days later. “It can’t be that bad, babygirl. We all have to do things we don’t like to get by.” My mom tried to soothe me in her own way. “Did Johnny find anything went he went through what was left of the house anyways?” Eva asked as she gulped down her latte. “No.” I moaned and covered my face with my hands. “He said the fire marshal told him it was an old stove…and that I shouldn’t have walked away from it while I was cooking. I know it’s my fault but I can’t help but wonder if that old bag had anything to do with it.” I muttered darkly.

7

“So how was your cruise?” I turned to my mom and tried to get Nancy off my mind. “It was wonderful! I got a tan, learned how to do yoga, took scuba diving lessons and I was waiting for a good time to tell you this, Val, but I guess there’s no time like the present.” She bit her lip nervously. “Spill!” I urged her with wide eyes. “I met someone!” Eva and I both gasped. “Really? Was he on the cruise too?” She shook her head. “No. I met him before I left and went I got home we began dating.” She spoke in a dreamy tone. “I do believe he’s the one for me.”

8

“Good for you, Ms. Gina!” Eva exclaimed. “It’s about time you found a man! No wonder you’re less cranky.” She joked. “That’s not all though.” My mom looked embarrassed. “He was in a bit of a rough spot and needed a place to stay…so he’s living with me now.” I stared at her in disbelief. “Couldn’t you have delayed that? You barely know him!” I cried. “He’s a good man, Val, and I can’t wait for you to meet him! You’ll see.” She sounded so sure of herself. “Oh, alright.” I sighed. “I’m happy for you, Mom.” My voice was hollow. “Is that so?” She teased. “You don’t look very happy.”

9

“I’m sorry. I’m being selfish.” I apologized. “I was just hoping that we’d be able to come stay with you for a little while…but it looks like you don’t have enough room right now.” I felt bad for bringing it up. “I don’t. Not really. I just wish I’d known sooner.” She laid her hand over mine and squeezed. “You know that I’d offer but my tiny apartment is cramped enough with just me and my cats.” Eva blurted out. “I appreciate that. We’ll be okay! It won’t be forever!” A fake smile spread out across my face and I tried to appear hopeful…but even I knew better than that.

Saucy Secrets 3

Since Johnny’s old room had been turned into a gym, Nancy set us up in one of the many guest bedrooms. It was really nice but that was besides the point. Ever since we’d arrived something had been nagging at me persistently. As soon as we had a moment alone I turned to Johnny. “Did you see her face when you told her our house burnt down? It was like she already knew! Isn’t that weird?” He sighed and crossed his arms. “She said it was on the news, Val. Please don’t turn this into something it’s not.”

7

“I’m not trying to pick a fight, Johnny. All I’m saying is that it was weird.” Nancy had always been a touchy subject between us and I knew I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth in the first place…but it was too late now. “I know you can’t stand her but she’s been doing alright these past couple of years. Right, Val?” He asked. “We’re never around her long enough for me to figure out whether she’s actually changed or if it’s all just for show. We only see her during the holidays.” And that was exactly the way I wanted to keep it. “I can’t help that I feel this way about her.” I admitted truthfully. “I’ve forgiven her for the past but I’ll never forget.”

8

“I’m going to go ahead and lay this suspicion of yours to rest right now.” He growled impatiently. “My mother did not burn our house down. You did, Val.” Tears sprang to my eyes and I took a step back. My face was red with shame. “I know you didn’t mean to do it but stop trying to put the blame elsewhere.” His tone softened. “I’m sorry, Johnny. It’s all my fault. I ruined everything!” I sniffled. “It was an accident. It could’ve happened to anyone. At least we all got out in one piece.” He reminded me but it still didn’t make me feel better. We stood in silence for a moment.

9

“If it’ll put your mind to ease, I’ll go back to the house tomorrow and go through the rubble. I’m not going to find anything though.” He declared. I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you…and I’ll try to get in touch with my mom or even Eva as well. Maybe we can stay with one of them instead.” I kissed him tenderly on the lips but he still appeared unhappy with me. “I didn’t mean to hassle you so much about this but I can’t stay here without feeling like I’m going to constantly be looking over my shoulder.” I kissed him again and his frown finally turned into a small smile. “I get it, Val. Really, I do. Don’t forget that you’re not alone in this…we’re all in it together.”

Saucy Secrets 2

Early the next morning, one of the firefighters gave us a ride over to the Landgraab Estate. As we approached the front entrance, we could hear the sounds of a very heated argument between Nancy and Geoffrey. It seemed that we had showed up at a really bad time.

4

“I don’t want the house. I don’t want anything from you at all.” Geoffrey told Nancy tiredly. “Just sign the damn divorce papers so we can be done.” We stood at the bottom of the steps awkwardly. “What’s going on here?” Johnny demanded. “Your father is leaving! He’s moving in with that new floozy of his! I’m going to be the talk of the town because of his very stupid and selfish actions!” Nancy moaned and rubbed her temples. Geoffrey set down his duffel bag and hugged our necks. “It’s good to see you all. I just wish it was under different circumstances.” He muttered. “Where are your shoes, Johnny?”

5

“Dad, it’s a long story. We need a place to stay for a while.” Geoffrey’s face paled. “So you came here? You should run while you still can. Your mother isn’t an easy person to live with as I’m sure you remember.” He mentioned quietly. “We have nowhere else to go.” I whispered to him. “Well in that case…good luck.” Nancy glared at Geoffrey’s back as he trudged down the driveway to his car. Then she ran her fingers under her eyes to fix her smudged eyeliner. “I’m not complaining but why are you all here?” She wrinkled her nose at the pajamas we still wore. “Oh, no particular reason.” Johnny remarked sarcastically. “Only that our house burnt to the ground.”

6

She looked at him vacantly for a moment then gasped. “Oh, that’s right! I saw it on the news last night!” He gave her an incredulous look. “What? If you already knew then why didn’t you come check on us? We lost everything we owned!” He exclaimed. She shook her head and sighed. “I had my hands tied here. But please believe me when I say that I’m so very happy that you’re all okay! Please come in!” She gave us a pleasant smile and the held the door open wide. As I walked past her with Lemon in my arms, Nancy leaned in and placed a light kiss on my cheek. “Welcome home, Valerie.”

Saucy Secrets 1

For three years the Zest family seemed to flourish. Johnny continued his career in stand up comedy while I stayed home with our daughter. When I wasn’t taking care of Lemon, I spent my time mailing my dress sketches to fashion magazines in hopes that one of them would call me about a job. I’d also recently taken an interest in the culinary arts and was constantly scouring Pinterest for recipe ideas.

1

Life was going really good. Until it wasn’t anymore.

It was a night like any other. Johnny had come in late from a performance at a local dive bar and I had supper waiting for him on the stove. He changed into comfortable clothes and settled in on the couch to spend some quality time with his favorite girls…then the smoke alarm started blaring. “Oh no!” I jumped up. “I forgot to turn the oven off!” By the time I made it down the hallway, a fire had engulfed most of the kitchen. Johnny ran by me then with Lemon on his hip. “Come on, Val! There’s no time to waste!” He yelled and dragged me out of the house by the arm.

2

We stood in the yard and watched in horror as our small home was consumed by flames. Who would’ve thought that a kitchen fire would destroy everything we owned? “Why aren’t the neighbors coming to check on us? Where is the fire department? Why won’t someone do something?” I wailed. “At least we all made it out.” Johnny mumbled and looked down at Lemon. “I could go back in to try to find one of our phones and call for help.” He offered suddenly. “No!” I shrieked desperately and turned to him. “I can lose everything else. But not you.”

3

Moments later, we finally heard sirens in the distance. We already knew there wouldn’t be much they could save though. Lemon clung to my legs tightly but she didn’t cry. She seemed just as upset and confused by the whole situation as we were. “What are we going to do now?” I asked Johnny. “We could’ve gone to my mom’s apartment but she’s out of town. We all need some rest.” He bit his lip and shrugged. “You’re not going to like it…but there’s one place we can go for certain.” My eyes widened when I realized what he meant. “No, Johnny…please don’t say it.” I whispered. He sighed and gave me a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Val. But we have to go to my mother’s.”

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