But in its heyday Foodways had received hundreds of thousands of hits a day. A million and a half readers. A best of collection of her posts had been published and enjoyed a modest success. Before...before. Before, she’d received several offers from publishers about writing a big book about the history of food, about food folklore throughout the world, including recipes. She’d been in negotiations with a major publisher when...
When the bottom dropped out of her world.
Memories usually carried sharp-cutting edges, slicing deep, making her bleed. It was only in the kitchen that she was able to chase memories away.
Right now she resolved to make the best pan of baked ziti in the history of the world for Joe. She’d put it into the biggest pan she had and leave a note on top that he could freeze the pan until the next poker night if he wanted. All he’d have to do was take it out of the freezer and pop it into the oven an hour before his friends were due to arrive.
Not the microwave oven, she’d have to add that to the note. She knew the attraction microwaves held for bachelors.
The real recipe, the true one, for baked ziti took hours. It was something only a grandmother could possibly cook. And, well, Isabel, who had hours to kill. Great aching vast oceans of hours to kill.
So she set to it, making the sauce from scratch, making almost a hundred tiny flavorful meatballs, undercooking the ziti because they’d finish cooking in the sauce in the oven, grating the scamorza cheese. It was a rich dish full of carbs and fats and protein. The kind of dish you’d need if you were walking across Antarctica.
Not the kind of dish she could eat, though she could certainly cook it. That was another thing that had fled from her world that night, together with sleep. An appetite. She’d always loved food and now most food tasted like cardboard, like a simulacrum of food. No matter what the dish, whether she’d prepared it or a master chef had, she couldn’t taste anything. Her stomach often clenched shut so tightly her abdominal muscles hurt.
Months ago, she’d have vomited if her plate was too full. Now she’d learned to nibble at the blandest, most tasteless things possible. Dry toast, small bowls of plain rice. Nothing with taste and color.
Right after the Massacre she’d completely lost her desire to cook. Cooking was recently reintroduced in her life, thanks to Joe. He helped her so much with things she couldn’t do that she knew she had to do something in return, something she did know how to do.
Crazily, cooking for Joe didn’t make her dizzy or nauseous. She could cook the most elaborate dishes and as long as she didn’t have to eat a bite of them, she was okay.
Like now, putting together the ziti dish, delicious smells coming from the stovetop, and all she felt was pleasure.
She’d often toyed with the idea of actually inviting Joe over for dinner, instead of leaving something on his doorstep like the cooking fairies. He went out of his way for her so much that cooking a meal and serving it was the least she could do.
The thought even gave her a crazy kind of pleasure. She’d started over completely here in Portland, getting her furniture from IKEA and her linens from Bed Bath & Beyond. But she’d shipped over all her culinary equipment and her Limoges dinner service and the Delvaux silver cutlery. She could wow him with an elegant meal as a thank-you.
It was so incredibly tempting. Not spending an evening nursing a cup of lukewarm milk, with the TV on to a show she wasn’t watching, simply so she could hear the sound of human voices. So she wouldn’t feel at the bottom of a deep well, the only person in the world. Having Joe over would be fun. He was an interesting guy and, well, there was that hotness factor.
But...she wasn’t an ordinary woman. She didn’t do well in company. The days of bursting into tears with people around her were over but that didn’t mean she was back to normal. She could throw up. She could become so dizzy she’d faint. She could lock herself in the bathroom because she couldn’t deal with him.
They were all fun possibilities. She didn’t trust herself at all. Joe helped her because she was visibly wounded and still relatively weak. He never asked, bless him, and she never said what was wrong. Keep it like that. Let him think she’d been in an accident and was putting herself back together again.
Because the truth was much blacker and bleaker. The truth was that she had been in an accident that had torn her family from her but she wasn’t putting herself back together again. Maybe she’d be like this for the rest of her life, unfit for human company.
Missing her family like crazy, for the rest of her life.
Put like that...put like that maybe all she really was good for was to cook things for someone who’d suffered but who was pulling himself out of it.
She swiped angrily at her eyes as she finished the pan of ziti and started making naan bread.
“Well?” Joe asked Felicity impatiently, ignoring the nasty look Metal was shooting at him. Everyone always treated Felicity with kid gloves. Apart from the fact that she was Metal’s love and Metal would pound anyone who was disrespectful to her, she also earned a hell of a lot of money for the company as their in-house computer guru.
And she beat everyone’s ass at video games.
“Sorry, Joe.” Felicity Ward, soon to be Felicity O’Brien, pushed herself away from his desk where she’d been using her own computer. Some kind of woo-woo piece of tech that could have been time-traveled from the future, it was so advanced. Felicity had taken one look at his laptop and sniffed in disdain. “Whoever sent you that message is scary good. I can’t identify the IP. Believe me when I say that’s unusual.”
Oh yeah, he believed Felicity. She was a computer genius and ASI had snatched her up, right after she’d unmasked an international conspiracy. An international nuclear conspiracy no less. She was smart in everything but she was off the charts smart when it came to IT. If she couldn’t track down the sender of the mystery message, no one could.
“Whoever sent it must be as smart as you,” he said.
Felicity smiled and waved Metal, who’d risen from his seat, down. It was a pillar in Metal’s thought system that Felicity was the smartest person on earth. “Yeah. Hard as it is to believe.”
“Scary stuff,” Metal rumbled.
“Yes.” Joe nodded his head sharply.
It was scary stuff. Someone Felicity couldn’t ID had sent a message about Isabel. That blew his mind. That someone knew about Isabel and that that someone knew she was connected to him. How could that happen?
“So,” Felicity said. “Let’s look at the object of the message. Isabel Lawton. Who is completely off the grid.”
Joe frowned. “What do you mean?”
Felicity was frowning, too, only at her monitor. “She almost doesn’t seem to exist. No Facebook page, no Twitter handle, I can’t find any trace of her educational or job background anywhere in the US. I’ve found plenty of Isabel Lawtons but they’re either too old or too young and no one fits what you’ve told me about her. Which, frankly, isn’t much.” She sighed and turned a serious face to him. “You’d almost think she is me.”
Hmm. Felicity had grown up in the Witness Protection Program. Her father had been a famous Russian nuclear scientist who had defected and Felicity had basically been undercover her entire life. She’d changed names several times during childhood.
“Like...a spook?” Joe asked. “Or a spook’s daughter or sister or—” He swallowed. “Someone’s wife? Maybe the wife of someone dangerous? And she’s run away from him?”
That thought burned in his chest. Isabel married to an abusive husband. It was a thought he didn’t want to have but it sort of made sense. Instead of being a woman of mystery maybe she was a woman on the run. Maybe someone was after her, which would explain how she seemed always on edge.
If that was the case, her running days were over. Joe wouldn’t let anyone hurt her. No one was going to touch her. Except him.