Hello! A little one-shot, written as a birthday gift for my friend Crowded Angels :D Happy birthday! Enjoy!
It had reached critical point. One wrong move and it would all end in disaster…
So maybe not disaster, but certainly dinner would be ruined. Gathering his nerves, Mac took a deep breath. A last flex of his fingers, and he pushed the button to set the oven timer.
Set. Thirty minutes. At the end of which, the vegetables would be roasted to perfection; the meat would be cooked exactly right and the potatoes would be crisp and delicious. In short, he would have a perfect birthday dinner for his wife.
His wife, who at that moment was spending her birthday in court. Testifying reluctantly for a difficult case. It had put Stella in a bad mood. Given the way she had taken up her papers that morning as if taking up a cudgel, Mac pitied any defence lawyer who might rashly try to argue with her. At the image of Stella armed with a cudgel, Mac snickered to himself, and checked the timer one last time.
29 minutes. Fine. It was all still on schedule.
With a sigh of relief and satisfaction, Mac gave the counter a quick wipe and threw the tea towel over his shoulder. Cooking dinner was no easy feat. It was a matter of precision timing and meticulous preparation. As he had told Stella before, an undertaking such as a 3-course dinner needed forethought and planning. Even if Stella's response was to mock him and claim that creating a spreadsheet for making dinner was a step too far. And ever since word had somehow got out about his use of spreadsheets, Flack and Danny had also taken great delight in mocking him…
Which reminded him: according to the schedule, three more minutes before it was time to remove the cake from the fridge.
Before he did that, something else required attention. Someone, to be exact. As difficult as executing a birthday dinner was, it shrank into insignificance compared to keeping Holly occupied and out of the kitchen after her sitter had cancelled. So far, a tub full of crayons, a wad of paper and her favourite Disney movie had done the job. Even so, it had been at least ten minutes since he had last checked on her.
'Holly? Are you okay baby?' he called through to her.
'Yes, daddy.' Holly looked up and gave him a beatific smile. Mac was instantly suspicious. Taking a step into the living room area, he looked round for any sign of mischief. There was none to be seen. No more crayon 'art' had appeared on the walls this time. Instead, there were only signs of her creative activity: the couch occupied by toys and action figures, all wearing party hats; the coffee table and carpet heaped with confetti; streamers scattered; balloons gently bobbing around the carpet. Even the balloons had suffered very few casualties. Pleased, but still suspicious, Mac walked over to his daughter, who knelt beside the coffee table, surrounded by crayons and paper while her movie played in the background.
'What are you drawing, baby?'
Wide-eyed, Holly stared at him while holding a fistful of crayons. 'A picture for mommy. But you can't look yet!' She huddled over the paper.
'Not even a peep?' Mac asked, feigning hurt.
'Nuh uh.' Holly shook her head and laid herself on top of the paper, so Mac chuckled and left her to it.
Back in the kitchen, Mac turned his attention to the top of the oven. A quick lift of the lids on the saucepans burbling away produced another satisfied smile. The contents looked great; smelled even better; tasted good, but were not quite…
'Perfect,' he murmured after another season and taste. There was just enough time to load the dishwasher and wipe down the surfaces before the cake needed decorating.
Once the kitchen was tidy, he went to summon Holly for her promised help in decorating. But the living room was empty.
'Holly?' he called. 'The cake's waiting.' But even that lure failed, as Holly failed to appear.
Heading out of the living room, he called again and this time received a reply in the form of a yell from Holly, sharing the information that she was in the bathroom because she had to pee.
'Good to know,' Mac called back wryly.
Holly soon came dashing back into the living room, running straight over to the coffee table.
'Look, daddy, I finished my drawing for mommy!' She held out a huge piece of paper.
'Let's take a look.' Rescuing the wildly waving art, Mac straightened it out and surveyed it, frowning slightly as he figured out what was what in the drawing. While waiting for his verdict, Holly jumped up and down on the spot.
'Do you like it, daddy? Will mommy love it?'
'I love it, baby girl.' Mac smiled down at her. 'And I know mommy's going to love it, too.'
'Awesome!' Holly clapped her hands in glee.
'It's an awesome picture. You've done a great job, especially with mommy's hair…'
'The brown is broked so I had to use pink,' Holly explained and Mac nodded with gravitas.
'Pink is a great choice. It looks perfect with mommy's yellow dress, and, uh, my yellow pants.' It certainly was… colourful.
'See, we're holding the cake and giving it to mommy,' Holly added and again Mac nodded.
'I see that. Great job,' Mac said, relieved at having an explanation of what was happening. 'How about you go put it somewhere safe and you can give it to mommy when she gets home?'
With her drawing safely laid back on the coffee table, Holly grabbed Mac's hand and tugged him back to the kitchen. 'I want some of the cake, daddy. We got to make sure it tastes good.'
'Nice try, kiddo.' Mac grinned at her guile, 'But we're not tasting it until mommy's back, and she gets to taste first because it's her cake, okay?'
A deep sigh was his answer. 'Ohhh-kay.'
'Hey, did you wash your hands, young lady?' Having caught sight of the streaks of pink and yellow on Holly's fingers, Mac already knew the answer. Apparently unsure of the answer herself, Holly squinted at her father.
'Um, I think so…'
'You think so? In other words, no, you didn't. Go wash them.'
Another heavy sigh was heaved. Dragging her feet, Holly headed back towards the downstairs bathroom. It took Mac only a moment to decide to follow and supervise. Even a simple task like washing hands could be a source of mischief for Holly to get into. He and Stella had learned that the hard way. Always better to be safe than cleaning up an entire bottle of handwash squirted over the bathroom mirror…
But all seemed serene. Apart from a few splashes of water on the floor, Holly had washed her hands very cleanly.
'Ready for decorating?' Mac asked and she jumped up and down in excitement.
Mac grinned down at her. Right before something caught his eye. A shimmer of something on the stairs.
Water. A trickle of water bulging into a pool, coming from the top of the stairs. And as he listened he heard the tumble of more water coming from the upstairs bathroom. His heart sank.
'Holly, have you turned the faucet on upstairs?'
Not waiting to hear any more, Mac bounded up the stairs, Holly scurrying after him.
The moment he reached the bathroom, Mac discovered that there were in fact much worse things than a bottle of handwash over the mirror. That would have been straightforward, and far less wet.
The sheer amount of water flowing from the tub was astonishing. All Mac could do for a few seconds was gape at the inundated bathroom. It was not just water, he also discovered; there were mountain peaks of soap bubbles, too. All overflowing from the bath tub. Steaming hot water cascaded, quivering mounds of bubbles slithered out over the sides of the tub.
'Oh no!' Holly looked appalled. 'Daddy, the bubbles are escaping. You gotta stop them!'
'I'm more worried about the water escaping…' Mac muttered as he sloshed over to the tub. One soaked shirt later he had managed to plunge into the depths of the tub open the plug, and shut off the faucet.
'Daddy, you gotta save the bubbles, they're for mommy,' Holly wailed before beginning to cry. 'I made them for her - her birthday…' Breath hitching, she broke into loud sobs and Mac groaned.
'Listen, I'll try and save them, but we got to clean up first, okay? Stay right there, don't touch anything else, and I'll be right back.'
Slopping downstairs in waterlogged shoes, Mac went to find the mop. Finding it, finally, in a secluded corner, he hurried back to the bathroom. Feeling thankful along the way that at least they were no longer in an apartment and likely having to apologise to the neighbours for water dripping through the ceiling…
'Holly! What are you doing?'
She turned round from squatting by the tub. 'Saving the bubbles for mommy.' Still sniffling, but defiant, she shook a blancmange of bubbles from a tiny plastic saucepan into the tub.
Mac put his hand to his forehead. 'Sweetie, I appreciate you trying to help, but I don't think we're going to be able to save them…'
He regretted his words instantly as Holly, with plenty of drama, dropped her saucepan, sat down in the water and began to bawl, adding saltiness to the soapsuds, and the sound of sobs to the glug of water spinning down the drain.
Mac felt helpless. His attempts to console Holly - telling her that they could run a fresh bath for mommy, that the bubbles would mostly likely have gone anyway by the time she got home - made little impression. Finally, he told her he would save as many bubbles as he could just as soon as he'd mopped the floor.
That stopped the sobbing. Telling her to watch him carefully to make sure he didn't miss any puddles, he picked her up and placed her down outside the bathroom door.
She soon became absorbed in the sight of her father mopping and swilling round the bathwater.
Around a dozen emptied mop buckets, and aching muscles later, Mac decided he was winning the battle against the water. By his estimation, the water had to have been running at least a half hour. But at least now the bathroom floor looked a bit less like a paddling pool. Holly had long grown bored of simply watching and had decided to help by picking up the wobbling castles of suds and heaping them up by the door.
Needing a rest, and to ask some questions, Mac mopped his brow and turned to Holly.
'So, you want to tell me what happened?'
'I was making a bubbly bath for mommy,' Holly said, looking at Mac as if he really should have realised that. ''Cause it's her birthday.'
'I gathered that,' Mac answered dryly, noticing all the bath toys stranded round the room, before he asked with genuine curiosity. 'Exactly how much bubble bath did you use?'
'I don't know.' Holly shrugged. 'I squeezed it a bit, like mommy does.'
'A bit…' Mac had already spotted the washed-up plastic bottle that had earlier in the day been three-quarters full of bath gel. Now it had nothing but a dribble in it.
Holly continued, 'But the bubblies were teeny tiny, so I put more in.'
'So I see.' While Holly stared at him with round eyes, Mac rubbed the back of his neck and sighed.
'Daddy are you mad at me?' Holly asked, her lip beginning to tremble again.
As so often, that small, sorry voice defeated him, and he sighed again.
'No, I'm not mad at you, sweetie. I know you were trying to do something nice for mommy, but you should have asked me and I would have helped you.'
'Sorry daddy.' Head hanging down, toes scuffling, Holly looked the picture of contrition.
Mac crouched beside her and placed his hands gently on her shoulders. 'It was a nice idea, sweetie.' If Stella had been there, no matter the intent, he knew, with a slight feeling of guilt, that she would have been stricter with their daughter. But Holly's imploring eyes, swimming with tears, won him over again. He took out his damp handkerchief and gently dabbed her cheeks. 'Hey, come on, no more crying. What do you say we go decorate mommy's cake?'
''Kay.' After a sniffle and a sleeve dragged across her nose, Holly took Mac's hand and the two of them squelched out of the bathroom.
Stopping suddenly, Holly's nose wrinkled. 'Daddy, what's that funny smell?' Just as an obnoxiously loud bleeping began.
Mac didn't wait to answer. Even though he tore down the stairs, Holly close behind him, it was too late. Smoke swirled out of the kitchen and an acrid haze filled the downstairs of the house. All of it accompanied by the ear-shattering sound of the smoke alarm.
Swearing inside, Mac ordered Holly to stay back before he plunged into the kitchen, snatched up a towel and opened the oven. The smoke and odour almost beat him back, but he managed to grab the charred remains of dinner and lob it into the sink, closely followed by the boiled-dry saucepans.
A small patch of grease on the floor was the final disaster. Mac slipped on it and grabbed at the counter, grabbing the cake plate instead.
Both hit the floor. Mac with a bump; the cake with a smash and a heavy, gooey flop.
'I'll save it!' Holly screeched.
Too late, Holly was already running, slipping on the mess on the floor and falling into the cake remains. At exactly the moment the front door banged open.
Stella stormed up the steps to the front door. Some birthday it had turned out to be: her day off cancelled, and that damn lawyer. As obstructive and unreasonable as always. To make things worse, he had won the case and been unbearably self-satisfied about it. Stella almost growled in frustration as she stabbed her key into the lock.
Still, now she was home she could relax, and enjoy the dinner Mac had promised her…
The sound of the smoke alarm and a faint acrid smell as she opened the door were the first signs that something was amiss. Warily, Stella made her way to the living room and kitchen, and came to an abrupt halt. For half a moment she considered backing right out of the door and coming in again, to see if she had imagined it all.
What she saw through the haze of smoke rendered Stella speechless. Looking like a little ghost, Holly was on her knees covered in cake and white frosting, while Mac, normally impeccably clean and tidy, was dishevelled, damp and smudged; holding a smoking tray in his hand as he scrambled up off the floor. As for the kitchen… even her most frenetic attempts at baking when pregnant and craving ambitious food combinations had never resulted in this much chaos.
'Happy birthday, sweetheart. I can explain.' Mac recovered first.
Stella blinked. 'OK...'
'Mommy!' Covered in cake, crumbs and frosting, Holly came barrelling towards her. 'Happy birthday, mommy!' She wrapped her arms round Stella's legs.
So that pair of black dress pants would never again be her best pair.
'Thank you, baby.' Stella bent down and kissed her daughter carefully.
'Daddy and me made you dinner and a cake, and I made you a drawing and a bubbly bath!' Holly beamed up at her and Stella, oblivious now to the mess of cake, felt her heart melt.
'That is so sweet of you koukla, thank you.'
'But then the bubbly bath made a big flood and the dinner got burned and daddy dropped the cake.'
'I… see.' Stella looked at Mac who stood, sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck.
'I was hoping to break it to you a bit more gently.' He put the tray on the counter. 'But that about sums it up.'
With Holly still clinging to her legs, Stella set her purse down and with a resigned quirk of her lips asked Mac, 'How about you share the details with me?'
He tugged his phone out of his pocket, rubbed it on a tea towel and held it up. 'Absolutely. Just as soon as I've ordered take-out, and shut off the smoke alarm.'
'I've never had a birthday candle in a slice before,' Stella mused as, with Holly's help, she blew out the little candle Mac had found. 'This could really catch on.'
All three of them sat round the coffee table, all changed into their pyjamas – Holly also washed clean of cake and frosting.
'I want a pizza cake and candles for my birthday,' Holly announced.
'Your birthday is a long way off yet,' Mac reminded her and she pouted.
'Daddy has his birthday before yours. Maybe he'd like a pizza cake.' Stella grinned and Mac shrugged.
'I wouldn't complain.' He bit into another slice of pepperoni-smothered pizza.
'Yes you would,' Stella retorted. 'If you didn't have a cake oozing with chocolate frosting you'd complain all day.' She side-eyed him, but he merely grinned.
'I could have both.' There was hope in his voice and Stella narrowed her eyes at him.
'Which would be pushing your luck, especially given how baking-challenged your wife is.'
'At least none of your baking attempts have turned out quite as disastrously as this one did.' Mac became crestfallen. 'I'm sorry about the cake, and the dinner.'
Her heart felt flooded with love for him all over again, and it was tenderly that she touched his cheek. 'It's the thought that counts. And at least yours would have been edible.'
'I'll make it up to you,' Mac said, lowering his voice. Before she replied, Stella glanced at Holly, still involved in nibbling the pieces of pepperoni off her slice in a manner reminiscent of her pet mouse.
'Well, if you insist…' A smile curved her lips.
With one of his most charming grins, Mac said, 'I'll get back to you on that once someone is safely in bed.'
In return, Stella flashed him a flirting smile. 'I'll look forward to hearing what you have in mind.'
Then, far more prosaically, she turned to Holly who was demanding more pizza.
Once Holly was asleep in bed, Mac lit candles in the living room. In their cosy glow, Stella settled herself in between Mac's legs, leaning against his chest. She began to question him about how he had dealt with Holly's bath fiasco, and in, she knew, a deliberate act of distraction, his fingers began to knead her shoulders. Quite frankly, though, she was happy to be distracted.
'Oh my God, Mac,' she groaned, her head drooping back as she finally felt her muscles relaxing. 'You really do know how to treat a girl on her birthday.'
She knew he was smiling when she felt his lips on the back of her neck. 'Only because it's your birthday,' he murmured.
In a moment her eyes closed. She sighed blissfully as Mac continued his ministrations.
'Okay?' Mac asked, brushing a strand of hair back behind her ear.
She turned her head to smile at him. 'Perfect.'
'Forgotten about the case yet?' Mac asked after several minutes.
'What case?' Stella mumbled and heard Mac chuckle softly.
He continued a while longer, massaging out all the knots from the frustrations of the day. Gradually, his movements slowed and softened, until his hands slid down her bare arms and his lips grazed her neck. Stella smiled to herself and turned to capture a kiss from him. She turned again, nestling back into his chest, head leaning back on his shoulder while he combed his fingers through her hair.
Eventually she fluttered her eyes up at him. 'So, you were saying something about making up to me?' she asked with devilish innocence in her voice.
Mac pretended to think, with an equal glint in his eyes. 'Right, I remember. There was an idea I had.'
'You want to share it?' Stella twisted herself round to kneel in front of him, her hands on his thighs.
A slow smile quirked Mac's lips and he leaned forward to whisper a few words in her ear. Words which caused a torrent of sensation through her.
'Oh…' she breathed, and her hands slipped round to his inner thighs. 'I like the sound of that.'
Again that grin from Mac. 'I kind of hoped you would.'
'But it does sound like it could get messy, all that cream and all those strawberries…' She edged closer to him, fingers trailing up under his shirt.
'Mm, it could do, but I have a solution for that, too,' Mac said while sliding the straps of her tank top down over her shoulders.
'I knew you would,' Stella began to undo the lower buttons on his shirt.
'If it does get messy, afterwards,' he added, sliding his hand round her waist to pull her closer to him, 'we could take a shower, together, to save water.'
Frowning mock-seriously, Stella nodded. 'Purely in the interests of saving water, huh?' And undid a few more buttons on his shirt.
'No other reason,' Mac murmured as his fingers glided over her breast. 'Holly did use up a whole tub full after all.'
'Better go get those strawberries and cream, then, Taylor.' Stella gave him a light push back and raked a hand through her tumbled curls as she knelt up and watched him, lips curling up at the edges at the sight of him bare-chested and flushed. 'You don't want to keep a girl waiting on her birthday.'
His eyes swept admiringly over her. 'I don't…' He hurried to the kitchen.
Later, much later, shower-damp bodies wrapped round each other in bed, still breathless, Stella sighed happily.
'Thank you for a fabulous birthday, my love.' She smiled at Mac, almost nose to nose with her, and kissed him. 'I'm only sorry I got to wait now for the next one.'
'Strawberries and cream don't have to be exclusively for birthdays,' Mac said with a wicked grin. 'I'm sure we can think of other occasions to celebrate.'
Their lips met again, and all conversation ceased.
Thank you for reading! And thank you to Elviiis and Ballettmaus for their help. Do leave a review - I love to know what you think :) See you soon! Lily x