I diced the onions in the tiniest cubes while the olive oil was heating in the wok. And when there was nothing but a pile of onion cubes on the cutting board, I ran the knife over them, cutting them smaller. They sizzled as soon as they touched the oil and I ran my wooden spatula through them, then lowered the heat.
They were doing fine on their own.
The first time I’d cooked for Leo, he was too polite to say anything, but the big onion cubes that hadn’t sautéed properly had made him cringe. Of course, I hadn’t known, and I’d continued making them that way for nearly six months before he mentioned anything.
The baked peppers were just cool enough for pealing by the time the onion had all but melted away. Two cloves of garlic, a dash of tomato paste, a big can of tomato puree, and two spoonfuls of sugar to kill the acidity, and my peppers were ready.
I sniffed the vapor above the wok and wrinkled my nose. It lacked the punchy flavors I stored deep in the cupboard, so I let loose and sprinkled a bit of everything from oregano to aniseed to my home-made five-spice-mix to ground chili peppers and sweet paprika.
And then the scent that spread through the entire apartment became so attractive that I nearly floated through the air like a cartoon character drawn to a pie cooling on a window sill.
I wasn’t the only one. The door of the room across Leo and mine creaked, and light steps tapped toward me.
“All for me?” he asked with fake wonder, saturating his tone.
As he reached for the lid, I slapped the back of his hand. “Don’t you dare.”
Quinn’s eyes sparkled as he crossed his arms on his chest. “You’re a mean one, you know.”
I shrugged an it’s all the same for me shrug and washed the knife so I could get the parsley ready. “Hungry?”
“Is this a trap?” Quinn asked.
“I’m just curious,” I said.
He leaned against the counter and stared at me. “You’re making me lose my appetite.” But the twitch of the corners of his lips said it was a lie.
“Good,” I said. “Because it’s not for you.”
“Not even the toasted bread?” he asked with the greatest of shocks.
“What about the crumbs, m’lord? May I have the crumbs from the floor?” His eyes puffed and grew twice their size.
I chuckled and sped up with the parsley. The ding that went off to warn me my bread would burn made my head jerk, and the knife crossed the path with the edge of my index finger. I dropped the knife, jerked my hand back, and all hell broke loose. “Crap.”
“Mason,” Quinn gasped.
“Crap,” I said and squeezed my finger hard. The gash had already ruined the parsley and my brow was sweating as though I’d eaten a spoonful of hot peppers.
Quinn was jumping around like a madman, turning the water on, and dragging me over. I couldn’t let go of my finger, but Quinn jerked my hands apart and forced my hand under the running water.
The sting wasn’t half as bad as it looked, and the looking part was what made my stomach turn. My face screwed when I glanced at my finger, water turning pink.
Quinn grabbed a clean tablecloth and held it tight around my finger.
“What the hell?” I squawked, staring at the cloth he just ruined.
“Shut up, idiot.” He wrapped the cloth tighter. “That’ll stop the bleeding.”
I looked at the cutting board and found the parsley positively ruined. “Shit, I have to finish this,” I said, my voice growing thin. “Leo’s coming in half an hour.”
Quinn frowned as he squeezed my finger harder. It sent a bolt of sharp pain up my arm, but I forced my hand to stay still. “I’ll finish it.”
“You can’t cook,” I said.
His eyes widened. “You’re here, dummy. Tell me what to do.”
I slumped into a chair and held the cloth tight around my finger. “Will I need stitching?”
“Pf, no way,” he said over his shoulder while washing his hands. “Hit me with the instructions.”
I forced the image of a needle going through my finger out of my head and tried to focus. “Bread. Take it out. No! Take the mitten, dumb-o, it’s hot. Okay. Parsley, parsley, parsley… Can you save any of it? No, don’t just wash it. Throw that away…”
Quinn was jumping back and forth between the wok that still needed cheese and my paling face as dread of the stitches returned to me. He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, grabbed a handful of his hair, and sighed. “C’mon.” He looked at me and shook his head. “What’s next?”
“Right, okay, take the cheese and break it with your fingers straight into the wok… No, wait, let me see.” I got up and immediately crashed back into the chair. “Right, feet not working. Just, stir it. Don’t let it burn.”
Quinn was nodding like my voice was a sick beat and stirring in that rhythm. When he grabbed a handful of feta cheese with his bare hands and started breaking it above the wok, his face twisted. “Yuck, Mason. What the hell are we making?”
“It’ll be good,” I promised. “Is it thick or watery?”
“Um, I dunno. What’s the scale?”
“Just… Common sense?”
“Ah, right, you’re all about common sense.” He stirred again. “Thick, I guess.”
“Okay, break an egg into a cup, use the spatula to make a little hole near the edge of the wok, then pour the egg in.”
Quinn turned to me and blinked. “You’re a maniac.”
“Then do it five more times,” I said and grinned.
He bit his lip and pushed on. His slim fingers were clumsy and every time he broke an egg it took another half a minute to get the shell out of the cup. But that was what I definitely couldn’t do by myself now. So, I bit my tongue and let the comments evaporate out of my brain instead of speaking up.
“Put the lid back on and bring the heat all the way down,” I said. I was oddly tired by now, and the grip on my finger was so strong that it was turning cold.
“Is it done, then?”
“Five minutes,” I said, my voice exhausted. I could only imagine what Quinn felt like now. “Let the eggs cook a bit.”
“Five minutes?” he asked.
He also nodded, but it was a far more determined nod. “With me,” he said as he grabbed me under my arm and pulled me out of the kitchen and to the big bathroom.
“Iodine,” he said and opened the bottle from the medicine cabinet. He must have seen me cringe when he started removing the tablecloth from my finger. He whispered: “Look at me.”
I did. I focused on his eyes as he unwrapped the cloth and winced at the sight of it. But I never looked down. He eased my hand above the sink and I kept my eyes on his face all along.
He looked up. “This’ll sting.”
“I know.” I held my breath.
The thick liquid touched my finger and burned all the way up my arm. I was sure I was about to faint. The smell of iodine crawled into my nostrils and made me picture some sterile ER. I bit my lip, then opened my mouth wide, and let all the burning show on my face.
“You’re doing well,” Quinn murmured. “That’s okay. Done.” He tightened a clean wrap around my finger and hooked it in place, then looked into my eyes. A grin spread across his face. “You’ll live.”
I tittered and tugged my hand back. “I think the eggs are cooked.”
Quinn skipped back to the kitchen, and I trailed after him. He took the wok off the stove and removed the lid. All the ingredients had gotten familiar with each other and made my mouth water.
Leo was just about to return from work, and he would appreciate a good, healthy meal.
“Quinn?” I sat down again. “Thanks.”
He shook his head. “That’s what friends are for.” He grabbed two plates and set them on the dining table. “Forks? Spoons? Whiskers? How do you even eat this?”
“Spoons are fine,” I said.
He grabbed two spoons and set them by the plates. I watched him as he cleaned the counter, his slender shoulders swinging left and right as though he was dancing. He set two wine glasses on the table and smiled for me just as the front door opened and Leo walked in.
He peeked through the door while taking off his jacket and spotted the thick wrap around my index finger at once. “Baby,” he gasped. “What happened?”
“An oopsie,” I said.
“Mason attempted to amputate his index finger,” said Quinn. “But I gallantly saved the day.”
Leo crossed over and leaned in for a kiss, then took my hand. “Does it hurt?”
“You didn’t need to cook if you got hurt,” he said.
“I didn’t cook. Quinn did.”
Quinn clapped his hands. “I’ll leave you love birds to it.”
As he pranced back to his room, Leo and I exchanged a look.
“Quinn?” I called.
“Yes, sir?” He turned around.
“You forgot to set a plate for yourself.”
He grinned. “Ooh, I earned a supper?”
“I think so,” said Leo.
“Come, let’s eat,” I said.
He lit up and got himself a plate while Leo served us equal parts. Quinn got another glass and poured us all some wine.
“This’ll warm us up for the party,” he said.
Leo chuckled. “Start early and get the job done sooner.”
Leo devoured his portion, all the while tapping his belly and sweating under his eyes from the hot peppers, while Quinn bitched about it being too spicy, but he ate it nonetheless.
“It’s official, boys,” he said and took a gulp of wine to put out the fire in his mouth. “I can cook.”
“Right.” I kept my eyes on him. “What’s this dish called?”
“Um… Dragon’s fiery climax.”
Leo laughed so hard he spat the wine and pushed himself away from the table, all the while Quinn smirked and broadened his shoulders. But I slouched. It had been a while since I made Leo laugh that much.
The Three Hearts Equation is coming on May 7. It’s a sweet and steamy MMM college romance, perfect for those looking to smile while reading. If you’d like to get the newsletter-exclusive novella featuring Mason and Leo’s meet-cute, you can get it here. Stay tuned, Leo’s chapter is landing tomorrow.