Sarah moved close to the well-seasoned cast iron pan to take a closer whiff. “Smells amazing. I’d love to have the recipe.”
Neil smiled as he moved to rummage through his spice rack. “A pinch of this and a sprinkle of
that. I never measure.” He snatched a bottle of coriander and crushed a dash over the braising meat.
She backed away from the stove as he turned to stir the pasta. He leaned over to grab a
colander from a nearby cupboard and she silently assessed his ass in those tight jeans while he was down. It was only their third date, but she could see herself falling for this one despite
the strange menagerie he housed.
Sarah had never much liked reptiles. How someone could love a creature so cold and slithery she would never understand. Still, no one was perfect, and the care Neil took to ensure the comfort and health of each of his treasures was endearing in a quirky, unique way. He had nearly a dozen tanks in all, each a different size and each housing a markedly different animal: the smallest was a miniature chameleon in a misty ten-gallon tank, while the largest was an
enormous python in a two-hundred-gallon mesh enclosure. Heat lamps and broad spectrum lights shone down on them all, making them appear just as much artistic displays as they were pampered pets.
Neil drained the pasta before pouring two glasses of a well-breathed Merlot. “Dinner should be ready in less than five.”
“Good. I’m starving!” she replied as he handed her a glass.
He raised his, and she raised hers in turn.
“To good food and great company,” he said.
“To great food and even better company,” she amended.
The two toasted and sipped at their wine.
She set down her glass and crossed the room as she noticed a small tank that was filled solely with crickets. “I hadn’t noticed this one before. You have … pet crickets too?”
He chuckled. “No, those are food for some of the lizards.” He met her beside the tank as she peered curiously inside.
She shivered. “Creepy. Why do you keep them in their own tank?”
“I’m gut-loading them.”
She raised a brow, silent in her confusion.
“If you fortify the crickets with a nutrient-rich diet before feeding them, all of the vitamins the crickets consume go directly to the lizards.”
She nodded. “Makes sense.” She jumped as suddenly there was a loud thump against the
floor. “What was that?”
He waved off her concern. “That’s just Agatha.”
She followed him as he returned to the kitchen to check on dinner. “Agatha?”
“She’s too big to keep in a habitat, so I let her have free reign of the cellar.”
“What is she?”
He shrugged. “She belongs to a rare genus. You’ve probably never heard of it. Most people haven’t.” He tested the meat and turned off the burner. “Perfect.”
Sarah felt a terrible pang of curiosity and couldn’t help but pry a little deeper. “What’s she
“I’ll show you after dinner if you’d like,” he replied as he set the table.
She considered the offer, unsure. “Maybe.”
“I think you’d like her. She’s much more personable than the rest of my collection.”
She tried her best to feign interest. “Personable, eh?”
He nodded. “Very personable, actually.” He ushered her to the table and pulled out her seat in the most gentlemanly of stances. “I’ll show her to you after dinner.”
She sat down, then sipped casually at her wine as he served them both generous plates of pasta, braised pork, and mixed steamed vegetables. She took another whiff as he set her plate in front of her. “Wow. I’ve never dated a man who could cook before.”
“Then you’re in for a real treat,” he said as he sat down across from her at the small table.
She tried a bite of the pork, which cut like butter and nearly melted in her mouth. An explosion
of flavors, both tangy and spicy, caused her to close her eyes to savor the small sample, chewing slowly and decadently. “This is amazing, Neil.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he said, looking pleased. “Try the pasta and veggies.”
She tried a bite, taking a moment to appreciate the subtle flavors of olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. “Very good,”she said while her mouth was still half full.
He took equal pleasure in the meal, smiling as he moved between the succulent meat and perfectly seasoned pasta.
“Who taught you how to cook? Your mother?” Sarah asked.
He shook his head. “An old friend.”
“Self-taught, believe it or not.”
She took each bite as if it were the first, savoring the flavors and voicing her approval. She
washed down the final bite with the last of her wine, then sat back with a satisfied grin. “That was by far the best meal I’ve had in a long time.”
“I’m glad.” He dabbed a napkin against his lips, ignoring another loud thud from below.
She swallowed hard. “How big is that thing?”
He smiled. “Would you like to see?”
She shrugged, making a slight show of her trepidation. “Is she dangerous?”
He scoffed. “Dangerous?” He stood, prompting her to follow suit. “She’ll love you.”
She followed hesitantly as he led her to the cellar door, jumping with a start as the creature below once again hit its ceiling.
He unlocked the cellar door with a key from his pocket. The cellar was dark, save a heat lamp directly below the staircase. Sarah followed close behind Neil as he moved excitedly down the
She gasped as she caught sight of the creature, unable to believe her eyes. “That’s Agatha?”
It hurried to the bottom of the staircase, eager to greet them.
He slapped Sarah hard on the back, sending her reeling forward. “And I’ve gut-loaded her
dinner with her favorite recipes.”