One day Dirk Mullins was there. The next, it was as if he never lived in Three Creeks. There weren’t any goodbyes or announcements of exciting opportunities. Dirk just stopped showing up. So Liz Harper wasn’t exactly staring when she saw him again. She was making sure her eyes hadn’t deceived her.
As sure as the sun rose on a day in the middle of June, he was there. Dirk’s glassy green eyes sparkled with awareness, and he tilted his chin toward Liz to say hello. Then he went back to talking to the group of guys in front of him. Sugar Daddy, that’s what Liz used to call him back then. Dirk called her old lady. It was a joke between them.
Every Monday, when Liz helped restock the shelves at her brother’s store, Dirk stopped by and bought a box of Captain Crunch cereal. One time Liz remarked, “With a body like yours, I’d assume you were a bacon and eggs guy.” She was merely speaking the truth. The man was built like a brick house. If the size of his forearms were any indication, most of it was muscle.
He came back at her with, “Are you offering?”
Liz finished adding the boxes of Rice Krispies to the shelf before replying, “I’m too old for you.”
His eyes sparkling with amusement seemed brighter under the coating of dust on his cheeks. “How old are you?”
“I’m thirty-three.” Liz injected a little extra pride in her voice. She didn’t want him to know that she was sensitive about her hair. Around the time her son Cameron turned three, Liz discovered she was the lucky beneficiary of her great grandmother’s prematurely graying hair. By the time Liz was thirty, people who didn’t know her had mistaken her to be Cameron’s grandmother.
Dirk scoffed, “Okay, old lady.” He waved the box of cereal at her.
“Old Lady! Who are you calling old lady?” She pointed at his box of cereal, “Sugar daddy.”
They giggled hard at the banter, and it stuck. Every Monday, Dirk greeted Liz in the cereal aisle, “How are you doing, old lady?”
She’d sass her reply, “Just fine, Sugar Daddy.”
The first time Liz missed seeing Dirk, she assumed it was because she was in the back helping her sister-in-law, Maggie, with a cold cut platter. The large stainless steel refrigerator obscured her view of what was happening in the shelving area. To be honest, Liz didn’t think much of Dirk’s absence until the third week passed, and she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him. Finally, she mentioned it to her brother, Tom. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Dirk.”
“It’ll be even longer.” Tom, who was balancing a stack of coffee bags in his arms, rushed to make it to the shelf. “I heard he moved to Bakken, Montana.”
It shouldn’t have bothered Liz that Dirk left without saying goodbye, but it did. Which is why she told herself it was better if she maintained some distance between herself and Dirk Mullins. He was only visiting.
Her sister-in-law, Maggie, had divided the kitchen island to accommodate the adults and the children. One half of the counter held a waffle bar complete with syrup, fruit toppings, whipped cream, peanut butter, and chocolate chips. The other had bagels, bread, and cold cuts for the adults.
Liz’s stomach churned at her son’s request. “Chocolate chips and peanut butter on your waffle?” Still, she sprinkled the chocolate chips on his waffle because it was what Cam wanted, and it was New Year’s Eve.
“Don’t forget the whipped cream,” Cam dipped his finger in the peanut butter and licked it off before trying to take another swipe. Liz pulled it away before he could reach it. She wasn’t paying attention to what was on the other side of her. If she had, she would have known Dirk was behind her, and she wouldn’t have flipped the waffles into his chest.
They stuck in place. Her mouth dropped. His quirked into a mischievous grin. “Is this a call for a food fight!”
“Oh, I am so sorry,” Liz peeled the waffle off his shirt, grabbed the closest napkin, and tried to wipe it off. The gesture proved ineffective at cleaning the mess. Instead, it smeared the peanut butter, making the mess worse. Dirk caught Liz’s wrist. “I’ve had worse spilled on my shirt.”
The combination of the sincerity in Dirk’s voice, his tender touch, and intense gaze, sent charges of energy through Vivian. She always wondered what happened to a computer when she shut it down and restarted it. In that brief second, Liz knew. Her heart beat faster, and her palms sweat. A minute ago, everything was fine. Thanks to Dirk’s touch, the air had thinned. Liz’s chest hitched at the abrupt change. She knew beyond a doubt that her heart reprogrammed itself to attached to a man that was too young for her. Dirk was the same age as her younger brother, Tom. The subtle curve at the corner of Dirk’s lips spoke louder than anything he could have spoken. He knew.
Cam’s giggle brought Liz back to her senses. She blinked to adjust from the haze of attraction to the reality of single motherhood. “This is your fault. If you ate waffles like a normal person, none of this would have happened.”
“If I can contribute to the conversation,” Dirk spoke over Liz’s shoulder. “I’d like to say–Bananas. Waffles with peanut butter, bananas, and syrup. Then your mom can’t get mad because you have a fruit and vegetable in there.”
Liz’s eyes scrunched in disgust and confusion. “Where’s the vegetable?”
With a straight face, Dirk replied. “I was saying it more like the name of the food group. You know meat, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables.”
“Please do not corrupt my son.” Liz rubbed her forehead. “Next, he’ll try to substitute oranges for carrots at dinner.”
“Hey, that is a good idea,” Cameron piped in. He flashed a smile, and his hazel eyes brightened. It was the smile she found hard to resist. The smile he used to charm her when he wanted to avoid her gentle correction. It was Liz’s Achilles heel, and oddly enough, Cameron only used it for minor infractions. Liz half groaned. “You’re too cute, and you know it.”
Dirk inched in front of Liz and grabbed two plates. He handed one to Cameron and set a waffle on it. “This time, let’s put the toppings on the plate, and you can add them when we get to the table.”
“Are you going to eat with your shirt like that?” Cameron pointed at the smudge of peanut butter on Dirk’s shirt.
“Nah, situations like this are why I wear two.” Dirk rested his plate on the counter and unbuttoned his flannel shirt. He pulled his arms out of the sleeves, revealing the black fitted t-shirt beneath. “We can put this in the washing machine, and it’ll be as good as new in less than an hour.”
Cameron’s voice was full of awe at Dirk’s wisdom. “That’s why mom makes me wear two shirts?”
Dirk nodded. “Hmm, mm. Stick with me, kid. I’ll tell you all the secrets that moms don’t want you to know.”
Mired in a mixture of awe and bewilderment, Liz watched Dirk head toward the table with her son, both of them with plates loaded with waffles and toppings. It was like they had known each other for all their lives.
“He is great with kids.” Maggie came up alongside Liz and handed her a drink.
If she didn’t know any better, Liz would have sworn the scene had been staged because her niece and nephew joined Dirk at the table. Cameron, Vivian, and The image pinched her heart. The one thing her son wanted, Liz couldn’t provide. Male companionship. Her brother stepped in when he could, but running the store didn’t give Tom too many opportunities. “He is a kid,” Liz wandered to the other side of the kitchen to make herself a plate of cold cuts and veggies.
“He’s not that much younger than you.” Maggie nodded her smile of approval at Dirk, who winked back.
“He was in eighth grade when I was a senior in high school,” Liz corrected.
“Let’s not forget; his nickname for me is old lady.”
“He’s joking.” Maggie handed Liz a glass of wine, and the two women meandered to the game room in the basement. Again, the space had been divided to make it fun for all involved. They set half of the room for the kids to watch movies and play video games. On the opposite wall, two card tables held a variety of games. In the absence of the kids, who were with Dirk, Tom and the men had taken over the television and were watching a basketball game.
Dirk may have been joking, but his nickname for Liz stuck to her heart. She hadn’t been on a date since Cam’s father, Cal, died. Men her age assumed she was older and wrote her off. At first, it stung, but over time she just got used to it. Besides, she had a son without a father who needed her. It wasn’t like she had that much time to invest in a relationship.
Maggie took a detour from her route to the table and kissed Tom on the top of his head. Josh, who was sitting closest to Tom, casually mentioned, “Where’s Dirk?”
Tom kept his eyes trained on the television that took up most of the wall space. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was out helping an old lady cross the street. That guy is always doing something nice for someone.”
“Did you hear that he pulled old man Benson’s pickup out of the ditch? Did it with his bare hands. No equipment. The way I heard it, Dirk got in front of the jalopy and pushed.”
Maggie piped into the conversation, “And to think he’s all alone on New Year’s Eve.”
Liz didn’t know why, but the more people tried to point her toward Dirk, the deeper her heels dug into Tom and Maggie’s slate gray carpet. She wasn’t right about everything, but of this, she was sure. Dirk Mullins was off-limits.
As it happens in all romance stories, once a character says “It’s not going to happen, life proves otherwise. The second half of this story is scheduled to post at noon on New Year’s Eve.