I love making Christmas cookies. I suppose that’s why they always seem to find their way into so many of my books! I have vampires baking chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles, runaways making gingerbread, and steampunk cooks making biscochitos…which, by the way is one cookie that never comes out for me. I know, of course, it’s because I don’t use lard. But still I persist. lol!
This year I’m making the apricot kolache my mother-in-law was famous for and spicy gingerbread–made with fresh ginger, black pepper and cayenne. So good! My inspiration for those is Aldo, one of my bionic soldiers from Finders Keepers. Here’s kind of a long scene that starts off with Aldo baking. But first, the blurb:
Caleb is a bionic soldier with little-to-no memory of his past. Aldo’s an undercover cop who’s searching for the man who got away. Then there’s Sally, an ER physician who used to be married to Aldo’s late partner, Davis. Sally’s just looking for a reason to keep on getting up every day.
This holiday season, chance will bring them together and give them an opportunity to help one another find what they each want most. But every gift comes with a price. And keeping what they’ve found once they’ve found it? Yeah, that’s gonna be the hard part.
Aldo was baking cookies. Spicy black-pepper-cinnamon cookies—Davis’s favorite. He rolled the dough thin, then cut them out using the maple-leaf cookie cutter Sally and Davis had brought him back from Vancouver. Then he decorated them with sanding sugar in a variety of colors, some in plain red or green in a nod to the season, some swirled with autumn shades of burgundy and gold, others frosted just at the tips in blue and white, as though they’d been touched by an ice fairy. Maple leaves weren’t particularly Christmasy, he supposed, but he didn’t care. He liked the way the cookies looked, liked the way the edges browned first, like real leaves would. Besides, he doubted anyone else here would even notice what shape cookies he made…not unless he used the pornographic cookie cutters he’d received one year as a gag gift. Too bad he wasn’t in the mood to play around like that. Not when he was the only one in the house who wasn’t getting any.
That was a big part of the reason he was baking, come to think of it—because he had nothing better to do. Or no one better to do. No one at all to do, for that matter—but let’s not go there. And because baking cookies was part of what he’d always done at this time of year.
Of course, in years past he’d baked mostly because Davis, who had a hellacious sweet tooth, couldn’t get enough of them. But Sally had always liked his cookies as well, and anything that made her happy, anything that made her feel like the world hadn’t ended with Davis’s death was a good thing. They both needed to feel like that. Besides, the weather had turned cold and it had been snowing for the better part of the afternoon, so going for another hike was out unless he wanted to end up with hypothermia. He could either bake or spend all his time curled up in front of the fire thinking gloomy thoughts. He’d done more than enough of that in the past few days.
He was happy Sally had found someone—truly, he was. Even if it was someone they knew so little about, someone who knew too little about himself. Someone whose very presence left Aldo feeling conflicted and confused. After a solid week of scrutiny and daily observation, Aldo was still no closer to solving the mystery that had been plaguing him. Their “vacation” time was almost over, and Aldo was beginning to despair of ever learning the truth. Were Kyle and Caleb the same person? Did it matter? What would it mean if they were? He was almost afraid to find out.
Aldo could still recall the grief he’d felt when he’d learned Kyle had been killed, the frustration when he could get no details, no answers, no closure. If it turned out Kyle hadn’t died after all, Aldo didn’t even know how he was supposed to feel about that. A lot would depend on why. If Kyle had been so badly hurt that this was the only option, the only way to save his life, that was one thing. He’d feel nothing but grateful then. But wouldn’t Aldo have been told about it, if that were the case? There wouldn’t be any reason for secrecy in that scenario. If this was something Kyle had chosen, on the other hand, if he’d made a conscious decision to off his former self… But no. No, damn it. Why would he do that? Had he thought at all what it would mean to make a total break with his past, to disappear forever? Had he even considered that he’d be breaking Aldo’s heart all over again?
Aldo continued to roll out more cookie dough as he thought, slamming the rolling pin hard on the counter at the start of each pass. Maybe he wasn’t being fair. After all, Aldo had been the one to end things, to break things off between them. They had been over for months before Kyle’s death…his supposed death. Maybe Kyle had honestly believed it wouldn’t matter to Aldo if he lived or died. Maybe he even had reason to feel that way.
Kyle had tried to contact Aldo in the weeks leading up to his disappearance, but Aldo had been incommunicado at that point, immersed in his own training, his own transformation. He didn’t learn about those failed attempts to reach out to him until it was too late. Those missed calls and unread messages had preyed on his mind. They’d been a big part of Aldo’s disillusionment with the military, and the main reason he’d decided to buy his way out. He’d given away his right to make his own decisions, the freedom to think for himself—to go where he needed to be, to do what he needed to do. He’d never make that mistake again.
“Everything okay in here?” Sally wandered into the kitchen to ask.
“Everything’s fine.” Aldo managed a smile. “Just making more cookies.” He nodded toward the rack of cooling cookies. “Have some, if you like. What did you do with Caleb anyway?”
A faint blush colored Sally’s cheeks. She picked up a cookie and then slid onto one of the stools across from Aldo. “He’s taking a nap.”
Aldo picked up the cookie cutter and began cutting out leaves. “A nap, huh?” Really? In the middle of the day? Well, why not. Once upon a time, he’d have done the same thing.
“What’s your problem with him anyway?”
“Who said I had a problem?”
“Aldo, c’mon.” She propped her chin in her hand and gazed at him, her expression concerned. “Talk to me. You’ve been moping all week. What is wrong?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Sal. I invited the guy up here for you, didn’t I? I don’t think I’ve been rude to him while he’s been here.”
“Of course you’ve been rude to him!”
Aldo slammed the cookie cutter on the counter. “Look, he’s not Davis, all right? I can’t pretend he is—not even for you. You can’t expect me to feel the same or treat him the same or behave the same way around him. Not even if you marry him. Not even if he and I become good friends.” His voice trailed off as the anger that had fueled his outburst burned off, leaving only sadness behind. “They’re two different people, and that’s just the way it is. I’m not even saying it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not the same.”
“I know he’s not Davis. Don’t you think I know that? And I know it’s not going to be exactly the same. Nothing’s ever going to be the same again. But I think he’s becoming important to me. And you know you’re important to me. I need to know the two of you can get along with one another.”
“Well, I can’t promise you that. It’s too soon.”
“Do you think I’m moving too fast?”
Aldo shook his head. “That’s not a question for me to answer. You’re only waiting on yourself, honey. Do you think you’re moving too fast?”
“I don’t know.” She took a bite of her cookie and didn’t answer right away. “Here’s the thing. I think I was—maybe—getting close to being ready to move on, to go out and try again. But if I hadn’t met Caleb, if he hadn’t asked me out last week…then, no. I don’t know that I would have started dating again just yet. I don’t think I would, actually. And maybe that means this is a mistake. Maybe it would have been better if I’d met him later on. But that’s not how it worked out. He’s here now and…and I think he’s special. So I think it would be a bigger mistake not to try. I think I can’t just say to myself, well, I’m not ready, so I’ll just wait until I am and then hope someone else comes along, because I might be waiting a really long time if I did that. Guys like Davis or Caleb—or you, for that matter—don’t come along every day. I want to get to know him better, and I think that’s either going to happen now or it’s not going to happen at all.”
“And I guess that’s part of what bothers me.” Aldo sighed. He pushed the tray of cookies he’d been decorating to the side and leaned his arms on the counter. “Are you getting to know him better? How? He doesn’t even know himself!”
“I know,” Sally said with a sigh. “I think that bothers him too.”
“Well, it should. He could be anyone, Sal. Don’t you think you should maybe consider what that would mean for you before you get any more involved?”
Sally smiled wanly. “Define ‘more involved’? Because I think I’m already there. Anyway, what does it matter? So what if he has a different name or a different face than he did before? He’d still be the same person, wouldn’t he? So maybe it’s not that important after all.”
“Isn’t it?” Kyle had been attracted to women and Caleb certainly was, so maybe Sally was right. Maybe it didn’t matter. But Kyle had also been too selfish to commit to any one person. If Caleb was the same, didn’t Aldo owe it to Sally to keep her from getting hurt like that? “What if there’s more to him than what you know? What if it turns out he has a whole other life somewhere that he’s forgotten about? There could be a whole lot of things he’s done that might make a big difference. If he’s as serious about you as you seem to be getting about him, doesn’t he owe it to both of you to find that out now?”
“I don’t know. And I really don’t understand what exactly you think either of us should do about it, even if that were the case.”
“Hey, you said it yourself. There are ways to deal with it, things you can do to restore his memory—right?”
“I assume when you say ‘you,’ you’re not referring to me specifically?”
“Of course I’m referring to you. You’re a doctor. Who better to do this kind of thing?”
“Aldo…I work in the emergency room. I’m not a brain specialist! I’m certainly not qualified to deal with something like this! Besides, I said maybe there were things that might work.”
“Yeah, so? It’s still worth a try.”
“I’m not altogether sure I agree with you on that. ‘First, do no harm.’ You never heard that before?”
“He’s right,” Caleb said, appearing in the kitchen doorway wearing jeans but no shirt, causing Aldo to all but swallow his tongue. He straightened and pulled the tray back in front of him and went back to frosting cookies. Davis had been built. Kyle, if Aldo’s memory was at all accurate, had resembled a young god. Caleb put them both to shame. He was the most breathtaking sight Aldo had ever seen, nothing but lean, shredded muscles, and those shoulders… Aldo forced his pulse to stop racing, forced his breathing to slow, focused his attention on the task at hand. But anger and resentment continued its steady ascent. He was tired of wanting what he couldn’t have. Tired of having temptation dangled in his face. Tired of always being alone. It had been too long.
“Caleb…” Sally shook her head. “You weren’t supposed to hear any of that.”
“Sorry.” Caleb planted his hands on the counter on either side of her, leaned in and nibbled her neck. Aldo had to will his hand not to shake. “It’s not like I do it on purpose. I hear what I hear. Besides, I’m glad I heard what you said. Both of you.” He glanced at Aldo, but Aldo ignored him, so he turned back to Sally. “So. What can you do to restore my memory?”
“You too? If you heard what I said, then you know what I think. It’s a decision for you and your doctors to make.”
“No.” Caleb shook his head. “You said it yourself; it might be intentional. If that’s the case, they probably won’t go for it. I want to make my own decision.”
Aldo snorted. “Amen to that.”
“What do we do?” Caleb asked Sally.
“I don’t know. I’m not qualified to provide therapy—especially since I have no idea what’s causing this. I suppose we could try hypnosis.”
“You said something about drugs,” Aldo reminded her.
She shot him an angry look. “Sure. There’s been some very limited success with certain drugs. Benzodiazepines or thiopental, for example. But how many times must I say it? We still don’t know the cause. If it’s the result of some sort of brain damage, then it’s unlikely anything will work.”
“We won’t know till we try, right?” Caleb said.
“Do you have any of that stuff with you?” Aldo asked.
“Stuff?” Sally glared at him again.
“The drugs you just mentioned.”
Sally’s jaw clenched. “Yes,” she said at last. “As it happens, they’re both used for treating seizures, and you know I never travel without emergency supplies.”
Caleb chuckled as he bent to nuzzle her neck again. “That’s my girl…scout.”
Sally laughed, but it was a rueful sound. “Uh, Caleb, honey? You do know that the Girl Scouts don’t actually have the whole be prepared thing as their motto.”
“That’s okay. Girls’ve still got it all over guys.”
Aldo ground his teeth together. He couldn’t take any more of this cutesy act. He picked up the tray of decorated cookies and headed toward the oven. “Caleb, if you’re so damned hungry, you could just eat a cookie, you know, instead of trying to chew her ear off.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Aldo saw Caleb straighten and reach for the plate of cookies. “Whoa, dude!” he exclaimed once he’d taken a bite. “You could have warned me. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to blow my head off.”
“Yeah, well, better enjoy it, ’cause that’s all I’m gonna blow.” The words were out before Aldo could stop them. Fuck. Had he really just said that out loud?
Sally made a strangled, choking sound. “Aldo!” she gasped. “I can’t believe you said that.”
Neither can I. “What?” he said, thinking fast, trying to bluff his way out of this, turn it into a joke…or something. “What’s wrong with that? I said I’m not gonna blow him. D’you all of a sudden have a problem with me not hitting on your boyfriend? Or am I missing something? Maybe you wanna share?”
Sally shook her head, a bemused expression on her face, her cheeks bright red. Aldo wanted to kick himself. He was on the verge of apologizing when he caught sight of the knowing smirk on Caleb’s face. Fuck him. Let him think what he wanted. “So how long is this thing going to take? ’Cause if I need to reschedule dinner, I’d like to know now.”
“How long is what going to take?” Sally asked, looking even more perplexed.
He pointed at Caleb. “Whatever you’re about to do to fix his memory.”
“Now?” She stared at him in disbelief. “You think I’m doing this now? Why? What’s the rush? I still think it would be better to wait until we’re home.”
Wait? Oh hell no. Aldo shook his head. He needed to know, damn it, right the fuck now. “I don’t see the point in waiting.”
“I don’t want to wait either,” Caleb told her. “I don’t want to hurt you. If there’s something in my past that might do that, I want to know now.”
“But…tonight’s New Year’s Eve,” Sally protested.
Aldo shrugged. “So what if it is? If this snow keeps up, we’re not going to want to go out anywhere. Seems as good a time as any to me.”
Caleb smiled. “Sounds like it to me too. That way, tomorrow we can start the new year with a whole new perspective. What could be better than that, right?”
A new year. Aldo sighed. This last one had sucked. He wondered if it was too much to hope the next one would be better.