The first thing Ru noticed when Zane opened the door was his feet. Cute, bare, Fred Flintstone-like squarish feet sticking out the bottom of his jeans. His hair was rumpled, and she ran her hand through like a comb as she greeted him; for some reason she just needed to touch it. He registered surprise at finding her standing on his front steps. Actually, it was guilt she thought she saw on his face, but she ignored it, pretended it was surprise as she explained her reason for being there unannounced. She talked fast, about the hellish week she was having without going into the details of why, all the while wondering why she was still standing on his front landing without having yet been asked inside. She caught a most delicious whiff of tomato sauce and was about to invite herself to dinner when over his shoulder she also caught sight of the ball groupie. Dressed in a long black skirt from Wet Seal and white tank with a leather rope belt tied low on her hips, she was on her way from the kitchen—presumably to the dining room, which was nowhere near the front door—carrying a large bowl of pasta. Her sleek red mane was ironed straight and held back from her face by a thick white Lycra band.
“Hi,” she called out to Ru. She came up behind Zane, kissing him a little too intimately on the corner of his mouth. “Dinner’s ready, babe.”
She smiled at Ru with a slight cock of her head and arch of her brow before turning and disappearing once again into the kitchen.
Zane’s expression seemed to seek an apology even as it tried to conceal evident embarrassment.
“Dinner’s ready, babe,” he said with a sweeping arm gesture, his mouth twisting into an awkward smile. “Would you like to join us?”
She knew she should say no. It would be the polite, socially appropriate thing to do. It was why he asked; not because he wanted her there, but because it would be rude not to. She wasn’t feeling quite as magnanimous; her dinner had been ruined, and so would ball groupie’s.
“I . . . I . . .” She glanced in the direction of her house, summoning up enough tears to blur her vision. She turned back to him, sucking in her breath for good measure, letting out a distressed giggle with the exhale. “I couldn’t. But thanks. You’ve obviously got something going on,” her voice wavered, “and I’d only get in the way.”
He stepped outside, slightly closing the door behind him.
“Are you all right?”
She almost buckled at the genuine concern in his eyes, his voice, the hand he gently wrapped around her arm. Almost.
“Sure,” she said, nodding a tad too emphatically. “I’m great. The cops think I killed Tate’s wife, but aside from that—” She threw her arms up in a dramatic full body shrug. “Just fucking great.”
Zane’s face registered the desired amount of shock. “Wait. What? Wait—what did you just say?”
“Tate’s wife was murdered.”
Zane was silent, letting her words sink in. He let out a long whistle, shaking his head. “When? What happened?” Then, as if finally realizing the gravity of what she’d said, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “Ru,” he whispered. The top of her head reached just under his chin and she felt him plant a single kiss there.
“Someone killed her with an ax right in her own driveway,” she spoke into his chest. The moss colored t-shirt he wore was made of a soft cotton blend and smelled freshly laundered. She inhaled deeply, burrowing her face in its scent.
He was rocking her, a slight, lulling motion, swaying from side to side. She closed her eyes; she could fall asleep right there.
“You have to come inside now,” he murmured.
“But your date—”
“Ru, please, don’t be ridiculous. Come inside.” He pulled away, cupping her face in his hands. He dipped down, looking directly into her eyes. “Please.”
“Thank you, Zane,” Ru said, the tears falling from her eyes real this time. He was such a good friend. A good man. And she—
She didn’t feel guilty at all.
“OMG, this is so delicious,” Ru said, twirling her second mouthful of spaghetti around her fork. “Who made the sauce?” She looked back and forth between Zane and the ball groupie (Patrice, which was ridiculously pronounced PA-tri-SHAY), the former narrowing his eyes at her while simultaneously fighting a smile.
“Bertolli,” he answered.
“Mmmm,” she said, nodding. “I knew it couldn’t have been Ragu.” She jammed the pasta into her mouth. “Al dente.”
“Al dente pertains to the consistency of the spaghetti,” Patrice told her in a superior
voice, exaggerated to make Ru feel like a fool.
“Right,” Ru said, taking a swig of Cabernet. “What I meant was abbondanza.”
Zane was full-out grinning, shaking his head. “That would be Mama Celeste.” The look he cast Ru said behave yourself. Don’t I always she silently answered back with a flutter of her eyelashes.
“Poor Mama Celeste,” she said. “Run out of town by Digiorno and Tombstone.”
“She wasn’t,” Patrice said smugly. “I just had a Mama Celeste pizza for one last week.”
“All by yourself?” Ru asked.
“Half for dinner, the other half for lunch,” she answered earnestly. Ru looked pointedly at Zane. He ignored her Cheshire cat grin.
There was more pointless dinner chitchat, about the goings on in the Big Brother house, Britney Spears, supermarkets who insisted on having their employees bag your groceries, what their fantasy requests would be if they were children in the Make-A-Wish program.
“I think I’d want a big bowl of spaghetti like this, swimming in Bertolli Five Cheeses sauce.”
Zane’s scowl hinted she’d gone too far with what he perceived as her making light of terminal children.
“With the cast of Hot in Cleveland,” she added defensively. “You didn’t let me finish.”
“Oh, you’re finished,” he mumbled, emptying his wine glass. She sucked in her cheeks, staring down at her plate like a chastised child.
Patrice was finished as well. She excused herself after dinner, saying she had an early day ahead of her tomorrow.
“Are you sure you won’t stay for dessert?” Ru asked. “I hear Zane’s serving Marie Callender’s Razzleberry Pie with Talenti Tahitian Vanilla Bean.”
“You are so rude,” he told her after coming back from depositing Patrice in her car. Ru made a mental note to ask if he kissed her or rescheduled a dinner date; now he was too angry.
“I thought I was entertaining,” she said, following him into the kitchen, loaded down with dirty plates. He relieved her of her burden, placing the dishes in the sink, scraping any remaining food into the garbage disposal.
“Only to yourself.”
“Oh, come on. You were entertained.”
He finished rinsing the plates and loading them into the dishwasher, then turned to face her.
“Why were you so rude to her?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think I was.”
“You, Ru Porter, are a mean girl.”
He went back into the dining room, Ru so close she was practically in front of him.
“No. I’m not. Mean girls are mean for the sport of it.”
“Right. They find entertainment value in being mean.”
She twisted her lips, watching him collect the remaining platters from the table. She had no reply for that; she’d basically loaded and then handed to him the gun he shot her with. She picked up the wine glasses, the last items remaining, and took them into the kitchen. She watched as he transferred the spaghetti and sautéed spinach into separate storage containers and place them in the fridge.
“If I look in the freezer, will I find a Marie Callendar’s Razzleberry Pie?”
He paused. “Apple,” he finally admitted sheepishly.
“Zane, I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I came over here expecting to have you all to myself and I was so bummed when I saw her. And you were so nice to invite me in on your date, but I don’t feel so nice. I wanted you to invite me in and make her leave. So when you didn’t, I made her leave.” She checked her fingernails, unable to continue looking at him looking at her. “I’m sorry,” she said again before chewing on her thumb.
He lightly swatted her hand away and she clasped them behind her back. “You want apple pie?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Do you think you deserve apple pie?”
She swiveled her body from side to side. “Hmmm . . . yes.”
“Start the coffee,” he instructed and she lightly clapped her hands, setting about to making a pot of Joffrey’s Bananas Foster while he put the pie in the oven.
“Sucker takes over an hour to bake.”
“I can fill that time easy.”
It took three hours, half a pie and a pot of coffee for Rue to catch Zane up on the events of the past week, including her earlier phone chats with Detectives Honeycutt and Hathaway. They were seated on his couch, each to their own cushion, Zane with his legs on the floor in front of him, Ru curled up sideways, her legs tucked under her.
“He called me a cunt,” she was sure to include in the retelling of her conversation with Honeycutt, still wounded by the sexual slur. Zane expressed his concern that she hadn’t told him about it all sooner, even reprimanded her somewhat, but she admitted she’d been in such a state of disbelief over the whole thing, she wasn’t yet ready to put into words to someone else what she was seeing over and over again in her own head.
“So,” he said, treading carefully, “do you think he did it?”
“Tate? No. I don’t. At first I thought it, too, not like he had, but just that maybe it was a possibility. But no.” She let out a bitter laugh. “When I talked to him he sounded as if he thought maybe I did it.”
“Yeah. I mean, I guess anything’s a possibility. I could just be acting paranoid, though; maybe he didn’t sound like he thought that at all when I talked to him, but I know how nutty I am inside when it comes to him so of course I think he can see it.” She leaned over and reached into the pie pan sitting on the coffee table and plucked out an apple. “I’m nutty when it comes to all of my guys. Patrishay better watch her back.”
He took her finger and sucked it clean of the excess apple-cinnamon sticky juice mixture. Before her mind could swirl with the possibilities of what was going on here, he continued on with the subject of Patrice, which Ru had so stupidly introduced back into their evening.
“Why don’t you like her?”
“I don’t not like her, Zane,” she bristled, pulling herself up and sitting further away from him on the couch. “I was kidding.”
“You don’t like her, Ru. You never have.”
“Ugh, it’s not her I don’t like, but you,” she said, exasperated. “I don’t like what it says about you if you like someone like her. A soulless Barbie doll. Do you just want to fuck her? That I could understand. But have a conversation with her? Spend money and cook for her and give her any of your time that doesn’t involve a bracing surface and K-Y? Nope. Don’t want to think you’re that guy. I want you to be Ben Affleck.”
“Ben Affleck. He played with J-Lo but he married Jennifer Garner.”
“Right. So I play with Patrice but I marry Ru.”
Although it sent the flutter of a thousand dragonflies from deep in her belly up to her throat, Ru needed to keep his words—this night—in perspective. If not for her interruption, he may very well be sitting here with Patrice right now, making her feel flushed and swoony. Ru was just a substitute. A loner model until the real appliance became available.
“Well, something like that,” she said, smoothing out the exposed patch of cushion beneath her. “But remember: I’m marrying Tate.”
“I guess you can now,” he said, and not for the first time since Elaine’s murder did Ru entertain the possibility of that very sentiment. But did she really believe the Universe had intervened so brutally on her behalf? Did she even want to take advantage of such an opportunity, or put her faith in an ideal that set things up in such a manner?
“Um, I really think I should go now,” she said softly, rising from the couch. Zane sprang quickly to his feet.
“Oh. Okay. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Thank you, Zane. For everything.”
She kissed him on the cheek, expecting the good-bye to end there but he insisted on walking her next door to her house.
“You could have watched from there,” she said, gesturing toward his front door.
“I could have,” he agreed. He kissed her cheek. “Good night.”
They lingered in front of her door until she finally turned around and unlocked it. She stepped inside her house, turning to face him.
“Good night, Zane.”
He nodded, but made no motion to leave.
“Zane, I’m not going to close the door in your face.”
“You are. I need to know you’re safe inside. I’m not leaving until I hear you lock your door.”
She rolled her eyes, satisfied though she was at his wanting to protect her from the world’s evils, but went inside, closing the door in his face and locking it.
Sleep didn’t come easy that night, and she didn’t expect it to. She read, she watched Shameless on Showtime, she turned to her iPhone and checked her Facebook page. She saw five activity notifications and one message. When she clicked on the little word balloon icon and saw who had left the message, and the simple conveyance therein, the blood that rushed into her ears filled them with the sound of a million swarms of bees.
The message was from Elaine Pearson and contained two words: chop chop.