Hold My Place
Helen Kay Chapbook Award 2021 Winner 2021
I remember his first breath on my body. Sweet and warm with port wine, his words skated over the little hairs on the back of my neck, tumbled down my collar.
The master chef whose cooking class I had taken plucked the sticky mess from my hands. I laughed nervously, flushed with heat from my inexpert efforts to properly knead the dough.
“Like this,” he said.
A month ago, the library board had held its annual Christmas dinner at La Table, the gourmet French-Asian restaurant food bloggers kept raving about. The chef had come out to say good night and accept our accolades, and the moment I saw him, my fork became heavy in my hand. I lost all desire for food. My gaze clung to the curve of his lips, the sharp line of his clean-shaven jaw, the long lock of dark hair lying against the taut muscle of his neck. He voiced some sort of pleasantries, but I didn’t hear a word. His left index finger, dark against his kitchen whites, gleamed with gold, and I sucked in a breath, feeling robbed.
I was hardly a shrinking violet—even in library circles, throwback goths covered in red and black tattoos tended to garner some attention—but that night, I might as well have been invisible. His eyes met everyones but mine. Afterward, the chef returned to the kitchen, while I didn’t take another bite, woodenly contributing as little conversation as necessary until I could make my escape. Instead of calling a car, I’d walked home, stomping through slushy snow and willing my heated skin to cool.
I’d lain awake until the wee hours, the bottle of wine by my bed serving no purpose but to enflame the wicked thoughts confusing me even as they consumed me. I was no girl, flush with infatuation. I was a woman, perfectly content alone—particularly if the alternative was the mewling artifice I’d watched so many of my friends adopt, pretending at weakness and softness to accommodate the egos of their partners. Male or female, it didn’t matter. Someone who wasn’t powerful always seemed to want to be, so the cost of their companionship was high. Or I might be too frugal, but at any rate, I refused to pet and stroke a fat barn cat and call it a tiger.
Nor had I ever been one of those women who craved the illicit, chasing after self-proclaimed bad boys and semi-committed men. I tended to be too pragmatic for secret love affairs. When the whole relationship is predicated on the fact the other person can’t be trusted, I think it puts a damper on things. And it’s way too much work. All those lies and excuses and late-night assignations. I need my beauty sleep. The library opens at nine sharp every morning, and while I could probably be persuaded to stay up late for a thousand-year-old vampire lover or a banished Norse god, anything less just doesn’t tempt me.
I have a weakness for paranormal romance. So what? Librarians have the most degenerate taste in literature there is. Why do you think we’re forever trumpeting the cause of banned books?
All this simply to say my brain should have relegated this beautiful man to the uninteresting column almost immediately.
Instead, I lay sweating under the ka-thumping ceiling fan, fingers plucking at hot, slick skin beneath tangled sheets, the uncoiling release of my flesh only wrenching tighter the anguished anticipation of my soul. He was mine, something whispered harshly in the back of my mind, he was mine first, even though God knows I’d never seen him before.
The next morning, I took a hot shower before work and told myself I was washing the night away, but thoughts of the man intruded again and again. When I found the gourmet cooking class advertised for February, I’d ripped out the newspaper page and balled it up. Fully intending to toss it.
But I stuck it in my pocket.
Here I am, two weeks later, abusing beignet dough in a class of nine other no doubt equally infatuated women. How humiliating.
When Evan, my coworker and friend, asked why I’d signed up for cooking classes when I fed myself nachos and burritos six nights a week—a woman needs one night reserved for martinis—I’d claimed it was my foray into the dating scene. That I’d rather meet a man who I knew could cook than find someone online or in a bar. I was glad Evan couldn’t see me now. With not an eligible man in sight, he’d never let me hear the end of it. Based on the amount of cleavage and red lipstick on display, the other students suffered from the same malady as I did where Chef Edgar was concerned.
Edgar Leyward was his name.
I’d never known an Edgar before. Kind of an old-fashioned name, like Harold or Frank or Herbert. His angular bone structure reminded me of fabled giants and begged me to draw my fingers over the bladed edges of his face. His dusky skin tone, slightly darker than mine even in this clime of perpetual rain and gray skies, evoked the Northwestern tribes I’d come to associate with this part of the coastline but could have easily been credited to the Mediterranean or the South American continent. His name gave no clues, nor did the cuisine of the French fusion restaurant his creations had boosted from middling to sublime.
At that moment, though, I focused on the hypnotic rhythm of his long fingers, dusted with flour, working the tender, sticky dough. “You’re not punishing the dough,” he told me, his voice husky with equal parts restrained impatience and laughter. “You’re summoning the beignets.”
Handsome he might be, but apparently still as pretentious as any French chef worthy of the name, I thought. “Like a demon?” I asked, not bothering to hide my own amusement.
“Like a lover,” he told me. Though he didn’t bother to cast a glance my way, I could feel myself flush to the roots of my black hair. “Like a lover who has forgotten your name and your face, who can only recognize you by your hands on their body.”
He ruined the effect by throwing a broad wink at the student across the table from me, who had stopped kneading and was watching him open-mouthed. He thrust my dough back at me.
“Just don’t beat it half to death,” he concluded. “You’ll make the bread tough instead of flaky.”
My classmate—the, ‘Hello my name is’, sticker on her t-shirt identified her as Tiffany—pulled herself together with a visible effort and commenced folding and pressing her dough.
“Well worth the price of admission,” Tiffany murmured, casting me a conspiratorial glance.
I shrugged, trying to forget how my whole body had gone cold beneath his breath, even as my heart thudded nearly out of my chest. “If you go for the oversexed malcontent type,” I muttered back.
She laughed out loud, drawing the gazes of the other eight students in the room. “Who doesn’t?”
I don’t, I grumpily thought, giving the dough a good whack out of sheer contrariness. Suddenly I was well and truly ashamed of myself for even signing up for this class. I could hardly disdain Tiffany for her crush when my whole reason for being here was clearly the same as hers.
I smiled slightly, and congratulated myself on my black denim overalls and white tank top that displayed my degenerate status but none of my cleavage. Several of the sleekly-coiffed students had stared askance at the Celtic animals and Norse gods swarming my bare arms. At least I was less obvious than them.
Needless to say, my beignets turned out on the stony side of soft. I told myself I didn’t care. After all, as far as I was concerned, the whole purpose of beignets was to draw me out of the house not trap me in the kitchen. A steaming pastry, a cup of spicy black tea, and the merry bustle of a street corner café was my idea of a perfect morning. Still, I swallowed an unexpected lump of jealousy as Edgar exclaimed over some other tart’s perfect flaky sweet.
I laughed at my pun and then choked on air, being the graceful creature of mystery I am. My hacking drew the chef’s attention, and he stared down at my little pasty squares of concrete with undisguised dismay.
“Oh,” was all he could summon up after wrenching off a corner and chewing it with what I felt was an unnecessary exaggeration of force.
I shrugged. “Slap a little Nutella on those babies, they’ll be delicious. I could even take the leftovers to work. The guys will love them.”
I could have sworn I saw tears of restrained laughter in his golden-brown eyes. I’d never seen eyes quite that color. I should have dismissed them as boring old brown, but they were shot through with light, like sunlight behind a shattered piece of amber.
“Will they?” he asked dubiously, swallowing with effort.
“Of course they will. Everything’s better with Nutella.”
He simply nodded, no doubt thinking if this crazy woman was happy with what she paid for, he wasn’t about to argue. He continued with his review of the students’ work, refilling wine glasses and sharing tips as we packed up our food and got ready to head home.
“Next week, we’ll be making duck a l’orange with a bit of Chinese flair.”
Now, libraries are fiercely organized realms. Have you ever noticed how many decimal places can stretch out to the right in the Dewey Decimal system? Not to mention how anal we are when it comes to alphabetizing. A place for everything and everything in its place is the rule of law in a library, which naturally requires me to be completely scattered in every other aspect of my life. There was absolutely nothing deliberate about the fact I was the last one to gather up all my stuff and cram it into my black leather shoulder bag. Absolutely nothing.
Not that Edgar seemed to notice. He was cleaning up with his back to me. I clacked past him in my clunky boots, and he called me back as I reached the door.
Impossibly, I felt his tongue shape my name. I froze and forgot to breathe. I wanted him to say it again.
And he did.
“Sigrun, stay. Have another glass of wine with me.”